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Horn Book reminiscence from Jane Manthorne

Reminisces

From Jane Manthorne

My association with The Horn Book Magazine and children’s books goes back more than fifty years. Recollections abound of encounters with the unexpected, the ridiculous, the bizarre, and — most often — thoughtful meetings with staff, authors, and books.

My predilection in life and libraries and literature has always been for the nontraditional, the liberal, the free-spirited. This pleasure in doing my own thing prevailed for a memorable opportunity, the Caroline M. Hewins–Frederic G. Melcher Lecture, delivered at a meeting of the New England Library Association in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on September 15, 1966.

I chose to do an author of series books. I liked Horatio Alger’s success against all odds, and Nancy Drew — I’m a mystery fan. Ultimately, my choice reflected my own identity: I weep when I’m angry or happy or sad; my Quaker/Salvation Army heritage had (in the past) sculpted me into a Goody Two-Shoes. And so I chose a series by a Goody-type author, Martha Farquharson Finley. In fact, I chose three authors: Martha Finley, author of the Elsie Dinsmore and Mildred series, and two of her contemporaries, Susan Bogert Warner, author of The Wide, Wide World, and Maria Susanna Cummins, author of The Lamplighter. These three authors created the weepingest girls ever to populate fiction. Their tears drop, stream, trickle, fall, course down their cheeks in uncurbed waterfalls. Their heroines cried and cried again and I laughed and cried with them.

My approach was a poke-fun analysis. There was little Elsie Dinsmore refusing her arrogant father’s orders to play the piano on Sundays. She cried, and I wrote paragraphs of all the ways she cried. Horn Book published the lecture, “The Lachrymose Ladies,” in three issues. Later, I passed up my one chance to be a full-fledged author of a book. An editor at Harcourt, Brace offered me a five-thousand-dollar advance to flesh out my lecture. I had read and re-read more than twenty books in Finley’s Elsie series and seven in her Mildred series plus works by Cummins and Warner. I was weary of all the weepers, and I turned him down. Such is life. No time for regrets. Just move ahead.

Another memorable event in my Horn Book saga involved my writing partner, Hermes Boyatis, and the night he, in his Greek dramatist’s way, decided I had been murdered on behalf of books. The place was Salmagundi’s restaurant on Newbury Street; the event, an evening meeting of the Women’s National Book Association; the speaker, me; my subject, the books read by young adults; among the guests, Horn Book editor Ruth Hill Viguers.

The restaurant had upstairs and downstairs dining rooms. That evening we were meeting upstairs. Hermes had offered to pick me up at the end of the program. He arrived a little early, parked out front, and opened the door of the restaurant. Ahead, he saw darkness and a dining room with chairs upended on the tables; but to the right of the door, he saw a coat rack with only one coat there, mine! He knew, he was absolutely certain, that I had been lured there, murdered, and my body was somewhere inside.

Then he saw a light at the top of the stairs. A little old lady, perhaps a cleaning woman, came toward him at this point. He pushed her aside and dashed up the stairs. At the top he came to a sudden halt. All was quiet except for one voice. I was giving my talk and my listeners were listening. In relief, he paused a moment, then carefully inched his way quietly down the stairs. At the door he was met by two of Boston’s finest, who started taking him toward their police cruiser. What, they wanted to know, was he doing? Assaulting an old lady, planning a burglary? What? Hermes implored them to go upstairs and find the speaker, who would identify him. They finally, but reluctantly, agreed. Upstairs they found me, Ruth Viguers, and about thirty others behaving like brilliant bookwomen. And Hermes was spared the slammer!

Jane Manthorne is vice-president of the Horn Book, Inc.

From the September 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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