Paul Heins was a Bostonian born and bred: a perfect Bostonian gentleman. (He was not a Boston Brahmin, but then, you do not have to be a Brahmin to be a gentleman.) Ethel was a New Englander by adoption. Together they seemed to our British eyes to be archetypal New Englanders, combining shrewdness, seriousness, integrity, and a kind of innocence that protected them against the wickedness of the world.
Their knowledge of their chosen field was encyclopedic, and they always had up-to-the-minute information on everything that went on. “Not a sparrow falls in the realm of children’s literature but Ethel knows about it,” somebody once said with biblical allusion. It seemed as if no conference could be held anywhere without their presence and their devoted attendance at every session. They knew about every writer and illustrator of children’s books who had ever been heard of, and many who were unheard-of by anyone else.
Our first encounter with Paul and Ethel was characteristic. It was in the lunch queue at one of the conferences in Exeter, England, run a quarter of a century ago by an enthusiast called Sidney Robbins, now long dead. They heard our names spoken by someone nearby in the line, and pounced on us with apparent delight. We did not consider ourselves — and indeed were not — famous, but they knew exactly what books we had written, who had published them, who had reviewed them in the Horn Book, and what the reviewers had said. It was the start of a lifelong friendship — one of a great many friendships they formed with writers and artists, initially through their work, but maintained by them through an exceptional gift for friendship.
Paul and Ethel were great travelers. They were in Great Britain many times, and were our companions on many journeys: to the Lake District, to the English cathedrals, and to Hadrian’s Wall, among other destinations. They stayed with us several times in Cambridge and latterly in Cornwall, where we have a modest second home. Paul by this time was in his late seventies and his eighties, but his staying power was as unfailing as Ethel’s rapture. On their first visit to us at St. Ives, an ancient fishing village and for many years also a haunt of artists, they could not be dissuaded from walking out with us at once through pouring rain, while Ethel exclaimed delightedly at the beauties of the intricate, narrow, and now soaking-wet streets and Paul, with coat-collar turned up and expression as always serene, trudged uncomplainingly through the downpour.
That was the year in which we went together to St. Michael’s Mount, a steeply-rising conical eminence that soars up out of the Atlantic half a mile from the south Cornish coast and is crowned by a dwelling like a fairytale castle. It is reached from the shore by a cobbled medieval causeway that can be crossed only at low tide.
We walked across to the Mount, but were misinformed about the tide, which was being pushed in ahead of time by a strong wind and was already washing over the causeway when we set off on the return journey. We, the British, grew alarmed as the four of us plodded on arm-in-arm while the water rose over our feet and calves and it seemed increasingly possible that we could miss our footing and be swept away. But Paul and Ethel were undaunted, secure in the faith that in our company nothing could go wrong. We arrived safely, and as we dried out our clothes afterwards
Ethel exclaimed delightedly that it was like an adventure in a children’s book.
Ethel had, as everyone knew who knew her, a ready tongue, and with the confidence of her long and intimate knowledge of how Paul’s mind worked she would sometimes reply to a question for him before he had got around to it. Now and then one might speculate from Paul’s expression that if given time he might have answered differently. On rare occasions he put his foot down. Once we were with the Heinses in Quebec, and at breakfast time in the hotel Paul opted for the full breakfast. “Oh, he doesn’t want all that food!” said Ethel to the waitress. “I do!” said Paul, and in due course he received and chomped his way contentedly through the bacon, eggs, sausages, and fried tomatoes.
Paul could drive, but in his later years was reluctant to do so. Ethel, however, loved driving, and was always ready to take the wheel. She drove in her own idiosyncratic way. It was disconcerting, if you were in the passenger seat, to realize that she was not only addressing her remarks to you but was looking at you as she did so. Driving, like other activities, must be judged by results, and Ethel drove many thousands of miles without mishap, so her technique must have served her well, but reflections on a charmed life sometimes occurred to her passengers. In England she was unfazed by the need to drive on the left side of the road — “not that it makes much difference to Ethel,” observed one of our children.
Ethel was apt to lionize authors. In the acceptance speech she was to have given as Distinguished Alumna of the Year 1997 at Rutgers School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies (but which she did not live to give), she remarked proudly that she and Paul had “entertained at our house some of the best children’s writers in the world.” At a party of our own, she moved around among the guests, declaring with delight to one person after another: “Four Newbery winners in one room!” The awe she felt for writers was coupled with an undue modesty about her own talents as critic, editor, and speaker. The truth of the matter was that there were hundreds of writers of books for children, but there was only one Ethel Heins.
Paul — gentle, patient, and tolerant, yet firm in his convictions — was as close to being saintly as mortal man can well get. Ethel was a touchstone by which those who met her could be judged. She could on occasion irritate her dearest friends by some display of verbosity or tactlessness, but even at those times the well of respect and affection for Ethel in those who knew her was too deep to be depleted. As a couple they were famously devoted and inseparable. In the paragraph of her Rutgers speech from which we have quoted, Ethel said that she and Paul “had fifty-three remarkable years together — talking, working, arguing, teaching, traveling, listening to music . . . ” To which we would add, “and being loved and admired by anyone with any heart or sense.”
Jill Paton Walsh and John Rowe Townsend live in Cambridge, England. Between them they have written more than fifty books for children or young people and won several major awards. Jill’s adult novel Knowledge of Angels was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and she completed Dorothy L. Sayers’s last, unfinished, Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Thrones, Dominations. John’s history of English-language children’s literature, Written for Children, reached its sixth American edition in 1996.
From the September/October 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.