Tag Archives: children’s books

The first African-American heroine in children’s literature

For Black History Month this year, I decided—knowing how few novels by or about African-Americans existed a hundred years ago—to look into whether there were any stories about black children.*

There was one, it turns out: Hazel, by Mary White Ovington, a white social activist. It was published in 1913 by the Crisis Publishing Company, which was associated with The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. (The first children’s book by an African-American writer was Mrs. A.E. Johnson’s 1890 Clarence and Corinne: Or God’s Way, but the characters aren’t identified as African-American.)

Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910

Ovington, who was born in 1865, was a socialist and a co-founder of the NAACP. Over her long career, she started a settlement in Brooklyn, studied employment and housing issues among African-Americans in Manhattan, campaigned for women’s suffrage, held several senior positions in the NAACP, and wrote numerous books on race and gender. Reading about Ovington convinced me that she was an admirable person, but it didn’t give me high hopes for Hazel. I figured the story would be worthy and right-minded but preachy and boring. The sole Goodreads review (2 stars) reinforced this preconception.

Advertisement in The Crisis, November 1913

I was pleasantly surprised. Hazel has plenty to say about racism, but it’s also full of adventure and friendship and adversity and humor and all the things a children’s book should have.

Hazel isn’t your typical early-20th-century African-American girl. For the first decade of her life she lives in middle-class comfort in Jamaica Plain in Boston, the beloved only child of a lawyer and his wife. She goes to the Congregational church and attends an integrated school, where, Ovington tells us, she and the other black students are “staunch little New Englanders, with the same speech, the same dress, the same ambitions as their white classmates.” And check out Hazel’s picture in the ad, which also appears as the frontispiece in the book—she looks like a black person drawn by a white person who has never seen a black person.**

Then Hazel’s father dies and she and her mother move to an apartment in a poor neighborhood in the South End, where her mother works a hairdresser and laundress. When the story starts, Hazel has been experiencing health problems and her mother decides to send her to spend the winter with her husband’s mother in Alabama.***

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

The trip is an eye-opener for Hazel, who has never experienced racism. To travel in the same train car as her white escort, eleven-year-old Hazel has to pretend to be her maid. Once she arrives in Alabama, a pair of white sisters her grandmother, Ellen, does laundry for don’t know what to make of her, with her well-spoken ways and fancy wardrobe. They pepper her with questions:

“Is your pa living?”
“What does your ma do?”
“How is she buying you such clothes?”
“How long have you been to school?”
“Are you reckoning to stay here this winter?”
“Are you working for Aunt Ellen?”

After they leave, Hazel complains that, if her mother went to visit these ladies, she “wouldn’t ask about every teenty thing they did.”**** Her grandmother tells her not to worry about it:

“These people here are just naturally curious, sugar. Don’t you get put out at ’em…Nothing much happens except the hoeing of the corn and the picking of the cotton; and when a little girl with soft eyes and a pretty dress and sweet ways comes among us, we’s just naturally curious. We wants to see her and learn all about it.”

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

Later in the story, Hazel gets lost and, with night falling, stops at a house to ask directions. The occupants turn out to be the same two ladies. “Sister,” one of them calls to the other, “here’s Aunt Ellen’s child come to ask her way, and if the little [n-word] didn’t knock at the front door!” But they invite Hazel in, marveling at her elegant little blue coat with a red lining. They ask her how much it cost, and Hazel says it was a gift from a friend of her father’s. The women tut with sympathy over her father’s death, saying that he was a “right nice boy.” When Hazel mentions that he was a lawyer, they say, “A [n-word] lawyer! That beats all.” They feed her coffee and biscuits and Hazel talks about life back in Boston. She’s planning to go to college, she says.

“What will you do with all your learning?” Miss Jane asked.

“I’ll teach.”

“[N-words]?”

Hazel did not want to answer, but sitting very erect, with a precision that would have done any teacher credit, she replied: “Everybody goes to school in Boston, every single child. And the teachers don’t ask whether they are black or white, or rich or poor. There are Turks, and Arabians, and (switching to the map of Europe as safer ground) Hungarians and Bulgarians, and Norwegians, and Swedians, (doubtfully) and Greeks, and Spaniards, and Romans, and Germans and Irish.”*****

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Miss Laura, “all those heathen!”  

Then Hazel, responding to another in the volley of questions, replies, “No, Miss Fairmount,” and is told,

“My name is Jane. You should call me Miss Jane.”

“Not Miss Fairmount?”

“Certainly not. It is impertinent in a [n-word].”

Hazel, who has had enough by now, says she has to go, and the ladies stroke her coat, tell her to come again, and escort her out the back door, where their servant is waiting to walk her home.

