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An Emphasis on Ideals in About Harriet

© Copyright 2014 Alyssa Whitmell, Ryerson University

Introduction and Approach
The First World War, although centralized in Europe, was nonetheless a global war. America declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917 on the side of the Allied Powers. Before this declaration, there was an emphasis on neutrality towards the war as American’s were told to be “neutral in thought as well as in action” (Zeiger 7). Contrary to Clara Whitehill Hunt’s support of neutrality and positivity in children’s literature there is evidence of an emphasis on gender roles, racism, and social class in her book About Harriet. Therefore, the intent of this exhibit will be to analyze this book in relation to Hunt’s perspective on war and children’s literature in order to gain an understanding of the ideals that are emphasized in About Harriet. 

Cover page of Clara Whitehill Hunt’s  About Harriet Illustrated by Maginel Wright Enright

 About Harriet is a children’s book that was published in Boston, Massachusetts during 1916 by the Houghton Mifflin Company. It is not specified where the book is situated, however, it does mention that the main character lives in a big city. Harriet, a three year-old girl, is the main character of this book. It is composed of seven short stories making up this 152-page book. These seven short stories follow how Harriet spends each day of the week as well as the different activities she does and people she sees. Through Hunt’s writing and story telling she emphasizes the role of women in the house hold and portrays the care free life style of the upper class which creates high social status as an ideal for her readers. She also attempts to portray slavery as comedic and portrays Italians as lower class citizens causing her text to appear racist.  Additionally, this is not only shown through Hunt’s writing, but through Maginel Wright Enright’s illustrations as well. Through these illustrations Enright illustrates Harriet’s day-to-day life, which in turn, portrays certain ideals that are also emphasized in this book.

Clara Whitehill Hunt (Left) celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Brownsville Children’s Branch at the Brooklyn Public library along side the Chief Librarian Milton J. Ferguson (Centre) and branch librarian Mrs. DeGogorza

About the Author
Hunt was born in 1871 in Utica, New York, and is best known for her work in establishing children’s rooms in libraries (Miller 106). She is considered to be a pioneer of library services to children through her training of children librarians and her passion for quality and positive literature (Miller 106). Although Hunt is known for her library services, she actually started out as a principle at a small primary and kindergarten school where she became passionate about the role libraries could play in a child’s education. It is with this enthusiasm she decided to become a librarian (Miller 106). She went on to graduate from the New York State Library School at Albany in 1898, later becoming the Superintendent of work with children at the Brooklyn Public Library in 1903 (Miller 106). In this position her main objective was to make libraries accessible and engaging for children, resulting in the opening of the world’s first children’s library in 1914 (Shope). Hunt retired in 1939 and moved to Sudbury, Massachusetts where she passed away on January 11, 1958 (Miller 106).

Hunt wanted a positive environment where children could receive knowledge that was free from propaganda and negativity. She published few children’s books but many articles on the topic of children’s literature and the war. Specifically, her article The Child and the Book in Wartimes focuses on the topic of children’s books and the war in relation to the influence that positive literature has on children over negative literature. Due to the fact that children are extremely observant and retentive, Hunt explains, the best way to remove the bad in children is to fill them with good (Hunt 495).  In this context Hunt is referring to the negative thoughts that children retained during the war, such as hatred towards other countries, which she believes can only be fixed if libraries are filled with positive literature to properly educate children on the war (Hunt 494). If this does not happen, she states, there will indefinitely be future wars. Ultimately, it is evident that Hunt was aware of the influence literature has on children and the important role it plays in society as well.

As well as being passionate about writing, Hunt was also interested in the influence that illustrations have on children. In her book What Shall We Read to the Children? Hunt suggests that illustrations contribute to a child’s growth. She also mentions that some parents are guilty of stunting their children’s mental growth through only showing them illustrations that they find amusing rather than educational and interesting (Hunt 43). Due to the fact that at a young age children begin to imitate what they see, it is crucial for children’s books to contain images that are not only educational, but positive as well (Hunt 43). Therefore, it is evident that Hunt shares a similar view in regards to the illustrations in children’s books as she does to the writing, and the commonality between these two mediums is positivity.

About the Illustrator and Illustrations
Illustrator Maginel Wright Enright created all of the images in About Harriet. Enright is also known as Maginel Wright Barney and was born on June 19, 1881 in Massachusetts, U.S.A (Calvin and Deacon 77). Along with illustrating children’s books she also painted landscapes and wrote multiple books.

Harriet shopping with her Mother in  About Harriet -Illustration by Maginel Wright Enright

Enright’s images in About Harriet are mainly coloured, however there are also black and white images as well. In relation to Hunt’s opinion on illustrations in children’s literature, none of the images are offensive or degrading, and are relatively positive for the reader. However, they do emphasize social class, whether intentional or not. For instance, there are multiple images that portray Harriet wearing fancy dresses, playing with her doll Florella May, going to church, running errands and completing chores with her mother. This signifies that the intended audience was likely children in the middle or upper class as all of the characters are dressed well and Harriet is shown owning nice toys which could not be afforded by those in the lower class.

