Helen Sewell Biography

Helen Sewell – American illustrator and writer of children’s books 1896-1957

Helen Moore Wewell
Helen Moore Sewell

One of the busiest art­ists at work in the field of children’s illustration during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Helen Moore Sewell had a lifelong interest in depicting the world around her that was rooted in early travel experiences. By the age of sev­en, Sewell had circumnavigated the globe. She cited such disparate images as volcanoes glowing in the night, camels near the Suez Canal, and the varying colors of the oceans as stimulating her first artistic tendencies.

Helen Sewell spent a portion of her early childhood on Guam, where her father was governor. Orphaned at the age of eight, she lived with a large, extended family that provided her lifelong support and continuous contact with children, which was essential to her career as an illustrator. Sewell was the youngest student to be admit­ted to art classes at Pratt Institute in New York City and continued to study art intermittently, including a stint with the Russian sculptor Aleksandr Archipenko. The result was Sewell’s distinctive, highly stylized illustration technique, which often utilized hard-lined ink sketches, no shadowing, and close-in focus on characters.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House Prairie
Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Illus. Helen Sewell. First edition, 1935.

Helen Sewell first earned her living as a designer of Christ­mas and greeting cards. Her stark black-and-white drawings, often with highly detailed content, became her trademark when she began illustrating books for other authors in 1924. More than sixty assignments fol­lowed. Her work appeared in books by such authors as Carol Ryrie Brink, Alice Dalgliesh, Lang­ston Hughes, Elizabeth Coatsworth, and Frances Clarke Sayers.

By 1932 Sewell had illustrated nine books and she was asked to produce art for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. She continued to illustrate two more “Little House” titles, but was eventually in such demand that Mildred Boyle assisted her for the remainder of the series. In her art, Sewell usually drew from memories of familiar land­scapes and children within her family circle and only occasionally used live models. For the “Little House” ‘ books, she consulted photographs of Wilder’s family.

In addition to illustrating children’s stories, Sewell provided drawings for many adult books, including works by Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen. Sewell’s own writings and compilations were self-illustrated, starting with ABC for Everyday (1930). Among the other books she wrote and illustrated are Blue Barns: The Sto­ry of Two Big Geese and Seven Little Ducks (1933), Peggy and the Pony (1936), Jimmy and Jemima (1940), Peggy and the Pup (1941), and Belinda the Mouse (1944). In 1947 Sewell collaborated with Elena Eleska for Three Tall Tales, stories based on Eleska’s experiences in Asia and Africa. The book was innovative in its use of comic­strip-style graphics.

Throughout her career, Sewell’s illustrations appeared in a number of award-winning books, including the Caldecott Medal Honor Book The Thanksgiving Story (1955) by Alice Dalgliesh and five “Little House” titles, all of which were Newbery Honor Books.

Helen Sewell’s work was best known from the 1930s through the 1950s. Her body of art makes her an interesting his­torical example of children’s book illustration during that era.


Source: Children’s Books and their Creators, Anita Silvey.

Helen Sewell’s Illustrated Books

  • 1923 The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales, Susanne Langer
  • 1928 Menagerie, Poems for Children, Mary Britton Miller
  • 1929 Mr. Hermit Crab, Mimpsy Rhys
  • 1931 A Head for Happy, Helen Sewell
  • 1932 Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • 1932 The Dream Keeper, Langston Hughes
  • 1932 Words to the Wise, Helen Sewell
  • 1933 Blue Barns, Helen Sewell
  • 1933 Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • 1934 A First Bible, Jean West Maury
  • 1934 Away Goes Sally, Elizabeth Coatsworth
  • 1934 Bluebonnets for Lucinda, Frances Clarke Sayers
  • 1934 Cinderella
  • 1935 Anne Frances, Eliza Orne White
  • 1935 Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • 1935 Mrs. Hermit Crab, Mimpsy Rhys
  • 1935 Peter and Gretchen of Old Nuremberg, Viola M. Jones
  • 1935 A Round of Carols, T. Tertius Noble
  • 1936 Ming and Mehitable, Helen Sewell
  • 1936 Peggy and the Pony, Helen Sewell
  • 1936 Ten Saints, Eleanor Farjeon
  • 1937 Baby Island, Carol Ryrie Brink
  • 1937 Old John, Máirín Cregan
  • 1937 On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder (co-illustrated with Mildred Boyle)
  • 1937 The Magic Hill, A. A. Milne
  • 1937 The Princess and the Apple Tree, A. A. Milne
  • 1938 The Young Brontës, Mary Louise Jarden
  • 1939 Five Bushel Farm, Elizabeth Coatsworth
  • 1939 By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura Ingalls Wilder (co-illus. Boyle)
  • 1939 The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder (co-illus. Boyle)
  • 1940 The Fair American, Elizabeth Coatsworth
  • 1940 Jimmy and Jemima, Helen Sewell
  • 1940 (edition) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • 1941 (edition) The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, Langston Hughes
  • 1941 Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder (co-illus. Boyle)
  • 1941 Peggy and the Pup, Helen Sewell
  • 1941 Tag-Along Tooloo, Frances Clarke Sayers
  • 1942 The Blue-Eyed Lady, Ferenc Molnar
  • 1943 These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder (co-illus. Boyle) – last of the original Little House books
  • 1944 A Bee in Her Bonnet, Eva Kristofferson
  • 1944 Belinda the Mouse, Helen Sewell
  • 1944 The Big Green Umbrella, Elizabeth Coatsworth
  • 1944 Birthdays for Robin, Helen Sewell
  • 1944 Boat Children of Canton, Marion B. Ward
  • 1944 Christmas Magic, James S Tippett
  • 1946 The Brave Bantam, Louise Seaman
  • 1946 Once There Was a Little Boy, Dorothy Kunhardt
  • 1946 The Wonderful Day, Elizabeth Coatsworth
  • 1947 Three Tall Tales, Helen Sewell and Eleska
  • 1948 All Around the Town, Phyllis McGinley
  • 1948 Azor, Maude Crowley
  • 1949 Azor and the Haddock, Maude Crowley
  • 1951 Azor and the Blue-Eyed Cow, Maude Crowley
  • 1951 Secrets and Surprises, Irmegarde Ebertle
  • 1952 The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, Alice Dalgliesh
  • 1952 The Colonel’s Squad, Alf Evers
  • 1952 Mrs. McThing, Mary Ellen Chase (co-illus. Madeleine Gekiere)
  • 1952 (edition) Poems, Emily Dickinson
  • 1952 The White Horse, Elizabeth Coatsworth
  • 1953 Ten Saints, Eleanor Farjeon
  • 1954 The Thanksgiving Story, Alice Dalgliesh
  • 1955 The Three Kings of Saba, Alf Evers
  • 1957 (edition) Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

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