A Wise and Blithe Spirit

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School Library Connection is proud to continue LMC‘s tradition in sponsoring an annual ALISE award to recognize outstanding research in library materials and services to young people. This year’s award submission deadline of September 22nd is fast approaching!—readers interested in submitting will find more information at ALISE’s website here.

As we eagerly look forward to reading the next winning paper, we’re excited to share this past winner by Sharon McQueen that was presented at the 2014 ALISE conference.

Mary Hill Arbuthnot with the third edition of Children and Books, photo 1969. The Cleveland Press Collection, Special Collections, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University.
May Hill Arbuthnot with the third edition of Children and Books, photo 1969. The Cleveland Press Collection, Special Collections, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University.

May Hill Arbuthnot is still with us in her books, a wise and blithe spirit.
— Zena Sutherland

The May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture is administered by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association. Each year, an Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee chooses “an individual of distinction who shall prepare and present a paper which shall be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature” (ALSC 6). The location of the lectureship changes each year, as host institutions must apply and vie for the honor.

In 2006, I was a faculty member in the School of Library & Information Science, University of Kentucky (UK-SLIS) and served as Director of both The McConnell Center for the Study of Youth Literature and the annual McConnell Youth Literature Conference. Keven Henkes had been selected as the 2007 Arbuthnot lecturer, and I hoped The McConnell Center would be chosen to host the award.

In an effort to make the application as competitive as possible, I wanted to learn more about the Arbuthnot Lecture. As a sociocultural historian of children’s literature and biographer of individuals connected with the field, I was curious: Who the heck was May Hill Arbuthnot? At the time, I was not able to research Arbuthnot’s life and the history of the lectureship as deeply as I’d have liked. Much to the delight of everyone at UK-SLIS, The McConnell Center was chosen as the 2007 Arbuthnot Lecture site, and my attention was drawn back to the present.

After serving as an Arbuthnot Lecture Host Site Committee Chair, I supported several subsequent Host Site Chairs in an advisory capacity and was invited to serve on the ALSC Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee as well. Over the years, I eagerly spoke with ALSC members and others in the field of librarianship about May Hill Arbuthnot and the lectureship named in her honor. Though most had heard of the Arbuthnot Lecture, few knew who May Hill Arbuthnot was or why a lectureship had been named for her. Many knew she was considered to be one of the foremothers of our field but did not know why. Many were very much surprised to learn that Arbuthnot was not a children’s librarian. And yet, May Hill Arbuthnot made significant, lasting contributions that have shaped reading, children’s literature, and library youth services as we know them today.

From 2012 to 2014, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Library and Information Studies granted me an Honorary Research Fellowship, during which I was able to return to my research interest in Arbuthnot and the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture. By presenting the results of my research, I hope to reintroduce Arbuthnot and foster an appreciation of her many accomplishments and legacy to our field.

A New Voice Speaking with New Insight
Born May Hill in 1884, Arbuthnot graduated from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School and became a kindergarten teacher (Sutherland 30-1). She subsequently received her kindergarten-primary supervisor’s certificate and bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. Arbuthnot had years of practitioner experience behind her when she began to train others. She taught kindergarten at the Superior Normal School, a teacher’s college in Wisconsin, and she taught children’s literature during summer terms at the University of Chicago (Monaghan, Israel, and Dahl 201). She next took a faculty position at the Ethical Culture School in New York City as she pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University, Teachers College, which she completed in 1925 (Bolton). At that time, Teachers College was at the forefront of the nursery school movement, now known as preschools (Mitchell, Seligson, and Marx 8).

With her graduate degree in hand, Arbuthnot landed a position as head of the Cleveland Kindergarten-Primary Training School. Arbuthnot remained a staunch advocate for kindergarten, but that movement was well-established by this time. The nursery school movement was still in its infancy and Arbuthnot became a tireless advocate for, and leader within, this nascent area of education, establishing nursery schools, lecturing, publishing articles, engaging in outreach, and serving on national committees (Miller 6). Arbuthnot firmly believed that parental involvement was key and that the education of parents on early childhood development and education was crucial. (Hill, 1931 233-43). Due in large part to Arbuthnot’s efforts, Cleveland became a primary research site for the study of early childhood and Arbuthnot became nationally known and respected (Meyer 92).

Arbuthnot became an Associate Professor in 1927, when the Training School merged with Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University; Hill, 1929 7-8; Conger). She flourished personally as well as professionally at Western Reserve. May Hill happily married Charles Crisswell Arbuthnot, of Western Reserve’s Economics Department, in 1932. She was forty-eight years of age (Bruner).








Left: Fun with Dick and Jane book cover, 1946-47 edition.
Right: Fun with Dick and Jane title page, 1946-47 edition.
Used with permission from Pearson Scott Foresman.

Fun with Dick and Jane
Dr. William S. Gray, who had been on the faculty of the University of Chicago when Arbuthnot was an undergraduate, was hired by the publishing firm Scott, Foresman, and Company to develop a new, unified set of textbooks, The Curriculum Foundation Series. Gray was arguably the leading reading researcher in the United States at the time. Consequently, the readers in the series incorporated the most current research on reading and reading instruction. These readers began to appear in classrooms in the early 1930s, and with them, Dick and Jane made their first appearance as well. Arbuthnot was brought onboard as a coauthor of the readers in the mid-1930s.