I had expected that Hazel would encounter 1910s Alabama racism at its most vile. After all, she had been warned by her friend Charity in Boston that “there’s two kinds of white folks down there: those that hates you and those that calls you ‘a cute little [n-word].'” This is as bad as the white people around her get, though. Her experiences with her black neighbors are more traumatic. The little Boston Congregationalist freaks out the first time she attends the local church, where the preacher, after a cursory description of heaven, depicts his parishioners

standing in the lake of fire and brimstone, burning, burning, not for a day but forever and ever. The flames seemed to leap up as the minister shouted: “And the devil will reach out for you, ye generation of vipers, he’ll reach for you across the flames, and he’ll catch you and draw you into the burning lake.”

“Lord save us!” “Please have mercy, Jesus,” came from the moaning crowd.

Hazel was aghast.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

With her grandmother caught up in the service, Hazel tells her friend Scipio that she wants to leave. He takes her hand and leads her out, as the preacher shouts, “The heathen are burning, and every day the devil pours on fresh oil and the flames mount higher and higher to the sky.” (WARNING: THE UPCOMING EXCERPT INCLUDES DISTURBING MATERIAL.)

“Scip,” said Hazel with a quick breath, “do you believe in hell?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Scipio.

“You don’t believe what he is saying? You don’t believe God will put us in fire to burn forever and ever?”

“I seen a lynching once,” Scipio replied. “It were just like that, they poured on oil.”

“Oh, don’t,” Hazel gasped. She seized his arm with her two hands; “don’t” she cried.

After a moment she whispered, “But it didn’t last forever. He died?”

“Yes, ma’am. He died.”

“And wicked men burned him, and it was only for a few minutes. God wouldn’t make him burn forever and ever.”******

Scipio is the antithesis of Hazel, the illiterate son of a drunken sharecropper. Hazel, who doesn’t go to school in Alabama, takes him up as her project, meeting him in a pine grove every evening for reading lessons. Often, he is often battered and bleeding from his father’s beatings. One day, Hazel sees him beating his younger brother and breaks off their friendship, but eventually all is forgiven.

In the end, Hazel returns to Boston, promising to return. As she and her mother head up to spend the summer in Maine, where there is money to be made shampooing white people’s hair, she receives a letter from Scip:

Dear Sister:
Aunt Ellen has took me in.
I am going to help her pick cotton when it ripes.
The cat is playing by the fire.
Scipio Lee

Handbill for “Zeke,” 1931

In 1931, Mary White Ovington published another children’s book, called Zeke. It’s about a boy—Scipio’s younger brother, apparently, but not the one he beat up—who, with the encouragement of the adult Hazel, becomes the first African-American in his area to attend college. I guess I’ll have to wait another twelve years to see what happens.

Hazel might be considered more historically significant today if its author had been black, or if its heroine had been less privileged. Still, it deserves to be better known. I’m glad I read it. Much more than that, I’m glad it was there for African-American children to read in 1913.

*There’s the notorious Story of Little Black Sambo, of course, but that book’s history turns out to be complicated. Author Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman who lived in India, intended Sambo to be Indian (hence the tigers). Here’s how he appeared on the cover of the original 1899 edition, which Bannerman illustrated.

Cover illustration, “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” Helen Bannerman, 1899

It was only much later, notably in a 1927 American edition with illustrations by Frank Dobias (also used decades later in a wildly popular Japanese edition), that Sambo was depicted as African. The illustrations remain under copyright, but if you’re curious you can see some of them here.

**Which, to be fair, wasn’t the case at all. Illustrator Harry Roseland was a well-known artist who specialized in paintings of poor African-Americans.

***Going on a long, arduous journey being the universal solution to serious health problems in the 1910s.

****“Teenty” is my new favorite 1910s word. Here it is in a poem called “When Baby Slept,” by Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, best known for “Little Orphant Annie.” (Date unknown, but he died in 1916.)

WHEN weenty-teenty Baby slept,
With voices stilled we lightly stepped
And knelt beside the rug where she
Had fallen in sleep all wearily;
And when a dimpled hand would stir,
We breathlessly bent over her
And kissed the truant strands that swept
The tranc’d lids and the dreams that kept
When Baby blinked her Court and slept.

 *****This might be a teenty bit idealized. I went to college in the Boston area in the 1980s, and the educational system there wasn’t exactly a post-racial utopia.

******UPDATE 3/2/2019: Reading the post over, I realize that I didn’t address this aspect of the book sufficiently. While historically accurate, the lynching reference is too intense for a child of Hazel’s age, and for that reason I wouldn’t recommend Hazel (or this part of the book, at least) for a middle-school child of today. I’ve added the warning in the text of the blog to alert readers to the sensitive content.

Your 1918 Holiday Shopping Guide

It’s Christmas 1918, and everyone’s in the mood to celebrate! But what to get for that special someone?

