Sunday, June 1, 2008

Alice Dalgliesh

Born October 7, 1893 in Trinidad, West Indies
Died June 11th, 1979 in Woodbury, Connecticut

Alice Dalgliesh was born in the late days of the British Empire in the little outpost of the island of Trinidad in the British West Indies. Trinidad sits like a parrot on the shoulder of South America, a fascinating little corner of nowhere. It has a small but strong industrial economy built on the back of oil resources. Apparently the southern portion of the island is strewn with oil seeps, natural outcroppings of leakages of oil bubbling up from below like the Las Breas tar pits in California.

Another surprising resource that the island has is writers. I can think of three off the top of my head who have made a major mark in literature. There is, of course, Alice Dalgliesh whom we will discuss in a minute. But there are also two brothers, one sadly now deceased, V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul. V.S. Naipaul is a literary lion in the UK, though I am not certain that he is all that well known here in the US. He writes literary fiction as well as travel and commentary, including a history of Trinidad, The Loss of El Dorado. His younger brother, Shiva Naipaul, who tragically died of a heart attack when only forty, was also beginning to blossom as a travel/history writer with a single work of his still in print, North of South, covering his travels through Africa.

Dalgliesh lived in Trinidad for the first thirteen years of her life. In her autobiographical entry in The Junior Book of Authors, she relates:

. . . My home was a big rambling house on the side of a hill. From the veranda we looked across the sea to the mountains of South America. There were always boats anchored in the bay and I was never tired of looking at them. Somehow I can never keep the sea and ships out of my stories. Ships have always had a special interest for me because of the sea-faring tradition in my family.

In the dry season I played out of doors most of the time, but in the rainy season there was always plenty of time for reading. Even now when I see Alice in Wonderland or The Swiss Family Robinson I think of the patter of raindrops on a corrugated iron roof. I liked to read almost everything: children's books and grown-up books. My father was Scotch, my mother English, and my father's Scottish books were my favorites. We had a whole shelf of Sir Walter Scott's novels and I liked to hear my father tell how "Wattie Scott" used to go over from Abbotsford to my great-grandfather's farm to sit in the kitchen with the shepherds and sheep dogs and exchange stories.

Next to reading, I liked to "pretend" and the hill at the back of the house, with its tangled tropical growth, was a fine place for playing "explorer." We did not seem to mind the fact that snakes quite frequently wriggled across our path. It was all a part of the game! We built fires and cooked out of doors, we played "desert island" and built huts of boards that we found.

Dalgliesh's father passed away when she was ten and, at thirteen, she and her mother returned to England where she completed her education. At nineteen she decided to become a teacher, and for reasons I have not been able to uncover, came to New York City where she attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then the Teachers College of Columbia University.

She taught kindergarten and elementary school classes for the next seventeen years, but over time began to focus more energy on her efforts at writing. It was in this period that Dalgliesh became a naturalized US citizen. As a child she had enjoyed writing stories and while in England had won a number of prizes from a magazine for her submissions. In 1924, at the age of 31, she published her first book, A Happy School Year. In these early years of writing which followed, Dalgliesh focused primarily on picture books for young children and was very much an advocate of the "here and now" mode of story telling, championed by her contemporary, Margaret Wise Brown of Goodnight Moon fame. Regardless of the particular style, Dalgliesh made every effort to incorporate the lessons she learned as a teacher and to let those lessons guide her writing.

As an aside, it is interesting to see the adage from Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun," born out in the arguments about children's books. Follow this link to a raging dispute reported in Time magazine December 9th, 1929 in which Alice Dalgliesh, then an unknown school teacher, makes a cameo appearance.

In 1934, Dalgliesh became the children's book editor at Charles Scribner's Sons where she worked for the next twenty-six years. Starting in 1929 and continuing through 1943, and while an editor at Scribners, she also wrote book reviews for Parents Magazine. She also continued her career as an author, eventually writing nearly fifty books for children (and one book for adults). Now that's a full career. One of the striking aspects of her work is the variety of top rate children's book illustrators with whom she collaborated: Leonard Weisgard, Leo Politi, Helen Sewell, Katherine Milhous, and Flavia Gag (Wanda Gag's sister).

In the first three decades of her writing career, Dalgliesh produced a number of well-received travel stories, general children's stories, and a series of three books based on the adventures of a family of children in Sandy Cove, Nova Scotia, the area where Dalgliesh summered. While these first thirty-two books were successful, they have pretty much drifted out of the reading horizons of most people. The exception would be some of the travel related books and in particular, The Silver Pencil, a lightly fictionalized work of autobiography which won a Newberry Medal Honor award in 1945.

In the fourth and final decade of her writing career, Dalgliesh suddenly broke out of her established pattern of writing popular books that faded quickly from the literary consciousness. Starting in 1952 and continuing through 1959, she wrote a string of history and historical fiction books, at both the picture book and independent reader levels, which won a series of major prizes and captured critical and popular attention. Most of these are still in print today.

The first of these books, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, is a young independent reader level book which is the fictionalized retelling of a tall tale supposed to have had its genesis in a real event. A young boy, Jonathan, is sent by his mother to get an iron kettle from his aunt. His aunt's home is on the other side of Hemlock Mountain and the tale centers on his adventures as he lugs the large iron pot back home, all the while afraid of the bears he believes to be on the mountain even though the adults tell him there are no bears. Dalgliesh uses repetitive, rhythmic language to move the tale along and kids love the scary - but not terrifying - tension of anticipating what might happen and then love Jonathan's resourcefulness in addressing the issue of the bears, who do indeed turn out to be real. The Bears on Hemlock Mountain is a nice transition book. It is not a traditional picture book, but it is well illustrated. Consequently it is the type of book that you can read to a child when they are four or five and which they still might choose to read to themselves when they are seven or eight. The The Bears on Hemlock Mountain won a Newberry Honor Medal in 1953.

