Frances Clarke Sayers (1897--1989)

pre-publication version

by Mary Niles Maack

An outspoken advocate for excellence in children's literature, Frances Clarke Sayers was also an author, critic, eloquent storyteller, and educator. Because she played each of these roles with passion and conviction, she became one of the most influential American children's librarians of her generation. During the first part of her career she was most closely associated with the New York Public Library (NYPL) where she worked from 1918 to 1923 under the dynamic and formidable Anne Carroll Moore, later replacing her as head of children's services at NYPL(1941-52). Sayers also lectured on children's literature and children's librarianship at many institutions of higher education (including the University of California at Berkeley(UCB)and at Los Angeles (UCLA), Columbia , the University of Michigan , the New School for Social Reseach, and Pratt Institute). She spent the last years of her academic career at UCLA where she joined the faculty of the library school. In 1965 she retired to Ojai , California where she continued to write and edit books for children and adults.

Born in Topeka , Kansas on September 4, 1897 Frances was the second daughter of Oscar Lincoln Clarke and his wife, the former Marian Busby. An official with the Santa Fe railroad, her father was soon transferred to Galveston , Texas , where he moved with his young family. Frances vividly recalled the busy port city, the murmur of the sea, the hot moonlight nights, mockingbirds and tropical flowers. Because of the intense heat in Galveston , the family spent summers on the shores of Lake Michigan at a forested resort where Frances was first exposed to Shakespearean theater and Chautauqua lectures. She much later recalled that the "yearly shifting scene" of her childhood gave her and her older sister, Marie, "an innate awareness of the stretch of the continent, of the variety of people it produced, and of different attitudes toward ways of living and thinking. This awareness, heightened by my mother's straightforward love for people of all types and conditions gave us a breadth of view which was to enrich our whole lives."(quoted by Castagna,1965, p.19-20). Frances was profoundly influenced by her mother, whom she characterized as an ardent and inspired teacher, "a woman fiercely independent in sprit, infinitely caring of others." [Sayers, 1976, p.270] Frances often recounted how her mother was the first person from the town of Jewett , Ohio to attend college, using money she had saved while teaching in a small rural school. Throughout her life Marian Clarke worked for many civic and social causes--including getting a branch library opened in Galveston . She was also very active in the National Federation of Women's Clubs. Proudly recalling that her mother was "a great suffragist," Frances Clarke Sayers wrote: "I was brought up in the suffrage movement, and women's rights mean a great deal to me."(Sayers, 1987, p. 196, p.295)

Although Marian Busby Clarke had hoped that her second daughter would become a teacher, she supported Frances' decision to go into children's librarianship-a choice she made at the age of 14 after reading about the NYPL Children's Room in St. Nicholas Magazine . To prepare for her career she studied for two years at the University of Texas at Austin and then enrolled in the course for children's librarians at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh . There she was impressed by the outstanding instructors--especially Sarah Bogle, Margaret Mann, Ernestine Rose, Effie Power and the great Nowegian storyteller, Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen. Sayers later recalled that "the passionate devotion of everybody to this work was remarkable," and although she completed her course in 1918, she noted: "we all felt how new our work was, and how important and how far-reaching" (Sayers, 1976, p.272, p. 274). Before she left Pittsburgh , Frances met Anne Carroll Moore who offered her a job in the Central Children's Room of the NYPL. She worked there for five years, exhilarated by the opportunity to meet leading children's book authors and editors and by the artistic and intellectual climate of the city. However, in 1923 when her family moved to Los Angeles , Frances took a job at the Los Angeles Public Library; after one year she accepted a position at the UCLA University Elementary School where she remained until 1925. That year she married Alfred Henry Sayers, a bookman and librarian whom she had met in New York .

