Holling C. Holling, Master of Geo-Naturalistic Picture Books
By Walter Giersbach '61
An obituary in 1978 stated that Holling Clancy Holling “was best known for his geo-historical-fiction volumes for children, believed that children’s literature should be both entertaining and instructive and therefore filled his adventuresome tales with well-researched historical and scientific data.” This terse summary in Twentieth Century Children's Writers (St. Martin's Press) hardly does justice to a giant of children’s literature.
Holling (Aug. 2, 1900-Sept. 7, 1973) introduced me to a world that was both familiar and exotic when I was a child. Paddle-to-the Sea magnified my homely toy boat-building and married it to the alien geography of Lake Nipigon in Canada. The adventure of an Indian boy’s canoe opened a vista of snowmelt turning into burbling stream before becoming the mighty St. Laurence that floated his model canoe to the ocean. Was there ever a child who didn’t wonder if someone might read his message in a bottle floated out to sea—and empathize with the Indian boy?
Six decades later, with time to sieve through memories, I sought to learn who this writer/illustrator was. Generations of young readers have been attracted to Holling’s stories as much for his watercolor illustrations that drew on the American Realist School of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood as for his stories of mythic proportions. Paddle-to-the-Sea, a Caldecott Honor Book in 1941, so resonated with early readers that it has remained in print for 66 years. It is still recommended by educators and—remarkably—is suggested as a way to teach geography through literature. One of the books’ attractions is a Fog Index of 6.9 and a Flesch Reading Index of 75.2—indications that 90 percent of similar children’s books are harder to read.
Holling was born in Jackson Co., Michigan, where his interest in nature guided him to a multi-faceted vocation: writer, illustrator, naturalist and historian. He was the son of Bennett and Lulah Clancy, and brother to Allen and Gwendaline.
He grew up roaming the southern Michigan woods and reading books about nature, Native Americans and camping that his mother brought him from the public library. “He began to draw at age three and knew by the time he was a teenager that he wanted to write and illustrate books for children like those he had so enjoyed in his earlier reading life,” according to Children's Literature Review (Deborah J. Morad, Editor. Detroit: Gale Research Company, Volume 50, 1999, pp. 44-48)
As a child, he enthusiastically explored the area’s meadows and woods with a thirst for knowledge. “At three,” it’s noted in Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults (2nd ed., Gale Group, 2002) “he was an avid artist, drawing very advanced pictures of horses, cows, and other animals. In his youth, his father once brought him a dead owl. The investigative boy became fascinated with it, making an Indian headdress from the feathers and a belt with the claws. His love of Indian customs and ways was a constant throughout his life.”
“I was mighty fortunate,” Holling is quoted in Major Authors. “When I was a small boy my father was superintendent of schools, so we always had books about. Besides, Mother got from the library in the small town nearby all the good books that could possibly interest me, about animals and Indians and about camping,” Holling said to M. Clyde Armstrong in a Horn Book interview. At that point in his life, the author knew he wanted to make a career of producing these kinds of books for children.
Attending the Chicago Art Institute, he worked primarily in black and white, receiving his diploma in 1923. It was there that he met his future wife, Lucille Webster. At some point in young adulthood, Holling worked as a grocery clerk, factory worker and sailor on a Great Lake ore boat.
After graduating, he spent a year studying in northern New Mexico. He became fascinated with the desert, making color an important feature of his art. Regionalist art in the early 1930s focused on reassuring images of the heartland, and this style may have amplified Holling’s optimism and spirit.
Returning to Chicago, he joined a taxidermy department of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He also worked under assistant curator and noted anthropologist Ralph Linton. He and Lucille were married in 1925 and the couple became art instructors on the first University World Cruise, sponsored by New York University in 1926-27. After this teaching stint, Holling worked as a freelance designer, advertising illustrator and illustrator for other authors.
His first books, both published in 1923, were Sun and Smoke; Verse and Woodcuts of New Mexico (apparently self-published) and New Mexico Made Easy with Words of Modern Syllables (R.F. Clancy & Co.). These were followed by a succession of books published by P.F. Volland: Little Big Bye-and-Bye, (1926), Roll Away Twins (1927), and Claws of the Thunderbird (1928). Moving to other publishers, he wrote and illustrated Choo-Me-Shoo the Eskimo * (Buzza & Co., 1928), Rocky Billy (Macmillan, 1928), Twins Who Flew Around the World (Platt & Munk, 1930), The Book of Cowboys * (Platt & Munk, 1932), The Book of Indians * (Platt & Munk, 1935), Rum-Tum-Tummy (Saalfield Publishing, 1936) and Little Buffalo Boy * (Garden City Publishing Co., 1939) that drew on naturalism—birds, geography, waterways, Native Americans—he became familiar with. (Titles marked with asterisks are also credited to Lucille Webster Holling.)
