Horn Book Reminiscence from Isabel Wilner


From Isabel Wilner

My acquaintance with the Horn Book began when I entered Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh in September 1944. Our classrooms were located in the library itself, and it was there that I discovered bound volumes of the Horn Book, which I enjoyed reading for my personal pleasure whenever time permitted.

Elizabeth Nesbitt taught Book Selection, History of Children’s Literature, and Storytelling to the four of us specializing in Library Work with Children. (This teacher-pupil ratio has probably never been equalled.) Our classes with her were always entertaining, enlightening, demanding, and delightful. I remember her joy at sharing selections from a Horn Book publication, Paul Hazard’s Books, Children and Men. We heard about Emile, Mrs. Trimmer, Mrs. Sherwood, Maria Edgeworth, Sandford and Merton. . . .

I decided to make a little book of poems (decorated with drawings) about these people. I duplicated the text, using carbon paper, on a library school typewriter. The drawings were made individually, using pencil and India ink. I made an edition of five copies, one for myself, one for Miss Nesbitt, and one for each of my three classmates. The book’s title was The Triumph / or / Little by Little / Being a History of Children’s Literature / from the Remote Past / to the Less Remote Past / Diversified and Versified and Embellished with Drawings / by the Author. With the encouragement of Elizabeth Yates, whom I met at a writers conference, I sent “The Triumph” to the Horn Book — and so began my five-decade relationship with the magazine. After some back-and-forthing, Bertha Mahony Miller published “The Triumph” in the May 1946 issue. Jennie Lindquist, the second editor, published my poem “Counting-Out Rhyme” in the March 1950 issue. Then in 1962, Ruth Hill Viguers, third editor of the Horn Book, published a poem called “Portrait of Betty.” I met Mrs. Viguers at the next American Library Association meeting, and after that we always managed to have dinner together when we met at conferences.

Mrs. Viguers came to Towson State to participate in our first festival of children’s literature in 1966. When she returned to Boston she wrote asking if I had — in manuscript or in my mind — a Christmas story that she could consider for publication in the Magazine. I remembered “A Christmas Alphabet,” which I had written in 1957 at the request of Ella Bramblett, second-grade teacher at the Campus School where I was librarian. She came into the library one day and asked if I could write a Nativity alphabet for the Christmas program. The children, wearing purple cassocks and white cottas, and holding large golden letters, recited the couplets. Mrs. Viguers published “A Christmas Alphabet” in December 1966.

Subsequently, I heard from a children’s book editor who, having read it in the Horn Book, asked to see my manuscript. Thus began the manuscript’s long periods with different editors until Dutton Children’s Books published it in 1990 as B Is for Bethlehem, with superb illustrations by Elisa Kleven. I was glad that its publication as a book took so long because I gained time to improve the text, and, most importantly, its perfect illustrator had a chance to be born.

Several years before she requested the Christmas poem, I had sent Mrs. Viguers a rather lengthy poem titled “What Is a Book?” On July 26, 1963, Mrs. Viguers wrote: “I have been trying to figure out how we could use your ‘What’s a Book?’ in [our] October [issue]. Being habitually the editor I cannot keep my blue pencil away even from poetry, and I have been going over your verses trying to even up the meter. You did such a delightful job of bringing in so many titles and allusions to book characters that I don’t want to delete a thing, and I can easily see the difficulty of fitting them all in rhythmically. With the changes I have made it reads a little more smoothly to me; but you may not agree, and I wouldn’t think of using it in this form without your approval.”

I replied on the enclosed postal, which I decorated with four sad characters saying, “NO:”


Let October’s Horn Book go!
Don’t try to squeeze in “What’s a Book?”
Let me take another look.
I must refrain from being credited
With a poem that’s quite so edited.

Mrs. Viguers wrote back that she was very disappointed that I did not want the poem published in the October issue, but she graciously added: “I do hope sometime when you have had time to work over it you will let us have it again.”

I did send it again, but not until 1971, to Mrs. Viguers’s successor, Paul Heins. He replied, “Although I find many of the lines very effective, I cannot see my way to publishing a poem of such length.” But Mr. Heins did publish my tributes to Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway, in 1969 and 1970 respectively. When I sent him “John Newbery (1713–1767),” he wrote asking, “May I hold onto it for future publication?” (It must have been left in his files when Paul retired. It has not been published.)

Ethel Heins succeeded her husband as editor. After hearing me recite a poem at a children’s literature seminar in Scotland, she called me aside to ask for some poems for Horn Book — “short ones. I use them for fillers.” Mrs. Heins published “Faculty Meeting,” “Circular Rhyme,” and, in April 1984, “Timepiece,” my last poem to appear in The Horn Book Magazine. I have thoroughly enjoyed my contacts with the Horn Book editors, and the magazine itself continues to inform and enrich my life.

Isabel Wilner is the author of B Is for Bethlehem and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and Tunkhannack, Pennsylvania.

From the September 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Community matters. Stay up to date on breaking news, trends, reviews, and more.

Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more