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Helene Hanff’s Children’s Books

Author Ramona Caponegro
Air Date 8/8/2007
Butch elects a mayor

Helene Hanff’s Children’s Books Transcript

In her most celebrated work, 84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff acknowledges the gift of a book, noting, “I’ll have mine till the day I die — and die happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it behind for someone else to love. I shall sprinkle pale pencil marks through it pointing out the best passages to some booklover yet unborn” (56).1 This idea that a love of books can foster such acts of generosity and companionship, even with people you never meet, is central to 84, Charing Cross Road, a memoir of 20 years of correspondence between Ms. Hanff, a reader of out-of-print books, and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller. It is also an idea that has led many people to write for children, so perhaps it is not surprising that, though best known for her books, essays, and television dramas for adults, Helene Hanff also penned a number of children’s books in the 1960s and 70s.

Despite her general disinterest in reading fiction, Hanff wrote two picture books: Terrible Thomas and Butch Elects a MayorTerrible Thomas describes a day in the life of a little boy who never means to be terrible when he engages in activities that he thinks will be terribly interesting, like adding a whole box of soap flakes to the wash and removing the fuses from the switchboard, plunging an entire New York City apartment building into darkness. Unlike Thomas, Butch’s attempts to aid his father’s mayoral campaign all stem from his desire to be helpful, but his endeavors almost always end in disaster, too — at least until his biggest mistake results in his father’s biggest success.

More in keeping with her own deep love of histories and biographies, Ms. Hanff published numerous historical accounts for children, including The Signing of the ConstitutionThe Early Settlers in America: Jamestown, Plymouth, and SalemReligious Freedom: The American Story, and Queen of England: The Story of Elizabeth I, a biography of one of Hanff’s idols. She also celebrated the then recent, history-making efforts of young idealists in Good Neighbors: The Peace Corps in Latin America and The Movers and the Shakers: The Young Activists of the Sixties. On the dust jacket of The Movers and the Shakers, it reports that “Miss Hanff describes herself as… ‘addicted to the new folk music, the new politics and the younger generation,'”2 a generation of activists whom she believed could alter the course of history for the people of tomorrow, including the “booklover[s] yet unborn.”

Hanff, Helene. 84, Charing Cross Road. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
–The Movers and the Shakers: The Young Activists of the Sixties. New York: S.G. Phillips, 1970.

Posted in Authors, Literature