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From the January/February 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Virginia Haviland:
Children’s Librarian, U.S.A.

by Barbara Bader

In brief, the children’s library movement was touched off by Caroline Hewins, at the Hartford Public Library, who passed the torch to Anne Carroll Moore, at the New York Public, and Alice Jordan, at the Boston Public. Bertha Mahony Miller, founding editor of The Horn Book, sought guidance from both of them. Principal allies were pioneering children’s book editor Louise Seaman Bechtel and editor-publisher Frederic Melcher, sponsor of the Newbery and Caldecott awards.
On the library scene, Moore and Jordan had counterparts at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. For all of them, bringing children and books together was a Cause, not just a career.
This series will focus on three notable librarians of the succeeding, or second, generation: Virginia Haviland (1911–1988), Augusta Baker (1911–1998), and Mildred Batchelder (1901–1998).

When the Library of Congress established a Children’s Book Section in 1963 and Virginia Haviland was named its first director, no one blinked an eye. No one asked, Why Haviland?

She wasn’t an imposing presence or a charismatic personality. She didn’t even hold an important post. She was qualified, that’s all. In her own quiet, determined way, almost absurdly qualified.

Virginia Haviland was born in Rochester, New York, in 1911 and grew up in Amesbury, Massachusetts, northeast of Boston. On graduation from high school, she went off to Cornell, not an obvious choice for a bright girl in the Boston orbit, and majored in economics — a rigorous, analytical discipline. She graduated in 1933, the Depression’s darkest year, when teaching jobs for educated young women were scarce. Haviland took and passed the exam for employment at the Boston Public Library, and in those fertile precincts she found her calling.

Alice Jordan was the catalyst. Haviland, employed to prepare annotated lists of new library books, took two courses with Jordan at the Boston Public Library Training School, in library work with children and children’s literature. Jordan was not only supervisor of work with children at the BPL, she was the reviewer — THE reviewer — of children’s books at the Horn Book and annual lecturer on children’s books for New England librarians.

If Jordan was compelling, Haviland was receptive. She had happy memories of the children’s classics from Peter Rabbit to Little Women. Heidi, she said, gave her an itch to travel, and in time she joined the Society of Woman Geographers. But it was what she remembered of Heidi fifty or sixty years later — Heidi’s “crusty bread and Swiss cheese” — that fitted her to speak for, and about, children’s books. O to live in Switzerland, she had thought, and live on that diet!

Haviland spent eleven years at the Phillips Brooks Branch of the Library, first as children’s librarian, then as branch librarian, and became known for imaginative work with young people. Children’s listening groups, puppet plays, reading clubs, visits to museums, and a small newspaper all appeared on her agenda. The stellar listening group — “We are the music-lovers,” said one little girl — took shape by inspired accretion. A school choir group asked to listen to recordings of Gregorian chants on the library phonograph, and Haviland parlayed that request into a scheduled weekly hour of listening — first to other early choral music, then to music played on early instruments, finally to great composers from Bach to Prokofieff. With related books to borrow, of course.

“This is Tchaikovsky Day at the library. It is Peter Il-yitch Tchai-kov-sky Day!” So begins Haviland’s article on the music project for the Horn Book. She could write — with clarity, energy, and charm. She must also have become known, in her Phillips Brooks years, as book-wise. In 1952, after Alice Jordan stepped down as the Horn Book’s reviewer, Haviland joined managing
editor Jennie Lindquist in editing the bi-monthly Booklist and writing the reviews. Other members of the “reviewing family,” as she puts it, were founding HB editor Bertha Mahony Miller, librarians Alice Jordan and Anne Carroll Moore, and children’s book editor emeritus Louise Seaman Bechtel — a distinguished company of outspoken individuals. The connection lasted. The names on the masthead changed, the nature of the content changed, Haviland’s professional responsibilities changed. But her reviews appeared regularly for the next thirty years.

