Giants of Children’s Lit Gone in 2021- Part 1

This is the time of year when everyone is looking back to reflect on the year that has passed and it's a time to honor the people we have lost. 2021 was a difficult year for so many people and for so many reasons. It definitely was a bittersweet year in the world of children’s literature. In spite of COVID-19 related delays and issues, there were many great books published for young people this year. However, 2021 also brought the loss of several giants in “kid lit”, people who made their mark and have become part of the canon. Over a series of three blog entries I will pay a small tribute to each of the authors and illustrators who have meant so much to me, personally as a children’s librarian and as a parent, and who have inspired wonder, delight, truth, a reflection, beauty, vicarious adventure, and the escape from the humdrum of everyday life that only a good book can give to children all over the country and the world. I’ll start with some important and beloved authors.

Treasured author Beverly Cleary died on March 25. She was almost 105 years old! Beverly Cleary created some of the most beloved characters of childhood in Ramona Quimby, Ramona’s sister Beatrice (Beezus), Henry Huggins, and Ralph S. Mouse. She won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1984 for Dear Mr. Henshaw. (The Newbery is like the Oscar in the world of children’s literature.) Her books were written in the 1950s through the 1980s but are still resonant with elementary school aged children today. Her books reflect middle class kids’ real life experiences and emotions, with a large dose of humor. The New Yorker published a great tribute to her on her 100th birthday. You can read it here.

Then on August 5 we lost Eloise Greenfield. Eloise Greenfield was a trailblazing author of biographies, history, and poetry for children. Beginning in the early 1970s and continuing until just this year (Alaina and the Great Play, 2021) she published stories and poems that celebrated the lives of Black children. She also collaborated with several illustrators to create beautiful, eloquent, and accessible picture books about African-American history, such as The Great Migration. Greenfield was awarded many accolades and honors including a Coretta Scott King award and the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. You can learn more about Greenfield in this obituary at the Teach for Change website. 

In October, we lost Gary Paulsen, most famous for his Newbery Honor winning novel Hatchet. Hatchet is the first book in a five book series about Brian Robeson, a teenage boy who survives in the Canadian wilderness. Brian’s journey is not only through rivers, forests, wild animals, and extreme weather. Over the series he also makes a journey of self discovery. While most teens do not have an opportunity to test their survival skills in the wild, Paulsen’s books speak to kids who are surviving their own stories and making a journey to adulthood. Paulsen went on to write many more exciting adventure and survival stories and some humorous ones too for older children and teens as well as nonfiction. You can listen (or read the transcript) to a fascinating interview with Paulsen on the radio show Fresh Air where he talks about his hard childhood and participating in the Iditarod.

In my next blog when I will highlight the careers of some important illustrators we’ve lost this year.

  • Tanya DiMaggio, Assistant Director of Support Services
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