“Our Miss Jones”

by Annis Duff

Elizabeth Orton Jones.jpg 300x195 “Our Miss Jones”

Elizabeth Orton Jones at work in her studio

One afternoon, a year ago last February, Elizabeth Jones came to tea. It was quite an occasion, for although we had known her incarnate, so to speak, for a comparatively short time, we were very much at home with her because of our long and intimate friendship with Ragman of Paris, Maminka’s Children, and Twig. Deirdre’s first pet-names for Steven came from Elizabeth Jones: “My sweet raisin, my little mouse, my rather small beetle.” And Steven had felt such an immediate kinship with Elizabeth that he spoke of her as “ our Miss Jones,” and behaved with her as if she were his own age.

On this particular afternoon she told us she was having a little difficulty in finding the right models to sit for the drawings of “Toys whose shapes I know” in Rachel Field’s Prayer For A Child. She had lived with the text and let the pictures grow in her mind until she knew precisely what she wanted: toys that had been really loved by some child, but were not so worn and tired that they’d lost their shape and color. She needed one woolly one, a good friend for sleeping with; one small one, the right size to fit into a child’s hands; one toy of wood or paper; and one “good old soul of a doll.”

Deirdre and Steven went upstairs, and if we’d been noticing particularly we might have thought they’d grown tired of our party. Presently they came down again, and with them came Prowlie, the second-generation teddy bear; Teddy Wear-wee, his inseparable companion; Salisbury, the small gray rabbit from England; the big Swedish wooden spoon known as the “tuvebon,” Steven’s favorite plaything from the time he could almost have been picked up in it; and Abigail, the Brown County pioneer doll handed on to Deirdre years ago by someone who had loved her dearly, and now Steven’s cherished friend and confidante. All of these were piled into Elizabeth’s lap. Elizabeth examined them gravely, asked a few questions about their ancestry (this out of understanding of their owners’ pride, not from concern with their social fitness), and then said, “Of course!” So they all went home for a long visit with “our Miss Jones.”

The next week the Duff children came down with measles, and the companions of the nursery began to be missed rather badly through the tedious feverish nights. There was much talk of how the toys were faring, whether Miss Jones remembered to put them to bed comfortably, and if they were homesick at all. But before the expected appeal came to have them brought home, there arrived a most enchanting letter with a beautiful colored picture of the toys sitting in Miss Jones’ studio chair, and a long account of the trip to Highland Park, of being tucked in for the night under warm blankets, and of Miss Jones’ pussy, Piley, who “makes a noise like a little washing-machine.”

After that, until the spots were all gone and the two Duffs restored to a state of unrelenting vigor, we talked endlessly about the book Miss Jones was making, wondering if all the pictures would be as lovely as the one she’d made of the toys, and growing more and more excited at the prospect of seeing a finished product in which we’d had a little share.

Well, we did see all the pictures before they went off to the printer, and found them so full of “innocent beauty and childlike truth” that it seemed almost impertinent to try to put our feeling about them into words. Then, just at Thanksgiving, the book itself arrived, with Hannah’s sweet little kneeling figure on the jacket and inside on the fly-leaf this inscription:

For Deirdre and Steven Duff—bless them. And bless their dear Prowlie, their dear Abigail, their dear wee Salisbury, their dear Teddy Wear-wee, and their dear spoon—who so graciously consented to be in this book, and who were such a help and such a comfort.

With love and with thankfulness,

ELIZABETH ORTON JONES

Thanksgiving Day, 1944.

Prayer For A Child was not, for our children, so much a beautiful new book as a beautiful new experience, a visible linking up of the Unseeable with the seen and felt and known. Their own deep sense of thankfulness for the comfortable, everyday simplicities of food and sleep, companionship and security, was expressed for them in the words of Rachel Field’s prayer and made infinitely alive and intimate by Elizabeth Jones’ pictures. It gives us much happiness to know that “other children far and near” have felt the same response, and that their elders have recognized the value and beauty of the pictures in Prayer For A Child by awarding to the creator the Caldecott Medal.

