Elizabeth Yates

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The Independent Online

Elizabeth Yates, writer: born Buffalo, New York 6 December 1905; married 1929 William McGreal (died 1963); died Concord, New Hampshire 29 July 2001.

Elizabeth Yates lived through a time when the emphasis in children's literature shifted from the broadly inspirational towards a more neutral, less morally insistent outlook.

But her own attitude as a prolific writer for children was always shot through with what she once described as "a strong feeling that the purpose of life is good, and this – in some way or another – might be held to be the motivation in my work". The result was a succession of titles which, while fundamentally optimistic, never underplayed the personal strength needed for characters to succeed when life was tough and the obstacles to their happiness sometimes dauntingly large.

Born on a farm south of Buffalo, in New York State, Elizabeth Yates got used to telling stories to herself as a girl when riding her favourite horse, Bluemouse, in the surrounding countryside. Moving to New York itself in 1926, she persevered with her wish to be a writer, producing travel articles for newspapers, reviewing and doing literary research.

After her marriage to William McGreal in 1929, the couple moved to England, where her first book, High Holiday, later reissued as Swiss Holiday, came out in 1938. Based on her own experience of climbing the 10,000ft Wildhorn peak in Switzerland, it is a warm-hearted story of friendship, not least between a brother and sister who explore the Swiss Alps with their adventurous Uncle Tony. Still in print today, its mixture of accurate information about mountaineering together with its loving descriptions of the local countryside recalls the yarns of Arthur Ransome, also popular at that time.

In 1939 the McGreals moved back to America to settle in an old farm in New Hampshire. Other books followed, some maintaining the mountaineering theme while others covered country matters, anticipating her later work as an active environmentalist. Patterns on the Wall (1943) is a story of a sensitive New Hampshire boy in the early 1800s who grows up to be a famous wall stenciller. Based on extensive local research, it celebrates the type of persistence and courage also found in her most famous story, Amos Fortune, Free Man (1950).

This reconstructed life of an African prince who was enslaved and taken to America had its origins in a weathered headstone discovered by the author in a churchyard. This bore the words: "Born free in Africa, a slave in America. He purchased liberty, professed Christianity, lived reputably and died hopefully, November 17, 1801." Painstaking research tracing this former slave's transition to a skilled weaver and tanner finally gave the author enough material to write the book of his name, which duly won the John Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American children's literature of the year.

Another biographical story, Prudence Crandall, Woman of Courage (1955) was based on state records about what was then considered the crime of providing equal education to white and black girls. This happened in a private school established by a brave teacher in Canterbury, Connecticut, during 1833. Both books were illustrated by the English artist Nora Unwin, a great friend of the author who eventually came to live in a house in the McGreals' orchard.

They also worked together on other titles, including With Pipe, Paddle and Song: a story of the French-Canadian voyageurs (1968). Set in the year 1750, this describes a 16-year-old lad who signs a contract as a voyageur and then joins an expedition to north-west Canada in search of furs. But he also falls deeply in love, and the reality and meaning of this momentous event in his life is beautifully captured.

By this time Elizabeth Yates had lost her husband William, and she went on to describe her experience of coping with grieving and loss in a number of books aimed at an adult market. She also continued to write for children, describing a long, overland journey to new frontiers undertaken by a pioneer family in Carolina's Courage (1964). But, as would be expected from an author who always believed in tolerance and courage, an important section of this story concerns young Carolina Putnam's friendship with a little Indian girl from an otherwise hostile tribe. The Road Through Sandwich Notch (1972) played an important part in discouraging development in that part of the White Mountains, later turned into a national forest. Writing well into the mid-1990s, Yates produced more than 50 books in all.

Elizabeth Yates had many other interests, including organising writers' conferences and working with small groups of children in her own home in order to provide them with writing instruction and general encouragement. She remembered the advice of a former teacher: "The written word should be clean as a bone, clear as light, hard as stone. Two words are not so good as one." Her own writing admirably fulfils such criteria; it also took on some awkward social topics usually ignored in her own time but very much on the agenda today.

Her decision to donate her home in Peterborough on her death, along with 45 acres of land, to the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests was entirely typical of an author who expected the best from others and gave the best of herself in return.

Nicholas Tucker

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