There is also an emphasis on gender roles that can be seen in Enright’s illustrations. During the release of this book there began a shift towards women doing men’s work, which is not evident in About Harriet (Padavic and Reskin 62). Instead, the images enforce the role of the female as being nurturing and motherly. Harriet’s mother is shown wearing an apron cooking and taking care of children while Harriet herself is shown dressing and caring for her doll. This emphasis on gender roles in Enright’s images ignore this shift in gender roles evident at the time of this books release.

Racism, Gender Roles, and Social Class in About Harriet
Contrary to Hunt’s belief in positivity and lack of discrimination in children’s literature, there is evidence of racism in About Harriet. For starters, every character in the book is Caucasian, and there is also reference to slave owning in the text. Harriet’s father calls the apartment where her Aunt Douglas lives “the plantation” because when she lived in the South she used to live on a cotton plantation with her Black Servant, Linda (Hunt 74). Harriet laughs at this, giving the topic of slavery a comedic tone in the book. Additionally, there is reference made to Italians as being uncleanly. When describing the Sarrachino family who own a shoe store, the narrator describes them as being, “… the cleanest Italians in the whole school” (Hunt 98). This implies that Italians are generally dirty, and are therefore are represented as being of a lower class than Harriet and her family. Evidently this contradicts Hunt’s belief in good literature for children as both of these examples create a division between races and causes one to be idealized over others.

Harriet’s mother taking care of children in  About Harriet -Illustration by Maginel Wright Enright

There is an emphasis on gender roles in the book, especially the role of women in the household. Harriet takes care of a doll, cooks, cleans, and spends the day with her mother while her father works to financially support the family. When her father gets home from work, dinner is prepared and ready for him to eat. When America entered the war there was a switch in gender roles as women took on many of the roles of men (Padavic and Reskin 62). This emphasis on gender roles could be a way to prevent this from happening and keeping the structure of society the same as it was before the war. It also could simply be a way to get children to forget the war by giving them a purpose or getting them to remember how life was like before the war. Regardless, this emphasis on gender roles is clearly evident in About Harriet and when compared to Hunt’s desire for positive literature it can be assumed that this emphasis was positive and to benefit society.

Social Class is emphasized in About Harriet through the leisurely lifestyle represented in the text. Harriet spends most of her day with her mother doing chores around the house, running errands, or playing. Her mother is a stay at home mother and there is no sense of social struggle in the book. Nothing negative ever happens, except for in the final chapter when Harriet wakes up in a bad mood and angers her mother and father. However, when this happens Harriet remembers how she is supposed to behave and although she still feels upset, she behaves the way she is supposed too. This emphasizes the perfect appearance and behaviour that is associated with the upper class. Therefore, it is evident that this book was made for children who belong to either the middle or upper class.

The Houghton Mifflin Company published About Harriet in 1916. Centralized in New York City, Houghton Mifflin Company largely published textbooks, instructional books, assessments, and other educational material for schools and colleges (Houghton Mifflin Company).  However, this changed during the war to publishing fictional works, specifically literature that was considered non-credible (Houghton Mifflin Company).  This is due to the leadership of its Anglophilic editor-in- chief who avidly supported the Allied war effort (Houghton Mifflin Company). Their credibility was further questioned when the company began working with Wellington House which was the propaganda division of the British Foreign Office (Houghton Mifflin Company). This gained the company a negative reputation among scholars. Additionally, the company was largely conservative and shared their beliefs in the literature they published (Houghton Mifflin Company). Ultimately, Hunt’s book About Harriet met the standards and ideals held by Houghton Mifflin Company which gave them a negative reputation, making it clear that Hunt did not create a book to the standards she was looking for in children’s literature.

Concluding Thoughts
It is no doubt that children are easily influenced. This is what makes literature a powerful resource in teaching children what is right and wrong. Hunt is aware of the power of literature, claiming in her article The Child and the Book in Wartimes that the only way to end future wars is to give children positive literature free of propaganda (Hunt 495). However, this contracts the image that the Houghton Mifflin Company carried during the time of their publication of About Harriet. These two contradicting beliefs are nonetheless irrelevant as through an analysis of Hunt’s book it becomes clear that it does not follow the same standards that she desired in a children’s book. Whether this was intentional or not, it is clear that Hunt’s emphasis on gender roles, race, and social class play a major role in About Harriet.

Link to About Harriet
Link to About Harriet in CLA

Works Cited

“Houghton Mifflin Company.” International Directory of Company Histories. N.p.: n.p., 2001. Web. 25 Feb. 2014. <>.

Hunt, Clara Whitehill. About Harriet. Illus. Maginel Wright Enright. New York: Houghton, 1916. Print

– – -. “The Child and the Book in War Times.” English Journal 7.8 (1918): 487-96. JSTOR. Web. 4 Feb. 2014. <>.

– – -. What Shall We Read to the Children? New York: Houghton, 1915. Print.

Miller, Marilyn Lea. “Clara Whitehill Hunt.” Pioneers and Leaders in Library Services to Youth: A Biographical Dictionary. Ed. Miller. Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2003. 106-07. Print. Padavic, Irene, and Barbara F. Reskin. Women and Men at Work. 2nd ed. London: Sage, 2002. Print.

Shope, Leslie. “Pioneering Children’s Services.” Brooklyn Public Library. Brooklyn Public Library, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <>.

Zieger, Robert H. Americas Great War: World War I and the American Experience. Lanham: Roman and Littlefield, 2000. Print.