09/19/02
Rediscovering Rachel Field
    by Rita Smith

Rachel Field was 10 years old before she learned to read. Born on September 19, 1894, in New York City, she spent the first 10 years of her life in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where she attended a one-room school kept by two elderly women where, as she recalls, she "was a trial to the one who taught arithmetic, reading, spelling, and geography, but a favorite of the one who taught... poetry and planned plays...."1 When she was ten the family moved to Springfield where she attended a larger public school. She continued to struggle with math and science but excelled in writing compositions and poems, working on them to the exclusion of other school subjects. When she was a senior she won $20 in a high-school essay contest, and this writing ability won her admission to Radcliff as a "special student." While there she wrote an adult play, Rise Up, Jennie Smith, which won the Drama League of America prize for a patriotic play in 1918. She initially wrote for adults, but in the late 1920's, she published a novel for young people, Hitty, Her First 100 Years, which won the Newbery Medal as the most distinguished children's book published in America in 1929. She went on to write other juvenile novels including Calico Bush in 1931 and Hepatica Hawks in 1932.

Even if she had never written fiction for the young, Field would have earned for herself a respected place in children's literature for the poetry she wrote for them, including a rhymed alphabet, a book of poems for different holidays, and three volumes of assorted poetry all offering realistic, unaffected observations of familiar things and activities: school, the sea, hills, islands, trees, the circus, music boxes, clocks, buying toys and going berry picking. She also wrote and published children's plays.

Her artistic skills didn't end with novels, plays and poems. Field was also an artist, illustrating a dozen books of her own, as well as those of other children's writers, with delicate, precise silhouettes. Field died at the age of 47 from an operation, which was complicated by pneumonia. When she died, the New York Times identified her as an an adult novelist who also wrote for children, but today she is far better remembered for the plays, poems and novels she wrote and illustrated for children, and particularly for being the first woman to win the Newbery Award. Today she is known as a children's writer who also wrote for adults.

1 Griffin, p. 171.

Sources:

Griffin, Deuel N., "Rachel Field," Dictionary of Literary Biography, v. 22. John Cech, ed. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1983, pp. 170-175.

Helbig, Althea, "Rachel Lyman Field," in Writers for Children. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, c1988, pp. 235-240.

Copyright 2002 Rita Smith

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