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The Baldwin Project: Frances Jenkins Olcott

Frances Jenkins Olcott

(1873 - 1963)

1912 The Children's Reading  
1913 Story-telling Poems  
1914 Good Stories for Great Holidays Holiday Stories
1915 The Jolly Book  
1917 Tales of the Persian Genii  
1917 The Red Indian Fairy Book Legends
1918 The Book of Elves and Fairies  
1919 The Wonder Garden  
1920 Story-telling Ballads  
1922 Grimm's Fairy Tales Fairy Tales


In addition to writing many children's books herself, Frances Jenkins Olcott was head of the Children's department at the Carnegie Library, which was very influential in the early years of the 20th century in amassing, publicizing, and distributing children's literature, throughout the United States.
Autobiographical sketch from the Junior Book of Authors, 1935; courtesy of the H.W. Wilson Company

In the city of Paris, near the Garden of the Batignolles, was my birthplace. My elder sister, born in the aristocratic quarter of the Madeleine with exiled royalty across the way, used to hurt my young feelings by saying, "You are bourgeoise. You were born in the Batignolles." But nowadays the election officer says, "Put her down born in the United States."

This confusion, due to my having been born in the Consular Service, does not obscure many delightful childhood memories of Nantes-on-the-Loire, to which ancient city of the Dukes of Brittany my father, Franklin Olcott, was transferred. The musical French of that Loire district was my first speech, forming the vocal organs, though the speech itself faded like an echo, later in America. For me to return now to Brittany stirs tender recollections, while certain sights explain many of my tastes, showing how formative are first impressions.

There followed some years in Albany, New York, where I had two homes, my parents' and my Grandmother Olcott's. Followed after, a few years in the country suburbs of Albany, years of delight in nature, of study, of research, of kindling thoughts; for my father and mother were my tutors. My mother, with her remarkable, eager mind, fine critical powers, and delicate feelings for words, exercised a strong influence on my writings. She herself, Julia Olcott, translated children's stories from the French, including Madame Foa's classic,

Little Robinson Crusoe of Paris. She never lost her power of concentration, completing the translation of the Contesse de Ségur’s stories, in Happy Surprises, just before her last illness.

My father, American-born, was university bread in Germany—at Goettingen and Wuerzburg—and had a research mind. He delighted in poetry and in the exact use of strong or beautiful words. Because for many years he had served in the consular service in different lands, he was cosmopolitan, and his conversation was an education in itself. He tutored me in German and the classics much as German students in his day were trained, letting me outline my own lessons for the large part, and making me trace even slight details to their sources. That was no drudgery to me, for my mind was naturally formed that way.

Not to be overlooked are the religious influences of my two homes: the dignified, more formal influence of my grandmother’s; and the Bible-reading atmosphere of my parent’; for the latter held family Bible-reading and prayers night and morning, and their loyalty to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was simple and deep. Both influenced have wrought deeply upon my writings.

From early days, it was my ambition to become a librarian. Because I had been privately tutored it was necessary for me to acquire a high school certificate before entering the New York State Library School. So I took regents' examinations for the certificate. Then came the entrance examinations to the Library School. I entered and graduated.

Who can describe the radiant happiness of those library school days, when I lived with my grandmother and aunts, or the obligation of gratitude to my uncle, who made the library training financially possible! There were, also, the teachers, noble scholars, imbued by the highest ideals for library service; their influence is still with me and goes into my work.

One may well ask: What are the American products of an education so largely European in character? One of the products was the development of the first educational system of children's libraries for a whole community, by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, when I was the head of its children's department. The system became a pipe line, pouring streams of good reading for children into the homes, schools, and other institutions of Pittsburgh. The department became a laboratory to test methods of guiding reading, to evolve standards for selecting juvenile books, to work out practical problems of discipline and organization. The findings of these experimentations were published in catalogs, booklists, story-hour manuals, and educational papers, for the use of other libraries and schools. All this was made possible by the cooperation of a departmental staff educationally minded and by two expert bibliographers. A necessary corollary was the founding of the Training School for Children's Librarians to provide a trained personnel, which school was later supported by Andrew Carnegie.

Since my leaving Pittsburgh and devoting myself to writing, another product of this accumulation of influences and experiences has been about twenty-four volumes, with more than a half million dollars' worth of sales—shared by the publisher, the bookseller, and myself—carrying into homes, schools, and libraries the inspiring messages handed on to me by many others.

One thread of my own has woven itself through this my life’s fabric, an understanding love for children, forming a purposeful and distinct design—the literary education of youth—which in return seems to bring me the love and confidence of children.

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