Writer, environmentalist, and humanitarian Elizabeth Yates brought real stories of courage and perseverance to life for young people, especially in Amos Fortune, Free Man, the story of a determined man's long struggle for the freedom that was his birthright.
Elizabeth Yates was born December 6, 1905, in Buffalo, New York. One of seven children, she especially enjoyed summers on her father's farm outside Buffalo, riding on her horse, Bluemouse, and inventing stories and poems; an unused pigeon loft on the farm became her special place to write on rainy days. After attending school in Buffalo and in Mamaroneck, New York, she moved to New York City in 1926, seeking to become a professional writer.
In New York, she worked as a Macy's comparison shopper, wrote for a newspaper, reviewed books, and did research. With money her brother Robert shared with her after he sold a manuscript she'd helped him write, she traveled to London to be with her future husband, William McGreal, an American who worked in England. The two were married shortly after her arrival there in 1929, a union that lasted until McGreal's death in 1963.
While living and traveling in Europe, Yates wrote travel articles and interviewed notable people for the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and the Horn Book. A mountain-climbing expedition inspired her first book, High Holiday (1938), set in the Swiss Alps, and its sequel, Climbing Higher (1939), set in Iceland.
With the onset of World War II, Yates and her husband returned to the United States and moved to Peterborough, New Hampshire, where they lived on an old farm they named Sheiling ("peaceful shield"). She continued to write, often basing her stories on her experiences in Europe and on local lore and events. For example, the story of a neighbor's pet lamb was the basis for Mountain Born (1943), a Newbery honor book. Seeing the inscription on the gravestone of Amos Fortune in Jaffrey, New Hampshire ("Sacred to the memory of Amos Fortune, who was born free in Africa a slave in America he purchased liberty professed Christianity lived reputably and died hopefully Nov. 17, 1801 Aet. 91") led her to research his life and inspired her most honored work, Amos Fortune, Free Man (1950), which won the prestigious Newbery Medal and the William Allen White award.
In Amos Fortune, Yates tells the story of a young African prince named At-mun, born in 1710, who was brought to America by slave traders and sold at auction in Massachusetts. He learned to read and write; worked as a carpenter, weaver, and tanner; and eventually purchased his freedom in 1769. He also bought the freedom of four other slaves, including his wife, Violet, whom he married in 1779. They moved to Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in 1781, where Fortune owned his own land and business, and even became a town benefactor, donating a silver communion service to his church and $243 to the local school.
Later, Yates wrote Prudence Crandall: A Woman of Courage (1955), celebrating the life of a Quaker woman who in 1833 integrated her private school for girls, ignoring Connecticut law. Among Yates's other historical tales are Patterns on the Wall (1943), about a painter in post-colonial New Hampshire; Sarah Whitcher's Story (1970), about a little girl lost in the wilderness and protected by a bear; and Carolina's Courage (1964), about a pioneer girl's journey westward with her beloved doll.
She also wrote several books with religious themes, including Children of the Bible (1950) and Your Prayers and Mine (1954), an outgrowth of her own strong religious beliefs. Three of her books dealt with the human-animal bond: Skeezer: Dog with a Mission (1972), a true story of a dog who helped emotionally disturbed children, which was adapted for television in 1982 (and received an Emmy nomination for outstanding children's program); The Seventh One (1978), about a man's relationship with seven dogs during his lifetime; and Sound Friendships: The Story of Willa and Her Hearing Ear Dog (1987), the story of a fourteen-year-old deaf girl and her golden retriever, Honey (Hue and Cry, 1953, also featured a deaf heroine).
Other books reflect her environmental activism--The Road Through Sandwich Notch (1972) helped discourage development in the New Hampshire's White Mountains. She also donated the woodlands around her Peterborough home to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, to preserve them from development.
All told, Yates wrote more than fifty books, including three autobiographical volumes: My Diary--My World (1981), My Widening World (1983), and One Writer's Way (1984).
In her community, she was active in library and literacy groups, and served on the executive board of the New Hampshire Association for the Blind (her husband's sight began to fail in 1939 and he eventually became blind), and she was honored by the New Hampshire legislature in 1987 for her contributions as a writer, humanitarian, and environmentalist. An annual award given by the Friends of Concord Public Library to persons who help inspire reading was established in her honor in 1994. She was awarded numerous honorary degrees, and received the New Hampshire Writers and Publishers Project lifetime achievement award in 1996.
For an article in the Something About the Author Autobiography Series (vol. 6, 1988), she wrote:
A deep and ever deepening conviction of the enduring nature of good has been my mainstay. Looking for it in people and in situations has given me that upon which I can build. As a person, I want to put myself on the side of good, no matter how small my service, and so make my life count in the sum total.
Elizabeth Yates died July 29, 2001, at a hospice in Concord, New Hampshire.