Years ago, when Deirdre Duff first read Maminka’s Children, she hazarded the opinion that “Miss Jones must be a very special kind of person to make such a wonderful book.” Miss Jones is a very special kind of person, so special that you’d never single her out from a crowd as having the unmistakable aura of the artist. She is a person.

The first time I ever saw her to know who she was, I recognized her right off because in the first place I was looking for her — it was at a performance of Gladys Adshead’s Brownies, Hush! for which Elizabeth had done the pictures; and in the second place she was so unmistakably the same kind of Jones I’d known in her brother and sister, who had been students in my husband’s classes some years before. Only, whereas Tom and Annette are strikingly dark as to eyes and hair, this Jones has the lovely russet-brown look of her mother, very attractive with her small, delicately modeled features — the straight nose, chin square and firm without being aggressive, and a mouth that never smiles by itself but helps with the lighting up of her whole face when she is amused or pleased. It isn’t easy to describe the appearance of someone who has such mobility of expression; talking or listening, laughing or serious, she has always an animation that is never tiresome because it is so honest and spontaneous. A quite unpretentious person, this Miss Jones, who nevertheless is a positive presence when she’s there, and always leaves behind her a sort of sparkle.

To say that she is at her best with children might seem to suggest that she withholds something from her grown-up friends, and this is not so. She is a thoroughly satisfactory companion, informed and responsive, full of lively imaginativeness, stimulating ideas and penetrating common sense. But in her relationship with a child there is a subjective understanding, a subtle sympathy that creates an immediate at-homeness. I am inclined to think that this accounts for a good deal of her success at making books for children because it comes from her ability to identify herself with the child she once was and has never lost.

One of my pleasantest occasions with Elizabeth Jones was an evening when we sat by the fire drinking coffee and wandering from one subject to another with fine disconnectedness until she began to tell me about herself as a little girl. Several times since, I’ve thought about some episode or another that she described, and have wondered, “Now what book had that in it?” — only to remember that it was part of the Autobiography of Elizabeth Jones as told to Annis Duff in the dead of night.

There was small Elizabeth, living in a little house — “oh, a very little house” — by the side of a deep ravine. A narrow bridge led across to where the road was, and the grand piano had to be carried over by several staggering men. She had no companions of her own generation until she was nearly six, but Pantzy and Mamie, the Bohemian girls of the household, gave her their love and care and companionship then, and for many years after Tom and Annette joined the family circle. She lived in the kitchen, she says, listening to their colorful tales, hearing their songs, watching them dance, and seeing them cook the wonderful Bohemian food.

Elizabeth glows with a sort of wondering delight as she tells about their radiant and untiring happiness in devising pleasures for a responsive child: the tiny doll’s dress, begun at suppertime, and brought for her to see in all its embroidered beauty by a blink of lamplight long after midnight, and left for her to find like a dream come true in the morning; the miraculous appearance in the kitchen one evening (when Pantzy had mysteriously disappeared upstairs) of an old Bohemian beggarman who with complete rightness proved to have known Mamie’s family in the Old Country, and told fine tales of their life and times; and—what later became one of the most delightful episodes in Maminka’s Children — the making of the Christmas bread, which is traditional in the Jones family to this day, though Pantzy and Mamie long ago carried their gift of happiness to other spheres.

When Elizabeth was about five, her family moved to a more spacious house, and she was given a beautiful walnut bed with a broad polished headboard, so that she might learn to enjoy and respect beautiful things. She had at this time a rather glamorous night-life of her own devising. Partly from loneliness, and partly from imagination clamoring for an outlet, she created a setting in which her home was an orphanage presided over by one Miss Brown. Every bedroom was a dormitory with rows of beds down each side, each bed having a headboard perfect for use as a blackboard. Each night when she’d been left alone to go to sleep, Elizabeth played with her equally orphaned companions. Night was the time for lessons: arithmetic, reading, grammar, spelling, and finally, and best of all, drawing. For this Elizabeth took a piece of chalk to bed, and just before she went to sleep she would draw a picture on the sleek headboard, and first thing in the morning she would rub it out. One morning her mother, coming in to close the window, found the chalky adornment still there. A mild reproof, combined with practical instruction as to the relative merits of chalk and olive-oil in the care of fine furniture, provided Elizabeth with a new kind of situation for her nocturnal adventures, and her prestige was greatly heightened among her shadowy companions.