“The Dick and Jane books,” as the Curriculum Foundation readers have come to be known, have received criticism for their lack of literary merit, though one must consider the context of these books (Bettleheim and Zelan 266). Gray and Arbuthnot certainly didn’t oppose works of literary merit, but producing high quality literature was not their primary objective. Above all, they wanted to help children learn to read by using a scientific approach in which the text of the readers was lexically and syntactically controlled (Luke 250, 255). Their innovative development answered a real need and shaped the world of easy readers as we know them. One might say their innovation created a whole new section of the library and influenced the way children learn to read—even today.

Children and Books
In 1947, Scott, Foresman published Arbuthnot’s Children and Books, a college textbook that marked a watershed in the instruction of children’s literature for teachers and librarians. Children and Books met with nearly universal critical acclaim. Anne Carroll Moore, Supervisor of Work with Children of the New York Public Library, panned it. But Moore’s dislike of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, E.B. White’s Stuart Little, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books didn’t hurt the sales of those books, and Arbuthnot’s sales didn’t suffer either (Martens 318; Lundin 53). There were several supplements to Children and Books and multiple revised editions, with later editions spearheaded by Zena Sutherland, a University of Chicago professor of librarianship. The work was described as “the classic text” by Wilson Library Bulletin in 1970, and when the book’s ninth, and final, edition was published in 1996, The Library Quarterly review began, “It is impossible not to be in awe of a work that has established and held its advantage for fifty years” (Weber 172; Gross 22).

Arbuthnot continued to write books and publish them with Scott, Foresman for the rest of her life. In addition to Children and Books, other Arbuthnot works also enjoyed multiple editions, including Children’s Books Too Good to Miss (1948), Time for Poetry (1951), Time for Fairy Tales, Old and New (1952), and Time for True Tales and Almost True (1953). The seemingly indefatigable Arbuthnot was hard at work long after her retirement from Western Reserve University. In addition to Arbuthnot’s output as a writer, her fame as a lecturer grew substantially after her 1950 retirement as well. In 1969, the year Arbuthnot died, her final book was published, Children’s Reading in the Home.

May Hill Arbuthnot Lectures and The May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture

The art and practice of storytelling was taught at the University of Chicago when Arbuthnot was a student, and she taught storytelling to her Western Reserve students in turn. Though it has not been entirely forgotten, storytelling was much more central to both the early kindergarten movement and to the budding field of children’s librarianship than is the case today, and Arbuthnot was an adamant proponent as well as a skilled practitioner (Arbuthnot, 1961 376). She also possessed a fine sense of humor, which in combination with her sharp intellect, keen insights, and accomplished writing and storytelling abilities, made for a consummate lecturer—and one much in demand.

During the 1950s May Hill Arbuthnot spoke in more than 50 U.S. cities (Publishers’ Weekly 26). In 1962, a Cleveland newspaper reported that Arbuthnot, at the age of 77, had lectured at 35 universities or major cities within the past year and a half (Daerr C6). Arbuthnot was still lecturing and writing well into her 80s when her publishers approached ALA’s Children’s Services Division (now ALSC) offering the sponsorship of an annual event to be named in her honor. Arbuthnot was “more than pleased that this honor take the form of an on-going series of lectures.” As she wrote in her thank you letter to the Children’s Services Division: “That means we shall be hearing new voices speaking with new insight and new emphasis in this field of children’s lectures” (Arbuthnot, 1969 14).

In the four and a half decades of the lectureship’s existence, lecturers have provided incredibly rich experiences—both at the live event, and subsequently in the pages of ALSC’s journal Children and Libraries, where the lectures are published annually. But unintentionally, over the years, there has been a shift from Arbuthnot lecturers chosen primarily from a pool of qualified (often internationally known) critics, scholars, educators, librarians, and editors, toward those selected from a pool of United States children’s book authors and illustrators. Indeed, one School Library Journal blogger once remarked, “It seems obligatory that if you’ve won two Newbery Medals then you give the Arbuthnot” (Hunt, 2010). But, as the original purpose of the lectureship was to add to the body of knowledge and scholarship in the field, the goal was to primarily select those who were well known for writing about children’s books, as opposed to those who were primarily known for writing the children’s books themselves. Those few children’s book creators who were selected during the first decades of the lectureship’s existence were those known to have written substantively on the topic of children’s books.

Arbuthnot and the original intentions of the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture may have faded from memory, but historical research can refresh our collective memories and perspectives.

May Hill Arbuthnot was “a prolific and distinguished educator, author, editor, anthologist, critic, lecturer, advocate, consultant, and scholar in education (nursery school, kindergarten, and reading instruction) and children’s literature” (McQueen 15). She was immensely influential in many important areas, including parental education and involvement in early childhood education, the birth of easy readers, and the instruction of generations of teachers and librarians through what was arguably “the” children’s literature textbook for decades, a textbook that has never quite found its successor. The May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture was established to encourage and promote the sort of lectures Arbuthnot herself was known for writing and delivering. We can honor her and her legacy by honoring that intention.

