Helen Moore Sewell
(1896—1957)
Arriving on the scene at the time of an explosion in children’s literature has given Helen Sewell a permanent place in the history of illustration. Her distinct style has enlivened many library shelves.

Childhood

Helen was born on June 27, 1896 in Mare Island Navy Yard, California. Her father, William E. Sewell, a U.S. Navy Commander stationed in Portsmouth, NH, was widowed when Helen was young. In 1902, with three small girls in his charge, he was appointed Governor to the island of Guam. Sewell remembers it as one big adventure:

“We sailed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard one gray November day and later returned by way of Honolulu and San Francisco so I had circled the globe before I was eight.

“The trip made such a strong impression on me that I can still remember it well—Gibraltar through the mist and the domes and minarets of Algiers white above the blue Mediterranean, Arabs on camels silhouetted against the sky beside the Suez Canal, and the Red Sea (which to our surprise was also blue) and Mount Sinai pink beyond, the albatross which flew aboard during a storm in the Indian Ocean, and a fairy tale Christmas at sea. At Colombo a snake charmer performed for us on the deck and somewhere in the Philippines we passed an active volcano glowing in the night.

“There were sunny beaches at Guam, covered with shells and morning-glories, and the sea streaked green and cobalt, amethyst and turquoise to the reefs. I also remember well the earthquakes and tropical storms, the lizards and the bats.”

But in March of 1904, her father died of an intestinal disorder contracted on the island, and she and her sisters were whisked back to the states to live with an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn. Sewell never felt that her life after this time ever lived up to the excitement and wonder of her early childhood. She had many younger cousins in her new family and they were all important to her. Many of their childhood experiences appeared later in some of her books.

Education

Sewell never cared for school, only for drawing. By the time she was 8 years old she had decided to become an artist and never changed her mind. At 12 years old, she had the honor of being the youngest student to ever attend Pratt Institute’s Saturday classes. When she was 16 years old, she was allowed to enroll full time at Pratt Institute in lieu of finishing high school. 

Professional Career

Sewell started working on Christmas and greeting cards, soon graduating to her first illustrated book, The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales, published in 1924. Several years later, she illustrated her own book, ABC for Everyday, and this author/illustrator was off and running. In 1931, she and her sister collaborated on Building a House in Sweden.

She also illustrated some of the popular Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, at times collaborating with Mildred Boyle when Sewell was busy. In 1955, The Thanksgiving Story was chosen as a Caldecott Honor Book.

After a long illness, Sewell died in New York on February 24, 1957. 

Influences & Style

Her global travels as a child influenced her and her work throughout her life. The lure of the tropics can be seen in A Head for Happy.

Occasionally, Sewell used real children for models, but mostly preferred to rely on her imagination. She studied under the artist Archipenko, the underlying influence for her broken-cylinder figures. Her simple use of color, at times eliminating black all together, and her use of the white paper gave Sewell’s work a distinct look.

Raison d’Être

Children were very important in Sewell’s life. Of her younger cousins and niece she wrote:

“I have always occupied myself with them and with all the children I have known. It was natural that I should turn to making pictures for children. Good art for children must be intelligible to them, so I have always gone to children for my cue and inspiration, and I have found them a rewarding and appreciative public.”


Children’s Books Written and Illustrated

  • ABC for Everyday, Macmillan, 1930.
  • (Compiler) A Head for Happy, Macmillan, 1931. 
  • (Editor) Words to the Wise: A Book of Proverbs, Dodd, 1932.
  • Blue Barns: The Story of Two Big Geese and Seven Little Ducks, Macmillan, 1933, reprinted, 1957.
  • Ming and Mehitable, Macmillan, 1936.
  • Peggy and the Pony, Oxford University Press, 1936.
  • Jimmy and Jemima, Macmillan, 1940.
  • Peggy and the Pup, Oxford University Press, 1941.
  • Birthdays for Robin, Macmillan, 1943.
  • Belinda the Mouse, Oxford University Press, 1944.
  • (with Elena Eleska) Three Tall Tales, Macmillan, 1947.
  • The Golden Christmas Manger, Simon and Schuster, 1948.


