In Remembrance: Bertha Mahony Miller

by Elizabeth Orton Jones

bmmiller 203x300 In Remembrance: Bertha Mahony Miller

Bertha Mahony Miller

THE BOOKSHOP FOR BOYS AND GIRLS

In 1934 I was a young greenhorn artist living in New York City, trying to get started, anxious to be on my way. I spent hours each day going from place to place, my portfolio under my arm, my subject — children. I spent hours each night over my drawing board, completing designs for greeting cards, “art work” for envelopes to contain children’s garment patterns, or whatever job came my way.

One early October day my mother arrived from Chicago to see how I was getting along. My last year’s hat reblocked, my old suit pressed, I greeted her with what I hoped was a total look of success and satisfaction. Her round-trip ticket included a visit to Boston (my brother was a freshman at Harvard that year). Would I be willing to lend the Little Red Hen, as we have always called her en famille, a portfolio of my work? Would I object to her trying to see what she could do in Boston? I supplied her with a few water colors and some color etchings.

“Trivialities” they were termed by a Bostonian gentleman in charge of an elegant gallery on Newbury Street. He was politely but definitely uninterested. A rather crestfallen Little Red Hen trudged along Boylston Street, then, with the portfolio.

Suddenly she stopped before a window at the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union where a display of picture books for children seemed to reach right out through the window: “Do come in, whoever you are!” it seemed to say. So my mother went in.

She wandered around, went up a few stairs, and found herself in a decidedly unique place filled with books for boys and girls of all ages. Here and there in a small chair sat a completely absorbed child with an open book, while grownups browsed at the counters and shelves. Colorful prints and paintings were hung on the walls. An old marble fireplace with logs in it and beside it was ready to be kindled into a cosy fire some chilly day. On the mantelpiece, in doll-sized chairs, sat two dolls who looked very much at home there — not for sale. By the big bay window which — from this level — overlooked the Public Garden, stood a wonderful doll’s house, with two more dolls nicely settled inside.

My mother stepped into another room and asked a young woman, who did not seem to be a customer, whether this place was part of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. Assured that it was, she admitted to having been quite long acquainted with the Union, but she had never noticed this before.

“This,” said the young woman, “is The Bookshop for Boys and Girls. It has been here since 1916.”

“1916!” The Little Red Hen was astonished. Why! She had been to Boston any number of times since then. How could she possibly have missed it? “I would have been so grateful for a bookshop like this when my children were young,” she said. “But, of course, there isn’t another bookshop like this. This is much more than a bookshop. This is an idea!”

The young woman smiled. She asked how many children my mother had, and the next minute was hearing about my brother at Harvard, my sister back home in Illinois, and me in New York trying to get started as an artist.

“Of course, what Elizabeth really and truly wants to do,” my mother went on, “is books for children. She’s been writing and illustrating stories since she was knee-high to a grasshopper. Making books of one sort or another has always been as natural as breathing to her. But — to do it professionally — how and where to begin?”

The young woman immediately suggested the Horn Book.

“The Horn Book? What is that?” asked my mother.

“You have never heard of the Horn Book?” Now it was the young woman’s turn to be astonished. “Nor of its editor, Bertha Mahony Miller?”

The Little Red Hen was beginning to feel very much embarrassed by her ignorance. But the young woman smilingly took her by the arm and led her toward a little old elevator, saying, “I want you to meet Mrs. Miller.” As the elevator went slowly up, she explained that she was Beulah Folmsbee, managing editor of the Horn Book.

In the office on the topmost floor, Mrs. Miller cordially welcomed my mother, and soon they were talking away over afternoon tea, brought by Miss Folmsbee, as if they had always been friends.

Suddenly Mrs. Miller said, “Mrs. Jones, I can’t restrain my curiosity a moment longer. What have you in your portfolio?” “Oh, just some —” the Little Red Hen hesitated, remembering the gentleman on Newbury Street, “— some — trivialities, by my daughter.”

