History of Children’s Books and the Women Who Wrote Them

Comments (0) June 2018 KW Magazine, Women In History

How ironic that there was a mystery about the author of the beloved mysteries that many of us read when we were young.  Recently, we learned more about Carolyn Keene, the “author” of the Nancy Drew mystery series.  It turns out that Mildred Wirt Benson (Millie Benson) actually wrote twenty-three of the first thirty of the original Nancy Drew mysteries.  Her first was The Secret of the Old Clock, which was published in 1930.  Only lately has this story come to light – the original publisher wanted to keep secret the information that they used ghostwriters and that no one named Carolyn Keene actually existed.  Years ago, when we were researching Carolyn Keene for inclusion in our book, this information hadn’t yet been published and we couldn’t figure out who Carolyn Keene was!  Fortunately, other women who wrote books for children were able to use their own names.  Let’s learn about some of these literary women. 

Mary Mapes Dodge

Best known for her classic book Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates:  A Story of Life in Holland (1865), Mary Mapes Dodge went to work as a writer to support her sons after the death of her husband.  She served as an associate editor at Hearth and Home magazine where one of her coworkers was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who later became famous after writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Dodge was the first editor of St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, with Louisa May Alcott being one of the contributors.  The stories Dodge contributed to St. Nicholas were published in two volumes, Baby Days (1876) and Baby World (1884).  She also published poetry for children and often incorporated moral lessons into her verse.  Dodge was considered the leader in children’s literature for much of the later nineteenth century.

Margaret Wise Brown

Known to many children through her classic books Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown wrote over 100 books.  She wrote stories in the Here and Now series and in the Little Golden Book series.  Her publishers included Harper & Brothers, W.R. Scott, Doubleday, and Little Golden Books.  Many of her books have been republished with new illustrations; others remain in print in their original form.  Brown’s books have been translated into a number of languages.  At the time of her untimely death at the age of 42 (in 1952), Brown left more than 70 unpublished manuscripts, some of which have been published in the last thirty years.  Several of her other books were published posthumously.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

In 1938, written long before the category of young-adult fiction was adopted, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel, The Yearling, was published.  Even today the book often shows up on reading lists for teenagers.  Rawlings won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for this novel.  It was selected for a Book-of-the-Month Club publication, and it was also made into a movie of the same title by MGM, which released it in 1946.  Rawlings’ writings focused on rural themes; she was known to have detested cities.  Her children’s book, The Secret River, was published posthumously and received the Newbery Honor in 1956.  Her home in Cross Creek, Florida is now a State Park, a dormitory at the University of Florida is named in her honor, and she has been featured on a U.S. postage stamp.

May Arbuthnot

Named by the American Libraries Association as “One of the 100 Most Important Leaders We had for the 20th Century”, May Arbuthnot devoted her career to the importance and awareness of children’s literature.  She is most significantly remembered by the public for what were then known as the Basic Reader Series (1947) and for what is today called the Dick and Jane series.  Arbuthnot also authored textbooks and anthologies and explained her philosophy about the importance of introducing children to books.  She wanted children to enjoy the books, to read them over and over again and to enhance their vocabulary, learning and reading skills by doing so.  In her introduction to The Real Mother Goose, she said:  As a result, children will know more words and speak them more crisply and clearly than they would have without Mother Goose. Above all, they will carry with them some feeling for the fun, freshness and sheer delight of poetry. All this because of Mother Goose.

Virginia Hamilton

Considered the most distinguished author of children’s books, Virginia Hamilton won the Newbery Medal, three Newbery Honors, the National Book Award, The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the Hans Christian Anderson Medal, and many others.  She wrote 41 books and is probably best remembered for M.C. Higgins the Great (1974), for which she won the National Book Award and the 1975 Newbery Medal.  Hamilton’s family was descended from slaves who had escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad.  She was encouraged to read and write from a young age; her first book was published in 1967.  Three of her books were published posthumously.  Her 1997 novel The Planet of Junior Brown was adapted into a movie of the same name.  In 2010, the American Library Association established the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award “To recognize an African American author, illustrator, or author/illustrator for a body of his or her published books for children and/or young adults who has made a significant and lasting literary contribution.  The Award pays tribute to the late Virginia Hamilton and the quality and magnitude of her exemplary contributions through her literature and advocacy for children and youth, especially in her focus on African American life, history and consciousness.”

Women contribute to our lives in so many ways, including as children’s book authors.  The women profiled above and many other women, almost all of them women we have not heard about and not learned about in school across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story:  A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America.  Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories and write women back into history!

Jill TietjenJill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer.  After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide.  She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story:  A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman).  She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners.  The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.


Charlotte WaismanCharlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.

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