A big part of the intrigue with kidlit history is the idea that there’s always more to discover. These favorite stories are based on something within the author’s life, which should make the biographer or historian tingle with anticipation. But, because these were written for children, these authors are rarely given the same consideration that writers for adults receive. It can be really hard to find more than basic biographical stats on many of these authors. In my mind, there are different levels of biography–the very basics (usually just a few paragraphs), a full length study of the subject’s life with little to no historical context, and then a full, rich study of the subject’s life and times. It’s become social history, not just biography. Isn’t the saying “no man is an island”? But it seems to me that many biographies (of anyone, not just writers) treat their subject as if that individual was only affected by their own actions and perhaps a few family members.
I have yet to find a decent biography on Frances Hodgson Burnett, though based on the little bit I do know, it’s a great story. There are lots of biographies on Laura Ingalls Wilder, but I’m not sure any of them have jumped to that final level of biography. I’ve not seen anything significant on Sydney Taylor or Elizabeth Enright. And though work has been done on Maud Hart Lovelace, none of it is what I would call biography. Each of the recent non-fiction books focus on one part of her life, not the whole story. And while Sharla Whale’s Betsy-Tacy Comanion is a commendable piece of research, it’s not even close to a biography. The snarky part of me thinks it’s really just a collection of BT trivia.
Two exceptions for this lack of scholarly consideration for children’s authors are Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery. In recent years, Alcott has finally become know for being more than just the writer of Little Women, but also part of one of the most interesting and intellectually well-connected families of the 19th century. Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson is a stunning dual biography of Alcott and her father Bronson. Bronson was a fascinating though frustrating man. I’ve long been fascinated by how much happened in Concord in the mid-19th century, and this book help explains how it became such an intellectual hot spot. This week, PBS’s series, American Masters, is featuring Alcott. In Dallas, it’s airing on December 28 at 8 p.m. No idea on where this particular documentary falls in the biography spectrum, but it’s probably worth a look, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Alcott’s work beyond Little Women.
Currently, I’m in the middle of one of the best biographies I’ve read in quite some time: Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio. Montgomery scholars have a truly amazing cache of primary sources. LMM kept a journal for most of her life (and constantly recopied and revised it). They began publishing the volumes in the mid 1980s–I received my copy of Vol. 1 back in 1993. (I was 14–yep, the nerdiness goes way back!) Many, many biographies have been written. Books of scholarly essays have been published. Books of her letters have been published. When I heard about the new biography, I figured I would probably read it eventually, but it wasn’t a huge priority. After all, I’ve read more than a few biographies of LMM. I’ve read 3 volumes of her journals. I felt like there wasn’t too much more to learn. But then I had a conversation with another LMM fan/scholar at a convention about the other Maud. Kate told me it was the definitive biography, a must-read, and fabulous. It took me a few months, but I finally followed her advice. And now, I can barely put it down.
Rubio’s research is astounding. She sets LMM’s life in context, her writing in context, and has remarkable insights into why LMM did what she did. I have newfound respect for LMM’s grandmother. I have more sympathy for her husband. And I cannot wait to re-read all of LMM’s novels. This is the kind of biography that more writers of children’s literature deserve. Again, Rubio has it easier than many with the wealth of material. However, she also gives LMM the respect she deserves–and the place she deserves in our society.
Frankly, I’m tired of these author’s stories being discounted because they only write for children. Aren’t children the most important audience? These stories have become a part of our lives and our psyches, because we read them when we were young. They have shaped generations of young minds. Isn’t it time we know more about what shaped them?
Excuse me, I have to get back to my book.
PS If I’m missing any key and wonderful biographies of kidlit history authors, please let me know!