By Lee Kingman
My earliest memory of Bertha Mahony, before she added Miller to her name, begins with her feet. Small feet, proportioned to her small frame. As I was a lanky nine-year-old, I was almost as tall as she was. Her lack of size, however, had nothing to do with her authority, which was commanding, or her understanding of children, which was discerning. When, on a special visit to the Bookstore in 1929, I chose to sit on a bottom stair, she didn’t fuss. She began handing me books, and for the next hour, my view was filled with pages and pictures and her feet as she trotted back and forth bringing more volumes or stood patiently, waiting for me to choose ten books — my prize for writing fifteen book notes and winning the 1928–1929 Reading Contest sponsored by The Bookshop for Boys & Girls and The Horn Book Magazine.
My book notes were collected in a red-covered school notebook (and one, about The Bastable Children by E. Nesbit, appeared in the November 1929 issue of the magazine). The notebook disappeared long ago and I cannot remember the other books I reviewed, although favorites at the time were Heidi, The Little Lame Prince, Hans Brinker, A Little Princess, and Alice in Wonderland. There would also have been some not as famous or long-lasting, as my mother took me often to the Bookshop to buy a book — the ultimate treat.
Eight of the books I chose, as Bertha hovered, are still in my possession, each bearing on its flyleaf a bookplate designed for The Bookshop for Boys & Girls and carrying its motto: “The thoughts of youth are long long thoughts.” Below was the printed announcement: “This book was won in The Horn Book Reading Contest 1928–1929” and then my name and Bertha’s, both inscribed in her handwriting. Surely I chose on my own The Secret Garden, The Princess and Curdie, Hitty, Pran of Albania, and Mr. Hermit Crab by a delightfully named Mimpsy Rhys. However, I suspect that some lobbying on Bertha’s part accounted for Beatrix Potter’s The Fairy Caravan, and on my mother’s part for A Junior Anthology of World Poetry and Simple Susan (Maria Edgeworth at her most sanctimonious). A ninth book, A Child’s History of the World, and a tenth whose title escapes me have vanished from my shelves.
Looking now at my worn copy of Hitty and its cover design of tiny white flowers on a pink background, I remember that the day after my triumphant visit to the Bookshop and acquaintance with Miss Mahony’s feet, I came down violently with the chicken pox and was as spotted as Hitty’s binding cloth. Fortunately, I do have more than Bertha’s feet to recall, as some years later I became involved with the Horn Book and developed a complete toe-to-head picture of her and a better knowledge of how inspired she was in ways of bringing children and books together.
Lee Kingman, the author of several books for children, succeeded Grace Hogarth as children’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Co. Her association with the Horn Book spans a remarkable seventy years, from child contributor to member of the Magazine’s Council and then its Board of Directors. She is also editor of two Horn Book publications, Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956–1965 and, with Joanna Foster and Ruth Giles Lontoft, Illustrators of Children’s Books: 1957–1966.
From the September/October 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine