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"I'd Better Make It a
Good One!"

One Mother’s Objectives for Each Day
Made Her a Lively and Loving Author

By Barbara Smith

I met Mrs. de Angeli for the first time when our daughter was discovering the freedom her own library card brought. She selected Thee, Hannah!, a fictional story about a young Quaker girl living in Philadelphia in the early 1840's. Thee, Hannah captured our daughter's imagination and introduced her to special facets of the underground railroad and people who risked their lives to practice their faith. History now engaged our youngest child because Hannah was a child our daughter understood. I began searching for more of Mrs. de Angeli's work and I wondered about the writer who told such lovely stories.

Marguerite de Angeli was the beloved friend of generations of young readers and the author of more than twenty books, and many of them acclaimed as “classics.” Bright April was named an Honor Book in the New York Tribune’s book awards in 1946. She won the Newbery Medal in 1950 for The Door in the Wall and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1961. Yet, Marguerite de Angeli’s formal education did not go much beyond high school. Her plots are straightforward, her characters, uncomplicated. However, her books reflect the labor of love she lavished on each subject by careful research, interviews and travel. When she died in 1971, her stories and her illustrations had delighted and informed children and their parents worldwide.

The Essence of Her Creativity:
Honesty, Humor and Zeal

She was a noteworthy woman. First, because she decided to be the best wife and mother she could be, and second, the most accomplished illustrator and writer she could train herself to be. Her life was remarkable, not for the range of human experiences she tasted, but for her passion, each day, to make the day a good one, especially for her family. Her vitality thus influenced her craft. Her philosophy of mothering and writing remains current, plain-spoken and compassionate.

Fifty years ago, she eloquently expressed a sentiment that moms today have when household duties swamp their dreams:

"Sometimes I see myself standing beside the dining room table, eager to begin or continue a drawing or a page of manuscript and thinking to myself, if only I didn't have to iron Nina's dress or mend Maury's trousers or sew that button I could -- then sternly reminding myself of a happy day in my childhood, I would think, Perhaps this will be one of those days my children will remember. I'd better make it a good one!" (Marguerite de Angeli, Butter at the Old Price, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1971, p.163.)

Her Roots and Reasons for Writing
She was born in Michigan in 1889. Before she married John Dailey de Angeli (Dai) in 1911, Marguerite Lofft had moved to Philadelphia with her family. She was intent on a career as a concert singer, until she met Dai. Marguerite de Angeli was married almost sixty years to Dai, who encouraged and supported her later career as an illustrator and author. Five of their six children lived, and she and her husband were the proud grandparents of thirteen grandchildren.

Her "literary" career began as self-taught illustrator in 1922 for the Presbyterian Sunday school papers published by Westminster Press, and continued for almost fifty years. She said of her work,

"Wherever I was or whatever I was doing, ideas raced through my head for a book, something I wished to draw or tell about. Why this compulsion to write or draw, I don't know. Perhaps it is to share something or to help remembrance of an interesting or pleasant experience . . . " (de Angeli, p.157)

In 1936 she began writing her own books. Her own happy childhood is the source of some of her stories, and the title of her autobiography, Butter at the Old Price comes from a funny family story. A neighbor, whose housekeeping was shoddy, never understood why she couldn't sell her butter, which frequently had ashes in it, for the same good price as another neighbor, who was careful and tidy. The storekeeper promised her the same amount if she turned in clean pure butter. Determined to bring in a better wage, she set her churned butter in a bowl under the table. Alas, one of her little ones slipped and sat down in the butter she had prepared to go to market.

"With a sigh of impatience [she] picked up the child, slatted the butter into the bowl and mournfully said: `Butter'll have to go at the old price again.'" (de Angeli, p 11-12.)

Throughout her life she wrote, when something has gone less well than one had hoped . . . "we console ourselves with ‘butter at the old price' and start over again.’” (de Angeli, p 12.) This merry little anecdote comforted her when her manuscripts or drawings flopped.

“Sometimes the drawings showed improvement. Other times I simply did the best I could and when it was time to deliver them and they were far from perfect, I simply said to myself, ‘Well, butter must go at the old price again.’” (de Angeli, p.95.)

