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Prayer for a Child and the Test of Time

This is the second of a continuing series of articles celebrating the history of the Caldecott Medal, which marks its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. Librarian and children’s literature historian Kathleen T. Horning will look at one seminal but unheralded Caldecott book of each decade — identifying trends and misconceptions, noting the changing nature of the picture book, wrestling with issues and definitions. Here she examines the 1945 winner, Prayer for a Child (Macmillan), as a product of its time — and beyond.

Prayer for a ChildWinners of the Caldecott Medal have never been intended to represent the best books of all time, and yet that is how they have often come to be regarded, simply because the winning  titles are forever promoted in chronological listings on bookmarks, posters, and now websites. Caldecott books also remain in print much longer than they likely would have had a shiny gold medal not been affixed to their covers. There is nothing in the Medal’s terms or criteria that indicate the book should have lasting appeal; however, the Caldecott gives
a book staying power, whether warranted or not. And many people interpret that gold medal as a stamp of approval for all eternity.

Although each year’s Caldecott committee strives to select the most distinguished illustration in a picture book for children, whatever book they choose is destined to be a product of its time, selected by people who are also products of their time. Books created and selected during periods of crisis, when sentiments are running high, are perhaps most in danger of appearing dated to future generations, who lack the context of sentiment. Does one need to have lived through the era in which the 1992 Los Angeles riots occurred in order to fully appreciate David Diaz’s 1995 Caldecott winner, Smoky Night? Will The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, which earned the 2004 Caldecott Medal for Mordicai Gerstein, move an audience for whom 9/11 is only an event in history books? Certainly both still seem fresh and relevant to most readers today, but will they be understood and appreciated in fifty years?

There is no better example of a Caldecott winner that was both a product of its time and a sentimental favorite than Elizabeth Orton Jones’s 1945 Caldecott Medal winner, Prayer for a Child, published near the end of World War II. To the contemporary eye, it may appear saccharine and trite, even cloyingly sweet. The text for Prayer for a Child, written by Rachel Field, was first published in December 1941 as “The Baby’s Prayer” in the Sunday newspaper magazine supplement This Week. It was reprinted in The Horn Book Magazine six months later as “Prayer for a Child” in a memorial issue devoted to Rachel Field, who had died suddenly in 1942 at forty-seven. She left behind a two-year-old daughter, Hannah, for whom the poem had been written. Field, author of the 1930 Newbery Medal winner, Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, was a beloved figure in the children’s book world, and the poem proved so popular that Macmillan editor Doris S. Patee suggested to Elizabeth Orton
Jones that she illustrate it.

Although best known at the time for her popular novel Twig (Macmillan, 1942), Elizabeth Orton Jones was a natural choice for the book Patee envisioned. Jones had illustrated a similar book for Viking the year before, Small Rain, which was a collection of prayers selected by her mother, Jessie Orton Jones. In a biographical sketch of the artist that appeared in Library Journal just after Prayer for a Child won the Caldecott, Patee noted that she chose Elizabeth Orton Jones to illustrate the book because she wanted it to be “dignified, reverent, and childlike.”

Jones took the assignment and immersed herself in the work. Not only did she face the mammoth task of pleasing everyone in the children’s book world with her portrayal of a child known and loved by so many, she also faced the challenge of having to interpret a prayer in a way that was visual and accessible to young children. She approached it by focusing on realistic details found in the ordinary objects of daily life. All of the toys pictured in the book, including the well-worn wooden spoon, had been lent to her to use as models by the children of a librarian friend of hers, Annis Duff (who later became a children’s book editor in her own right). The little wooden figures of the angel orchestra that accompany the first letter of each line were based on Christmas decorations Jones had purchased in France years earlier. The hearth depicted in the book was the artist’s own, including the portrait above the fireplace (her grandmother as a child) and the Walter Crane tiles around it. Even the picture drawn by a child that we see tacked above the little girl’s bed was based on a picture drawn by a young student in Jones’s sister’s class.

As particular as she was about objects and settings, Jones claimed that she never used real children as models. It’s hard to believe, however, that she wasn’t at least in part inspired by the poignant photographs of two-year-old Hannah that were printed in the Rachel Field tribute issue of the Horn Book. Whether she intended to or not, Jones captured the likeness of her round, cherubic face and blonde curls, right down to her white hair ribbon.

