Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What Would Bertha Do?

March 27 - Today's post contributed by Roger Sutton

What Would Bertha Do?

Tucked into a corner of my office is an old spindle-backed chair. It’s too fragile to sit on; I keep it to remind me of the woman who sat there perhaps ninety years ago: Bertha Mahony Miller, founding editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

The Bookshop
While today the Horn Book is a glossy full-color magazine, filled with book reviews and articles about children’s literature, it began as a simple bookstore catalog. With the sponsorship of Boston’s Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, Bertha Mahony opened the Bookshop for Boys and Girls in 1916, helped by (and in no small part helping) the concurrent establishment by publishers of specialty children’s book departments.  The Bookshop ran lecture series, storytelling programs, and art exhibitions; for two summers it even sent out the Book Caravan, a bookstore on wheels that stocked twelve hundred books for sale at beaches from Provincetown to Bar Harbor.  In 1929, the Bookshop held a Doll Convention, attended by eighty-four “dollegates” who took up the vexing question, “Are Animals Replacing Dolls in Home, School and Playground?”
Book Caravan

 In the fall of 1924, the Bookshop ramped up its “Suggestive Purchase List” to become The Horn Book, a (at first) quarterly publication to send to the Bookshop’s customers, who by this time could be found across the country. If there’s one question I’m asked more often than “Is the Horn Book going to review my new book?” it’s “why are you called the Horn Book, anyway?” Here is the answer, from Bertha’s first editorial:

“We chose this title—THE HORNBOOK—because of its early and honorable place in the history of children’s literature, but in our use of it we are giving it a lighter meaning, as Mr. Caldecott’s three jovial huntsman suggest. . . . First of all, however, we are publishing this sheet to blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls—their authors, their illustrators, and their publishers.”

The first issue of The Horn Book contained notice of what sounds like a marvelous cardboard theater (sets of fairytale characters sold separately!), brief recommendations of new books (including an example of that wacky new craze, the crossword puzzle book), and an article about the Bookshop by another great pioneer, Alice M. Jordan, Supervisor of Work with Children at the Boston Public Library. The Bookshop itself closed in 1936, but Bertha remained editor of the Horn Book Magazine until 1951 and subsequently President of the Horn Book Inc. until she was eighty, in 1962. She died in 1969. Throughout her long career, Bertha and the Horn Book were instrumental in establishing high standards for children’s books, bringing attention to children’s literature from other countries (Bertha had a great friendship with Beatrix Potter), and gaining respect for children’s literature among those institutions and people who had dismissed it as formulaic pap or pedagogical tool.

Bertha was a tiny woman but left big shoes to fill, something I never forget. Every time I’m confronted with some new publishing or educational trend or scandal, I look over at her chair and ask myself, “What would Bertha do?” (“Laugh,” suggested Bertha’s nephew Arnold to me once.) When people ask me what the Horn Book does, I give them the same answer Bertha gave in 1924: we blow the horn for fine books for boys and girls. Along with such other such commĂ©res as Alice Jordan and Anne Carroll Moore (profiled here earlier this month at, Bertha Mahony Miller understood that work with children and books was both profession and higher calling, an idealism it serves us well to remember.

For more information about Bertha and the Horn Book, please visit

Roger Sutton is the Editor in Chief of the Horn Book. You may find him on Twitter @RogerReads or at Horn Book's Read Roger blog.

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