Died September 7, 1973 in Pasadena, California
Few children's writers are acknowledged to transform or even initiate a genre within children's literature. They may make contributions of a great book here or there, or they may add a refinement or two. Holling C. Holling initiated, almost out of the blue, a whole new genre of children's books - stories wedded to and built from a factual foundation in which a fictional story outline provided the impetus to carry a child along while infusing a surprising volume of factual knowledge along the way.
Holling is a bit of a cipher. His declared life story is out there and easily obtained, but the few facts proffered hint at there being more than is said. For someone that made a major contribution to children's books, founded a new style of writing and whose principle books remain in print sixty years later, surprisingly little has been written about Holling. There is no biography that I can locate.
Children's books often give us the lie of our current perceptions of the past. There are many topical issues that we think of as relatively modern: women's rights, conservation, ecology, civil rights, etc. It is striking to me how frequently it is that I will be reading some children's books from fifty or a hundred years ago and right there, you will find a focus on these issues.
Holling is an example of this observation. Two decades before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring captured people's attention, Holling was educating children about the interconnectedness of life and the life cycle of animals and ecosystems (Minn of the Mississippi and Pagoo ). Forty years before Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Holling was presenting Native Americans in respectful and positive ways (The Book of Indians, Claws of the Thunderbird, and - to some degree - Paddle-to-the-Sea).
Holling's life story is easily told. He was born into a well-established pioneering family, in Holling Corners, Jackson County, Michigan on August 2, 1900. His father was superintendent of schools and so their house was well stocked with books, supplemented by those his mother brought from the library in the nearby town. In addition to loving to read, Holling was very much an outdoor child with a great love of camping, animals, Native American history, etc.
Holling early displayed a talent for art and illustration and on graduating high school in 1917, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1923. He met his future wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling at the Art Institute, later marrying in 1925. It was also while attending the Art Institute that Holling spent a year in New Mexico studying art. This year gave him a much sharper appreciation of the use of color in illustration (he had mostly been accustomed to working in black and white). It also fueled his love and fascination of Native American life and culture. In fact, his first two books, New Mexico Made Easy and Sun and Smoke: Verse and Woodcuts of New Mexico, were both published in 1923 the same year he graduated from the Art Institute.
After graduating, Holling cast about a bit before settling into his chosen career. Initially, he worked as a taxidermist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago until 1926 and then spent a year as an art instructor on New York University's University World Cruise. In 1927 Holling and his wife returned to Chicago and Holling tried his hand at advertising for a brief period. From 1927 on, though, Holling concentrated on his art work and writing for children. Over the next fifteen years he wrote and illustrated a dozen books for children.
None of the books from this period in his writing career are still in print; however, three of the titles though received particular notice at the time. Claws of the Thunderbird: A Tale of Three Lost Indians (1928) is the tale of two young Native Americans caught up in a conflict between two great tribes, the Sioux and the Chippewa. What is marked is that these are not presented as cardboard caricatures but rather as an adventure/drama in which the protagonists happen to be Native American. This capability of marrying a factual education of Native American culture and history to a compelling storyline was a foreshadowing of Hollings future characteristic style of writing.
The other two books which put Holling onto the popular radar screen were a paired set of mass-market titles, The Book of Indians (1935) and The Book of Cowboys (1936). Both are notable for the historical and cultural veracity.
But all this was somewhat run-of-the-mill success preceding a startling run of five books over fifteen years starting in 1941 with Paddle-to-the-Sea (1942 Caldecott Honor) and including Tree in the Trail, Seabird, Minn of the Mississippi (1952 Newberry Honor), and Pagoo. All of these books are still in print, all were popular at the time and all remain popular among young children and independent readers today. In particular, these five have carved out a devoted following among home-schoolers for reasons to be described shortly.
Holling's books were different than those that came before him. There were certainly authors writing for children about animals and environments and science in the 1910's, 1920's and 1930's. But they were writing in a different fashion. Thornton Burgess was a very prolific author, many of whose books remain popular today. From the 1910's through to 1960 he wrote more than one hundred books for children all featuring a deep love of nature and animals. The majority of his books consisted of stories featuring anthropomorphized animal protagonists in natural settings, though he did also write reference type books for juvenile readers. There is clearly a love of nature throughout his work and deep knowledge about animals and the environment. While there is knowledge to be gleaned from his books, it does take something of a back seat to the story.