Mrs. Miller wanted to see the “trivialities” at once. She studied each one long and thoughtfully, while my mother looked down upon the Public Garden and across at the gold dome of the State House. At last Mrs. Miller said, “Mrs. Jones, with your daughter’s consent, we should like to present an exhibition of her work in The Bookshop for Boys and Girls. I think spring might be the most appropriate season, don’t you?”

The day of the Little Red Hen’s return to New York we celebrated and rejoiced over the news of my first one-man show to be held on Boylston Street in Boston. Then we talked for hours in the Little Red Hen’s hotel room. Back in my own small room the light burned unusually late that night as I feasted from the pages of the dozen-or-so back copies of the Horn Book which my mother had brought to me in her suitcase, as well as a copy of the latest issue, September 1934, representing the first number of the subscription she had taken out in my name.

My light at last off, I closed my eyes.

“Mrs. Jones — what have you in your portfolio?” I could hear Mrs. Miller say, even though I had never met her.

“Oh — just some — trivialities —”

They really were. The gentleman on Newbury Street was absolutely right. What, then, had Mrs. Miller seen as she looked so long at what I, a young greenhorn artist, had done?…Could it be that she was able to see what I, only now, after reading all those Horn Books through, was beginning to see — for the first time?

I remembered how North Wind in George MacDonald’s story could reach down into a room or into a city street. “Now come along,” she would say to Diamond, after setting him on his feet.

“Take my hand, and whatever you do — don’t let go!”

“Take my hand,” Bertha Mahony Miller had said, in proposing an exhibit of my work at The Bookshop for Boys and Girls. “Come this way,” she had said, on every page of the Horn Books I had read. “This way…this way…”

I was beginning to know, for the first time, what I wanted to do — to see ahead a little of what lay in the direction in which I wanted to go…It might take a long time. It might take years and years.

 

By midwinter I had left New York. Back in my home town in Illinois, I began to work as I had never worked before. My first one-man show was on view in the Bookshop at 270 Boylston Street the next spring during the month of March. In several Boston papers my first reviews appeared. “Miss Jones will no doubt, with time, seek a wider range,” one said. There was one sale. I was too shy to inquire who the purchaser might be, though I had a suspicion.

I was not to meet Bertha Mahony Miller — in the usual sense of the word “meet” — for ten years. But during that time her proffered hand was ever with me, a hand which, though invisible, felt strong and sure and real.

“Human life is like a plant,” she wrote, in an editorial in 1934. “The future is within itself. If we can only find the way to help young human beings to develop…”

She had a talent for finding any number of ways.

In my studio in Illinois, I kept reading and rereading my growing collection of Horn Books — the back copies brought by my mother to New York from Boston, and the new issues which now arrived regularly.

I was book-struck — children’s book-struck — in the same way some people are stage-struck, people for whom the fancy front entrance of a theatre and the lobby with its marble stairs cannot compare in importance with the stage door leading to the wonderful world behind-the-scenes to which they yearn to belong. The Horn Book was my stage door through which I could look and see — not actors hurrying about or taking a breather in their makeup and costumes, but artists and writers in smocks and shirt sleeves, editors at their desks, librarians in their libraries sharing and testing books with children — the makers, sharers, and testers of books in the wonderful world behind-the-scenes — and, in their midst, Bertha Mahony Miller, saying always, “this way…this way…” in her editorials, by means of such words as:

…it is so foolish to say “we ought only to give the child conceptions it can understand.” His soul grows by its wonder over things it cannot understand.

It is the spirit which guides the personality. If the spirit has never had a chance to find itself, and has had no nourishment or exercise, then we have just the kind of people we do have now in such numbers. Homesick people longing for they know not what. Real vision comes from the spirit.

