May Hill Arbuthnot, Associate Professor Emerita of Education, Western Reserve University, 1884–1969
1964 SPECIAL CITATION For distinguished service to the arts
The sight of young children or adolescents curled up with a book in the children’s section of a large bookstore is something we have come to take for granted. The shelves bulge with classic fairy tales, books about jobs and industries, historical figures and animals, folk tales from many cultures, stories about children growing up in unconventional circumstances, mommy’s pregnancy, and the yearnings and dreads of teenage girls. It seems natural, indeed highly desirable, that children should have access to all of these types of reading material and that we should sit and read these books aloud together from the moment our tots begin to grasp the idea of language. But it has only been within the last half-century or so that the very notion of “children’s literature” as we now think of it has taken shape.
It may be more surprising still to learn that a Cleveland woman had a great deal to do with this development. Her name, May Hill Arbuthnot, is now forgotten by all but children’s librarians, but her legacy endures.The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (published by Mark Twain) was a best seller in 1885, the year May Hill celebrated her first birthday, in Mason City, Iowa; children’s stories were still seen, as they had been since time immemorial, as vehicles for the inculcation of moral lessons or, more recently, manners.
The popular folk tales gleaned from the German countryside by the Grimm brothers (first published in 1812) were harrowing, often quite violent stories originally told “by adults to adults in an age when using wits against brute force was often the only means of survival, and therefore admirable. . . . Not a pretty code, but a realistic one,” Arbuthnot would write in her groundbreaking 1947 work, Children and Books. The worse for witches and trolls; but even the most horrific of these tales, wrote Arbuthnot, “are predominantly constructive, not destructive, in their moral lessons. ‘The humble and good shall be exalted,’ say the stories of Snow Drop (Snow White), Aschenputtel (Cinderella), the Bremen Town-Musicians, and dozens of others. ‘Love suffereth long and is kind,’ is the lesson of East of the Sun and One Eye, Two Eyes, and Three Eyes. In The Frog-King, the royal father of the princess enforces a noble code upon his thoughtless daughter. ‘That which you have promised must you perform’ and ‘He who helped you when you were in trouble ought not afterwards to be despised by you.’”
She had written the above in defense of W. H. Auden, who had ranked the Brothers Grimm's collection “among the few indispensable, common-property books upon which Western Culture can be founded” and “next to the Bible in importance. . . . The reader who has once come to know and love these tales will never be able again to endure the insipid rubbish of contemporary entertainment.” It was adults, however, that Auden was talking about. Arbuthnot was arguing—in the face of lingering Victorian disapproval—that these stories had value for contemporary children. “The real world, like the fairy world, can be cruel and perilous,” she wrote as Rommel’s tanks reduced picturesque French villages to rubble and freight cars full of Jews were transported to the extermination camps. “The fairy tales supply unforgettable stories of wicked powers defeated and of gallant souls who in their extremity are granted supernatural strength.”
The former principal of a kindergarten-primary training school in Cleveland that in 1927 became a department of elementary education at Western Reserve University (on whose faculty she served as an associate professor), Arbuthot had also gained a distinguished reputation as founder of the Western Reserve Nursery School, a nationally known center for the study of early childhood education. She had co-authored, with the University of Chicago’s William Gray, the Curriculum Foundation Series of “Dick and Jane” Basic Readers (1940–46) that introduced more than half the children in America to the art of reading.
In Children and Books, she examined historical trends in what was thought appropriate reading material for the young and made an eloquent case, not only for the types of reading children craved—indeed, needed—but for the importance of literary quality and higher standards in the selection of children’s reading. Children and Books offered helpful criteria for evaluating each type of reading. It would become the most widely used college textbook on children’s literature, influencing subsequent generations of teachers, publishers, librarians—and thoughtful parents. Updated by Zena Sutherland in 1972 and subsequent editions, Children and Books has been called “a definitive work in the field of children’s literature.”
Arbuthnot went on to author a series of books with titles like Time for Poetry, Time for Fairy Tales, Time for True Tales and Children’s Stories Too Good to Miss that finally resulted in the Arbuthnot Anthology of Children’s Literature (1953), which became a staple of schools and libraries. This hefty tome offered a rich selection of poems, folk tales, myths, modern fantasy, epics, fables, realistic stories, historical fiction, biography and informational writing—“old favorites and delightful new authors,” as Sutherland writes in her preface to the fourth edition. Here was a trove of “funny, provocative, tender, informative, exciting” selections that would stretch and enrich the accepted canon. Arbuthnot’s introductions to each of the book’s sections brim with wonderful insights and helpful suggestions to parents and teachers about using this material.
However, Arbuthnot (she married Charles Criswell Arbuthnot, a Western Reserve University economics professor, in 1932) was no ivory tower scholar, but a tireless, widely traveled lecturer and advocate for better children’s books, even after her retirement from the university in 1949. She established a prestigious international award, the annual Arbuthnot Prize for lifetime achievement in children’s literature. Upon her death, in a Cleveland nursing home in 1969, Scott, Foresman, her longtime publisher, established the Arbuthnot Honor Lecture (now funded by the American Library Association and Association for Library Service to Children), to be given each year by an author, artist, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children's literature.
— Dennis Dooley
Cleveland Arts Prize
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