Similarly with Roy Chapman Andrews, a scientist with the American Museum of Natural History who wrote a number of books, many autobiographical, about nature and his adventures as an explorer, paleontologist, and marine biologist. These were and still are great reading but the focus is on the man's adventures and the knowledge gained is at a pretty general level.
Holling created a whole new approach. Each of his books was the product of two to four years of field and library research. Each book shares a somewhat similar structure, style and presentation, each of which were unique at the time of their writing and have rarely been well-emulated since then.
Each story is rooted in the natural world, set on the sea, rivers, the coast, and inland trails. Each story involves a physical and temporal journey. In Minn of the Mississippi, Minn (a turtle) travels over many seasons and years from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico. Paddle-to-the-Sea is the story of the journey of a wooden carving made by a Native American boy from its launching place in the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River, ultimately all the way to France. Tree in the Trail twists this sequence just a bit. Initially it is the story of the passing of history as seen by a stationary cottonwood tree located on what eventually becomes the Santa Fe Trail. But even here, there is travel as the wood from the tree is eventually made into an ox yoke and makes the journey to the end of the trail.
The visual structure of the books was characterized by a large format. Typically a page of text faces a full page color illustration. On the text page, the text is centered and usually surrounded by drawings, sketches, maps, and additional hand lettered information pertinent to the main story. Lucille Webster Holling is known to have contributed to each of these books and it appears that these embellishments were substantially hers.
This unusual structure is, I think, part of the appeal to young children. As you lie close together reading the story to a child (and these are primarily read-to stories), their eyes can roam the detailed pictures and pick out extra information from the fringes while still listening. Many children's books have now taken this to an extreme where the text looks like it has been the victim of a shotgun blast of extra information with pictures, photos, sidebars, etc., etc. Some take to it but I think most children and adults find it distracting. Holling makes it work by keeping it simple and by keeping the embellishing art work consistent with the main paintings.
The final distinctive aspect of this sequence of books is that Holling does a marvelous job of melding a narrative/fictional story line to a lot of factual information in such a way that it is seamless. The information is a part of the story - not something duct-taped on. And it is not just a few nuggets of information here and there; it is a lot of information. Read Minn of the Mississippi and by the end of the story you will have a very solid knowledge of geography and topography of the heartland of America as well as an understanding of its ecosystems and of the life cycle of a turtle all from an adventure book. This style is characteristic of Pagoo and of Paddle-to-the-Sea as well. With Seabird (1949 Newberry Honor) and Tree in the Trail, you can add a solid dose of history to the mix. It is for these reasons - art, story-telling, seamless and comprehensive information - that these books are so popular among home-schoolers. That and, of course, because children love them.
Holling passed away September 7, 1973 in Pasadena, California where he had made his home the latter half of his life.
Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling Recommended
Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling Highly Recommended
Pagoo by Holling C. Holling and Lucille Webster Holling Suggested
Seabird by Holling C. Holling Recommended
Tree in the Trail by Holling Clancy Holling Suggested
New Mexico Made Easy by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1923
Sun and Smoke: Verse and Woodcuts of New Mexico by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1923
Little Big-Bye-and-Bye by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1926
Roll Away Twins by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1927
Rum-Tum-Tummy by Holling C. Holling 1927
Claws of the Thunderbird: A Tale of Three Lost Indians by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1928
Choo-Me-Shoo the Eskimo by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1928
Rocky Billy: The Story of the Bounding Career of a Rocky Mountain Goat by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1928
Blot by Phyllis Crawford and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1930
The Twins Who Flew around the World by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1931
Little Folks of Other Lands by Watty Piper and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1932
Road in Storyland by Watty Piper and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1932
The Book of Indians by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1935
The Book of Cowboys by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1936
Little Buffalo Boy by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1939
Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1941
Tree in the Trail by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1942
Children of Other Lands by Watty Piper and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1943
Seabird by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1948
Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1951
Pagoo by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1957
The Magic Story Tree: A Favorite Collection of Fifteen Fairy Tales and Fables by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1964