Latham, Jean Lee

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LATHAM, Jean Lee

Born 19 April 1902, Buckhannon, West Virginia; died 13 June 1995

Daughter of George R. II and Winifred Brown Latham

Jean Lee Latham received a B.A. from West Virginia Wesleyan College, Buckhannon, and a Bachelor of Oral English and M.A. from Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. While at Cornell, she studied drama at the Ithaca Conservatory. After six years as editor-in-chief of Dramatic Publishing Company in Chicago, she resigned to write her own stage and radio plays. Teaching and writing have been integrated throughout her career.

Latham's key to success in the genre of drama and fictionalized biography is careful planning. Her first published play, Thanks Awfully! (1928), a one-act farce, was followed by the 1940s by more than 40 plays. They ranged from a psychological suspense drama, The Nightmare (1943), to a Christmas play, People Don't Change (1941). Old Doc (1940), a three-act comedy, was adapted for Kraft TV Theater in 1951. She also wrote 140 episodes about the Lewis and Clark expeditions for a children's radio serial and radio plays for various network programs, including First Nighter, Grand Central Station, and Skippy Hollywood Theater. Her Do's and Don'ts of Drama: 555 Pointers for Beginning Actors and Directors (1935) was required reading in some college and university courses.

Latham debuted in the field of children's books with The Story of Eli Whitney: Invention and Progress in the Young Nation (1953). She selected the subjects from among those men who overcame unusual hardships, such as James Cook, Sam Houston, and David Glasgow Farragut. Reading just one paragraph of Nathaniel Bowditch's The American Practical Navigator prompted her to pursue facts that resulted in the writing of her most popular book, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (1955, reissued 1991), which won the Newbery Medal. Her goal in research was to become "backyard familiar" with the subject, and reviewers never challenged her facts. When asked how long it took her to write This Dear-Bought Land (1957), she responded: "Twenty years to gather information and ten months to write and rewrite."

Latham often wrote two books about the same subject with two audiences in mind. For example, the substantial fictionalized biography, Medals for Morse: Artist and Inventor (1954), was intended for adolescents, while the shorter Samuel F. B. Morse: Artist Inventor (1961, reissued 1991) was written for grades two to four. The Chagres: Power of the Panama Canal (1964), in the Great River Series, relates closely to an easy-to-read biography, George W. Goethals: Panama Canal Engineer (1965).

Latham has covered a span of more than 350 years in her historical writing, from This Dear-Bought Land about Jamestown to Rachel Carson, Who Loved the Sea (1973, 1991). For 22 years the annual book list for children included a new fictionalized biography by Latham, mostly about inventors and adventurers. A contributor in an area where few others competed—fictionalized biography about leaders in the industrial revolution—she contributed some lasting titles. With school curricula changing, a number of Latham's notable books are now out of print, while others, such as Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, have been translated into Arabic, Japanese, and Slovenian, and were reprinted again in the 1990s. With her sense for the dramatic, her strength in the children's books is dialogue. A teacher both in the formal sense and through her books, Latham has offered substance graced with humor in her fictionalized biographies.

Other Works:

The Alien Note (1930). The Christmas Party (1930). Christopher's Orphans (1931). Crinoline and Candlelight (1931). Lady to See You (1931). Sign Unto You (1931). The Blue Teapot (1932). Broadway Bound (1933). The Giant and the Biscuits (1934). The Prince and the Patters (1934). Master of Solitaire (1935). Tommy Tomorrow (1935). All on Account of Kelly (1937). And Then What Happened? (1937). Bed of Petunias (1937). Have a Heart! (1937). Here She Comes! (1937). Just the Girl for Jimmy (1937). Mickey the Mighty (1937). Smile for the Lady! (1937). Talk Is Cheap! (1937). Well Met by Moonlight (1937). What Are You Going to Wear? (1937). The Ghost of Rhodes Manor (1939). They'll Never Look There (1939). The Arms of the Law (1940). Nine Radio Plays (1940). Gray Bread (1941). Minus a Million (1941). Senior Freedom (1941). The House without a Key (1942). The Nightmare (1943). Trail Blazer of the Seas (1956). On Stage, Mr. Jefferson (1958). Young Man in a Hurry: The Story of Cyrus W. Field (1958). Drake: The Man They Called Pirate (1960). Aladdin (1961). Ali Baba (1961). The Cuckoo That Couldn't Count (1961). The Dog That Lost His Family (1961). Hop O' My Thumb (1961). The Magic Fishbone by Charles Dickens (retold by Latham, 1961). The Man Who Never Snoozed (1961). Nutcracker (1961). Puss in Boots, Le Chat Botté (1961). Wa O'Ka by P. Ramirez (retold from the Spanish by Latham, 1961). When Homer Honked (1961). The Brave Little Tailor, Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk (1962). Man of the Monitor: The Story of John Ericsson (1962). The Ugly Duckling, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Little Red Hen (1962). Eli Whitney: Great Inventor (1963, 1991). The Frightened Hero: A Story of the Siege of Latham House (1965). Retreat to Glory: The Story of Sam Houston (1965). Sam Houston: Hero of Texas (1965, 1991). Columbia: Powerhouse of North America (1967). David Glasgow Farragut (1967). Anchor's Aweigh: The Story of D. G. Farragut (1968). Far Voyager: The Story of James Cook (1970). What Tabbit the Rabbit Found (1974). Who Lives Here? (1974). Elizabeth Blackwell: Pioneer Woman Doctor (1975, 1991).

The papers of Jean Lee Latham are in the Kerlan Collection of the University of Minnesota Libraries.


Livingston, W., "A Bio-Bibliography of Jean Lee Latham" (thesis, 1960).

Reference works:

CA (1963). More Books by More People (1974). Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books, 1956-65 (1965). SATA (1971).