Some of the articles I reread more frequently than others, according to my spirit’s particular needs. Eric Kelly, in his four-part series, “Why Write?” was a constant counselor, provider of nourishment, and guide, saying:

The call that keeps the writer alert, that discounts pain, and hunger and distress and disappointment, — certainly it is a real and living thing…most of us never rise above mediocrity, but at least the true writer never aims at it. The crime unforgiveable, in the craft of writing, is to give one’s work less than the sum total of all one’s strength, experience, endeavor and ambition.

Such articles as Winifred Howard’s “Preparing to Make Children’s Books,” Lynd Ward’s “Contemporary Book Illustration,” William Heyliger’s “Finding the Highway,” Hubert V. Coryell’s “When the Author Knows His Setting” provided nourishment, knowledge, and exercise, especially as they were seasoned, surrounded and leavened with such poems as Æ’s “Carrowmore,” Walter de la Mare’s “Suppose,” Siegfried Sassoon’s “Strangeness of Heart.”

Six times a year, with the arrival of each new issue of the Horn Book, my stage door would open so wide I could walk in and meet and mingle with the makers, sharers, and testers of children’s books. It was like going to a wonderful kind of un-dressed-up party where thoughts and ideas are talked about rather than inconsequentialities. Here I met Elinor Whitney, Mrs. Miller s great friend and collaborator, cofounder and assistant editor of the Horn Book, and other great friends and valuable co-workers: Alice M. Jordan and Anne Carroll Moore, Anne T. Eaton, Louise Seaman Bechtel, May Massee, and many more.

The salty, wise, and absolutely sincere evaluation of children’s books in The Three Owls Notebook and in the Booklist was one of the sustenances I needed most. It set goals, marked boundaries, placed standards.

…the artist wants and needs the resistance of the intelligent, appreciative, but honest and salty judge of his work. Commendation without this resistance of critical judgment pats an author’s work softly and puts it to sleep. (B. E. M.)

My first book, Ragman of Paris, was published in the spring of 1937 by Oxford University Press. On March 22nd, Frances McLead, then editor of Oxford Books for Boys and Girls, received a letter from Bertha Mahony Miller:

What a delightful book Ragman of Paris is! I have just this moment finished it and hasten to write you about it…Beginning with the May issue, we want to run a short chapter or story in every number of The Horn Book. I feel very strongly tempted to reprint the “Just for Fun” chapter from this book in the May issue. May we have your permission? There could not be a nicer book for May celebration than this. I feel so grateful for it…

Hastily yours,

BERTHA MILLER

P.S. I have read Ragman of Paris again, now, and have been literally living with it.

In May of 1945, a number of books later, I received a letter from Mrs. Miller:

Dear Miss Jones:

Mrs. Sayers has written me that you have been awarded the Caldecott Medal for your Prayer for a Child. My congratulations to you!…I am writing to ask if we may have your Acceptance paper as soon as possible…

On May 30th she wrote:

Dear Miss Jones:

The Acceptance paper is lovely…I hope you will see that the amplifier at the dinner is fixed just right for you when you speak, and that you will speak your paper, not read it, for I want the audience not to miss a bit of it…I never forget my joy over Ragman of Paris, and have watched your work with great interest ever since.

With cordial greetings,

BERTHA E. MILLER

The Horn Book. It would be impossible to say what this unique little magazine has meant to me, not only as a continuous source of inspiration and refreshment, but as a firm support and a constant encouragement. I have always felt it a considerable honor to contribute to its pages, as has my mother, Jessie Orton Jones, whose article “Books, Children, and Religion” appeared in the February issue for 1954. She and I have collaborated on several books — excerpts or illustrations from which have appeared in the Horn Book from time to time.

Coincidental with the Caldecott Medal was my sudden acquisition of an old house in Mason, New Hampshire. The only way in which I, an author-artist engaged in giving to my work the sum total of all Mr. Kelly suggested, could acquire such a thing at this point was by way of its being sold for taxes and having no claims to grandeur whatsoever: no water, no electricity, no heat, no telephone. My sister and I cleaned and scraped, and with plenty of elbow grease plus the goodly amount of pioneer blood we had inherited still stirring in our veins, we managed to have the place fairly habitable by the end of July. In August a telephone was put in, and one of the first calls was from Bertha Mahony Miller, who lived just over the state line in the town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts. I invited her to lunch.

