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Elizabeth Coatsworth is well known as the author of Away Goes Sally, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, and the four Incredible Tales, but over her long life she produced over 90 books for children. She took an intense interest in her world: the people, the houses, the surrounding land; she loved the history and myths of her favorite places, those near her home and those encountered on her countless travels. Her first books, of adult poetry, began to appear when she was in her early thirties. For over fifty years, she continued to write and publish poetry in collections and to weave poems between the chapters of her books of fiction.
Coatsworth was born into a prosperous family in Buffalo, New York whose great delight was to travel. Her short children's novel "Bess and the Sphinx," is close to an autobiography of her early years.
Grandma sat by the window in her big chair upholstered in black leather. The folds of her long skirt and her tight basque were as black as the leather and filled all the big chair. If Bob and Bess had looked up from the carpet beyond her feet, they could have seen, above the blackness, her handsome face with its eyes closed, her coil of white hair held up by a silver comb, and the narrow Venetian lace turned over the top of her high black collar.
But neither Bob nor Bess looked up. To them both and to Grandma too, in her chair, she was a bear asleep in a hollow tree, and the children were picking strawberries from the carpet...... But just at that moment, the bear stopped snoring and sprang at them with a growl. Bob began rolling away as fast as he could roll, but Bess sprang wildly to her feet, tripped and fell howling.
"Bess, stop that racket!," exclaimed Papa, who was always disturbed by sudden loud noises.
"They were playing Old Bear," explained Mama quickly.
"Then let her be more quiet about it," said Papa, but already his voice had lost its crossness.
"Do read to them," he added to Grandma, who was once more seated in her big chair. "I'm discussing plans for the summer."
That summer the family traveled in Europe and in Egypt, and Coatsworth began to gain that ease in moving among other landscapes and other cultures which is a hallmark of her writing. As the whole family disembarks from the Nile steamer and goes on a donkey ride into the desert,
"... Bess overtook Bob and rode past him. She was the head of the whole procession, and she was wearing her new scarlet jacket with the patent leather belt, her pride and joy. Her heart was beating fast and her cheeks were red with excitement as she galloped right into Egypt. It was bright green with a red road, and it had a woman in black chasing two goats out of Bess's way and laughing too. There was a distant temple in it and a blue sky, heavy and bright, and it was all hers.
Then suddenly, without the slightest warning, the jewel of a donkey stumbled.... "
With a two year interim in Pasadena, the Coatsworths continued to travel and live in the old house in Buffalo. Until Elizabeth Coatsworth was eighteen, she attended the Buffalo Seminary, a very formal school, where she became an ardent student. In 1912, her father died, and her mother and the two girls gave up the family home and traveled from place to place. During this time, Coatsworth went on to Vassar, then to an M.A. from Columbia and further work at Radcliffe, then to a formative 18 months of travel in Asia. Her sister married and Coatsworth and her mother purchased a 17th c family home nearby at Hingham, Massachusetts. She herself says of this period "Years of work and travel, hard to untangle." It was during this time that she began to write poetry. In 1927 Louise Seaman (Bechtel) at Macmillan published her first children's book, a book of poetry called The Cat and the Captain.
Then at 36 Elizabeth Coatsworth married Henry Beston, a natural history writer, who would also write two fine collections of fairy tales. Family life with two daughters kept them closer to the old house in Hingham, Massachusetts and later to their beloved Nobleboro, Maine farm, but she and her husband continued to explore.
Beston died in 1968. Elizabeth Coatsworth lived on alone at the farm, with visits from her family and friends, surrounded by treasured objects of a long life. In her book, "Personal Geography Almost an Autobiography" (1976) written when she was in her eighties, she writes:
I have a thousand memories. I could, I suppose, travel still, but so cautiously and in such a diminished world! I am content to remember larger times. The world in which I live is enough for me. After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight. I remember other times, other places, but (in the sunlight) I am content with the here and now.
She was buried next to her husband in the graveyard of their farm. As a mature writer, Coatsworth wrote of her friend Laura Richards who also died in her nineties, "... life had been lived long and fully, and she could still honor all that was best in it, and still laugh like a young girl."
Unfortunately, with the exception of her Newbery winner The Cat Who Went to Heaven, all of Coatsworth's books are now out-of-print. A title or two, perhaps a poem or one of the Incredible Tales, may come back into print from time to time but most are available only as used ex-library editions.
Coatsworth says of writing for children:
He (the author) is like a man walking with his family who suddenly sees ahead of him an unexpected mountain, a monkey in the branches of a tree, or comes upon a house in the woods where a little while ago there was only a glade. His first impulse is to turn and say, "Look!"... The writer has come upon something in life which has amused or delighted or surprised him. "Look!" he exclaims; and, if he is lucky, the children look.