Like many children gifted with imagination, Elizabeth thought herself “different,” and had no means of discovering whether or not her school friends felt as she did about books, or made response to the beauty all around. So she was all bottled up and lived in a state of bewilderment, badly needing a like-minded companion, but not quite knowing how to reveal her need.

When her brother and sister were of an age to be away from home, the three spent their summers in a little house built for them on their uncle’s plantation in Virginia. Here, free to pursue her own pleasures in congenial company, Elizabeth found a satisfying outlet for imaginative energy. A beagle-hound was their favorite playmate, and the Jones children talked a private jargon known as Beagle Language. Elizabeth at this period made a practice of setting difficult tasks for herself — reading the Bible all through, staying up all night, or making a dictionary of Beagle Language. She usually accomplished what she set out to do, and if the immediate results were not always essentially practical, the strengthening of her determination and ability to carry through an appointed task doubtless served her well in the fulfillment of her intention to develop skill and understanding as an artist.

“When did you find you wanted to be an artist?” I asked her — a silly question, now I come to think about it. She naturally couldn’t answer with any definiteness, but supposed she must have settled on drawing as the most satisfactory of her gifts when she realized that in spite of having had much music at home all her life—her father and mother are both gifted musicians — she didn’t want it as a career. When, after completing her work at the University of Chicago, she studied first at the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the School of Fine Arts at Fontainebleau, she discovered that there were people who felt and thought and saw as she did. “They talked about beauty right out loud! It was wonderful!”

Then she went to Paris, to study with Camille Liausu. “And when,” I asked, “ did you begin to draw children?” She said that she was working in the studio one day, fearfully tense and serious, when M. Liausu told her to get her coat and go out into the park. “Don’t take pencils or paper. Don’t do anything. Just watch the children playing and then come back and see if you can get some movement into your drawing.” She watched one child; she watched two children; she watched groups of children. And then she went back and drew something of what she had seen, and it was good.

She spent other and more days watching children and getting them down on paper. She came home to the United States and had a one-man show of color etchings of children at the Smithsonian Institute. And she wrote and made pictures for a little book called Ragman of Paris. I remember reading the closing chapter of it, reprinted in the May/June Horn Book in 1937, and thinking what a jolly book it would be for my six-year-old son — if I had a six-year-old son. It all came back to me the other day as I watched Steven crouching down to talk to a prowling pussy in the woodlot, and later heard him explaining that he was looking for the pussy’s green whisker.

Maminka came along before our son did, and when I think of Deirdre’s shouts of laughter as we read the chapter about the big noodle, I can scarcely wait until Steven is ready for it, too. Then there was Twig, funny and wistful and very spacious in its understanding of a child’s strength in imagination; and Small Rain, to me the most perfect of all books of Bible literature for children because of the quality of sheer joyousness that shines in all its pages. This quality is a reflection of Elizabeth herself, whose own “joyous inner wisdom” sees the eternal verities as a perennial source of happy well-being, and knows that children should have them so.

With every new book, Elizabeth Jones shows a greater sureness of technique, a finer, freer, lovelier expression of her delight in “clear-eyed, soft-faced, happy-hearted childhood, and the coy reticences, the simplicities and small solemnities of little people.” When first we used to read Prayer For A Child and look at the pictures, every time we came to “Bless the hands that never tire,’ Steven would add; “Bless the hands of our Miss Jones.” So say all of us. Hands that can bring into concrete form the vision and beauty and humor of Elizabeth Jones’ particular kind of seeing from the top of her own particular hill have a great gift to bestow on the children of this world.

 

This article, originally published in July 1945 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Elizabeth Orton Jones and Prayer for a Child.

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