Childrens’ Books Illustrated

  • Langer, Susanne K., The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales, Norcross, 1924, reissued, New York Graphic Society, 1963.
  • Miller, Mary Britton, Menagerie, Macmillan, 1928.
  • Potter, Miriam S., Sally Gabble and the Fairies, Macmillan, 1929. 
  • Rhys, Mimpsy, Mr. Hermit Crab: A Tale for Children by a Child, Macmillan, 1929.
  • Cautley, Marjorie, Building a House in Sweden, Macmillan, 1931.
  • Smith, Susan, The Christmas Tree in the Woods, Minton, 1932.
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls, Little House in the Big Woods, Harper, 1932.
  • Hughes, Langston, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, Knopf, 1932.
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls, Farmer Boy, Harper, 1933.
  • Falkberget, Johan, Broomstick and Snowflake, Macmillan, 1933.
  • White, Eliza Orne, Where Is Adelaide?, Houghton, 1933.
  • Maury, Jean West, compiler, A First Bible, Oxford University Press, 1934.
  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth, Away Goes Sally, Macmillan, 1934, reissued, 1951.
  • Sayers, Frances Clarke, Bluebonnets for Lucinda, Viking, 1934.
  • Cinderella, Macmillan, 1934.
  • Noble, Thomas, compiler, A Round of Carols, Oxford University Press, 1935.
  • Wilder, Laura Ingalls, Little House on the Prairie, Harper, 1935.
  • White, Eliza Orne, Ann Frances, Houghton, 1935.
  • Jones, Viola May, Peter and Gretchen of Old Nuremberg, A. Whitman, 1935.
  • Collodi, Carlo (pseudonym of Carlo Lorenzini), Pinocchio, Appleton-Century, 1935.
  • Cregan, Mairin, Old John, Macmillan, 1936.
  • Farjeon, Eleanor, Ten Saints, Oxford University Press, 1936, reprinted, 1958.
  • Brink, Carol Ryrie, Baby Island, Macmillan, 1937, reprinted, P. Collier, 1973.
  • (with Mildred Boyle) Wilder, Laura Ingalls, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Harper, 1937.
  • Milne, A. A., The Magic Hill and Other Stories, Grosset, 1937.
  • Milne, A. A., The Princess and the Apple Tree and Other Stories, Grosset, 1937.
  • Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, Oxford University Press, 1938.
  • Jarden, Mary Louise, The Young Brontës, Viking, 1938.
  • (with M. Boyle) Wilder, Laura, Ingalls, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Harper, 1939.
  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth, Five Bushel Farm, Macmillan, 1939.
  • (with M. Boyle) Wilder, Laura Ingalls, The Long Winter, Harper, 1940.
  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth, The Fair American, Macmillan, 1940, reprinted, 1968.
  • Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice, Limited Editions, 1940.
  • (with M. Boyle), Wilder, Laura Ingalls, Little Town on the Prairie, Harper, 1941.
  • Sayers, Frances Clarke, Tag-along Tooloo, Viking, 1941.
  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth, The White Horse, Macmillan, 1942.
  • Molnar, Ferenc, The Blue-Eyed Lady, Viking, 1942. 
  • Bulfinch, Thomas, A Book of Myths: Selections from Bulfinch’s Age of Fable, Macmillan, 1942, reprinted, 1966.
  • (with  M. Boyle), Wilder, Laura Ingalls, These Happy Golden Years, Harper, 1943.
  • Tippett, James S., Christmas Magic, Grosset, 1944.
  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth, Big Green Umbrella, Grosset, 1944.
  • Ward, Marion Boss, Boat Children of Canton, McKay, 1944.
  • Coatsworth, Elizabeth, The Wonderful Day, Macmillan, 1946.
  • Kunhardt, Dorothy, Once There Was a Little Boy, Viking, 1946.
  • Seaman, Louise H., The Brave Bantam, Macmillan, 1946.
  • Crowley, Maude, Azor, Oxford University Press, 1948. 
  • Crowley, Maude, Azor and the Haddock, Oxford University Press, 1949.
  • Crowley, maude, Azor and the Blue-Eyed Cow: A Christmas Story, Oxford University Press, 1951.
  • Eberle, Irmengarde, Secrets and Surprises, Heath, 1951.
  • (with Madeleine Gekiere) Chase, Mary, Mrs. McThing, Oxford University Press, 1952.
  • Dalgliesh, Alice, The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, Scribner, 1952.
  • Dickinson, Emily, Poems, Limited Editions, 1952.
  • Evers, Alf, The Colonel’s Squad, Macmillan, 1952.
  • Dalgliesh, Alice, The Thanksgiving Story, Scribner, 1954.
  • Evers, Alf, In the Beginning, Macmillan, 1954.
  • (with Madeleine Gekiere) Brothers Grimm, Grimm’s Tales, Oxford University Press, 1954.
  • Evers, Alf, The Three Kings of Saba, Lippincott, 1955.
  • Austin, Jame, Sense and Sensibility, Limited Editions, 1957
Potter, Miriam S., Sally
Gabble and the Fairies,
Macmillan, 1929.
ABC for Everyday,
Macmillan, 1930.
Blue Barns: The Story of
Two Big Geese and Seven
Little Ducks, Macmillan,
1933, reprinted, 1957.
Maury, Jean West,
compiler, A First Bible,
Oxford University Press,
1934.
Maury, Jean West,
compiler, A First Bible,
Oxford University Press,
1934.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls,
Little House on the Prairie,
Harper, 1935.
Farjeon, Eleanor, Ten
Saints, Oxford University
Press, 1936, reprinted,
1958.
Jarden, Mary Louise,
The Young Brontes,
Viking, 1938.
A Book of Myths, New
York, Macmillan, 1942.
A Book of Myths, New
York, Macmillan, 1942.
Eberle, Irmengarde,
Secrets and Surprises,
Heath, 1951.
Dalgliesh,Alice, The
Bears on Hemlock
Mountain, New York,
Scribner's, 1952. 
Dalgliesh,Alice, The
Thanksgiving Story, New
York, Scribner's, 1952.
Dalgliesh,Alice, The
Thanksgiving Story, New
York, Scribner's, 1952.
A Head for Happy, Macmillan, 1931.

Sources

Bader, Barbara, American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to The Beast Within, New York, Macmillan, 1976.
Commire, Anne, editor, Something About the Author, vol. 38, Gale Research, 1985, pp. 189–193.
Kunitz, Stanley J. and Howard Haycraft, The Junior Book of Authors, Second Edition, Revised, New York, H.W. Wilson, 1951.
Mahoney, Bertha E. and Whitney, Elinor, Contemporary Illustrators of Children’s Books, Boston, The Bookshop for Boys and Girls, 1930.
Mahoney, Bertha E., et al., Illustrators of Children's Books 1744–1945, Boston, Horn Book, 1947.
Miller, Bertha Mahoney, et al., Illustrators of Children's Books 1946–1956, Boston, Horn Book, 1958.

 
© 2000–2002 Denise Ortakales
All Illustrations are copyright by their respective owners.
This page last updated on 24 August 2002.

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