The Heart in Biographical Research

The strangest aspect of my current research is the extent to which I’m finding myself on genealogical databases. “Yes, Mary Stolz had a son, but can you find his exact birth date?” my editor asks me. Did Betty Cavanna have a middle name? Was she actually living in Philadelphia, or in a suburb–and which suburb?

My work always crosses into the biographical, but usually I’m trying to research editors and librarians–people whose lives generally aren’t recorded, except in dry internal memos or conference speeches. Authors are different, likely because they fall more under the umbrella of “celebrity.” Thus, they have records in series such as Something about the Author, interviews in regional newspapers, and obituaries published in the New York Times. All of these sources help immensely in trying to create a narrative of their working lives.

But. They were still just people, and the wonderful thing about “just people” is that they leave behind so many documents and ephemera–the refuse of unrecorded lives. And thus, in my biographical/bibliographical research into Mary Stolz, Betty Cavanna, and Maureen Daly for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, I’m finding that my favourite discoveries are the documents that I can never use; documents such as Betty Cavanna’s yearbook photo from the New Jersey College for Women (which became Douglass College, which was melded into Rutgers):

A page from the QUAIR Yearbook, around 1929-ish. The page had been posted to the Dead Fred website (a genealogical photo archive).

The majority of photos I’ve ever seen of Cavanna are middle-aged ones–publicity photos from after she is well established as an author. Here I see a young Betty, around the age of the students I teach (in fact, Mildred Clapp on the right-hand side looks exactly like one of my students, and I’m honestly wondering if there’s a surprising family connection)!

Anyway, these are the kinds of documents that I can’t include within the majority of my academic writing, but they’re the ephemera that keep me going. They’re the refuse that provides the “heart” in my research.

Tiny Tidbits about Maureen Daly

I’ve just finished writing drafts of biographies of Mary Stolz and Betty Cavanna (for the Dictionary of Literary Biography), and now I’m researching Maureen Daly. Everyone’s life is fascinating in some way, but Daly definitely had a head start on most! The majority of these tidbits are from Daly’s entry in the Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 1, pp. 69-87.

Maureen Daly

TIDBIT 1: Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, hosted a Maureen Daly Day in May, 2019! It involved cherry cokes in the actual McKnight’s Drug Store, a panel on 1940s dating, and signed first editions of Seventeenth Summer! (HOW DID I MISS THIS?!)

TIDBIT 2: the Daly family left Ireland after occupying British soldiers “laid bales of straw around the base of our white pebble-dash house and warned that if would be lit if Joe Daly [Maureen’s father] was sighted in the village streets after the next St. Patrick’s Day. The British military would not tell the day nor the hour the fire would start” (71).

The person who informed on Joe’s “anti-British activities” was his brother-in-law… who also ended up being the person who escorted the family to the US, on board the S.S. Cameronia. (Joe had sailed for the U.S. two years earlier).

When Daly was still a child, either her father or her uncle shot the other: “I remember clearly the sound of a single pistol shot. Neither man was hit, I know that; but I do not know who fired the gun. My uncle left our house that night and from then on made his home in Chicago, more than three hundred miles away” (72).

TIDBIT 3: like many people, the Daly family was hit hard by the Depression. Daly tells about the winter day when the only food left in the house was “white rice and a quart jar of red cherries” (73), which they turned into their very own cherries jubilee. Still, they remained “the only family on the block who did not cancel its subscription to the town’s only daily newspaper, the Fond du Lac Commonwealth Reporter” (73).

TIDBIT 4: Daly’s parents used the royalties from Seventeenth Summer to remodel the house.

More later…

Twentieth-Century Cavanna

Betty Cavanna published her last novel in 1987, when she was 78. She published her first novel in 1943, when she was 34. Altogether, she wrote 81 books in 44 years, of which 67 were YA novels. So, you know, I should probably finish this article about her at the very least…

First, though, it’s time to dip into a little nostalgia via Cavanna’s own conclusion to her entry in Something about the Author Autobiography Series:

“Looking back, I am aware that my years on earth have fitted neatly into the twentieth century. I have seen automobiles replace carriages, electricity eliminate gaslight, radio give way to television, airplanes make ship travel anachronous. Think of worldwide telephone communication, men walking on the moon, nuclear energy, satellites in space, and the contemplation of interplanetary exploration. Certainly these years have seen more changes that any other century in the history of the world. Although I cling to a typewriter rather than attempting to master a computer I will always be glad to have lived through these astonishing times.” (126)

“Betty Cavanna.” Something about the Author Autobiography Series, vol. 4 (1987): 111-128.