Everyone’s already gotten the gift they wanted most,

US Food Administration, Educational Division, 1918

but there’s lots of other cool stuff out there.

For the Kids

A good place to start your search is Happyland at Bloomingdale’s, where

There’s every old manner of plaything and banner
In BloomingdaleS Showing of Toys,
U-boats and airships, death-and-despair ships
In BloomingdaleS Showing of Toys.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

If your kid’s more into reading than visiting death on the Allied forces, you’re still in luck. Recommendations from The Bookman include an edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, with illustrations by Harry Clarke,

Canadian Wonder Tales by Cyrus Macmillan, illustrated by George Sheringham,

English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham,

Folk Tales of Flanders, written and illustrated by Jean de Bosschère,

and Dream Boats, Portraits and Histories of Fauns, Fairies, and Fishes, written and illustrated by Dugald Steward Walker, of which The Bookman says that “text and drawing tinkle with elfish laughter and scintillate with flitting wings.”

Or give the gift that keeps on giving, a subscription to St. Nicholas magazine. The kids will  spend many happy hours solving puzzles that leave me baffled, like this one:*

St. Nicholas, December 1918

 For the Men

Vanity Fair’s holiday shopping guide is full of ideas for the “Male of the Species,” but once you weed out the smoking presents

Vanity Fair, December 1918

and the war presents

Vanity Fair, December 1918

the selection’s a bit limited. There’s this extra speedometer for passenger’s seat viewing, but $50 ($834.56 in 2018 dollars) seems a bit pricey, plus, if given by a wife, isn’t this kind of passive-aggressive?

Vanity Fair, December 1918

These wallets ($13 and $7.25) are perfectly nice and all, but a wallet always smacks of “I couldn’t think of anything else so I got you this” desperation.

Vanity Fair, December 1918

The Bookman assures us that the poetry anthology Songs of Men, compiled by Robert Frothingham, is a “a book such as nearly everybody has been looking for.”

It is a collection of verse for men, with a swinging range of the gamut of emotions; it sings of camping and seafaring, of mining and mountain-climbing, of cow-punching and horse-wrangling, of prospecting, pioneering, loving and fighting. From the woodsman to the college professor, every man will read this small volume with keen delight.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s a random sample, from the poem “High-Chin Bob” by Badger Clark:

No? Well, then, a fourteen-year supply of alcohol might be appreciated. Get it while it lasts!

For the Ladies

Vanity Fair’s “Gifts for the Eternal Feminine” have stood the test of time better than the men’s gifts, with only the fur stoles (ranging in price from $75 (seal or nutria) to $150 (ermine)) likely to raise eyebrows today. Just as well, since I’d probably leave mine at the opera a week after I got it.**

Vanity Fair, December 1918

I’d probably do a better job of holding on to this gorgeous beaded bag,

Vanity Fair, December 1918

or, if you weren’t planning on spending $45 on me, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at this collarless guimpe, a steal at $2.75.

Vanity Fair, December 1918

If the lady in your life is as ladylike as the readers of Songs of Men are manly, how about the new novel You’re Only Young Once by Margaret Widdemer? It’s about five sisters who find love and is, according to the (male) Bookman reviewer,

the pinkest book it has ever been our fortune to read. It is as feminine as a powder-puff, as delicate as the frou-frou of silken skirts, and as appealing as the passing of a faint aroma of orris.***

Or, if she’s a debutante and is constantly being called on to be sprightly at teas, there’s always Vanity Fair itself:

New York Times, December 15, 1918

For the Whole Family

Hint hint: I’ve always dreamed of having a player piano, and this one’s a steal at $495! (Installment plan available.)

New York Times, December 15, 1918

On Second Thought…

You know what? My lifestyle doesn’t really call for beaded evening bags. I don’t even know what a giumpe is, to be honest. And there’s no room in my house for a player piano.

Which, now that I do the math, costs two years worth of wages for Lower East Side textile worker Elizabeth Hasanovitz, whose autobiography I just finished reading. (It was excerpted in the Atlantic in early 1918, and I wrote about Elizabeth here and here.) One day, when Elizabeth had just lost yet another job (her unionized shop had closed–it later reopened with more compliant workers), she passed a bread line and saw a man being angrily turned away because he’d arrived late. No weak coffee and stale bread today! She gave him a dime.

If Elizabeth can spare a dime for the (even) less fortunate, I can do without more stuff. Better the money should go somewhere where it will really do good, like to one of

New York Times, December 15, 1918

The stories are harrowing–abusive fathers, parents dead of suicide, breadwinners locked up in insane asylums, and children living on the street. Thanks to social safety nets, the kind of abject poverty that existed in the United States in 1918 has, for the most part, been eradicated. But there are still plenty of people in need, and the Neediest Cases Fund, now in its 107th year, is still extending a helping hand. So you don’t even have to be a time traveler to contribute!