Within months, she was also promoted to the new, system-wide position of readers’ advisor for children. She would be in close contact with a larger, more diverse population of children and attuned to their reading needs and desires.

Haviland’s reviews reflect that awareness. She did not write quotable endorsements; she eschewed lit crit and art appreciation. “A treasure to be shared by child and adult about love and friendship on the nursery level, in language that belongs to childhood — thoughts about copying each other, trading and sharing, making gifts, being twins.” Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, I’ll Be You and You Be Me. “Here is a remarkable book for younger readers — a true pioneer adventure, written for easy reading but without any sacrifice of literary quality or depth of feeling.” Alice Dalgliesh, The Courage of Sarah Noble.

One of Haviland’s specialties was young books of science and nature and such. “An unusual and somewhat contemplative little study that includes much more about poultry than their raising and care — though it does not fail to give sufficient detail for these.” Louis Darling, Chickens and How to Raise Them. She also took empathic measure of thorny teenage books. “How, because Madeline was an individual and the first non-conformist the students had met, she affected their thinking and made them willing to be less alike is a significant theme, characteristic of this author.” Mary Stolz, Because of Madeline.

And in toto: “Distinctive features of this ‘I Can Read’ book, which a child with first-grade skill can read, are the imaginative quality of its simple text, which divorces it from the feeling of controlled vocabulary, and the charm of its quaintly humorous drawings. Little Bear’s story contains four play adventures, each in harmony with the instincts and interests of the little child. Mother Bear is important in each and in her full-flowing gown conveys the comfortable warmth and tenderness of a child’s ideal, just as Little Bear has the playfulness, eagerness, and wistfulness of a child himself.”

Many years ago I heard that the “I Can Read” books had been suggested to Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom by a comment of Virginia Haviland’s that there were no good books — quality books — for the child proud of his or her new ability to read. Susan Hirschman, who worked closely with Nordstrom, remembers only that the series, and its title, were librarian-inspired — and “it may have been Haviland.”

The publishing venture for which she’s best known, the Favorite Fairy Tales series, was not actually her idea, Haviland indicated to a colleague later. (Congratulated on having written so much, she replied wistfully that none of it had been her idea.) At lunch or dinner with Little, Brown children’s editor Helen Jones, a Boston buddy, she may have lamented that children had lost interest in fairy tales by the time they could read the classic collections, like Grimm, and Jones might have challenged her to do something about it.

The game plan is an amalgam of librarian and publisher wisdom. Each volume has just five to eight stories, printed in good-sized primer type, with widely spaced lines and illustrations at every opening; as a group, the books are inviting and unintimidating. To escape the appearance of uniformity, each book has a different, well-known illustrator attuned to the individual culture. The sticky job, still, was Haviland’s. She was on record as opposing classics in “watered down” or “abbreviated” form. Where folklore was concerned, authenticity was the byword.

Published together in 1959, the first three volumes contained, predictably, well-known tales from England, Germany, and France — that is, from Joseph Jacobs, the Grimms, and Perrault (mostly).

Haviland’s retellings are judicious. With “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a concise and vigorous tale, she does little more than break up some long run-on sentences, in copy-editor fashion. With “Dick Whittington and His Cat,” a wordy, episodic story full of incidental detail, she eliminates the underbrush. Moving on to other nations and cultures, Haviland sought out early, authoritative collections, bypassing the standard children’s offerings. Altogether the series stretched to sixteen volumes, over fourteen eventful years, from the rise of the European ethnics, eager for tales told in Italy or Greece, to the onset of multiculturalism. Last on the list: Favorite Fairy Tales Told in India (1973).

Meanwhile, besides her full-time job at the library and her ongoing work with the Horn Book and the folktale series, Haviland began teaching at the Simmons College School of Library Science. From 1958 to 1962, she taught a course in library service to children; in 1961–62, she conducted a seminar in reading guidance for children.