(Horn Book 9/48)
From the very beginning of her career, she enjoyed variety: family stories, stories about living and traveling all over the world, history, and folklore. She was fascinated by houses, and by different modes of travel. She wrote many cat books, although she says in Personal Geography of having likes and dislikes:
In all this I am a lamentable failure. I can't dislike even gladioli wholeheartedly. I do not know who is my favorite author. My reputation as a cat lover is accidental, for I like cats no more than other animals.
She wrote some picture books, many books for "middle-aged" children, and a few books for older teenagers. Coatsworth also published books of vivid children's poetry, one of our favorites being poems of the quick perceptions of field mice, The Mouse Chorus (1955).
In many of her books, Coatsworth comments on the atmosphere in her story with a poem set between the chapters, an uncommon practice in children's fiction which I think children like. Here, in Away Goes Sally, the family sleeps in the cold snowy winter night in their little house on skids. It is their first night in the new house, and they when they awake in the early dawn they will set out on a long trip by oxen to Maine. A poem unfolds while they sleep:
Swift things are beautiful:
Swallows and deer,
And Lightning that falls
Bright-veined and clear,
Rivers and meteors,
Wind in the wheat,
The strong-withered horse,
The runner's sure feet.
And slow things are beautiful:
The closing of day,
The pause of the wave
That curves downward to spray,
The ember that crumbles,
The opening flower,
And the ox that moves on
In the quiet of power.
Coatsworth, a friend and colleague of many of the important figures in children's publishing, won numerous awards, including the Hans Christian Anderson award for the body of her work. She was readily published. While there are many treasures among her books which deserve to be read anew, some seem more like short stories, or even prose poems, than developed novels. In her weakest writing, her plots are uneven and end abruptly. Still, in all her books, the characters are lively and the sense of place is strong. For example, the resolutions of The Place (1966) and Jon the Unlucky(1964) seem totally improbable, yet the characters and the perception of parallel cultures remain in the mind.
I've read about forty of her books at this point. I prefer her episodic books, like Trudy and The Tree House, inspired by a promised childhood tree house on Lake Erie which never came into being, or her long Sally series, which follows a surprising, courageous, girl from her childhood to young womanhood. Many people like the mixture of myth, nature, and modern backwoods Maine life in The Enchanted or others of the Incredible Tales, or in her last book Marra's world.
Coatsworth's published writing spanned the period from the twenties to the mid eighties, yet her voice seems remarkably the same: direct, fresh, with words carefully chosen and characters cherished, the expression of a happy life. Citing a lifelong problem in remembering words, she says "I have, quite deliberately, tried to make my writing clear, rather than rich. and as always happens when one chooses one path instead of another, I have lost by the choice as well as gained." What was gained was a voice that seems modern even in books written many years ago.
Some Recommended Books (to which we will add)
These are personal remarks; we are not professional reviewers anyway and you might as well be able to spot our biases. If a favorite is not here, please suggest it.
The Sally series:
Written over the period from 1935 to 1946, when Coatsworth's own daughters were growing up, and well illustrated by Helen Sewell (Away Goes Sally is her first children's book.) These five read well as one long book. The books are set just after the Revolution in a Maine of small coastal farms with the presence of the sea and the possibility of voyages to Europe and Africa ever present. Sally, an orphan who is the apple of her aunts' and uncles' eyes, grows from a young girl to a young woman in this series. Sally's sudden swift, generous moves toward the reconciliation of the people around her make her an unforgettable character. Her gaiety and courage and resilience only grow stronger through the years. We would like to have known her.
Away Goes Sally
The family moves north on a little house drawn by oxen to a new farm overlooking the Penobscot. (1934)
Five Bushel Farm
Living with relatives and looking for farmland, the family takes in Andrew Patterson who has been separated from his father a sea captain. The father traces his son, and married into the close knit family. (1939)
The Fair American
Sally is allowed to go on a summer voyage to France with the Pattersons. They arrive to find the French Revolution increasingly violent. Pierre, an orphan of the nobility seeks refuge with them and emigrates to America and his uncle's family. (1940)
The White Horse
Another voyage on the Fair American with her uncle and Andrew. Bound for Italy, intercepted by pirates, sold to a fierce, moody Sultan. Placed in the harem as a servant of the White Lalla, Sally makes plans to escape. Not the most realistic of books, but a lot of fun to read. (1942)
The Wonderful Day
Sally and Andrew are again together in Maine, foiling the schemes of a land speculator. Pierre appears, rich, handsome and charming. Andrew is jealous, and Sally chooses the one we thought she would.. (1946)
The Incredible Tales:
The Enchanted - This weaves an Indian myth about people who change to or from animals into a simple story of a man who is restoring a farm in the Maine Woods. Characters are well drawn, it is evocative of place, and the clues to the myth are introduced by nuance; delicately written, and not overwritten, it makes a pleasant little story in which love redeems, possibly better suited for adults although accessible for some children. (1951) (Silky,1953, Mountain Bride,1954, and The White Room,1958, are the other three) Truman Price.