In a letter to the Little Red Hen afterwards, I wrote:

Today came Mrs. Miller (Bertha Mahony) for lunch. She’s surprisingly small, isn’t she? Physically, I mean — NOT otherwise! We had a lovely time. She went all around my house, and liked the funny little stairs, the Welsh dresser with the pink willow dishes, AND — Piley. I took her into the work room where she saw one of the illustrations I’m doing — directly on the paper, without any preliminaries…“Oh, my!” said Mrs. Miller. And then again, “Oh, my!”…I waited, not knowing what might be coming. Was my work, in her opinion, going to the dogs, or what? At last she said, “It’s so vital!”

Getting into her car, which was very large indeed compared with the size of her, she had said, “Come for lunch at Ashburnham, Elizabeth. It’s only sixteen miles from here. Come any time, and bring whatever you’re working on.”

She used a wicker contraption in addition to the regular car seat in order to see the road ahead; but even so, it seemed as though she looked through the steering wheel instead of over it. Manipulating the vehicle with extraordinary ease, however, she turned it around and, with an air of great assurance, went lickety-split down the road.

 

THE ASHBURNHAM HOUSE

Mr. William D. Miller, a prominent citizen of Ashburnham, was an executive of The W. F. Whitney Company, manufacturers of fine furniture. He was also a French scholar, an amateur cellist, a collector of rare art objects, and an enthusiastic gardener. In many ways he typified the prosperous New England gentleman of the first part of this century to whom a substantial and handsome house, decently supplied with produce from its own soil, was a matter of great pride and satisfaction.

In the old New England tradition, the house was large and rambling, white with dark green shutters, shaded by enormous maple trees, surrounded by immaculately kept gardens and grounds. The place had originally been a farm with fields beyond the gardens and across the road. There was a barn where cows were kept; a cottage where a caretaker lived. I came to New England too late to know the farm. But a brief glimpse of it long ago, I had found highly amusing. It was in a sudden parenthetical insert in the midst of the Hunt Breakfast, and every time I happen upon it I wish that I, too, could have been there to see such goings on:

The Horn Book Editor was interrupted at this point by the news that her younger, gay black-and-white cow had gone UPSTAIRS in the barn. While these notes are being finished the cow is being persuaded to come downstairs and the Editor cannot be there to see! An editorial life is not a happy one — at times.

Into the driveway and straight to a certain spot by a stone wall, under a huge euonymus vine, to park one’s car. Up the stone steps, bordered by pachysandra and low-growing yew, to the front door where Mrs. Miller would always be waiting with a special welcoming smile. Into the front hall, where she took one’s coat to the closet. A glimpse into the dining room with its polished table, silver pitchers, trays, and tea things gleaming from the sideboard, then into the front parlor, opposite. A grand piano, William’s cello, a tall secretary, a high case containing William’s collection of ancient Persian pottery and iridescent glass were here. Here, too: a children’s corner. Picture books on low shelves.

Two beautifully fashioned miniature beds neatly made up with scalloped sheets and pillow cases and covered with miniature early-American patchwork quilts; on each bed, in half-reclining position, three or four dolls with their hats on, waiting patiently to be played with by someone. Two beautifully fashioned miniature bureaus, one with a mirror and flowers hand-painted on each drawer, held the dolls’ extra clothing, always folded neatly and put away; a miniature antique-pine corner cupboard with scalloped sides held the dolls’ dishes, while a tiny gate-leg table, with turned feet, and two chairs were always ready should any two dolls desire to sit down to eat.

Through an ingenious book-lined doorway, and into the living room, now, where in wintertime a merry fire, meticulously tended by William, would always be crackling on the hearth. Books everywhere — not only on the shelves around the walls, but also on the tables, invitingly displayed: books just off the press, advance copies for review, authors’ copies sent personally to Bertha.