Nearly all of the reviews at the time of publication mentioned that the text of the book had been written by Rachel Field for her daughter. Mary Gould Davies in The Saturday Review described it as “Rachel Field’s prayer for Hannah,” without any further explanation, apparently assuming that even general readers would know who Hannah was. Following the mention of the author’s daughter, most of the reviewers went on to stress that the prayer was for all children, regardless of race or creed (never mind that Jesus crept into the last line). The perceived universality of the prayer, in fact, was important to critics. Booklist’s uncredited reviewer wrote that it would appeal to all, “without regard to creed, because it is filled with familiar things — bed, shoes, friends, and parents — within every child’s understanding.” This observation was echoed in many of the reviews, and was generally linked to Jones’s illustrations, which were said to capture the “childlikeness” and  “tenderness” of the original prayer.

Anne T. Eaton, in her New York Times review, took it even further: “Here is childhood caught unawares, busy about its own affairs, artless and unselfconscious. The pictures and the prayer itself speak to children in a child’s own language; older people will find this little
volume beautiful, moving and deeply satisfying.” A similar observation was made a little more than a decade later by Esther Averill in her look back at the past twenty years of Caldecott Medal winners, “What Is a Picture Book?” But, with hindsight, she was critical of
the same qualities critics in 1944 had noted as commendable. Averill wrote: “The reverent, mystical mood the prayer might awaken in a young person is not sustained by drawings of such a realistic nature. They appeal more to adults who enjoy looking with sentimental eyes at childhood scenes.”

Averill’s critique offers the first direct charge of sentimentality I have found in print; however, Frances Clarke Sayers said much the same thing in 1945, but with a positive spin. At the time, Sayers was chair of ALA’s Children’s Library Association (now ALSC) and as such had also been a member of the (then-combined) Newbery–Caldecott committee that selected Prayer for a Child. Her brief statement on behalf of the committee, published in the ALA Bulletin, spoke only of the book from the perspective of the “sentimental eyes” of
the adults. “The appeal of her drawing lies in a softness of line which catches something of the wistfulness and tenderness that assail one who watches children unobserved. She manages to convey the pathos of a child observed by adults. It is this quality that gives
her pictures of children such appeal for many people.” In other words, the book was a clear sentimental favorite — without apology.

If there was ever a year to choose a Caldecott winner for sentimental reasons, it was 1945. Library Journal’s essay by Mildred C. Skinner about the best picture books of 1944 (which
included Prayer for a Child) opened with these words: “In these troublous times, when we are all eager to give our children a feeling of security and a fair share of happiness and fun, it is good to know that new picture books are as gay and lovely as though all the world were happy.” Library Journal reviewed the book a second time at the beginning of 1945: “It is a prayer, beautifully written and beautifully illustrated, bespeaking the faith, love, hopes and the trust of little children.” How comforting it must have been for war-weary adults to cast a “wistful” gaze at “childhood caught unawares,” in a homey setting “filled with familiar things.”

If we dwell on the book as portrait of motherless Hannah, we miss the bigger picture that Elizabeth Orton Jones was striving for: the universal theme she saw in it. Rachel Field’s original poem was personal and specific. Jones paid tribute to it in spirit with the specificity of details, but she also extended it beyond a single child, capitalizing on the lines “Bless other children, far and near / And keep them safe and free from fear.” This line is accompanied by a window into a multitude of hopeful young faces — black, white, and brown; Asian, Latino, and Native American. Each child gazes back at the viewer with a bright, open face. This same illustration frames the book jacket, making it clear from the outset that it is a prayer for all children. Although none of the original reviewers mentioned this picture specifically, the frequent references to Prayer for a Child as a book for children of all “races and creeds” with “universal appeal” were certainly inspired by it.

Jones spoke about the book’s universality in her Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, delivered in July of 1945. “I should like every child in the world to know that what he can see from the top of his hill, when he looks down and around, is different from what can be seen from the top of anybody else’s hill — that what he can see when he looks straight up is exactly what everybody else, looking straight up, can see, too.”

“United Through Books” was the theme of Children’s Book Week in 1944, and it was regarded as such an important theme that it was selected again in 1945. It was a sentiment that permeated the children’s book world at the time. And while it could have easily been interpreted with the sort of patriotic fervor we now associate with World War II, children’s librarians, publishers, and book creators more often approached it from a global perspective, sent up like a prayer for all the world’s children, longing to keep them all “safe and free from fear.”

This longing is timeless. Adults will always strive to protect children from harsh realities. They will often turn to books as a source of security in times of crisis, for themselves as well as for the children in their care. But a book that offers comfort to one generation may be regarded by the next as outdated, or even sentimental. It will fall into obscurity and be forgotten — unless it wins the Caldecott Medal. It will be destined to fail a test of time it was never expected to withstand.

From the March/April 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For supplemental materials on Prayer for a Child, click here.

Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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