I wrote an essay in August 2007 in the Featured Author series on Through the Magic Door which is worth resurrecting in commemoration. So few people in the headlines can anticipate having such a subtle but lasting influence as authors of children’s books.
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According to Else Holmelund Minarik, although she has degrees in psychology and education, her primary work has been done in her garden where she does her best thinking. In fact, her garden was the place where one of her most enduring ideas came to her: the idea of publishing some of the stories she had written for her daughter, Brooke, who had wanted to learn to read at a young age. Minarik (who was at the time a first grade teacher) recalls:
“I considered one day, while setting out the spring garden, that plants and children are alike in this respect – they flower beautifully if placed in the right setting, and subjected to no gaps of neglect, either by us, or by nature. I thought of my first graders, all as willing and marvelous as the plants I was tucking into the earth. They had learned the elementals of reading, and yet would, almost to a one, spend the summer without using this fine new skill, and would return in September to astonish their second grade teacher with a seemingly complete lack of memory. Here was a gap that needed mending! I submitted my books to Miss Ursula Nordstrom of Harper and Row, who said this was just what she had been looking for, and promptly began the I Can Read series with my first book Little Bear – so superbly illustrated by Maurice Sendak.”Little Bear, published in 1957, was very successful and popular for a variety of reasons. The language was simple enough for a young reader to read and enjoy on his own, yet the stories were not overly simplified or full of repetition. Instead, they were interesting and offered a character (Little Bear) with whom young readers could identify as his experiences with his loving family and friends were similar to those of many young children: visiting grandparents, hearing stories about his parents when they were young, making new friends, going to birthday parties, playing and visiting with old friends, etc. The tone of the stories is gentle, yet humorous. For example, in Little Bear’s Visit, when Little Bear asks Grandfather to tell him a goblin story, the following exchange occurs:
- Third Book of Junior Authors, edited by Doris de Montreville and Donna Hill
“Yes, if you will hold my paw,” said GrandfatherMy mother read Little Bear to me before I learned to read for myself. The stories were particular favorites and I loved poring over every detail of the illustrations. I clearly remember coming home from school one day, picking up one of the Little Bear books just to look at it and finding that I could read it. What a thrill that was!
“I will not be scared,” said Little Bear.
“No,” said Grandfather Bear. “But I may be scared.”
Else Holmelund Minarik ©
Minarik’s success with early readers for children did not stop with Little Bear and the subsequent books in the Little Bear series. She has over forty five books to her credit and has continued to write books for young readers with the most recent being published within the last couple of years. Some, but not all, of her more recent titles are extensions to the Little Bear series. It should be noted that there was a 30+ year hiatus in the Little Bear series. The last of the original Little Bear books (written by Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak) was entitled A Kiss For Little Bear and was published in 1968. The Little Bear books published more recently (after the Little Bear television show came out in the late 1990’s) are still written by Minarik, but are not illustrated by Maurice Sendak, although there does appear to have been an attempt to make the characters look roughly similar to the way they do in Sendak’s drawings. They are often focused on a particular problem (Little Bear’s Loose Tooth, Little Bear’s Bad Day) and read more like a summary of a television show. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer the originals.
No Fighting, No Biting! (another of my personal favorites) was published in 1958. Its appeal lies in Minarik’s ability to capture the little squabbles that young children have with their siblings in a very humorous way, comparing the children to little alligators. My mother frequently admonished my siblings and me with the phrase “no fighting, no biting!” when she wanted us to behave nicely and we knew just exactly what she meant.
Else Holmelund Minarik was born in Denmark in 1920, but immigrated to the United States at the age of four. She found learning English daunting and was rather put off by the language. In an autobiographical sketch done for the Third Book of Junior Authors, Minarik states “I hated the language immediately. Father coped by introducing me to cowboy movies. Mother took me almost daily to the park where she taught me to communicate with playmates. In time I became American.” Of course, anyone who reads her books will know that Minarik is particularly gifted in telling stories in simple, captivating language – a difficult feat for any writer.
Minarik went on to receive a degree in education New Paltz College of the State University of New York and a B.A. in psychology at Queens College (now Queens College of the City University of New York) in 1942. Both were no doubt useful during her brief career as a newspaper reporter during World War II and, later, as a first grade teacher on rural Long Island, NY. She married Walter Minarik in 1940 and they had one daughter, Brooke, for whom Minarik first began writing stories. She has moved south to North Carolina, but continues to write stories for children. I hope you and your children will enjoy her stories as much as we and our children have. Fortunately, there is a good selection of her work still in print.