Always, even in wintertime, charming arrangements of flowers were on the large table and on the large chest by the window which faced west toward the flower garden. Outside the windows facing south and sheltered by the overhang was a row of generously stocked bird feeders, making for a constant window display of hoppings, flittings, and flutterings which could be enjoyed from the big sofa and the two big matching chairs opposite. Water colors, oils purchased in Paris by William, and numerous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Persian illustrated manuscripts were hung on the grass-textured walls.

Into the back hall where a row of fine black-and-white etchings invited leisurely scrutiny. More books were here, piled a dozen deep sometimes, on chests, sidetables, on the desk. And now, through a special door, into the flower garden which, with its successive terraces and balconies, was quite French in feeling, though tended through many faithful years by a Scottish gardener, Duncan Munro.

Though outside, the flower garden was the “honey-heart” of the Ashburnham dwelling. It was a flower theatre, providing a continuous show of breathtaking scenes all summer. Stage manager: Duncan. Impresario: William. The long winter intermission had a loveliness of its own: dark evergreens, Rackhamish twigs and tangles, rose hips, bright berries, white snow.

A short distance to the right, and up-beside the flower garden, below the vegetable garden — was a secluded little pine grove furnished with convenient table and colorfully cushioned chaises. Bertha called this her “outdoor living room.” Dark-green pine branches were its ceiling; dapples of sunlight filtered through, decorating its rich, rust-colored pine-needle carpet below. The air here was always as soft as silk, fragrant with flowers, and audible with bird song. What a perfect place for letting one’s body rest while one’s mind went adventuring and exploring — reading aloud, talking over ideas, or simply thinking. In summer it was the before-dinner gathering place.

“Shall we go in, now, for our dinner?” the mistress of the house would say at precisely the appointed hour. Presiding at the table — a sizeable cushion on the seat of her chair while underneath, a footstool kept her feet from dangling in the air — she superintended an accomplishment worthy of an Amazon. Every detail had been planned with great care, from the economics of the shopping to the techniques of the cooking, not to mention the setting and the decorating of the table. The seating, and even the conversation had been thoroughly thought about in advance. An Ashburnham dinner was as creatively put together as an issue of the Horn Book, with an overall mood or key, a suitable topic to be talked about, or a particular guest to be honored, with enough fun and light embellishment to keep the occasion balanced and pleasant, with something of interest for everyone. Nor did dinner end with the finger bowls. After-dinner coffee in the living room was an introduction to conversation of a more contemplative nature, reading aloud, or looking at picture books, while the mistress of the house kept her hands from being idle by doing a bit of mending or sewing.

 

After William died, in January of 1959, Bertha wrote:

Dear Elizabeth:

Your letter about William was wonderful…I hope so much that I can make my remaining time worthy of him. I shall try to make our home that he loved so much a shining memorial to him.

She did.

 

A RARE INTUITION

Upstairs in the large house in Ashburnham was a small room which served as Bertha Mahony Miller’s study. From that small room an active correspondence flowed continuously to and from almost every state in this country, to and from almost every country in both hemispheres of this earth.

She corresponded with authors, artists, librarians, editors, educators, parents, publishers — with poets, professors, critics, printers. She exchanged ideas with people living and working in forlorn and barren places and with people living and working in the midst of metropolitan activity and confusion. She reached out to old and young, rich and poor, famous and obscure. Yet, in her wide acquaintance, he was selective.

The high-held standards which guided her own life dictated her attitude toward others. She preferred people who mostly work to people who mostly play and she was admittedly partial to people involved in the arts. She admired fine craftsmanship at any level, whatever the field of endeavor — a poem or a Christmas wreath, a painting or a pudding.

She admired perseverance and fortitude, serenity of mind, a professed joy in living, simplicity. She hated flattery, mediocrity, cuteness, pretentiousness, sentimentality. She deplored war, cruelty, waste and destruction, and any form of humiliation to the young, the helpless, the innocent, or the beautiful.

