The small, compact figure on the cover, with a book by her side, is and is not a picture of Ethel Heins. It’s unmistakably the work of M. B. Goffstein, from her late period of pastel life-studies, and it comes from a scrapbook of tributes to Heins on her retirement from the helm of the Horn Book in 1984. A number of persons sent flowers for the occasion. The mixed bouquet at the top of the page is from Aliki. Judy Taylor, the English author and editor, adorned her message with a scattering of Cotswold pansies. James Stevenson’s accolade is a tiny, luscious watercolor of full-blown roses. Other artists sent signature images. A frog — or is it a toad? — brings love from Arnold Lobel. A duckling bears the imprint of Robert McCloskey. Goffstein, hoeing her own row, places Ethel Heins, editor, in the company of An Artist, A Writer, An Actor, and other dedicated workers.
But Ethel without Paul — her husband, her intellectual buddy and cultural companion-at-arms, her predecessor as editor of the Horn Book? Ethel solitary, silent, and still?
Let’s fill out the picture.
Paul Heins (1909–1996) grew up bookish in Boston, graduated from Harvard magna cum laude, and for thirty years taught high-school English in Boston seriously and unstintingly, with only two breaks. The first, inexorably, was for military service in World War II. The second, gloriously, was to study Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, in 1954–55, on a Ford Foundation Fellowship. By then he had married Ethel Yaskin, a second cousin; they had two children; and he had also gained, from Ethel, an appreciation of children’s books as literature.
Ethel Yaskin Heins (1918–1997) spent a rich, marbles-and-Mozart childhood in drab Bayonne, New Jersey. She studied English and librarianship at Douglass College, then the New Jersey College for Women, and went to work for the New York Public Library, intending, in those late Depression days, to do her bit for adult education. She liked to tell how, by chance, children’s service captured her imagination at Anne Carroll Moore’s favorite posting for newcomers, the bustling Rivington Street Branch on the Lower East Side. She recalled how Moore grilled her; Frances Clarke Sayers, Moore’s successor, schooled her; Mary Gould Davis, star performer, taught her storytelling. In a profession of uncertain status, she was one of the elect.
For both the Heinses, the year in England was magic. Paul had the satisfaction of being a scholar among scholars, and thenceforth an Oxonian. Ethel, on a de facto sabbatical, was able for once to pursue her avid, pent-up interests. The good life of literature and music and artistic monuments, of country walks and leisurely teas, was theirs for the savoring; a lasting endowment.
Back home, Ethel worked as a children’s librarian in Boston and a school librarian in Lexington, became an ALA mainstay and a steady Horn Book reviewer — a summary that does not do justice to the number of committees she served on, the number of conferences she attended, the number of talks she gave. It does justice least of all, perhaps, to the caliber of her reviewing.
Paul’s professional activities expanded, too. He became a judge of student writing, a teacher of prospective teachers, and, through Ethel and a neighbor, Horn Book editor Ruth Hill Viguers, a special Horn Book reviewer, enlisted to tackle the remote and recondite. When Viguers was ready to retire in 1967, he was ready to take leave of teaching and succeed her — a quiet, sober, resolute man in a maelstrom.
Both the Heinses were people of the Word, humanists, believers in freedom of expression and immutable values . . . adherents, during their tenure at the Horn Book, of just about everything under siege — from McLuhanite proponents of nonprint media, militant feminists and multiculturalists, bibliotherapists, reading consultants, champions of pop culture, the commercial exploitation of classics, the incipient computer revolution. And both responded — Paul in his way, Ethel in hers.
For all its fine and lovable qualities, the Horn Book of 1967 was a well-bred anachronism. Paul stiffened up the reviewing, introducing negative comment, and welcomed controversial expressions of opinion. The most celebrated was a long think-piece by respected children’s writer Eleanor Cameron that (among other strictures) denounced a juvenile best-seller, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and cast decidedly unflattering aspersions on its famous author, Roald Dahl. Letting Cameron and Dahl and their partisans duke it out, Paul was aghast that a reader would protest — protest — the very publication of the Cameron piece. “To deny freedom of expression . . . is to invite censorship . . . ”
For Ethel, taking over in 1974, the editor’s chair was a bully pulpit. Monitoring instructional materials, she blasted teacher’s guides that turned Charlotte’s Web into an arithmetic exercise (“If Wilbur eats three meals a day . . . ”). In a broad sweep, she attacked the “issues approach” to children’s books, in principle and in practice — for telling authors “what the plot should have been” and “how the characters should have behaved.” The canonization of Nancy Drew drew her fire: it was all right for girls to read the books, not for literati to take them seriously. What nonsense to think, too, that the proliferating paperback teenage romances could or would “lure adolescents into reading.” Linking the fate of children’s books to the state of children’s library service, she decried the displacement of specialists by generalists and the replacement of “orderly book selection” (i.e., standards) with the “demand-oriented supermarket view.” In issue after issue she fought the culture wars fiercely and openly — going all out, when the opportunity arose, for good bookmanship too: her April 1977 issue, on the rebirth of children’s bookselling, presents reports from Massachusetts and California, from Oxford, Toronto, and Auckland, from an antiquarian dealer and a once-upon-a-time devotée of the Bookshop for Boys and Girls.
In the end, the Word will prevail only on its own worthiness. As much as Ethel Heins fought the good fight, she also knew the right words — the exact, resonating words. The M. B. Goffstein of Fish for Supper is, blissfully, “a mistress of understatement.” And taken all together, “The mock austerity of pictures and text is extremely funny.” For aptness, for plainspoken precision, it doesn’t get better than that.
Like Goffstein’s actor, popping on stage in one after another role, the small, compact, misty picture of Ethel Heins, editor, contains multitudes.
From the July/August 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine