Monday, June 11, 2012

The Girl Who Loved Storytelling

One of the workshops I attended at the just concluded Childlight USA Conference in Boiling Springs, North Carolina was on writing. The presenter discussed how children learn to write and why they write, which gives us insight into guiding them in their writing education. The main contributing ingredient to those who excel in the craft is a rich background and continuing devotion to stories in their own life. Those who love to write, love to hear and read stories. Then they must tell them.

Cornelia Meigs is an excellent example of this. The backdrop of her life is America’s heartland, born in Rock Island, Illinois (1884), raised in Keokuk, Iowa where her father was a government engineer in charge of managing improvements to the course of the Mississippi River. She was next to youngest of six girls, an enriching element for this budding writer. “To be a member of a large family is excellent training for many things, among them, storytelling,” is her own testimony. Her mother died when she was just seven years old, but her eldest sister constantly supplied her with tales – all kinds of them, but predominantly family legends, which Cornelia in turn recounted to her younger sister.

Their father was their personal source of these. Apparently his talent for storytelling with unusual vividness fired all the children’s imaginations. These tales primarily consisted of the historical accounts of their ancestors. Her grandfather was an intimate acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, and other family stories included hair-raising tales of the family’s settlement of the midwest, the War of 1812, encounters with barbary pirates, and the Civil War to name a few. There was a long tradition of service in the Navy and her grandfather was a naval officer for the Union during the war between the states. The tales of sea adventures were her very favorites and it is no wonder her later books were sprinkled with them too. Her mother’s family roots had been planted in New England soil and Vermont and Massachusetts were her summer vacation spots throughout her life.

After graduation from Brynmawr she taught English in Davenport, Iowa and it was there she learned some of the tough lessons necessary to a writing career. During her early days there she did what came so naturally to her, told stories to the young children and received valuable information from their unconscious criticism. They taught her what does and does not capture their active and easily diverted young minds. Meanwhile, she kept house for her father and helped her sisters out with all the nieces and nephews. These demands hindered and distracted her until she settled in her mind that she had to carve out time from this hard work in which to write. “Inspiration attended by intensive hard work,” she realized was essential “to bring a writing enterprise to a proper end.” Her conclusion? “One must have sufficient confidence in the project to make time for it no matter what the demands and distractions.”

Out of these wrestlings came her first book in 1915, The Kingdom of the Winding Road, a collection of fantasies. In her opinion, prior to World War I there were few good books written for children and she set about remedying this state of children’s literature with a vengance.

Consequently, she went on to publish 38 books over the course of her life. Knowing her family tradition of passing down the ancestral tales, her books are primarily historical fiction in nature. Many involve real figures, such as George Washington’s entering into the story in Wind in the Chimney, Ethan Allen in The Covered Bridge, and William Penn in Dutch Colt. One of my very active young sons actually sat breathlessly still throughout the reading of The Willow Whistle, about a child living with friendly Indians on the unsettled frontier.

In 1934, she won the Newberry Award for Invinsible Louisa, a lively biography of her childhood heroine, Louisa May Alcott. Quoting from her acceptance speech, “If I could stretch my voice across the years, I should say, “Louisa, this medal is yours,” and I do assure you that Louisa and I do both thank you.”

Her devotion to her 12 nieces and nephews never faltered, her summer home at Marblehead always open to them during summer vacation. Ms. Meigs never ceased weaving her tales for them either. Indeed, she recalls them hanging over her as she typed away on her upcoming book, and how they literally snatched each page as it rolled out of the machine to pounce upon and devour the next piece of the story.

In just this way my children begged for one more page as our family read Wild Geese Flying. That book is still on the top picks of our family read-alouds and the children begging for the next page at the time ranged from two-years-old to twenty-five. Not only are her books masterfully woven tales of children and family life, historical characters and fictional characters, courage and loyalty, but there is always a strong theme of love and forgiveness. No wonder so many ages relate. Many adults may enjoy further insight into her skillful writing from her book Critical History of Children’s Literature

I personally am grateful that so many of her tales were shared not just with her nieces and nephews, but have enlivened my children’s imaginations and school lessons, and most of all for the precious memory of the tears we shed, young and old, as the real reasons behind the ostracism by a New England town of the family portrayed in Wild Geese Flying were revealed. You are so right, Ms. Meigs, good stories deserve to be told again and again, and thanks for carving out the time so future generations could do the same.

For the joy of reading,



  1. That was excellent Liz!
    A hug to you.

    1. Bonnie, Hugs back. Enjoy one of her books this summer.