Mary Mapes Dodge: Crafter of the Silver Skates and Godmother of Children's Literature

The author of Hans Brinker, a famous book about poor children who lived in Holland, grew up rather rich and never visited Europe. She was a New York City girl, born on January 26, 1831, to a well-off family who helped her on the way to becoming a beloved children's writer and magazine editor. This writer had an unusual and privileged background. Miss Mary Mapes did not go to school with everyone else. She was taught at home by tutors and governesses. There she studied French, Latin, music, drawing, and literature. Her family's circle of friends included some very intelligent people. Horace Greeley, a hugely important newspaper publisher, and the famous poet-journalist William Cullen Bryant were often hosted at the Mapes home.

It was an inventive time for America, and Mary's father had some ideas on improving worn-out soil so it could be farmed again. He borrowed money from a lawyer friend, William Dodge, to buy a farm in New Jersey where he could try out his ideas. His supportive friend and his daughter met and were married in 1851. They lived in New York City with some of his relatives. Mary and William had two boys, Jamie and Harry. Sadly, William Dodge died unexpectedly. Mary was left to raise her sons by herself. She moved them to Mapleridge, the farm in New Jersey her father had bought years before.

Though she lived with her family at the farm, she set up a retreat for herself and her boys in the attic of a nearby building. Her sons created nature collections found in the woods and meadows nearby. It was there that Mary began to write stories, sharing them with her children and asking their opinions.

In 1861, her father asked her to be an editor on a magazine he owned. Soon she was also writing for his magazine and selling more stories to major magazines such as Harper's New Monthly Magazine. Her first book was a collection of war stories entitled The Irvington Stories. She was encouraged by its good reviews to try a second book. For Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates, she spoke with friends from Holland who told her all about how things were in their country. She was able to create such a successful story, that it has been beloved by readers from its first printing in 1865 until today.

Through the years, Mary Mapes Dodge developed her own ideas of what makes good writing for children. In 1871, she was given the chance to put her philosophy into action as the editor of the new national children's magazine, St. Nicholas which published its first issue in 1873. What was her radical philosophy? What we could call common sense standards today was news to Victorian children's writers. In an article for Scribner's*, she spelled out what she was trying to accomplish:

"But, in fact, the child's magazine needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the other. Its cheer must be the cheer of the bird-song, not of condescending editorial babble. If it mean freshness and heartiness, and life and joy, and its words are simply, directly, and musically put together, it will trill its own way. We must not help it overmuch. In all except skillful handling of methods, we must be as little children if we would enter this kingdom."

As to illustration...

"A child's periodical must be pictorially illustrated, of course, and the pictures must have the greatest variety consistent with simplicity, beauty and unity. They should be heartily conceived and well executed; and they must be suggestive, attractive and epigrammatic. If it be only the picture of a cat, it must be so like a cat that it will do its own purring, and not sit, a dead, stuffed thing, requiring the editor to purr for it. One of the sins of this age is editorial dribbling over inane pictures. The time to shake up a dull picture is when it is in the hands of the artist and engraver, and not when it lies, a fact accomplished, before the keen eyes of the little folk."

Here is a summary of her editorial policy:

  • To give clean, genuine fun to children of all ages.
  • To give them examples of the finest types of boyhood and girlhood.
  • To inspire them with an appreciation of fine pictorial art.
  • To cultivate the imagination in profitable directions.
  • To foster a love of country, home, nature, truth, beauty, and sincerity.
  • To prepare boys and girls for life as it is.
  • To stimulate their ambitions--but along normally progressive lines.
  • To keep pace with a fast-moving world in all its activities.
  • To give reading matter which every parent may pass to his children unhesitatingly.

She wanted to steer away from the sermonizing, parent-oriented magazines so popular in Europe, filled with uninteresting illustrations. How well did she succeed in her mission? St. Nicholas was hugely popular, and among the young authors and artists who were able to place their work in St. Nicholas were Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, L. Frank Baum, Arthur Rackham, N.C. Wyeth, and Howard Pyle. The work of these legends of children's literature is still studied and enjoyed today.

Mary Mapes Dodge moved back to New York in the 1870s, summering at an artists' colony called Onteora Park in the Catskills. Her health began to fail in the 1880s, but she lived on until August 21, 1905, when she at last succumbed to cancer. Her magazine outlived her by over 30 years, ceasing publication in 1940. Children's radio shows, the latest in entertainment, was blamed for its cancellation.

In almost every library in America, readers will find copies of Mary Mapes Dodge's most famous book, often in different formats. The Hole in the Dyke, retold by Norma B. Greene, with pictures by Eric Carle, takes one famous story from Hans Brinker and makes it fun to share with young children. A retelling by award-winning author Bruce Coville simply entitled Hans Brinker clips away much of the description of old Holland and some of the subplots, leaving a story which is more accessible to modern children. For purists who want the story just as she wrote it, the original is almost always available in public libraries or can also be read on the Web.

More About Mary Mapes Dodge on the Web:

Hans Brinker, or, The Silver Skates
www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/youth/classic/HansBrinkerOrtheSilv...
Read her famous book online! Includes some illustrations. Note: link on the preface does not work.

"Mary Mapes Dodge" from Britannica Online Encyclopedia
www.britannica.com/eb/article-9030773/Mary-Mapes-Dodge
A quick article on the author's life. Includes a photo.

These in-depth articles are available through the CRRL's Literature Resource Center and Biography Resource Center databases, part of our online collection:

"Mary Mapes Dodge," in Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Literature Resource Center.

*Mary Mapes Dodge, "Children's Magazines," in Scribner's Monthly, Vol. VI, No. 3, July, 1873, pp. 352-54. Literature Resource Center.

"Mary Elizabeth Mapes Dodge." Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center.