Born 9 May 1906, West Haven, Connecticut; died 15 July 1988
Daughter of Louis and Caroline Gewecke Rosenfeld; married Rice Estes, 1932
After high school, Eleanor Estes served as a librarian in the children's department of the New Haven Public Library, of which she became head in 1928. For her outstanding work, in 1931 she was awarded the Caroline M. Hewins scholarship for library study at Pratt Institute, subsequently serving as a children's librarian with the New York Public Library. After the publication of her first book, The Moffats, in 1941, Estes devoted full-time to her writing, eventually producing fifteen books for children, one novel for adults, The Echoing Green (1947), and a number of magazine articles.
The most highly regarded of Estes' writings are her amusing stories of everyday family life, the earliest and best of which are the books about the Moffat family: The Moffats, The Middle Moffat (1942), and Rufus M. (1943), none of which is a proper novel. Set in Cranbury, Connecticut, just before and during World War I, each book consists of a series of episodes told from the child's point of view and are presented as a whole with neither climax nor suspense. The Moffats introduces Sylvie, Joey, Jane, Rufus, and their widowed, dressmaker mother; the family is hard pressed for money, but rich in affection for one another. The tie that binds the various adventures together is the threat of the sale of their yellow house on New Dollar Street.
Next came The Middle Moffat, and it mainly concerns Jane's involvement with Mr. Buckle, the oldest inhabitant of Cranbury, and his 100th birthday celebration, while Rufus M. focuses on the doings of the youngest Moffat and has World War I as its background. Although scarlet fever, lack of money, and similar problems trouble the family occasionally, the books are never gloomy. Mostly, the children have simple adventures at school, about the town, or in their own neighborhood, usually distinguished by some fresh and original twist. Characterization is full and deep, strengthened by the accumulation of details as the books proceed, so that the Moffats appear today as one of the best-loved families in literature for children. Warm, cozy stories which have been translated into several languages, the Moffat books hold out the assurance that good times will inevitably follow bad and people of good will and perseverance will eventually win through.
Another family story, Ginger Pye (1951), won the John Newbery Award from the American Library Association in 1952. The Alley (1964) succeeds with characterization but never fulfills its potential for interest, even though it offers the mystery of who burglarized the Ives' home in the alley on the campus of Grandby College. Its sequel, The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode (1972), one of Estes' last books, plods along, characters fail to engage the emotions, and conversation seems seriously anachronistic and inept.
Among Estes' other, less successful writings are her short realistic pieces and her fantasies, all of which lack the freedom, spontaneity, and believability of her longer family stories. Of the short realistic writings, the most highly regarded is The Hundred Dresses (1944), about a Polish immigrant girl who is teased about her foreign name and old, blue dress. Although skillfully told from the child's point of view, it is too obvious an attempt at promoting intercultural understanding and tolerance.
Estes was at her best in her earliest books, those about real people in warm, close, family situations. In the Moffat books particularly, she revealed her talent for writing about the world of children from their point of view in language typical of children, without nostalgia, condescension, cuteness, or sentimentality. After the Moffats, she was never able to achieve quite the same degree of authenticity and inventiveness, and it is generally conceded that the Moffats built her reputation and that it rests upon them.
The Sun and the Wind and Mr. Todd (1943). The Sleeping Giant (1948). A Little Oven (1955). Pinky Pye (1958).The Witch Family (1960). Miranda the Great (1967). The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree (1973). The Lost Umbrella of Kim Chu (1978).
Hopkins, L. B., More Books by More People (1974). Lowe, C., "Eleanor Estes: A Bio-Bibliographical Study" (thesis, 1958). Townsend, J. R., A Sense of Story (1971).
The Junior Book of Authors (1951). Newbery Medal Books 1922-55 (1955). SAA (1975).
Children' Literature Review (1976). Eleanor Estes (videocassette, 1991). Eleanor Estes and Margaret K. McElderry (video, 1975). Horn Book Reflections (1969).
—ALETHEA K. HELBIG