small, compact figure on the cover, with a
book by her side, is and is not a picture of Ethel Heins. It’s
unmistakably the work of M. B. Goffstein, from her late period of
pastel life-studies, and it comes from a scrapbook of tributes to
Heins on her retirement from the helm of the Horn Book
in 1984. A number of persons sent flowers for the occasion. The
mixed bouquet at the top of the page is from Aliki. Judy Taylor,
the English author and editor, adorned her message with a scattering
of Cotswold pansies. James Stevenson’s accolade is a tiny,
luscious watercolor of full-blown roses. Other artists sent signature
images. A frog — or is it a toad? — brings love from
Arnold Lobel. A duckling bears the imprint of Robert McCloskey.
Goffstein, hoeing her own row, places Ethel Heins, editor, in the
company of An Artist, A Writer, An Actor, and other dedicated
But Ethel without Paul — her husband, her
intellectual buddy and cultural companion-at-arms, her predecessor
as editor of the Horn Book? Ethel solitary, silent, and
Let’s fill out the picture.
Paul Heins (1909–1996) grew up bookish in
Boston, graduated from Harvard magna cum laude, and for
thirty years taught high-school English in Boston seriously and
unstintingly, with only two breaks. The first, inexorably, was for
military service in World War II. The second, gloriously, was to
study Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, in 1954–55, on a Ford Foundation
Fellowship. By then he had married Ethel Yaskin, a second cousin;
they had two children; and he had also gained, from Ethel, an appreciation
of children’s books as literature.
Ethel Yaskin Heins (1918–1997) spent a rich,
marbles-and-Mozart childhood in drab Bayonne, New Jersey. She studied
English and librarianship at Douglass College, then the New Jersey
College for Women, and went to work for the New York Public Library,
intending, in those late Depression days, to do her bit for adult
education. She liked to tell how, by chance, children’s service
captured her imagination at Anne Carroll Moore’s favorite
posting for newcomers, the bustling Rivington Street Branch on the
Lower East Side. She recalled how Moore grilled her; Frances Clarke
Sayers, Moore’s successor, schooled her; Mary Gould Davis,
star performer, taught her storytelling. In a profession of uncertain
status, she was one of the elect.
For both the Heinses, the year in England was magic. Paul had the
satisfaction of being a scholar among scholars, and thenceforth
an Oxonian. Ethel, on a de facto sabbatical, was able for once to
pursue her avid, pent-up interests. The good life of literature
and music and artistic monuments, of country walks and leisurely
teas, was theirs for the savoring; a lasting endowment.
Back home, Ethel worked as a children’s librarian
in Boston and a school librarian in Lexington, became an ALA mainstay
and a steady Horn Book reviewer — a summary that
does not do justice to the number of committees she served on, the
number of conferences she attended, the number of talks she gave.
It does justice least of all, perhaps, to the caliber of her reviewing.
Paul’s professional activities expanded,
too. He became a judge of student writing, a teacher of prospective
teachers, and, through Ethel and a neighbor, Horn Book
editor Ruth Hill Viguers, a special Horn Book reviewer,
enlisted to tackle the remote and recondite. When Viguers was ready
to retire in 1967, he was ready to take leave of teaching and succeed
her — a quiet, sober, resolute man in a maelstrom.
Both the Heinses were people of the Word, humanists,
believers in freedom of expression and immutable values . . .
adherents, during their tenure at the Horn Book, of just
about everything under siege — from McLuhanite proponents
of nonprint media, militant feminists and multiculturalists, bibliotherapists,
reading consultants, champions of pop culture, the commercial exploitation
of classics, the incipient computer revolution. And both responded
— Paul in his way, Ethel in hers.
For all its fine and lovable qualities, the Horn
Book of 1967 was a well-bred anachronism. Paul stiffened up
the reviewing, introducing negative comment, and welcomed controversial
expressions of opinion. The most celebrated was a long think-piece
by respected children’s writer Eleanor Cameron that (among
other strictures) denounced a juvenile best-seller, Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory, and cast decidedly unflattering
aspersions on its famous author, Roald Dahl. Letting Cameron and
Dahl and their partisans duke it out, Paul was aghast that a reader
would protest — protest — the very publication
of the Cameron piece. “To deny freedom of expression . . .
is to invite censorship . . . ”
For Ethel, taking over in 1974, the editor’s
chair was a bully pulpit. Monitoring instructional materials, she
blasted teacher’s guides that turned Charlotte’s
Web into an arithmetic exercise (“If Wilbur eats three
meals a day . . . ”). In a broad sweep,
she attacked the “issues approach” to children’s
books, in principle and in practice — for telling authors
“what the plot should have been” and “how the
characters should have behaved.” The canonization of Nancy
Drew drew her fire: it was all right for girls to read the books,
not for literati to take them seriously. What nonsense to think,
too, that the proliferating paperback teenage romances could or
would “lure adolescents into reading.” Linking the fate
of children’s books to the state of children’s library
service, she decried the displacement of specialists by generalists
and the replacement of “orderly book selection” (i.e.,
standards) with the “demand-oriented supermarket view.”
In issue after issue she fought the culture wars fiercely and openly
— going all out, when the opportunity arose, for good bookmanship
too: her April 1977 issue, on the rebirth of children’s bookselling,
presents reports from Massachusetts and California, from Oxford,
Toronto, and Auckland, from an antiquarian dealer and a once-upon-a-time
devotée of the Bookshop for Boys and Girls.
In the end, the Word will prevail only on its own
worthiness. As much as Ethel Heins fought the good fight, she also
knew the right words — the exact, resonating words. The M.
B. Goffstein of Fish for Supper is, blissfully, “a
mistress of understatement.” And taken all together, “The
mock austerity of pictures and text is extremely funny.” For
aptness, for plainspoken precision, it doesn’t get better
Like Goffstein’s actor, popping on stage
in one after another role, the small, compact, misty picture of
Ethel Heins, editor, contains multitudes.
© 1999 by Barbara Bader.
Line art (top of page) © 1984 by Aliki.
Cover art © 1984 by M. B. Goffstein.
From the July/August 1999 issue of The
Horn Book Magazine