Massee, May (1881–1966)

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Massee, May (1881–1966)

American editor and children's literature specialist who was instrumental in establishing high critical standards for children's books . Born on May 1, 1881, in Chicago, Illinois; died on December 24, 1966, at her home in New York City; daughter of Francis Spink Massee and Charlotte Maria (Bull) Massee; attended Milwaukee public schools and two years at state normal school in Milwaukee; enrolled at Wisconsin Library School in Madison; attended Armour Institute in Chicago for two years; never married; no children.

During the beginning decades of the 20th century, interest in children's books developed rapidly. May Massee, who had briefly taught elementary school before becoming a children's librarian, had both the experience and the imagination to effect significant improvements in American publishing for children.

Massee graduated from public high school in Milwaukee at 16, then spent two years at the state normal school and one year teaching elementary school. After a winter spent working with a librarian in White Water, Wisconsin, she enrolled at the Wisconsin Library School, and later spent two years at the Armour Institute in Chicago as an assistant librarian. Originally interested in organizing libraries in western Illinois, Massee changed her plans after she met Theresa West Elmendorf , the first woman president of the American Library Association. Elmendorf encouraged her to join the public library staff at Buffalo, New York, as a librarian in the children's room. Massee stayed there for five years, loving every moment of it and developing a keen interest in children's literature.

In 1913, she accepted an offer from The Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, to become its editor, and during her tenure saw the reputations of both her editing skills and the magazine itself grow. In 1919, Louise Seaman (Bechtel) at Macmillan established the first children's book publishing department in America. Three years later, Doubleday, Page publishers decided to follow suit, and sought out Massee. Believing that "pioneering is more fun than anything else," she moved to New York City and created the country's second children's book publishing department. She remained there until 1933, when she founded the Viking Press' children's book department, where she served as editor and director for 27 years.

Massee was willing to take risks, publishing some of the first children's books with minority protagonists who were portrayed in a non-derogatory light—books she regarded as "most truly American"—as well as stories set in foreign countries. In a 1950 interview, she commented that she wanted to provide books "that would bring the joy of living of all the world's children to our children." That year, she translated and published German author Eric Kästner's Emil and the Detectives, now a perennial favorite, the success of which led other American publishers to seek out children's books by foreign authors. Massee also encouraged authors to try something new; in 1939, she had published one of the earliest books dealing with the growth of a baby from conception to birth, Marie Hall Et s' The Story of a Baby. Massee worked hard to rid the field of "juvenile books," instead calling them junior books.

Massee was interested in illustration and design, and endorsed such new methods as offset lithography. In 1923, at Doubleday, she published the ABC Book by Charles B. Falls, a groundbreaking example of color printing in picture books. Her passion for illustration led her to seek out and publish the work of artists including Elizabeth MacKinstry , Boris Artzybasheff, Ludwig Bemelmans, and James Daugherty. Massee was the first woman member of the American Institute of Graphic Arts and in 1959 became the first woman to be awarded the Institute's gold medal, "for production of beautiful books."

May Massee edited ten children's books that won Newbery Medals, the American Library Association's coveted annual award for the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." She also edited four other books that were honored by the association with the Caldecott Medal, for the "most distinguished American picture book for children," and in 1950 was the recipient of the Constance Skinner Medal for "achievement in the realm of books." Her office at Viking, decorated by her friend, the architect Eric Gugler, displayed a medallion of Taurus the Bull, Massee's astrological sign, which she treasured as a symbol of the creative life; around the top of the walls, her motto was carved in Latin: "Nothing too much, not even moderation." Noted for being an extremely kind and generous woman whose passion was her work, Massee continued as an advisory editor at Viking after her retirement in 1960 until she died of a stroke at home in New York City on Christmas Eve 1966.

In 1972, Massee was honored by the establishment of a collection in her name at the library of the Kansas State Teachers College at Emporia (later Emporia State University); her office was transported intact to the library.


Read, Phyllis J., and Witlieb, Bernard L. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Who's Who of American Women, 3rd ed. Chicago, Illinois: A.N. Marquis, 1964.

suggested reading:

Gottlieb, Robin. Publishing Children's Books in America, 1919–1976, An Annotated Bibliography, 1978.

The May Massee Collection: Creative Publishing for Children, pamphlet published in conjunction with opening of Massee Memorial Collection, contains two articles: "May Massee: Who Was She?" by Elizabeth Gray Vining , and "The May Massee Collection: What Is It?" by Annis Duff, along with a photo of Massee.


Books published under Massee's direction, examples of illustration and of iconographic films, reminiscences of Massee, correspondence, articles and transcripts of speeches, and interviews, are at Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas.

Nine taped interviews, "The Reminiscences of May Massee (1964–66)," are in the Oral History Collection at Columbia University, New York City.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

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Massee, May (1881–1966)

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