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Mrs. de Angeli had no machines or services. To produce the clean diapers for her three children, she boiled loads of soiled linens for twenty minutes. She did not have the mechanical wonders that even in today’s most modest homes are standard. Getting rid of dust and dirt and preparing three meals a day was complicated and hard work! Yet, she established a routine that eventually gave her the time to develop her talents and pursue her dreams.

In the Great Depression, she wrote that although they had no money or stocks to lose, "We had health and each other, the same stories to tell, the same music to lift our hearts, and boundless optimism." (de Angeli, p. 108.) Her own determination and humor continue to be an example to weary wives and mothers who juggle their family, their finances, and their dreams.

"Sometimes, with the multiplicity of things to do," she wrote, "I threw up my hands in despair. What to do first? Then I said to myself and often, out loud so I would hear it, "Now, quietly, calmly, think what should be done first. One thing at a time, as if there were no others. One thing. Clear the table, make the beds, sort the papers lying there and do one thing. Then I calmed down and little by little things were done and I could concentrate on the drawings or the writing that troubled me . . ..

. . ."The house wasn't always in perfect order, because the children were allowed to feel it was their house as well as ours. . . . But one place was inviolate, the sideboard in the dining room . . . I insisted that nothing, absolutely nothing could be laid upon it except what belonged there . . . The children learned to respect this and I hoped that one tidy place would declare my real sense of order in the midst of confusion created by the children's growing up. I had two rules: ‘Do it now’ and ‘Never lay anything down.’”(de Angeli, pp 96-97.)

Her common sense and love for children were genuinely a solid combination. She wrote,

"Some of the articles I illustrated were written by psychologists about the care and rearing of children. At that time permissiveness was the current theory and practice with children. I knew by experience that a too permissive attitude was not in the best interest of the children and certainly not of the parent. I had no academic training in psychology to back me up, but I had a certain amount of common sense, which told me that when a child goes out into the world he must consider others and not his own will without regard to his fellow man. . . . " (de Angeli, p. 103)

The Results of Her Writing
Whether historical or contemporary, the subjects of her books centered on an experience familiar to most children: a trip to the grocery store or some everyday adventure. She did careful research and was mindful of dialect. She pored over magazine covers and illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, Alice Barber Stephen, Elizabeth Shippen Green, N.C. Wyeth, and Howard Pyle. The pressure of child care and household duties kept her from always drawing what she saw. She carried scraps of paper in her purse, sometimes for a year, on which she record her children's brilliant remarks, hoping she could use them.

Her admirers included Hendrik Willem Van Loon, popular historian and author of The Story of Mankind, winner of the first Newbery Medal in 1921 who wrote about Skippack School:

"You have not only brought great joy to the little boy in Hendrik Willem, but you have once more filled the world with so much charm and gaiety that all of us are deeply in your debt. Best wishes and for the sake of the children I hope that your book will find its way to several million homes for God knows we need such a cheerful antidote to make us forget the inexcusable mess we have made of a world that could be such a lovely world indeed." (de Angeli, p.142)

The contemporary children's literary community is barely preserving her work. Only one or two are ever reprinted for sale. Most of her books, if they remain in circulation, are hard to find in many public libraries. However, children’s works by Marguerite de Angeli are worth pursuing for their wholesome simplicity and their windows into a bygone era. Marguerite de Angeli is worth reflecting upon for her joy and zeal to be the very best woman, wife, mother and writer she could be.

Listing of books worth seeking by Marguerite de Angeli

  • Ted and Nina Go to the Grocery Store
  • Ted and Nina Spend a Happy Rainy Day
  • Henner's Lydia
  • Petite Suzanne
  • Copper-Toed Boots
  • Skippack School
  • A Summer Day with Ted and Nina
  • Thee Hannah!
  • Elin's Amerika
  • Up the Hill
  • Yonie Wondernose
  • Turkey for Christmas
  • Bright April
  • Jared's Island
  • The Door in the Wall
  • Just Like David
  • Book of Nursery and Mother Goose Rhymes
  • Black Fox of Lorne
  • The Old Testament
  • A Pocket Full of Posies
  • Marguerite De Angeli's Book of Favorite Hymns
  • The Goose Girl
  • Butter at the Old Price

Marguerite deAngeli Collection

You can check out the Marguerite deAngeli Collection at the Lapeer County Library, MI, on the Internet.

©Barbara W Smith


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Barbara & Douglas Smith
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