Teaching was a natural, local step for someone as active and effective as Haviland. From early on, she plunged into professional activities on the national level with the same energy. After doing her time on committees and juries, she became president of ALA’s Division of Libraries for Children and Young People in 1954 and chair of the Newbery-Caldecott Committee (as it was then constituted) in 1953–54. And when the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was founded in 1954, she headed the committee to draw up plans.

Could an award be given anywhere without her? From 1955 to 1957, she was also a judge of the New York Herald Tribune’s Children’s Spring Book Festival Awards, second only to the Newbery and Caldecott in standing.

In 1955, Haviland also became a global citizen. That September, she went to the International Federation of Library Associations conference in Brussels as representative of ALA’s Division of Libraries for Children and Young People, a role she’d play repeatedly. From there she headed to a meeting in Vienna where, the Horn Book report reads, “plans for an International Children’s Book Award will be discussed.”

This was the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, awarded every two years since 1956 to an author — and since 1966, an illustrator also — “whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature.” The award itself was the doing of IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People, a group of impassioned postwar Europeans, urged on by the unstoppable Jella Lepman, who believed in the power of children’s books to improve international understanding. Authors, illustrators, publishers, librarians, teachers, and representatives of various youth organizations signed on.

IBBY quickly became important, as well, to a number of Americans committed to the advancement of children’s books and eager to join forces with foreign counterparts. Haviland was foremost among them. John Donovan, director of the Children’s Book Council, was introduced to Jella Lepman by Haviland at an IBBY Congress. At their next encounter, Lepman shook her head about Haviland. “A nice girl…[but] she doesn’t have a real grasp of the Andersen Medal business. At meetings she talks about literature, and criteria, and standards of judging one kind of book as opposed to another. That isn’t what the Andersen Medal is about,” Lepman insisted. “All the countries must have their turn.” Nonetheless, Donovan relates appreciatively, Haviland succeeded in developing standards during her subsequent four years as president of the Andersen jury.

Even for Haviland, IBBY was not all work. Each biennial congress was a travel opportunity, a chance for adventure. And Haviland was as unflappable in the unaccustomed wilds as she was at a contentious board meeting.

The year of the Rio de Janeiro congress, Haviland joined editor-friend Ann Beneduce on a voyage up the Amazon. One night they set out in a wobbly canoe, paddled by an Indian with flashlight and harpoon, to go alligator hunting. “Clouds of mosquitoes assailed us,” Beneduce recalls, “but we were afraid to wave them off, fearful of tipping the canoe and falling into the black water in which lurked not only alligators but also the dreaded man-eating piranhas.”

How the guide flashed his light in the eyes of the alligators, then harpooned them — and pulled them out “for us to admire” — before hauling in a truly “monstrous” one, makes a tale worthy of Miss Rumphius or The African Queen. “Each time the beast lunged at Virginia and me there was a strong temptation to dodge, which had, of course, to be resisted.” The story ends with Haviland and Beneduce back aboard the hotel-boat, posing for a snapshot with their quarry — a snapshot that has, alas, been lost.

From the 1955 exploratory meeting in Vienna to the 1974 Rio congress and beyond, Haviland’s close involvement with IBBY, and with international affairs generally, can only be told as a continuous story — one that helps explain why she was so natural a choice for the Library of Congress position in 1963.

Another, complementary reason was her previous study of juvenile Americana, The Travelogue Storybook of the Nineteenth Century — initially delivered as a lecture, at the behest of Frederic Melcher, in the annual series he sponsored on children’s books in New England’s golden years.