Happy holidays to all of you, wherever (and whenever) you are!

Lithograph for The Night Before Christmas by William Roger Snow, 1918

*On the other hand, there was a double acrostic on the same page with the hint “my primals and my finals name what every loyal American should own” and I instantly said, “Liberty Bond,” and completed the puzzle in about two minutes. “Thrift Stamp” was the rest of the answer.

**This actually happened a lot–the 1918 New York Times classifieds are full of expensive stuff that rich people lost at the theater or in taxis.

***I read the first chapter a few weeks ago, and I agree, it’s pretty damn pink.

Sound familiar? Book chat, 1918-style

If you spend as much time reading about books online as I do (or did, before I went back to 1918), there are certain topics that you come across again and again. I knew that these debates had been around for a while. But I had no idea that they’d been around for a hundred years. Here’s the 1918 take on a couple of book-chat perennials.

Can writing be taught?

Can creative writing be taught? Do writing classes really make students’ writing better? As a recent MFA grad, I’ve grown tired of this seemingly endless debate. (No one ever asks MBAs this type of question, and I don’t recall MFAs ever causing an international financial crisis.) But MFA programs weren’t around in 1918, so I thought I’d get a break.

But no, here’s Edward J. O’Brien, founding editor of The Best American Short Stories, weighing in in the January 1918 issue of The Bookman. “Experience with many short story writers who had completed courses in short-story writing under competent critics had left me frankly sceptical as to the value of endeavouring to teach the technique of a developing and changing literary form,” he says. He’s reviewing a book called A Handbook on Story-Writing by Blanche Colton Williams of Columbia University. After such an education, he goes on, “The last state of the pupil seemed worse than the first.” Oh no.

Columbia University library, 1917 (librarypostcards.blogspot.com)

But then one day he’s bad-mouthing writing classes to a short story writer he admires, and the writer reveals that he’s studying writing at Columbia. He invites O’Brien to tag along, and he wins a convert. “What I found in this class was a free play of critical intelligence, taking actual stories as its point of departure…Here was a true academy, in which the teacher learned from the pupil.” This approach, he says, is skillfully presented in Williams’ book. Plot, point of view, character, and dialogue—all are lucidly discussed.

Score one for Team MFA!

Should adults read books written for children?

If there’s any debate in book-talk-land that’s even more heated than the one over MFAs, it’s the question of whether adults should read books written for children. Ruth Graham took up the anti-YA banner in a 2014 Slate article called, succinctly, “Against YA.” “Read whatever you want,” she said. “But you should be embarrassed if what you’re reading was written for children.” A raucous argument ensued, with writers like Meg Wolitzer coming to the defense of adult YA readers.

Again, not a topic I’d expect to have much currency in 1918, when grown-ups were grown-ups and children wore sailor suits. But, writing in The Bookman in February 1918, children’s writer and anthologist Montrose J. Moses notes that books for boys are popular among soldiers. The low level of literacy among enlisted men could be part of the reason, he says. But he thinks it’s more than that. “I believe—and I have followed the trend of juvenile literature for many years,—that this tendency on the part of the soldier to read boys’ books is only another evidence of the fact that juvenile literature, since it has come under the influence of out-door sports and modern inventions, has in it a degree of expertness which appeals to no age and to all interest.”

It’s not only soldiers who were reading about children. A surprisingly high percentage of 1918-era books for adults have child protagonists. Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen (1916) and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Bab: A Sub-Deb (1917) were adult best-sellers by well-established writers. But John Walcott, writing in The Bookman in December 1917, says that children don’t share their parents’ enthusiasm for these books. “Have you chanced to note the rueful grin with which a real Bab or [Seventeen’s] Willie Baxter scans those delightful and too-revealing records?” he asks. “The relief with which they turn to the latest number of St. Nicholas, or the latest ‘corker’ by Mr. Ralph Henry Barbour?” Young people, he says, take themselves with deadly seriousness, “and it behooves those who cater for [their] favour to do likewise.” That’s what Barbour does, with his tales of schoolboy athletics. “Just now,” Walcott says, “he is working his way methodically through the line-up, so that after Left End Edwards, Left Tackle Thayer, and Left Guard Gilbert, we have naturally arrived at Center Rush Rowland, and we have the right side of the line to look forward to in the near future. Heroes all!”

It’s Barbour and his schoolboy athletes, Moses says, that the soldiers are clamoring for. And I can see why. For young men going off to fight for a cause that even the Allied countries’ leaders were having trouble articulating, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a tale in which the hero competes, as Moses puts it, in “the season’s decisive event upon the modern field of academic glory.”