Marguerite Henry (1902-1997) is one of the best-known writers of animal stories for children. Her books continue to be widely read, and her legacy of exciting, touching stories will long be remembered.
Marguerite Henry was born Marguerite Breithaupt on April 13, 1902, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was the youngest of five children of Louis Breithaupt and Anna (Kaurup) Breithaupt. Her father owned a publishing business. Although Henry grew up in a home without any pets, she developed an early love for animals. She also took a keen interest in books and writing. She sold her first magazine article at the age of eleven, and worked for a time repairing books at the local library.
After graduation from Riverside High School in Milwaukee, Henry attended the Milwaukee State Teachers College and the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. On May 5, 1923, at the age of 21, she married Sidney Crocker Henry, a sales manager (he died in 1987).
Henry's writing career started rather slowly. She sold a few articles to the Saturday Evening Post and wrote several minor stories and information books for children. Her first full-length book, published in 1940, was titled Auno and Tauno: A Story of Finland. It was inspired by two Finnish friends who recounted their childhood experiences to her. This was followed by several other children's books, including Dilly Dally Sally (1940), Geraldine Belinda (1942), and Their First Igloo on Baffin Island (with Barbara True, 1943). The 16-volume "Pictured Geographies" series, illustrated by Kurt Wiese, was published in 1941 and 1946. Some of the titles included Alaska in Stories and Pictures (1941), Canada in Stories and Pictures (1941), Mexico in Stories and Pictures (1941), and Australia in Stories and Pictures (1946).
Henry's first book to win critical acclaim was Justin Morgan Had a Horse, published in 1945. The story is set in the late eighteenth century and tells the history of the Morgan horse, beginning with its founding sire in rural Vermont. After finishing the story, Henry went to the local library and scanned children's books, looking for the right illustrator. When she happened upon Flip, a book written and illustrated by Wesley Dennis, she knew she had found the right person to draw for her stories. She sent a copy of Justin Morgan to Dennis. When they met, according to Something About the Author, Wesley said, "I'm dying to do the book and I don't care whether I get paid for it." Thus began a long and successful partnership between Henry and Dennis, during which time they produced more than 20 books.
The Legacy of Misty
A second endeavor for Henry and Dennis, Misty of Chincoteague (1947), became one of their most popular and enduring works. Like most of Henry's books, the story is based on fact. Every year the residents of Chincoteague Island, off the coast of Virginia, round up wild horses on nearby Assateague Island and auction them off. Henry's story is about two children who long to own one of these wild ponies. Their dream horse is a mare called the "Phantom," who has resisted capture during the past two round-ups. Because the mare has a newborn foal, she becomes slower than usual. As a result, one of the children is able to catch her in his first year as a "roundup man." The mare becomes tame enough to win a race, but later escapes to her home island, leaving the children with her foal, Misty.
Misty was a real filly whom Henry spotted during Pony Penning Day at Chincoteague. The pony lived with Henry for several years, while her book was being written. Eventually Misty was sent back to the Beebe Ranch for breeding. After publication of the book, the pony became an instant celebrity and was even invited to a conference of the American Library Association. Later, a movie was made about her life. When her first colt needed a name, thousands of children wrote to Henry with suggestions. The popularity of Misty seemed to be universal. Misty of Chincoteague was named a Newbery Honor Book and won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1961. Miriam E. Wilt, in Elementary English, called Misty "one of the finest horse stories ever written."
Other books based on Misty and the Chincoteague ponies followed, including Sea Star: Orphan of Chincoteague (1949), Stormy, Misty's Foal (1963), and Misty's Twilight (1992), all illustrated by Dennis. In 1990, the Misty of Chincoteague Foundation, Inc., was formed with the help of Henry. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to preserving the legend of the Assateague ponies. The foundation's goals include purchasing parts of the land where the original Misty and Stormy were raised and establishing a museum on the Island of Chincoteague.
Merging History and Imagination
A characteristic of Henry's writing that made her "one of the twentieth century's finest writers of horse stories," as she is called in Children's Books and Their Creators, is "the historical authenticity of her plots and the vigor of her writing." Henry spent months researching each of her books. She also made trips to each story's locale and used interviews and letters to gather details before starting to write. For example, when preparing to write Justin Morgan Had a Horse, Henry corresponded with a 98-year-old resident of Virginia named David Dana Hewitt. Henry said of him in Newbery Medal Books, "In his fine, steady handwriting he made me see Virginia. Not the Virginia that greets you from paved highways, but the Virginia that lies deep in the soul of its people."
In Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, the editor states that "it is the magical appeal of history-the merging of fact with imagination with legend-that gives the Henry books their trademark." In addition, Henry was able to give both the people and the animals in her stories "character." Even though the animals are not made to seem like humans, they are depicted as having qualities such as courage, loyalty, and determination.
The aspects of Henry's writing that made her distinctive were even more apparent in the book she published the year after Misty. The idea for King of Wind initially came from Dennis, who illustrated the book. A breeder of thorough-breds, Walter Chrysler, had asked Dennis to draw a head of the Godolphin Arabian, the founding sire of the thorough-bred breed, which the breeder wanted to use on his stationery. While researching what this horse may have looked like, Dennis learned the story of the horse who had lived in the early eighteenth century and been abused and neglected for years before becoming one of the three founding sires of the thoroughbred breed. Dennis related his findings to Henry, who was fascinated. Despite being warned by family members about the amount of research required to write a story that went from Morocco to France to England, Henry took on the project. "With great excitement I began to probe and pry into the life of this famous stallion who had rubbed shoulders with sultans and kings, with cooks and carters," Henry said in Children's Literature Review. To put herself "into the long ago and far away," Henry tacked up in her study photocopies of pictures from the time and place of the stallion's life. Soon, she said, "It was the present that grew dim and the long ago that became real!"
King of the Wind, published in 1948, won the Newbery Medal in 1949 and the Young Readers Choice Award in 1951. In addition to being historically accurate, the book was an exciting adventure story. It described how a mute stable boy cared for the Moroccan colt, which was later presented to the young king of France. Rejected by royalty, the stallion was forced to endure years of hard labor and abuse before becoming the famous sire.
Henry wrote many other horse books, several of which won awards. Some of these include Born to Trot (1950), Black Gold (1957), Guadenzia: Pride of the Palio (1960), White Stallion of Lipizza (1964), Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West (1966), and San Domingo: The Medicine Hat Stallion (1972). Horses were not the only heroes in Henry's stories. In 1953, she published Brighty of the Grand Canyon, a book about a burro whose loyalty and perseverance in the face of many trials endeared him to young readers. Brighty won the William Allen White Award in 1956. Other animals featured in Henry's books include dogs (A Boy and a Dog, 1944; Muley-Ears: Nobody's Dog, 1959); birds (Birds at Home, 1942); foxes (Cinnabar: The One O'Clock Fox, 1956); and cats Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin, a fictional biography, 1947).
In addition to her fictional animal stories, Henry wrote nonfiction as well. Robert Fulton: Boy Craftsman (1946) is believed by some to be the best of the series called "The Childhood of Famous Americans." Another nonfiction book by Henry is Album of Horses (1951), which describes many different breeds of horses, their histories and characteristics. Henry also wrote an Album of Dogs (1955). The Little Fellow (1945), though fiction, is aimed toward younger children and uses animal characters to help children learn about growing up and getting along with others. In addition to her books, Henry contributed to several magazines, including Delineator, Forum, Nations' Business, Reader's Digest, and Saturday Evening Post. She also wrote for World Book Encyclopedia.
Some of Henry's most popular books were made into movies. These films include Misty (Twentieth-Century Fox, 1961); Brighty of the Grand Canyon (Feature Film Corporation, 1967); Justin Morgan Had a Horse (Walt Disney Productions, 1972); Peter Lundy and the Medicine Hat Stallion (National Broadcasting Company, 1977, based on the book San Domingo: The Medicine Hat Stallion); and King of the Wind (HTV, London, 1990).
Henry enjoyed her work. As she said in Newbery Medal Books, "The doing is always so much more fun than the getting through. The only really dismal days in my life are those when I turn in a manuscript. I am suddenly bereft.… And then, oh happy relief! In a little while the manuscript is back home, with blessed little question marks along the margin. Then once again, I'm happy, I've got work to do!"
In 1996, Henry completed her last book, Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley. The story is about a ten-year-old girl who longs to own a horse. She and her father purchase a broken-down old mare at an auction, and with love and care from the girl, Lady Sue begins to thrive. She gives birth to Brown Sunshine, a spirited mule, who is crowned king of the Mule Day Celebration.
Henry died at her home in Rancho Sante Fe, California, on November 26, 1997; she was 95 years old. By the time of her death she had published more than 60 books for children. Her books continue to be widely read, and her legacy of exciting, touching animal stories for children will long be remembered.
Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Something About the Author, Vol. 69, edited by Donna Olendorf, Gale Research Inc., 1992.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, edited by Laura Standley Berger, St. James Press, 1995.
Publishers Weekly, December 15, 1997.
"Marguerite Henry," Misty of Chincoteague Foundation, Inc.,http://www.modelhorses.com/mcf (March 1, 1999). □