Allison's Book Bag

Estes Based Her Stories on Her Childhood

Posted on: December 8, 2014

An American children’s author, Eleonor Estes’ books were based on her life in small town Connecticut in the early 1900s. Her book Ginger Pye won the Newbery Medal. Three of her other books were Newbery Honor Winners. Tomorrow I’ll review both Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye, two books which I have been reading aloud to my pets.


EleonorEstesBorn in Connecticut in 1906, Estes was the third of four children which also included an older brother and sister and one younger sibling. Her father was a bookkeeper for a railway and died when Estes was young. Her mother, who was a seamstress and storyteller, became the provider for the family. According to Laura Lowe, the family lacked money, but had an abundance of love, which resulted in Estes believing she had a perfect childhood in a perfect town.

Estes became interested in writing and books at a young age. She wrote her own stories as a child and after high school attended library training classes. In 1923, Estes trained at the New Haven Free Library, and eventually became the children’s head librarian there. Several years later, in 1931 Estes won the Caroline M. Hewins scholarship for children’s librarians, which allowed her to study at the Pratt Institute library school in New York and obtain her Master in Library Science. While there, in 1932, Estes married Rice Estes. Some sources refers to him as a fellow student and others as a library administrator. In any event, they both worked as librarians throughout New York.

Tuberculosis forced Estes to take a break from librarianship in 1934. While ill, Estes began writing a children’s story. After recovering, Estes and her husband did some traveling before she returned to her position at the New York Public Library. However, in 1940, she retired to write full-time and to finish the book she started while bedridden, titled The Moffats.

Laura Lowe reports that Estes had always been questioned about how she could write books for children without having the experience of raising one. To this, Estes apparently replied that she had once been a child and her stories were about those experiences. However, in 1948, the couple gave birth to Helena Estes. After that, Estes was also able to use her daughter as inspiration for new plots. In fact, her daughter inspired two of her children’s books, The Witch Family and A Little Oven.

A few years later in 1952, the couple moved back to the East coast, where Estes lived until her death. Besides writing and working as a librarian, Estes also taught at the University of New Hampshire Writer’s Conference. Estes passed away due to complications after a stroke on July 15, 1988 at the age of eighty-two. She died in Connecticut and was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in her hometown of West Haven, Connecticut. At the time of her death, Estes had published seventeen children’s books, one play, one adult novel, and had contributed to several magazines.


I am holding up a mirror, and the scene reflected in the mirror is a true image of childhood, and the mirror, besides reflecting, also speaks and echoes the clear, profound, unpremeditated utterances, thoughts and imageries of children. I like to make children laugh or cry, to be moved in some way by my writing.

–New York Times

EleonorEstes2Estes’ best known fictional characters, the Moffats, are based on her hometown and her family. The Moffats live in Cranbury, Connecticut, which is Estes’ hometown of West Haven. She based the Moffats after her family, including patterning younger daughter Jane after herself; Rufus was her little brother Teddy. Embracing the Child notes that, “While there was a dependence on family for emotional security, her characters were able to spread their wings and grow their independence through their play and experiences in a safe neighborhood.” The Middle Moffat (1942) and Rufus M. (1943) both won Newbery Honors.

Taking a break from the series, Estes wrote The Hundred Dresses which was published in 1944. The manuscript began as thirty-two pages and took six months to write. While The Moffats were optimistic stories about growing up, The Hundred Dresses portrays the negative side of childhood. In her introduction to the 2004 edition of The Hundred Dresses, Helena Estes tells readers that she had once asked her mother for her reasons for writing the story. Estes told her daughter that when she was in school, during World War One, she had a classmate like Wanda. She wore the same dress every day and was teased for this. Just like Maddie, Estes was upset when the girl moved to New York City during the middle of the school year. Estes was upset that she did not get to tell the girl she was sorry for the teasing, especially since she herself knew what it was like to be poor and wear passed down clothes. She thought of the story as her way of apologizing and making others aware of the way their cruel words hurt others.

In 1952, Estes won the Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye. LibraryPoint believes that, “The book is still popular today with kids because, for all the innocent joy of its story, the author never talked down to her audience. Young students are gripped by the mystery, and, through Estes’s evocative writing, they, too, can own Ginger and worry when she is taken. Like Beverly Cleary, author of the Ramona books, Estes had an understanding of what’s important to children when dealing with the funny and disastrous bits of everyday living.” In the sequel Pinky Pye, the family finds a small, oddly gifted black kitten on their vacation to Fire Island.

Estes received several awards during her career. Besides receiving recognition by the Newbery committee four times, Estes earned the Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Award for Ginger Pye in 1951. For The Moffats, Estes won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1961. One year later, in 1962, she received the Certificate of Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Literature. Finally, in 1970, she was nominated for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.

Recognized a writer of family stories, Estes is considered by Wikipedia to have “shaped and broadened” that genre. Furthermore, in an article for The Horn Book Magazine, Eleanor Cameron included The Moffat books among “those that sit securely as classics in the realm of memorable literature”.

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