Elizabeth Coatsworth has been a well-known name in children’s literature for many decades. She was born in 1893 and her first book was published in 1927 just as separate departments for children’s books were being established in American publishing. Her last book for children was published in 1975, eleven years before her death in 1986. In 1931 she won the Newbery Medal for The Cat Who Went to Heaven, a book inspired by her many travels and her “painter’s eye for color and form” that had been so evident in her earlier books of poetry for adults. Her fellow Vassar classmate and the first children’s book editor at Macmillan’s, Louise Seaman Bechtel, wrote, “She took on her journeys a brilliant mind, a flair for the strange and picturesque, a lively interest in all kinds of people. She gradually discovered, in the years that followed, many ways to interpret her emotional and intellectual response to far places, in prose and verse.” (Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955). Though this Newbery Award title has remained in print, the author became known and loved by many readers more through her succeeding work—including the stories and often-cited poetry in the five volumes about Sally.
Despite the fact that Elizabeth Coatsworth was born in Buffalo, New York, and began a lifetime of world traveling at the age of five, she gave her heart to New England, particularly the state of Maine. It is here that many of her more than 90 books are centered. Her husband, writer and naturalist Henry Beston whom she married in 1929, and her two daughters, Margaret and Catherine, shared her love for their farm in Maine.
The five acclaimed “Sally” books are a happy blend of a keen historical and geographical feel for both New England and its place in the larger world in the years after the American Revolution. In the author’s own words she tried to “give some of the exciting aspects of a life at once civilized and lived on a frontier near the sea, when our trade was just expanding.” Ruth Hill Viguers further writes about the “Sally” books in A Critical History of Children’s History:
“Elizabeth Coatsworth also recaptured for children the enchantment she has long felt for Maine. . . Her first period story, Away Goes Sally (1934), made the most of the entrancing idea of living in a little house on runners, slowly sliding through the snowy New England roads and forests, drawn by twelve strong oxen, to transport its occupants from Massachusetts to a new home in Maine. A great deal of kindly humor is woven throughout the story of Sally and her aunts and uncles and with the many lively events are glimpses of the quiet beauty of the New England winter. Some of Miss Coatsworth’s loveliest poetry is to be found between the chapters of this and other books, but her prose, too, is that of a poet, lucent and concise. Four other books about Sally followed as her heroine grew up: Five Bushel Farm (1939), The Fair American (1940), The White Horse (1942), and The Wonderful Day (1946). There is no sacrifice of reality in the more colorful plots and settings of these stories. The clarity of style carries conviction, and, with no extra words the reader is kept aware of the excitement in beauty everywhere, the friendly comfort of life on the well-loved Maine farm, the joy of being aboard a trim ship with salt wind on one’s face, the strange magic of North Africa and alien ways.
Another source has this to say about the appealing interpersonal landscape which is also an authentic aspect of the geographical and social period: “Away Goes Sally (1934) introduces us to an early 19th century family of three sisters and two brothers who are raising an orphaned niece. The interplay of family relationships is excellent . . . All the small details of living are interestingly worked into the stories; the children are obedient but resourceful; family cooperation is the normal state of affairs.” (Children and Books, Fifth edition) This portrayal of family loyalty and love, not the less strong for often being undemonstrative, is of particular worth today in laying down an imaginative foundation for hope and encouragement in a world where such things are no longer clearly delineated.
It should come as no surprise that the works of Elizabeth Coatsworth, with their intelligent simplicity and picture-evoking poetry of language, continue to demonstrate a timeless appeal to the host of new readers, both young and old, of today.