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Louise Bechtel Transcript
On June 22, 1919, George Brett, president of Macmillan Publishing Company, called Louise Seaman Bechtel, an employee in the company’s Education Department, into his office. He was concerned about his newly established department for juvenile books, the first such department in any American book publishing firm. Initially, Brett had hired a gentleman, but he proved unsuitable. “I suppose,” Brett mused aloud to Bechtel, “that children’s literature is a subject on which a woman might be supposed to know something?”
Swallowing her ire, she replied, “I suppose my teaching experience might have prepared me for it.”
Brett offered her the job, noting that she would be a department head, but, at least for the present, this fact would be their secret, since only men were allowed to head departments. “You will be called an editor,” he told her, “but you will do everything the other heads do. You will have the same responsibilities they do.” He offered her a five-dollar raise – to $30 a week and she accepted.
In the beginning, her staff consisted of only her secretary; later, in the mid-twenties, she hired an assistant and another secretary. “Imagine,” she wrote later, “four women who liked all that endless work, who shared the same thrill as each finished book appeared, sometimes fifty or sixty in one year. We even thought it FUN to look over the manuscripts that came by mail – at one time up to 50 a week, 800 in six months in the early 1930’s.
Her department was a tremendous success. She inherited a list of 200 juvenile titles in 1919 and by 1930 the list contained 650. The catalog describing them grew from 30 to 80 pages. These catalogs, written and designed by Bechtel, were admirably reviewed, as if they themselves were books. Her department produced Newbery award winners three years in a row from 1929 to 1931.
In an 1928 article, Bertha Mahoney praises Brett for his progressive decision to create a separate department for children’s literature, but gives Bechtel credit for raising the profile of the genre, describing her as an ‘unusually able, talented, and vigorous person of verve and imagination. [Bechtel] set a pace, strong and high, to the tremendous gain of books for young people.”(1)
Bechtel’s goal was to wake children up through the medium of books to the possiblities of two worlds: the world of reality around them and the world of the imagination within them. She attained her goal, and she also woke up the adults–the teachers, parents, booksellers and other publishers–to the many rewards of taking children’s literature seriously.
(1) Mahoney, Bertha, quoted by Smith, p. 165.
Smith, Rita. “Just Who Are These Women? Louise Seaman Bechtel and Ruth Marie Baldwin,” in Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, Chicago: American Library Association. v. 11, no. 2; Winter 1998. p. 161-170.