She herself had extraordinary fortitude in the face of deep discouragement or danger to what was the very life of her life. There were periods of anguish over the survival of the Horn Book, hours of wrestling with doubt. There were occasional indications of acknowledged defeat by economic impossibilities, of sickness in the night, of reading until dawn because of being unable to sleep. She wrote once at three A.M. from her study: “Sometimes I wonder if I shall really live through these days. There were a few when we thought we had decided to bring the Horn Book to a close. We may do that yet. Do pray for what is best to happen.” Yet with the beginning of a new day she would say, “Aren’t the bird songs wonderful in the early morning? Yesterday I heard the white-throated sparrow…This morning the tree swallows are building in one of our bird houses, and the purple finch has been singing away just outside this corner room.”

Sharing in friendship was fundamentally important to her. She shared the delights and the comforts of the Ashburnham house: its flowers, its vegetables, its books, its Christmas festivities. She shared her friends one with another by inviting them there. In an almost compulsive way she would share whatever particularly delighted her; she seemed to feel uncomfortably undeserving of enjoying anything herself. If one told her a story that made her laugh it would never end there. The next time one happened to be present at no matter how small a gathering, one would inevitably be called upon to tell that story again in exactly the same way. Or, if one did not happen to be present at the next appropriate occasion, Bertha would attempt, as best she could, to tell the story herself.

The ways of Piley, my Persian cat, were a source of great delight to her. She was particularly entranced with Piley’s uncanny ability to get up under a bedspread, without a ripple or a rumple, and become an inanimate hump in the exact center of my bed. The hump would emit a soft “ R-r-r-r?” if poked, but otherwise would remain perfectly still for the greater part of the day. Bertha once brought Alice Jordan the sixteen miles from Ashburnham to Mason just to see the hump and hear its “R-r-r-r?” and to wonder at its clueless presence in the center of my bed.

She liked to sharpen the significance of an experience by asking a friend who happened to be an author to go with her to a literary lecture or one who happened to be an artist to accompany her to a museum. One day she asked me to join her in an excursion to the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire. Writing about it later, in the Hunt Breakfast for the September issue of The Horn Book, 1951, she said:

Elizabeth Orton Jones and I spent several hours of enchantment on July 31 with Andrew Wyeth’s water colors, tempera paintings and drawings…The paintings in tempera have often the fine detail of a Botticelli or Breughel; for example, the lace curtains in “Wind from the Sea,” the wonderful detail of the sand in “Spindrift.”…Those who have known well N. C. Wyeth’s illustrations for famous books cannot fail to be thrilled with the work of his son.

She expected frankness and sincerity from others and was disarmingly frank and sincere herself. Once she wanted to see an exhibit of figure paintings in an elegant gallery on Newbury Street. It was a well-publicized one-man show, a “must” according to Boston art critics. Bertha and I went together. We entered the gallery and “did” the first room in silence. Halfway around the second room, stepping discreetly close, she whispered, “Elizabeth, to me these figures are as lifeless as if they were made of wood.” We left.

Once we attended a matinee at a Boston theatre. I had invited her, thinking that The Merry Widow, being reminiscent of the youth of her generation, might be entertaining to her. About a third of the way through the second act she leaned toward me. “Elizabeth,” she whispered, “in my opinion this production seems to fall far short of perfection.” We left.

 

One summer when Anne Carroll Moore was a house guest Bertha planned a little evening dinner party in her honor, and invited me. I looked forward with eagerness to the occasion. But oh! on the morning of the day I woke up with something-or-other accompanied by a slight fever, and had to telephone Bertha to say I could not come. About five-thirty that afternoon, while I was lying on my bed in an old nightgown upstairs in my room and feeling very sorry and disappointed, I heard a car stop outside. I went to the window and, looking down, saw a sight I shall never forget: Mr. William D. Miller, immaculately dressed in a dark suit which emphasized his tallness, had just stepped out of his long black seven-passenger LaSalle, holding very gingerly, with one finger, the high handle of a small wicker basket which looked like something out of Kate Greenaway. I donned a robe and went down. William handed me the basket through the partly opened door, saying, in the gruff tone he always used when he was embarrassed, “Bertha sent this.”