After their marriage, the couple moved to Chicago where Alfred had a bookstore. There Frances began working part-time as an editorial assistant at the American Library Association (ALA)--a job opportunity she credited to her former teacher, Sarah Bogle, who was at that time Assistant Secretary of ALA. In addition to this intermittent work, Sayers helped her husband with his bookstore. In 1932, when confronted with financial difficulties brought on by the depression, the couple decided to move to Sausilito , California where they could live more cheaply and would be nearer to Frances ' family. Shortly after relocating, Sayers joined the California Library Association where she met Sydney Mitchell, Dean of the Berkeley library school. Mitchell soon approached Sayers with the proposition that she lead a three day institute on children's librarianship for librarians from Northern California . Pleased with the results, the next year Mitchell invited Sayers to give a course on children's librarianship at the Berkeley library school. For seven years (1934-1941) she lectured at Berkeley and worked on other special projects with Mitchell, including a correspondence course for children's librarians and a national institute on children's work held at Berkeley in 1939. While in California , Sayers became highly visible in ALA , published articles in professional journals, and wrote three well received children's books. In her first and her third book ( Bluebonnets for Lucinda , 1934 and Tag-along Tooloo , 1941) she drew on her own richly remembered childhood experiences in Galveston . Her second book ( Mr. Tidy Paws 1934) was a charming fantasy about a changeling circus cat. All three books were published in New York by Viking.

Aware of Frances Clarke Sayers' growing national reputation, Franklin Hopper, director of the NYPL, recruited her as Superintendant of Work with Children when Anne Carroll Moore retired at the age of 70. Although she had been Moore 's protegé and a close friend, Sayers found her years at NYPL very difficult because Moore refused to relinquish control over the work she had directed for over 35 years. When Moore returned to New York after teaching for a year at Berkeley , she insisted on attending library staff meetings where she asserted her opinions in ways that Sayers found tyrannical and sometime pitiless. In print Sayers barely hinted at their conflicts, always honoring her mentor as a great pioneer of children's librarianship. However, in her last published speech she called Anne Carroll Moore "my torment and my delight"(1989, p.748). Much more candid in her oral history, Sayers stated, "Quite frankly, she made my professional life in New York an absolute hell"(1987, p.135). Sayers then recounted how the awful tension between them added unbearable strain to her marriage and finally led her to leave NYPL in 1952. She and her husband Alfred separated at the time she left New York ; he then returned to Chicago and she moved to Los Angeles where she lived with her sister Marie Clarke, a librarian at the University of Southern California .

Despite the frustrations she experienced at NYPL, in her years there Frances Clarke Sayers further established herself as a leader in the field. During that time she prepared a report on reorganizing the children's book collection of the Library of Congress; wrote a script for The Impressionable Years , a U.S. State Department film on library service to children; served as chair of the ALA Children's Librarian's Section (1945); and wrote two more children's books-- Sally Tate (1948) and Ginny and Custard (1951). Impressed by Sayers growing renown as an author and storyteller, Leora Lewis, the library representative for Compton 's Pictured Encyclopedia, invited her to undertake a one year lecture tour. Lewis emphasized that this would be a "prestige service"--Sayers would not be expected to sell encyclopedias, but would simply promote children's literature and reading to audiences of parents and teachers. Having no career plans following her resignation from NYPL, Sayers accepted this unique and unexpected offer. When beginning the project, she worried about her "lack of vitality," but her talks proved so successful that the tour was extended for a second year. Altogether she traveled to more than two dozen states where she met many old friends. She later described the Compton tour as "a most marvelous experience" that provided her "a time of suspension between dropping one mode of life and trying to pick up another"(1987, p.163, p.135).

On returning to Los Angeles, Sayers was offered a part-time lecturership in the UCLA English department. In 1954 she launched her remarkable children's literature course that inspired hundreds of undergraduate students--including a few who found their way to the UCLA School of Library Service when it opened in 1960. As the new school was being planned, its founding dean, Lawrence Clark Powell, asked Sayers to prepare a curriculum on library work with children. She designed and taught these courses until 1965, when she retired for reasons of health. In a tribute to Frances Clarke Sayers, Powell wrote that she was "a woman of presence and passion, of dramatic grace and beauty" who had "the gift of celebration, of stamina, scholarship and vision [as well as] a passion for people, especially young people and for books, both old and new." ("Foreword," in Sayers, Frances Clarke, Summoned by Books. New York: Viking, p.11-12) In reflecting on her time at UCLA, Sayers much later declared: "It was absolutely the most exalted period in my life. It was something offered to me that I had not sought. And I found it so absolutely satisfying--an experience that stretched me, as even the New York experience had not stretched me" (1987, p. 167-68). "I loved the teaching and the response of students-the whole UCLA campus. It seemed to me so vital and different from the East"(1987, p. 240).