The Thanksgiving Story followed in 1954 and is much more of a traditional read-to picture book. As implied by the title, it is a simplified retelling of the traditional Thanksgiving story and is illustrated by Helen Sewell who received the 1955 Caldecott Honor award for the illustrations. Interestingly, while in recent years it has been criticized among the sensitive for its stereotyping of Native Americans, at the time it was written, it was praised for bringing more attention and life to the Native Americans as part of the Thanksgiving Story. O tempora o mores! It is a little dated but is still a wonderful retelling for the very young, especially given the strong colors of Helen Sewell's illustrations.

The Courage of Sarah Noble also was published in 1954 and was also a major prize recipient, this time the 1955 Newberry Medal Honor. Again, a story of fictionalized history based on a true event, The Courage of Sarah Noble relates the adventures of eight year old Sarah as she accompanies her father into the frontier wilderness to find and build a new home. Her mother and siblings are to follow later when her mother has regained her health. The story is exciting for the encounters with the practicalities of getting by in this unknown and often hostile environment. It is notable that one of the sub-themes that Dalgliesh built into this tale was Sarah's dawning awareness of Native Americans as people rather than as shapeless sources of fear.

The next two titles in this blinding streak of excellent writing are unfortunately not currently in print; they are, however, periodically brought back. The Columbus Story (1955) is obviously a retelling of Columbus's voyages for a young set while Ride the Wind (1956) is an account for young children of Charles Lindbergh and his trans-Atlantic flight in The Spirit of St. Louis. Also in 1956, Dalgliesh published The Fourth of July Story, another excellent telling of American civic traditions for young children.

Dalgliesh's final book, published in 1959, was Adam and the Golden Cock. Though not in print, it was another lightly fictionalized account of a true story which took place in Newton, Connecticut in 1781.

As occasionally happens, sometimes it is the immigrant who tells the best traditional stories of their adopted country and with The Columbus Story, The Thanksgiving Story, and The Fourth of July Story along with her historical fiction Adam and the Golden Cock, The Courage of Sarah Noble and The Bears of Hemlock Mountain, the Trinidadian cum American, Alice Dalgliesh has certainly borne up that tradition and bequeathed to our children a wonderful set of books for deepening a knowledge and understanding of America and its history.

Alice Dalgliesh passed away June 11th, 1979, in Woodbury, Connecticut.

Picture Book








The Thanksgiving Story by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Helen Sewell Recommended








The Fourth of July Story by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Marie Nonnast Recommended


Independent Reader








The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Helen Sewell Recommended








The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh &and illusteted by Leonard Weisgard Highly Recommended


Alice Dalgliesh Bibliography

A Happy School Year by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Mary Spoor Brand 1924
West Indian Play Days by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Margaret Evans Price 1926
The Little Wooden Farmer [and] The Story of the Jungle Pool by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Theodora Baumeister 1930
The Blue Teapot: Sandy Cove Stories by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Hildegard Woodward 1931
First Experiences with Literature by Alice Dalgliesh 1932
The Choosing Book by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Eloise Burns Wilkin 1932
Relief's Rocker: A Story of Sandy Cove and the Sea by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Hildegard Woodward 1932
America Travels: The Story of a Hundred Years of Travel in America by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Hildegard Woodward 1933
Christmas: A Book of Stories Old and New by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Hildegard Woodward 1934
Roundabout: Another Sandy Cove Story by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Hildegard Woodward 1934
Christmas: A Book of Stories Old and New by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Hildegard Woodward 1934
Selected Books for Young Children by Alice Dalgliesh 1934
Sailor Sam by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Alice Dalgliesh 1935
The Smiths and Rusty by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Berta and Elmer Hader 1936
Long Live the King! by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Lois Maloy 1937
Wings for the Smiths by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Berta and Elmer Hader 1937
The Horace Mann Kindergarten for Five-Year-Old Children by Alice Dalgliesh 1937
America Builds Homes: The Story of the First Colonies by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Lois Maloy 1938
America Begins: The Story of the Finding of the New World by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Lois Maloy 1938
Once on a Time by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1938
The Gay Mother Goose by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Fran├žoise 1938
Once on a Time by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1938
The Will James Cowboy Book by Alice Dalgliesh 1938
The Young Aunts by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Charlotte Becker 1939
Happily Ever After by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1939
The Hollyberrys by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Pru Herric 1939
Happily Ever After by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1939
A Book for Jennifer by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1940
Wings Around South America by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1941
Three from Greenaways by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Gertrude Howe 1941
St. George and the Dragon by Richard Johnson and illustrated by Lois Maloy 1941
They Live in South America by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1942
Gulliver Joins the Army by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Ellen Segner 1942
The Little Angel: A Story of Old Rio by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1943
The Silver Pencil by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1944
Along Janet's Road by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Katherine Milhous 1946
Reuben and His Red Wheelbarrow by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Ilse Bischoff 1946
The Enchanted Book by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Concetta Cacciola 1947
The Davenports Are at Dinner by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Flavia Gag 1948
The Davenports and Cherry Pie by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Flavia Gag 1949
The Bears on Hemlock Mountain by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Helen Sewell 1952
The Thanksgiving Story by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Helen Sewell 1954
The Courage of Sarah Noble by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard 1954
The Columbus Story by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Leo Politi 1955
Ride on the Wind by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Georges Schreiber 1956
The Fourth of July Story by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Marie Nonnast 1956
Aids to Choosing Books for Your Children by Alice Dalgliesh 1957
Adam and the Golden Cock by Alice Dalgliesh and illustrated by Leonard Weisgard 1959


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