What a masterpiece of daintiness it was! In a white scalloped paper napkin were nestled three very young white scalloped squashes with bright blue cornflowers, purplish Canterbury bells, and pale blue forget-me-nots arranged in the interstices.

“Flowers in a basket; — Basket on the bed; — Bed in the chamber; — Chamber in the house; — House in the weedy yard; —”…sixteen miles to Ashburnham — a rare intuition and a unique sense of communication.

 

THE REPUBLIC OF CHILDHOOD

The dolls in their special corner in the front parlor at Ashburnham were not there as part of the interior decor. They were there to be dressed and undressed, their hair brushed and braided, their beds made and unmade to anyone’s heart’s content. Few were the meals at the Millers’ table without a child or children present, participating, as Bertha believed was their right, in the general conversation. After dinner, when grownups preferred to converse contemplatively, there were always the children’s books on the low shelves, to be taken out, looked at, read. There were always the dolls waiting for little girls; and, in the hall closet, there was an enormous box of miscellaneous toys of great interest to little boys, most of which were useful in the setting up of a large farm: a house, a barn, outbuildings, and plenty of fences for pasturing the beautifully fashioned toy horses and cows, for penning the pigs and the various kinds of fowl. This fascinating farm would generally be put into extensive operation on the living room floor at the feet of the grownups, who towered like Olympians above the oriental-rug countryside of fields and meadows, the two worlds coexisting with never a hint of friction or infringement.

Mutual respect was one of Bertha Mahony Miller’s fundamental precepts. Mutual respect between grownups and children was certainly the secret of the extraordinary relationship between old and young at the Ashburnham house. I was never to witness, over the years, any disciplining, any correctional measures on account of thoughtless behavior, any form of austerity of any kind. There were no tears; there were no fears, so far as I could see. There was perceptible serenity. There were fun, wonder, and delight. There was contented play.

“Respect for the valor and dignity of play” were words she sometimes used, and their meaning included a related point of view toward toys. There was no more reason for a flimsy, mediocre, characterless toy than for a second-rate, poorly made, cheap children’s book. Why shouldn’t furniture for dolls be as tasteful in design as furniture for people? The importance of names for dolls, of neat and appropriate clothing and homelike surroundings for them reflected her feeling of respect for any child as an individual, a person. Sharing a story, a picture book, a nursery rhyme, an experience of any sort with any child was, to Bertha Mahony Miller, a privilege — never a chore. She never considered children as lesser beings in any way. She never looked down at a child; she looked straight across, saluting the human spirit in him. He, in turn, looked straight across at her, saluting the same.

She never had a child of her own. Yet for nearly forty years her home abounded with children of all ages, related to her by marriage, by adoption, by invitation — grandchildren, great-grandchildren, grandnieces and nephews, great-grandnieces and nephews. “Our children” she called them all, including Johnny Nims, who came when he was seven to live at the Ashburnham house with his mother, the Millers’ housekeeper. He grew up there; his interests, his education, his development as a person, were ever important to Bertha.

In a broader sense, though just as true, the interests, education, and development of all children were ever important to Bertha; and all those engaged in work for children she regarded as “one family all over the world.” Whatever news came to her of “work where good people make homelike places for children and show them the way to realms of gold” concerned her. She kept in touch with libraries everywhere, frequently visiting those within driving distance. At her own local library in Ashburnham, many were the story hours, the Book Week celebrations, the Christmas programs she instigated. When I was trying to help establish facilities for children’s books and reading at my local library in the little town of Mason, she was always ready with moral support and eager interest. When the day at last came for an Open House to present to the public our new Children’s Room, the floor space of which measured about nine feet by twelve, the first well-wisher to arrive, the first name to be recorded on the first page of our new guest book: Bertha Mahony Miller.