Travel tales were not a quaint byway, some personal fancy of Melcher’s. From Jacob Abbott’s books of Rollo’s travels (twelve volumes, taking in most of Europe) to Elizabeth Williams Champney’s Three Vassar Girls series (eleven volumes, venturing up the Amazon and across the Andes) to Hezekiah Butterworth’s books of Zigzag journeys (seventeen books, stretching to the Antipodes), the travel story was a dominant strain in nineteenth-century children’s literature. Haviland apparently read every one, weighing their benefits against their shortcomings, “There are those who call Rollo a wooden prodigy,” she writes, “others who call him a prig. On many accounts he is both…but how many minds he captured!” At the Library of Congress, with its historical collections, she would be on familiar, valued ground.

To librarians, educators, and others, the creation of a Children’s Book Section within the Library’s General Reference and Bibliography Division was overdue recognition of the importance of children’s literature as a resource along with adult books. Haviland had used the term mainstream before, and mainstreaming children’s books became her mission and her mantra.

Her new domain consisted of more than 100,000 books, in a number of different locations, and an office “the size of a shoebox” (in the words of a visitor), with one assistant. Two years later, in an article titled “Serving Those Who Serve Children,” she described some of the uses to which the Library’s holdings were being put. Novelists, biographers, and historians could find “period information pertinent to childhood,” even to specific childhoods. Children’s writers and illustrators could study earlier styles and trends; educators, sociologists, and psychologists could “draw inferences from short-term fads and topical successes.” And the abundant foreign books could provide entrée to other cultures.

In her own crowded quarters, Haviland — with her able assistant, Margaret N. Coughlan — assembled a comprehensive reference collection related to both English- and foreign-language children’s books: history, criticism, basic catalogs and indexes, selective and special subject lists, works on writing and illustrating children’s books, children’s reading, and book selection. These materials and others then appeared, with instructive annotations, in Children’s Literature: A Guide to Reference Sources (1966), a work of scholarly imagination that, with its two supplements, constitutes Haviland’s magnum opus — and was certainly her idea.

That was only the beginning. As the anointed expert, Haviland edited a textbook-anthology of writings about children’s literature, Children and Literature (1973), that an exacting British specialist pronounced best-of-its-kind. As the immediate heir to the founding Jordan generation, she wrote a biographical study of folklorist-storyteller-writer Ruth Sawyer (1965), the only American subject in a British-based children’s author series, and edited the essays and speeches of Louise Seaman Bechtel, with an informative introduction, under the apt title Books in Search of Children (1969). In anticipation of the American bicentennial, and to capitalize on the Library’s rare book holdings, she and Coughlan prepared an anthology of writings for children published prior to 1900, Yankee Doodle’s Literary Sampler of Prose, Poetry, & Pictures (1974). Fully annotated, it could be a primer on the subject.

The sponsor of “The Music-Lovers” at the Phillips Brooks Branch Library never lost her zest for festive celebrations, and the bicentennial was only one such occasion. The long-time reviewer and readers’ advisor issued annual best-books lists, for national distribution. The children’s librarian who valued “working on the floor” over all pursuits was disappointed that the Washington, D.C., public library had no place for volunteers.

She won honors: most notably, the Catholic Library Association’s Regina Medal, in 1976, for her “continuous distinguished contribution to children’s literature.” On that occasion, characteristically, she paid tribute to Jordan and Melcher and Bechtel and Miller and Sawyer and others, most of them previous Regina medalists, who had inspired her.

Virginia Haviland was a small woman who wore a red wig with a black velvet headband. Once, she might have been your sixth-grade teacher or the local librarian with a stamp pad. But she wasn’t; she had a fire in her belly. Bettina Hurlimann, a European cohort, called her “an amazing example of what can be done by one person.” And Hurlimann didn’t know the half of it.

For information and other assistance, heartfelt thanks to Ann Beneduce, Margaret Bush, Ellen Connolly, David Frank, Susan Hirschman, John Keller, and George Nicholson.

Barbara Bader, a frequent contributor to the Horn Book, has previously written about Anne Carroll Moore, Bertha Mahony Miller, and Louise Seaman Bechtel. She knew Virginia Haviland as a colleague and a researcher.

From the January/February 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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