Friday, July 18, 2008

Pioneers of Nonfiction: Ruth Heller

Pioneers of Nonfiction: Ruth Heller

Okay, I admit it. I was going to write about Dorothy Hinshaw Patent for this piece, but then saw that Dorothy was a guest blogger here. Instead, I wanted to bring up a writer and artist I admit to knowing very little about: Ruth Heller. Ruth died in 2004, so I never got to know her. Shortly before her death, I was signing at a table near where she was also signing, but she looked very tired and I didn’t want to bother her by introducing myself. I’m sorry I didn’t barge in after all, because I would have liked to tell her how inspiring her work has been to me.

The first book I picked up of hers was Plants That Never Ever Bloom, one of her “World of Nature” series that explored overlooked aspects of the natural world. Ruth was foremost an artist, having earned a Fine Arts degree at my alma mater, Berkeley. Yet, flipping through her book, I enjoyed her nonfiction rhyming text. I was even more impressed that she had bothered to write about fungi. What a cool topic! And, of course, her illustrations just popped out at me. Soon afterward, I read her book Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones, about all manner of egg-laying animals. Her choices of topics encouraged me to pursue less mainstream topics—those that kids should be able to learn about, but have not yet reached the publishing radar.

Ruth’s contributions did not stop with nature, however. She is perhaps better known for her “World of Language” series, which explored nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech in fun, colorful ways. I believe teachers widely use these books today. She also published a number of wonderful coloring books.

According to Wikipedia, Ruth didn’t sell her first trade book until she was well into her sixties, and I am sad her career couldn’t continue through a longer arc. Still, I am grateful she dived into children’s publishing at all, because I think she helped set high standards of quality, content, and beauty for all of nonfiction writers who work today. I’d also love to hear from anyone who knew more about her, because hers is a memory we should continue to keep alive. And now, I think I’ll read Plants That Never Ever Bloom to my 19-month old!


Loreen Leedy said...

I also have greatly admired Ruth’s books, and didn’t realize she got into CB publishing so late in her life. According to a bio in Meet the Authors and Illustrators (v.2), she started her career designing gift wrap, kites, posters, cards, and coloring books. It took her five years to find a publisher for Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones. She is credited as one of the innovators in the late 1970s/early 80s (along with Joanna Cole and Gail Gibbons) who rethought nonfiction to make it as lively and imaginative as fiction.

I was fortunate enough to chat with her at a conference in about 2002 and see her presentation. She was very friendly and mentioned working on some new math-related ideas. I don’t know how far those projects were developed... it would’ve been wonderful to see what she could do with that subject matter.

Camille said...

Thank you for this profile of Ruth Heller. I've used her books for years but I never knew anything about her. What a trailblazer!