“Mutual respect and understanding between people of different nationalities,” was the urgent necessity she expressed in a 1943 editorial, “if we are ever to live at peace on this planet.” By means of the Horn Book, as well as through her own personal concern, hurting with the feeling of “a knife turning in the heart,” she reached out to discover what was being done for orphaned and homeless children after World War II: the boys and girls at the Pestalozzi Kinderdorf in Switzerland, the boys and girls in Germany, France, England, Spain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Soviet Russia, Japan, and China before the bamboo curtain fell. Believing, with Paul Hazard, that “the world of children is tolerant…does not know about prejudices…does not know about wars,” hearkening at the same time to the voice of the young Marine Corps officer, leader of a machine-gun platoon in the Pacific theatre, begging his parents to send him “books which would help him to understand the enemy” — she persisted in trying to seek out ways to preserve the natural wellsprings of childhood and ways to restore the basic rights of which childhood had been deprived: food, love, parents, home. “Truth does not become less exciting when evil, cruelly and powerfully armed, stalks the world,” she once affirmed fiercely.

Mutual respect and understanding between races, localities, dissimilar financial situations, and religions was her challenge as she traveled from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific in 1947, talking with any number of children’s and school librarians. She corresponded with authorities in regard to American Indian children, children of migrant workers, Mexican-American children, mountain children in inaccessible communities, Negro children in segregated communities throughout the South.

Mutual respect and understanding between handicapped people and those favored with health and complete physical faculties became her deep concern at the time of the opening of the new Rehabilitation Center at Crotched Mountain, in New Hampshire, near Greenfield. When I was working with the crippled children there, she would come again and again — sometimes alone, sometimes bringing other people. She was especially interested in the boys and girls who were writing poems and stories, drawing and painting pictures, and making books. Nancy, eight years old, paralyzed from the waist down, submitted some of her work, through Bertha’s encouragement, to the Horn Book League, and was accepted as an ecstatic member. To Eugene, eighteen, who was afflicted with a progressive disease severely affecting his muscles and his sense of balance, Bertha gave a special commission to execute professionally one of his unbelievably fragile and delicately balanced conceptions, to hang in the front hall at Ashburnham: a mobile of the planets in orbit around the sun. The Horn Book included, in the Christmas issue for 1954 my story entitled “How Far Is It to Bethlehem?” — about how the Crotched Mountain children gave their first Christmas pageant, in which Eugene, in his wheelchair, was the prophet, and Nancy, in hers, an angel.

One Christmas I sent Bertha a poem by Betty Bridgman for which I was making illustrations. She wrote back to me:

I loved “Lullabye for Eggs.” It was startling to go from reading that upstairs at my desk down to the living room and pick up The New Yorker and read — I cannot quote it exactly — in the News and Comments section, where Mr. Oppenheimer’s appearance on TV was being discussed — “If these tests of Hydrogen bombs go on we are likely some day to find there is too much radioactivity in the house for the human body especially if there is a foetus somewhere in the house.” The juxtaposition of the two ideas almost keeled me over.

Her wish: to give youth the courage and the insight “to so lift and change the thought of the world that it cannot help but become a good home where happiness is possible for all children.” Her hope: to give youth the wisdom and strength to remove “the curse of lawlessness and destruction from the world and to build in its place workable world laws, for the sake of children.” Her work: to dedicate her abundant energy and creative ability, her deep love and inexhaustible faith to the universal republic of childhood.

Bertha Mahony Miller: whose children were all children.

 

This article originally appeared in the October 1969 issue of The Horn Book Magazine and is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more on Prayer for a Child.

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Comments

  1. Utterly charming. Thank you for sharing this piece!

  2. paula heslin nelson says:

    As one of those children lucky enough to play in that living room, I thoroughly enjoyed the article. To me she was not Mrs. Miller but an enchanting “Aunt Bertha”.

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