A tall, stately woman, Frances Clarke Sayers was characterized by Powell as a speaker with "infinite power of projection" who drew her audience into her stories with consummate skill (quoted in Butler, 1973, p.468). She was never afraid to express strong opinions, but according to a close friend, she had "qualities of grace, wit, and humor, pungency, beauty but, nowhere, is there the insistence upon agreement with her. Her kind of individuality should force each one of us to . reconsider our own clichés, jargons, and platitudes. "(Ibid.) Although few openly disagreed with Sayers in print, a thoughtful critique of her ideas was offered by School Library Journal editor, Lillian Gerhardt, who stated that Sayers was "wrong-headed in her vehement rejections of the value of research to our sector of the library profession. Her radiant disdain for children's materials in any format other than the book is a severe limitation to any vision of library service progress. However, when she spoke and wrote about books for children . her words ring clear, strong and true"(1989, p.136).

Shortly after her retirement, Sayers and her sister Marie moved to Ojai, California--a small community in a beautiful setting northwest of Los Angeles. During these years she continued her crusade for quality children's books through her writings. In 1965, after reading a letter in the Los Angeles Times characterizing Walt Disney as "a great educator," Sayers felt compelled to reply. In her letter to the newspaper she scathingly criticized Disney's work as a debasement of the traditional literature of childhood, cliché ridden, saccharine, garish, mediocre and overcast with vulgarity. This letter, which was widely reprinted and translated, elicited responses from all over the world--some writers agreeing with Sayers and others angrily denouncing her(1987, p. 241-246). During her later years most of her articles were reminiscences of friends and colleagues or published speeches. She also wrote another children's book( Oscar Lincoln Busby Stokes , New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1970)-a story of a boy who was teased about his name. Lacking the freshness and immediacy of her earlier works, this book received little attention from reviewers. The last major project that occupied Sayers was researching and writing Anne Carroll Moore: A Biography (New York: Atheneum,1972). Generally well received by reviewers and by friends who had known Moore, the biography offers a laudatory portrait with no hint of the intense conflict between the two strong minded women who shared so many of the same goals and beliefs.

Following her retirement Frances Clarke Sayers received numerous honors: the Joseph W. Lippincott Award for Distinguished Service in the Profession of Librarianship (1965); the Clarence Day Award for Summoned by Books (1966); a Southern California Council Literature for Children and Young People Award (1969); the California Library Association Edna Yelland Award (1970); and the Catholic Library Association's Regina Medal for a lifetime dedication to the cause of excellence in children's literature (1973). Soon after Frances Clarke Sayers died (July 24, 1989 in Ojai, California) her friends at UCLA established a fund to endow an annual lecture on children's literature named in her honor.

Frances Clarke Sayers' left behind an important legacy in her many writings. Although most of her publications deal with children's literature, the body of her work is rich and varied. Her creative works include two picture books and four books for young readers, a few poems and a short story, the biography of Anne Carroll Moore, and Summoned by Books , an anthology containing ten of her most influential essays and speeches. In addition, Sayers co-edited a widely used anthology of children's literature and published over 50 articles, ranging from a substantive history of children's work to a short, impassioned letter to the Los Angeles Times . She often spoke out against shoddiness, sentimentality, or didacticism and she was fond of quoting the words of one of her favorite poets, Walter de la Mare who wrote "only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young." When she won the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association in 1973, she was honored as a woman who left "a trail of enthusiasm behind her for work with children, a deep sense of literary responsibility as a teacher of children's literature, a keen sense of appreciation as a critic and a notable style as an author."(Butler, 1973, p.465).