Works Cited
ALA Executive Board Minutes. April 30-May 2, 1969. Exhibit 5, Children’s Services Division. Transcripts of Proceedings, 1909-1946, 1951-, Record Series 2/1/1, Box 16, American Library Association Archives at the University of Illinois.

Arbuthnot, May Hill. “Is Storytelling Dead?” Children and Books, 3rd ed. Scott, Foresman, 1961.

Arbuthnot, May Hill. “To All the Kind Friends: My Greetings and Gratitude.” Top of the News. XXVI (November) 1969.

Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). “Function Statement.” Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Committee Manual. ALSC. December, 2013.

Bettleheim, Bruno and Karen Zelan. On Learning to Read. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1982.

Bolton, Mathew. Supervisor of Records, Teachers College, Columbia University. Email to author. May 6, 2013.

Bruner, Louise. “Teamwork: Meet Reserve’s Arbuthnots.” Clipping from Arbuthnot file. Case Western Reserve University Archives. ca 1940.

Conger, Helen. Case Western Reserve University Archives. Email to author. April 10, 2013.

Daerr, Marie. “Still Busy at 77 with Book Program.” The Cleveland Press. June 13, 1962.

Gross, Melissa. Review of Children and Books. The Library Quarterly. 68:2 (April 1998)

Hill, May. “Parent Education in the Western Reserve University Nursery School.” Childhood Education. VII (January) 1931.

Hill, May. “Student Teacher and the Whole Child.” Journal of the National Education Association. XVIII (January) 1929.

Hunt, Jonathan. “Predict-o-rama Revisited.” Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog. School Library Journal, January 20, 2010. http://blogs.slj.com/heavymedal/2010/01/20/predict-o-rama-revisited-2/

Luke, Allan. “Making Dick and Jane: Historical Genesis of the Modern Basal Reader.” In The Textbook as Discourse: Sociocultural Dimensions of American Schoolbooks. Edited by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., Annis N. Shaver, and Manuel Bello. Routledge, 2011.

Lundin, Anne. Constructing the Canon of Children’s Literature: Beyond Library Walls and Ivory Towers. Routledge, 2004.

Martens, Marianne. “The Librarian Lion: Constructing Children’s Literature through Connections, Capital, and Criticism (1906-1941).” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science. 54:4 (Fall) 2013.

McQueen, Sharon. “A Permanent and Significant Contribution: The Life of May Hill Arbuthnot.” Children & Libraries. 13.2 (2015): 13-20.

Meyer, Alberta L. “The Executive Secretary Reports: May Hill Arbuthnot Honored.” Childhood Education. XLVI (November) 1969.

Miller, Marilyn L. “Arbuthnot, May Hill.” in Pioneers and Leaders in Library Services to Youth: A Biographical Dictionary. Marilyn L. Miller, ed. Libraries Unlimited, 2003.

Mitchell, Anne, Michelle Seligson, and Fern Marx. Early Childhood Programs and the Public Schools: Between Promise and Practice. Auburn House, 1989.

Monaghan, Charles, Susan E. Israel, and Molly D. Dahl. “May Hill Arbuthnot (1884-1969): A Pioneer in the Field of Children’s Literature.” chapter 9 in Shaping the Reading Field: The Impact of Early Reading Pioneers, Scientific Research, and Progressive Ideas by Susan E. Israel and E. Jennifer Monaghan. International Reading Association, 2006.

Sutherland, Zena. “ARBUTHNOT, May Hill.” entry in Sicherman and Green’s Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary. Harvard University Press, 1980.

“WNBA Honors Marchette Chute and May Hill Arbuthnot.” Publishers’ Weekly. CLXXV. March 9, 1959.

Weber, Rosemary. “Children’s Literature: Books for Teaching It.” Wilson Library Bulletin. vXLV (October) 1970.


Sharon McQueen is a biographer and sociocultural historian of children’s literature. She has taught graduate courses for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, Rutgers University, the University of Iowa, Old Dominion University, where she served as Director of the Learning Resource Center, and the University of Kentucky, where she served as Director of both The McConnell Center for the Study of Youth Literature and the annual McConnell Youth Literature Conference. Sharon McQueen’s work has been published in various journals, including Children and Libraries, The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Books, Public Libraries, Library and Information Science Research, Library Journal.com, American Libraries Online, and the Journal of Education for Library and Information Science (JELIS). Dr. McQueen’s research has received multiple awards from the Association for Library & Information Science Education (ALISE) and the American Library Association (ALA)—including the Justin Winsor Prize and the Phyllis Dain Library History Dissertation Award for her study of the 1936 U.S. children’s picture book The Story of Ferdinand, the Jesse H. Shera Award for exemplary research design and methods, and the ALISE/LMC Paper Award for her biography of childhood education legend May Hill Arbuthnot. Sharon adds these awards to her 3rd place win at the Wisconsin State Fair—for hog calling!



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