Small Treasures

My love for old, signed library cards is eternal. I found this card in a discarded copy of Mary Stolz’s Second Nature (Harper & Brothers, 1958).

(I’ll also admit that I totally make up entire stories for each of the names signed on the library cards. Because.)

Think of me as you would remember…

I’m working on Mary Stolz’s texts again today (surprise!), and I’ve just come across a particularly lovely quotation that speaks directly to my wistful, sappy, nostalgic self. This is Stolz providing an anecdote about French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943):

Simone Weil said once, to a friend from whom she must be parted, “Do not grieve, nor keep me constantly in your thoughts, but think of me as you would remember a book you loved in childhood.”

I love this concept. I constantly teach against it in class (since part of teaching children’s literature is helping students to separate their own senses of nostalgia from their analyses of beloved texts), but I love it, nonetheless.

simone_weil_04_28cropped29

Simone Weil

Source: Stolz, Mary. “Specially for the Growing Older: As They Grow Older.” New York Times, Nov. 14 1954: BRA2.

Queer Children’s Librarians

After vising multiple publisher and librarian archives (and hoping to visit many, many more), I’m starting to recognize a hidden history behind the world of midcentury children’s books. Specifically, I’m starting to recognize that the network of women who produced and distributed these texts (especially editors and librarians) was not only based on working friendships, but on queer relationships. Like, a lot of queer relationships, and between some of the biggest names, and often across the fields (ie: most often a librarian and an editor).

Everything’s coded, of course, but I’m seeing some truly fascinating (and poignant) bits of evidence as it relates to correspondence between “roommates” and “companions” (who may, of course, simply be roommates or companions, but… hmmm).

My biggest difficulty with this research is the supposed silences of the midcentury period (I say “supposed” because I’m finding that the silences were not at all what I assumed), and those silences are compounded by the fact that research on women’s employment history is still lacking, particularly when it comes to women in children’s publishing. In an effort to find some historical contextualization, I’m now busy researching the history of queer librarianship. Librarians are WONDERFUL at documenting their own histories, so I’m thankful to them, and hoping that this research (which is mostly coming from the 1990s) proves helpful.

I’ve just started James Carmichael’s Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbiay Library History (1998), and, ignoring the problematic terminology of the 1990s, the first couple of pages provide two lovely reminders that this history is important:

a) the American Library Association formed the FIRST queer professional organization IN THE WORLD, in 1970 (known then as the Task Force on Gay Liberation).

b) the following quotation, from Carmichael:

“Without a history, the very ‘identity’ of lesbigays becomes tenuous, an easy picking for the ‘ism’ of the movement, and the gay self gazes into a mirror without reflections.” (Carmichael 2)

I’m excited to try to add just a tiny bit more to this forgotten and neglected history.

Source

Carmichael, James Vinson, ed. Daring to find our names: the search for lesbigay library history. No. 5. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998.

 

“Aunts” and Nieces

Likely EVERYBODY back in the day knew this, but… I only just made the connection that Anne Carroll Moore (Grande Dame of the New York Public Library) was the aunt–or, more technically, “best friend and distant cousin” of the mother of Storer B. Lunt (W.W. Norton & Co). Through Moore, Lunt met Margaret K. McElderry (one of the Grande Dames of children’s publishing), and they married, and…

Seriously: sometimes the field of mid-century children’s literature seems so, so, SO tiny.

(Also: I think I already knew this information, since I’m familiar with the sources. How did I forget this tidbit?! I need to find a way to keep track of all of these little notes of information and connection…)

Source.

On Mary Stolz, Expulsion, and the Newbery

Mary Stolz is my favourite junior novel author. She also happens to have been expelled from two years of highschool for being “disruptive, discourteous, boy-crazy, inattentive, and, excepting what was considered a real talent for writing, an all-round undesirable.”

