Women have long played an important role in shaping the growth and development of children’s literature. Whether through their own choice or social constraints, women like Louisa May Alcott, Anne Frank, L.M. Montgomery, Beatrix Potter, and Laura Ingalls Wilder advanced the creation of children’s literature as a distinct field and dictated what it should entail. But for each well-remembered and beloved authoress, there are dozens who have been largely forgotten.
Here are ten of those women:
1) Angela Brazil (1868-1947)
One of the original British writers of “modern schoolgirl stories,” Brazil jump-started the popularization of children’s book written for entertainment purposes as opposed to moral instruction. Brazil also broke with precedent by telling her stories from the perspective of the heroine (s) as opposed to an adult narrator. Her books relate the social exploits and adventures of fourteen and fifteen-year-old girls, delving into their friendships, jealousies, and occasionally, bullying.
What began as a simple premise fostered by Brazil has since expanded and diversified exponentially into a cornerstone of young adult fiction.
2) Betty MacDonald (1908-1958)
Betty MacDonald began her writing career with a humorous memoir about her “fish out of water” newlywed life as the wife of a chicken farmer in late 1920s Washington. The Egg and I was a commercial and critical hit, selling over a million copies and inspiring a number of film and TV spinoffs.
After writing several more memoirs, MacDonald moved on to children’s books. She authored the beloved series on Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, a widow who sets about righting the bad habits of the neighborhood children using a chest of magical cures left to her by her late husband, a pirate. This beloved magical lady was a contemporary of Mary Poppins and a predecessor of Nanny McPhee.
3) Marguerite de Angeli (1889-1987)
While Marguerite de Angeli’s The Door in the Wall won the 1950 Newbery Award, she should be remembered for her more controversial 1946 book Bright April. The story of a young good-hearted African-American girl who experiences racial prejudice, Bright April was the first children’s book to treat the divisive issue of racial prejudice. De Angeli preempted the Civil Rights Movement in America by nine years.
4) Edith Nesbit (1858-1924)
Author of approximately 40 books for children, Nesbit’s biographer Julia Briggs calls her “the first modern writer for children.” Nesbit inaugurated a new type of children’s book which focused on tough, real-world issues that had previously only been treated in novels for adults.
Nesbits’s books, however, were not without a hint of the fantastical. She became the first author to write about ordinary children who encountered magical objects, inspiring future authors such as P.L. Travers (of Mary Poppins), Dianne Wynn Jones, C.S. Lewis, and the ever-popular J.K. Rowling.
5) Esther Louise Forbes (1891-1967)
A historian, editor at Houghton Mifflin, novelist, and eventually a children’s writer, Esther Forbes penned the ever-famous Johnny Tremain, a historical novel set during the American Revolution. Johnny Tremain won the Newbery Medal in 1944, and as of 2000, it was the 16th best-selling children’s book of all time in the United States.
Esther Forbes set the bar for quality in children’s historical fiction, and Johnny Tremain is still mandatory reading in some US middle schools.
6) Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841-1885)
An English writer of children’s stories, Juliana Horatia Ewing has been praised by scholars such as Roger Lancelyn Green as the author of “the first outstanding child-novel in English literature.” Written for older children, Ewing’s books are known for their keen insights into the world of childhood.
While little-known today, Ewing inspired her contemporaries. Writers Edith Nesbit and Joseph Rudyard Kipling were great admirers of her books, while her story The Brownies was part of the inspiration for the scouting movement which spread from Britain to the United States. Even today, Girl Scouts in grades 2-3 are called “Brownies.”
7) Madame d’Aulnoy (1650-1705)
Have you ever wondered where the term “fairy tales” came from? One-hundred-and-thirty-five years before the Grimm Brothers, Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy coined the phrase contes de fées to describe her tales of court intrigue, fairy godmothers, charming princes, dwarves, and magic.
When d’Aulnoy wrote her stories, fairy tales were considered entertainment for both adults and children. It would not be until the 19th and 20th centuries that fairy tales became associated solely with children’s literature.
8) Enid Bagnold (1889-1981)
Long before the move to introduce strong female characters as heroines in books for young women, Enid Bagnold published National Velvet. While perhaps not an activist in the British suffrage movement, Bagnold stretched the boundaries of propriety in real life and in literature.
National Velvet (1935) tells the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who disguises herself as a boy to compete in the Grand National steeplechase and wins. Bagnold’s National Velvet may very well be one of the first feminist-leaning books in children’s literature.
9) Doris Gates (1901-1987)
One of the first Americans to write realistic children’s fiction, Doris Gates is best known for her novel Blue Willow (1940). Nicknamed “the juvenile Grapes of Wrath,” Blue Willow won a Newbery Honor in 1941. Gates tackles the problems of post-Depression era USA and migrant workers with almost brutal realism in a time when scholars were debating whether children’s literature should be imaginative or realistic. Gates’s Blue Willow became a rallying point for proponents of realistic fiction. Its contemporary working class setting and depiction of heroine Janey’s Mexican-American friend Lupo also broke with convention in ways critics attacked as “leftist” propaganda.
10) Elizabeth Enright (1909-1968)
Best-known for her Newbery Medal winning Thimble Summer (1938), Enright was a children’s writer, illustrator, literary critic, an author of adult short stories, and a professor of creative writing. She brought her extensive training to bear in creating highly original characters etched with humor and beautiful descriptions. Her works advanced realism in children’s literature.