Wanting to know more. . .

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!

6 thoughts on “Wanting to know more. . .

    • I read that blog regularly also (per your suggestion, I believe!) and am rather excited about that book too. Though I’m also not holding my breath–it will probably take a little while for it to get written.

  1. Okay, you’ve convinced me on the LMM biography. For some reason I’ve kind of steered away from most of the scholarship on her, perhaps because–as with LIW and MHL, for the most part–I really find the texts she wrote more interesting than her life. With LIW, in particular, even though there are many biographies of her, I think the problem is that they all pale in comparison to her own writing so much.

    I totally agree that The Betsy-Tacy Companion is just BT trivia. It annoys me that it’s subtitled as a biography, because it isn’t, and that’s what people think they’re going to get. Any time we have a call for a real biography on the list, I start to wonder idly if I could do it. And if I would want to do it. If I even want to read it. I’m not sure. It’s odd, because I’ve always enjoyed biographies of LMA even more than her actual books, but I think there are many authors I wouldn’t feel that way about. Elizabeth Enright, who probably feels like a friend more than any of these other authors, is someone I would love to know more about… then I start thinking about it and feel sad that I wouldn’t be able to just sit down and have coffee with her and ask her all my questions. (Iced coffee; Cuffy wouldn’t mind just that once.)

    I would love a biography of Helen Dore Boylston, author of the Sue Barton series (nurses) and Carol Page series (actors). In fact, Boylston almost fits your criteria, because she wrote many of her own experiences in nursing school into the books. They aren’t really autobiographical otherwise, but I think might be worth examining. (And they’re a LOT of fun, and very well-written.)

  2. Perhaps because I’ve been reading LMM’s journals for so long, I do find her life as interesting (if not more so) than her books. I’ve just finished the part in the bio about her multi-year, multi-lawsuit against her publisher–fascinating stuff.
    I think some folks are hesitant about biographies because they don’t always match the images we come up with for these writers–I know some people have some serious issues with the idea that the “real” Beth never lived at Orchard House, for example. And we won’t even get into the Maud/Betsy discussion.
    I’m more intrigued by Boylston after reading Ghost in the Little House–guess I need to check out Sue Barton at some point.

  3. I raced through Gift of Wings in a month last spring (well, for a book as hefty as that one, it was racing to finish it in one month these days!) and I loved it. I own all but the last journal (read the first two by ILL in 1991, I think, and got my own copies of the first three at UPEI in 1996, signed by the authors even. *sigh* I remember Rubio mentioning even back then that she was working on an exhaustive biography. I had no idea it would take 12 more years to be released…

    I really did enjoy it. I loved how she put things in context. I recall having a “duh” moment about how their Scottish heritage impacted their views on education. I’m sure I should have realized that more fully but it was nice to have Rubio set the stage for me. Very sad at the end of her life but what a phenomenal life she lived!

    Have you read Alexandra Heilbron’s _Remembering Lucy Maud Montgomery_? Interesting interviews with those still living who knew LMM. Another view apart from LMM’s own “grumble book” entries.

  4. Pingback: Sharing the love « KidLit History

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