Then she grew up and won the Newbery.

Twice.

THIS IS THE HISTORY I WANT TO TEACH GIRLS.

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Mary Stolz’s author photo from the dust jacket of the first edition of The Organdy Cupcakes (1951)

(Source: “Mary Stolz.” Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 3, Gale, 1987, pp. 281-292.)

Mary Stolz on Ursula Nordstrom

One of my favorite author/editor relationships is that of Mary Stolz (author) and Ursula Nordstrom (her editor at Harper & Brothers/ Harper & Row). Reading their letters, both these women come across as fierce, passionate, extremely political, extremely humorous, and sometimes a little salty (in the best way!).

Today, though, I came across an interview that Stolz gave after Nordstrom’s death, and it just… well, it hurts after having traced their friendship for years (both their years and the ten+ years I’ve been studying them). Here it is:

“The matchless Ursula Nordstrom supported, inspired, and put up with me over many, many years. When she died in 1988, I wrote an essay in her memory, in her honor. . . . She was the finest children’s book editor ever, the trail blazer, and all her artists and writers would say the same. When I finish a book, or when working on one, I actually ache, knowing she will not see it.”

“Mary Stolz.” Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 19 Sept. 2019.

So… go hug someone, and celebrate the beautiful literature that can come from two formidable women working together.

The Transatlantic Junior Novel Divide

Michael Cart opens From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature with the following:

If it was in Victorian England that “a separate state called ‘childhood’ was envisioned,” as Canadian critic Sheila Egoff has argued, others would agree it was neither there nor then but in America, instead, where another separate state, “young adulthood,” was to be envisioned. (3)

By and large, America was also the site of that precursor to canonical young adult literature: the junior novel genre.

For a long time, I questioned this American dominance. Was the US really *that* dominant when it came to the genre, or was it just that no one had searched out or made the connection to other, non-American junior novels?

The answer is, I think, a bit of both… but mostly the former.

I recently came across a 1954 letter from junior novel writer Anne Emery to Mont L. Haible, the administrative assistant to the general manager of the Westminster Press. In it, Emery ponders publishing her novels in the UK. She quotes a fan letter, in which the fan acknowledges that “here, from the ages of 13 to 17 there is nothing for us to read… Well, I hope you will write more books even if it is only for the benefit of those lucky American teenagers, while we have to be content to suffer the classics.”

Emery then quotes an English librarian that she had met a couple of years earlier, who noted that “there are almost no teen-age books published in England.”

The junior novel genre would, indeed, appear to be almost entirely North American, and particularly American. Looking at my bookshelves, however, I realized an important distinction I was forgetting to acknowledge: the English-language junior novel genre is almost entirely American.

I’ve already seen numerous hints that junior novels were popular worldwide. Mary Stolz’s and Anne Emery’s international publications suggest it. Betty Cavanna’s fan mail from girls in Japan suggests it. Still, these hints are all based on American-published junior novels in translation. Were there original junior novels published elsewhere, in other languages? And how would I find them?

Imports, my bookshelf advised me, and I reached for my translated 1972 Scholastic copy of Aimée Sommerfelt’s Miriam.

original cover of Miriam
1960 Gyldendal Norsk Forag cover

This first image is from the original 1960 Gyldendal Norsk Forag cover (I think), from Norway. The illustration design is typical of late 1950s/early 1960s painterly illustration found in American junior novels and Whitman-style series books.

The following three images are from the 1972 Scholastic reprint, from the US.

1972 Scholastic reprint front cover

While the original cover emphasizes the teen setting that forms the base of the junior novel genre, the 1972 Scholastic cover–appearing, importantly, within the early period of the New Realism–contextualizes the story with the conspicuous red of the Nazi flag.

1972 Scholastic back cover
1972 Scholastic copyright page

In the end, searching for imported (and translated) junior novels isn’t a full or ideal solution to the question of whether or not the genre existed in its own right in other countries, but it’s a start.

Published Sources:

Cart, Michael. From Romance to Realism: 50 Years of Growth and Change in Young Adult Literature, HarperCollins, 1992.