Additionally, he illustrated The Blot, Little City Cat, by Phyllis Crawford (1930); Children of Other Lands, by Watty Piper (a.k.a Little Folks of Other Lands, 1932); Kimo, the Whistling Boy, a Story of Hawaii, by Alice Cooper Bailey and illustrated also by Lucille Holling; The Road in Story Land *, edited by Watty Piper (1932); and The Magic Story Tree, a Favorite Collection of Fifteen Fairy Tales and Fables * (1964).
In his early period, Holling fully realized his calling. St. James Guide to Children's Writers, (5th ed. St. James Press) saw his evolution from The Book of Indians and The Book of Cowboys to “a group of singular books which offer blendings of rare elements.” He presented readers with “a unique vision of the country, each focusing first on the wild life Mr. Holling knew so well, but spreading wide into the works of men and the sweep of history.”
The ’40s ushered in his five classics from Houghton Mifflin: Paddle-to-the-Sea (1941), Tree in the Trail (1942), Seabird (1948), Minn of the Mississippi (1951), and Pagoo * (1957). In Tree, a cottonwood watches the pageant of history on the Santa Fe Trail for 200 years, Seabird follows a carved gull with four generations of travelers on ships and a plane, Minn is a turtle hatched in the Mississippi’s headwaters and carried to the Gulf of Mexico, and Pagoo studies life in a tidal pool through the story of a hermit crab.
Pagoo symbolized what Holling worked to achieve, his wanting young people to understand that growing up is difficult. In the Horn Book interview, he said he wanted to “make children aware of this concept…this urge in a minute living thing to change and search, somehow aware that his body is developing into the precise shape that will fit in a shell he will someday find.”
“What we teachers need is Holling’s insight into the relationship between narrative action and factual information,” Terry Borten advised in his analysis, “The Teaching of Paddle-to-the-Sea,” in Learning (January, 1977). “He comments on the energy, simplicity, understanding, and appeal in the story, and the allowance Holling makes for the feelings of children.”
The story lines of these books are well-complemented by their art. Of special interest are the sidebars that make a reader linger. They may be a detailed, hand-lettered pen and ink of a ship’s rigging in Seabird or the Great Lakes displayed “like bowls on a hillside” in Paddle-to-the-Sea. Learning new information was never more inviting and entertaining. Holling was a writer/illustrator who tapped into children’s secret consciousness and curiosity.
Such richness in storytelling and illustration still makes for classical favorites, which says much about this master of children’s literature. That Houghton-Mifflin continues to publish the works in its imprimatur with their original covers and at prices of between $10 and $14 suggests there are bargains to be had. For the inveterate collector, early editions are available at affordable prices.
Still, Holling’s life and work has been surrounded by a lack of acknowledgement. It’s difficult uncovering a published biography, and many references to Holling are little more than a general paragraph describing a few key points in his life. In fact, he was born Holling Allison Clancy in the eponymous Holling Corners, Mich., where his forebears had lived and farmed for generations. He legally changed his name in 1925. The fact that Holling Corners is—or was—in Henrietta Township was clarified for me by Evan J. Farmer, in the Reference Department of the Jackson (Mich.) District Library.
He may have been an autodidact, traveling and doing his own research as he prepared his books. After graduating the Chicago Art Institute, his New Mexico wanderjahr was revelatory. Armstrong infers, “Color, which had never impressed him, hit him here as a tremendous natural mystery, glamorized by the clear dust-free air of Taos.” This newfound love was to become an important feature in his later illustrations.
Major Authors and Illustrators reminds us that Holling’s personal life reflected his interests in the natural world. His avocations were canoeing, archery, hunting, camping and woodcraft.
He was also known as a talented storyteller who enjoyed hearing from his readers. He said in the Horn Book interview, “I receive letters that make me very happy, because I know the writers have understood what I try to say. Although the action part of my stories is fabricated, I have always tried to make the atmosphere surrounding them completely authentic.”
The scarcity of biographical details is intriguing. In his later years, he lived in Pasadena, California, according to Bruce Tabb, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Oregon Libraries. He and Lucille probably found a kindred spirit in their neighbor, illustrator Kay Nielsen who had immigrated from Denmark, according to the University of Pittsburgh libraries. (Nielsen’s designs were featured in the “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences of Walt Disney’s film Fantasia.) Lucille Holling was herself a prolific illustrator of advertising, posters and prints, in addition to books. She worked in a similar optimistic, regionalist style.
Holling died in Pasadena after a long illness, was survived by Lucille, and is buried back home at Nims Cemetery in Henrietta Twsp. His manuscript drafts and book-related material are housed in the Special Collections and Archives at the University of Oregon in Eugene, while his publicity and correspondence are in the Special Collection at the University of California-Los Angeles. We can only hope one of America’s favorite authors will be the subject of a comprehensive analysis of his work. And be long revered by new generations of children young and old.
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2/3/08 rev. 2/20/08, 3/15/08 © Walter Giersbach 2008
Paddle-to-the-Sea is available in Grinnell College's Curriculum Library: PS3515.O44x P3 1989