To Frances Clarke Sayers, librarianship was a "magnificent profession," and in a much quoted speech she declared: "I hope for that day when we shall be called the belligerent profession; a profession that is informed, illuminated, radiated by a fierce and beautiful love of books-a love so overwhelming that it . makes the culture of our time distinctive, individual, creative and truly of the spirit" (Sayers, 1965, p.66) She urged librarians not to abandon their "initial function" as a cultural profession by aligning themselves with the contemporary educational movement that emphasized the mechanics of reading over the meaning of great literature. She wrote, "If the school is scaled to .[the child's] abilities, let the library be scaled to his potential power, to 'the peaks of his desire.'" (1965, p.66). In a speech given in 1937 she asserted that the power of responding to the intuitive and poetic is greatest in childhood and argued that only by being exposed to literature with breadth, depth and complexity could children be prepared to understand "what spiritual disaster is at work in the world today."(Ibid.)

Although never hesitant to criticize librarians for following educational fads or adopting the arid jargon of science, she always affirmed the value and dignity of children's librarianship and the role of women in its creation and development. At the 1939 Berkeley Institute on Library Work with Children when the author Howard Pease harshly attacked children's librarians and editors for their alleged anti-male bias, Frances Clarke Sayers spontaneously responded: "As an ardent feminist, I rather enjoy this world that is so completely controlled by women"(quoted in Jenkins, 1996, p.823). Years later, in a historical article on children's work, she portrayed the first children's librarians as "practical visionaries" who shared common goals although sometimes differing in points of view. She continued:

"But they were united in their insistence upon the ability of children to respond to the best in literature, picture books and all the books of information they sought. The insistence of these women was to change the publishing picture in this country. It was they who were to write a brilliant chapter in the social history of the century and to bring the eyes of the world to focus upon the work they began in the children's libraries of the land." ( Sayers, Frances Clarke . "The American Origins of Public Library Work with Children." Library Trends 12:12(July 1963)

Although Sayers honored the ideas and accomplishments of those strong women who had developed children's librarianship and children's publishing, she also gave credit to men such as Melvil Dewey and John Cotton Dana who were early champions of children's service, and she freely acknowledged the support she herself had received from male colleagues. In a speech, given at ALA when she was 88, Frances Clarke Sayers reflected on her family, her mentor Anne Carroll Moore, a profusion of friends, and her beloved profession. Not content to dwell on the past, she ended her last public remarks with a stirring invocation for children's librarians: "Sing about books for children, sing about reading, sing about poetry. Hold out against too much benumbing technology; revolt against mediocrity and the cheapness of the quick appeal; keep singing: charmingly, vociferously, softly, and loudly, profoundly. And may the singing never be done."(1989,p. 749)

Biographical listings and obituaries -[Obituary] New York Times , July 27,1989. [Obituary]. Los Angeles Times , July 28,1989 ALA World Encyclopedia listing; Books and articles about the biographee . Butler, Catherine J. "Frances Clarke Sayers, Regina Medal Winner.' Catholic Library World 44:465(March 1973); Castagna, Edwin. Three Who Met the Challenge . Berkeley, CA:Peacock Press, 1965; Durham, Mae J. "Frances Clarke Sayers-A Profile."(1969) Gerhardt, Lillian. Editorial "A Happy Warrior." School Library Journal 35:136(September, 1989). Jenkins, Christine A. "Women of Youth Services and Professional Jurisdiction: Of Nightingales, Newberies, Realism and the Right Books, 1937-1945. Library Trends 44:813-839 (Spring 1996). Sayers, Frances Clarke. "A Skimming of Memory." Horn Book 52:270-277 (June 1976) ; Sayers, Frances Clarke. "You Elegant Fowl." Horn Book 65:748-49(November/December 1989). Primary sources and archival materials : Frances Clarke Sayers Papers, 1910-1989. (Collection 1631). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles; Sayers, Frances Clarke. "Small Felicities of Life.' Oral History Transcript, UCLA Oral History Program, 1987. A few records and videos are also available.