Eleanor Estes – American author 1906-1988
With her rare gift for depicting everyday experiences from the fresh perspective of childhood, Eleanor Estes based many of her stories on memories of growing up in a poor but loving family in West Haven, Connecticut. Following high school graduation, the author worked at the New Haven Public Library, then won a scholarship to the Pratt Institute Library School in Brooklyn, where she met her husband. She worked as a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library until her first book was published.
The Moffats (1941) is a charming, humorous family story about a fatherless family in Cranbury, Connecticut. Older siblings Sylvie and Joey are well-defined characters, but the book usually focuses on the most original thinking members of the family, eight-year-old Janey and five-year-old Rufus. In a series of loosely related episodes, the children attend dance school, frighten a school bully, and worry about moving to a new house. Although the events are commonplace, Estes perfectly captured children’s observations, logic, and speech patterns in prose notable for its immediacy and insight. The Middle Moffat (1942) and Rufus M. (1943) are equally percipient and even stronger in portraying the World War I period. The latter book closes as the war ends, and the Moffats dream about the future —a comforting scene for World War II-era readers and a beautiful conclusion to a wonderful trilogy.
Nearly forty years later, Estes surprised everyone by writing another volume about the Moffats. The Moffat Museum (1983) includes episodes such as Sylvie’s wedding and Joey’s first job; the writing style proves the author’s ear was still well tuned to the language and thoughts of children. Although the Moffat books celebrate a happy family, there is a realistic note of sadness behind many of the scenes, as when poverty forces the family to move and Joey to quit school. Much sadder in tone is The Hundred Dresses (1944), the haunting story of a poor girl teased by two classmates. Childhood cruelty has seldom been as effectively explored, yet the overriding theme is one of forgiveness and understanding, demonstrated by the final kind gesture of the victimized girl. Like The Middle Moffat and Rufus M., the story was named a Newbery Honor Book. Estes won the Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye (1951), which concerns Jerry and Rachel Pye’s six-month search for their missing puppy. The sensitive depiction of the children’s conversations, memories, and emotions adds to the novel’s warm appeal.
Eleanor Estes’s books were usually illustrated by fine artists such as Louis Slobodkin and Edward Ardizzone. For Ginger Pye, Estes illustrated her own story in a primitive, amusing style. Among the author’s other books are a sequel, Pinky Pye (1958); literary fairy tales such as The Sleeping Giant and Other Stories (1948); and The Witch Family (i960), an artful blend of fantasy and reality best appreciated by older readers, who unfortunately may not be interested in reading about six-year-old protagonists. Some of the same characters appear in Estes’s last book, The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee (1987). The author also wrote The Alley (1964), which concerns the children of a small New York neighborhood, and its sequel, The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode (1972).
The author’s clear-eyed, original view of childhood shines through all of her work, particularly her classic books about the Moffat family.
Source: Children’s Books and their Creators, Anita Silvey.
Eleanor Estes Bibliography
- The Moffats (1941)
- The Middle Moffat (1942)
- The Sun and the Wind and Mr. Todd (1943)
- Rufus M. (1943)
- The Hundred Dresses (1944)
- The Echoing Green (1947)
- Sleeping Giant and Other Stories (1948)
- Ginger Pye (1951)
- A Little Oven (1955)
- Pinky Pye (1958)
- The Witch Family (1960)
- Small but Wiry (1963)
- The Alley (1964)
- The Lollipop Princess (1967)
- Miranda the Great (1967)
- The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode (1972)
- The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree (1973)
- The Lost Umbrella of Kim Chu (1978)
- The Moffat Museum (1983)
- The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee (1987)