The Cat Who Went to Heaven, illustrated by Lynd Ward
A neatly crafted story about a cat who longed to be included in the temple painting of the Artist. Readily available. (1930, Newbery Award 1931)
The Littlest House, illustrated by Marguerite Davis
A summer's account of how three children take care of a tiny house they have been given for a playhouse. The children's efforts and the details of fixing up a real house are fascinating to those of us who like houses. (1940)
Trudy and the Tree House, illustrated by Marguerite Davis
Trudy gets a dream treehouse for her birthday with stairs spiraling up and a real stove. She will not invite her older sisters to the birthday party! She will not let them in her new house, only her parents! A funny, satisfying series of episodes in the life of a truly spoiled and naughty child, who always manages to show just enough redeeming kindness to keep the situation from becoming totally out of hand. A northern New York Pippi Longstocking! (1944)
The Dog from Nowhere, illustrated by Don Sibley
At first glance, a short transitional reader with rather quickly drawn pictures. In Coatsworth's hands this becomes a good dog story and one close to children's hearts. John falls in love with a wild puppy who goes off with anyone and breaks the boy's heart. Then the perfect sweet Lab appears and settles in. The original owner comes to claim him, and, in an interesting ending, Owen lets the dog choose where he will live. (1958)
Bess and the Sphinx, illustrated by Bernice Loewenstein
(and see above) An autobiographical novel about a awkward, chubby little girl who traveled with her family through Europe and especially to Egypt near the turn of the last century. Written with great faithfulness from a small child's point of view (not at all precious or dramatized). A vivid memory of Coatsworth's own voyage in 1888 - 1889 as well as a story, which depicts the moment when the inner life began. "If I were a tree, Bess would be the heartwood." (1948, 1967 in book form)
The Peddlar's Cart, illustrated by Zhenya Gay
In 1859, Jeddo and his peddlar father set off for the annual trip through Western New York and Canada in a horse-drawn cart. The father gently teaches Jeddo the lessons and joys of life on the road. Dedicated to Coatsworth's father, who taught his family the love of travel.(1956)
Indian Mound Farm, illustrated by Fermin Rocker
Pamelia spends the summer with her aunt and uncle on a farm set amid the precolumbian Mounds near St. Louis. She often explores alone, accompanied by a droll goose named Livy. The past and present become intermingled for her and she knows that a Pawnee farm hand of her uncles descends from the ancient civilization and deserves the treasure she has found. (1943, 1944, 1969)
Marra's World, illustrated by Krystyna Turska
Coatsworth's last book of fiction, published when she was in her eighties, the story of a seal woman's human child set in modern Maine. A friendship with a new girl, a doctor's daughter, gives Marra the confidence she needs to look for her mother and to settle in to her human life. (1975)
Works: The most accessible list of Coatsworth's works is published in Twentieth Century Children's Authors. Chicago and London; (1978 Macmillan, 1983, 1989 St. James Press), an essential reference, which is in most children's libraries.
Cited In This Article
Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, Brattleboro, Vermont: Stephen Greene Press (1976); 192 pp; index. Ninety-four selections from a half century of Coatsworth's private journals never before published: childhood, travel, writing, thoughts.
Bess and the Sphinx, (see above) in fact a fictionalized biography of Coatsworth's year traveling abroad as a young child.
"Upon Writing for Children" The Horn Book Magazine, September-October 1948, Volume XXIV Number 5. Boston: Horn Book, Inc.
"Laura E. Richards" The Horn Book Magazine, March - April 1943, Volume XIX Number 2. Boston: Horn Book, Inc.
(Other Horn Book articles by Louise Bechtel Seaman exist).
Collections Of Coatsworth's Materials
Various paragraph biographies exist on the net.
de Grummond collection: Elizabeth Coatsworth Papers. Material received from Elizabeth Coatsworth between 1966 and 1973; "The Old Mare" purchased.
Beston Family papers Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine including papers Elizabeth Coatsworth and of her husband, Henry Beston.
Louise Seaman Bechtel (1894-1985) Papers. Vassar Papers, 1913-80 (bulk): ca. 21 cu. ft. Correspondence, manuscripts, illustrations, biographical information, and published articles and reviews pertaining to children's authors and illustrators. Extensive correspondence from Elizabeth Coatsworth, Bechtel's classmate and close friend. These contain correspondence with Coatsworth, a personal friend.
Louise Seaman Bechtel (1894-1985) was educated at Collegiate Institute, Vassar and Yale. She headed the juvenile department at Macmillan Co. from 1919-1934. First woman to head a children's department in a major U. S. publishing house; a director of The Horn Book Magazine; author, reviewer, and lecturer of children's literature (VC 1915).