Berta and Elmer Hader: A Lifetime of Art
by Joy Hoerner Rich, Karen Tolley, John and Judy Waller

Joyful Productions, 2013. ISBN 978-0-989-10870-6.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 02/16/2014

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Creative Life

I'm holding in my hands a charming and lavishly illustrated book that takes me back to a long-ago childhood brightened by the joyful work of two wonderful illustrators of children's books. Berta and Elmer Hader: A Lifetime of Art is the definitive and long overdue biography of a pair of artists who enjoyed a fifty-year career (the 1920s through the 1970s) and helped to shape children's literature.

Berta Hoerner and Elmer Hader met in San Francisco in the yeasty years before the Great War. Both were already deeply immersed in their art, Elmer as an impressionist landscape artist, Berta as a freelance fashion illustrator. Berta shared a Telegraph Hill studio with Rose Wilder Lane, then moved to New York, where she and Lane shared a flat in Greenwich Village until Elmer returned from military service and they were married. The two moved to Grand-View-on-Hudson, where they began building the Little Stone House on top of Willow Hill, the house that would become both a work of art and the studio where they would work together for the rest of their lives.

Willow Hill was also a place where they could invite their many friends for weekends of music, readings, skits, and Berta's marvelous soups. (It was, for instance, the place where Berta introduced her friend Rose Wilder Lane to Marion Fiery, the Knopf editor who acquired Little House in the Big Woods, the collaborative project of Lane and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I've often thought that if it hadn't been for Berta and Elmer and their Little Stone House, we might not have Wilder's Little House books today.) The Haders told the story of their house in their imaginative 1944 Macmillan book, The Little Stone House: A Story of Building a House in the Country.

In the early years of their collaboration, Berta and Elmer created children's sections for a number of magazines, including Good Housekeeping, McCall's, The Christian Science Monitor, Pictorial Review, Asia, and Century. Turning to books and producing both text and illustrations, they worked with editors of the newly-developed children's departments of Macmillan, Dutton, Doubleday, Harper, Knopf, Houghton Mifflin, Scribner, and others. In 1936, their Macmillan book, Billy Butter, impressed another Macmillan author, John Steinbeck, who requested that Elmer create the cover for The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Elmer later created covers for Steinbeck's East of Eden (1952) and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). In mid-career, the Haders were awarded the American Library Association's prestigious Caldecott Medal for The Big Snow, recognized as the most distinguished children's picture book of 1948. They produced their last book, Two is Company, Three's a Crowd in 1964. Elmer died at The Little Stone House on his 84th birthday. Berta continued to live there until shortly before her death in 1976.

A Lifetime of Art is a magical book that tells the full story of the Haders' long and astonishingly productive career with the same playfulness that so endeared their art to so many delighted children and adults. The authors (Joy Hoerner Rich, the Haders' niece and founder of the Hader Connection; Karen Tolley, director of Hader Connection; and book illustrators John and Judy Waller) have created a superb portfolio of artwork scanned from the original documents and have arranged the illustrative material in a way that helpfully illuminates the graceful and informative text. The resource sections include a glossary of art terms that is not incidentally a useful documentation of the Haders' artistic methods and materials; references and credits; a list of archives housing the Haders' extensive works; and a full chronological list of the Haders' books (by itself an indispensable aid).

A Lifetime of Art will be recognized by art historians and students of children's literature as a definitive book that not only tells the story of a unique pair of influential and talented artists but documents the development of children's book art in the formative decades of the twentieth century. Those of us who have been touched by the Haders' magic owe a great debt of thanks to its authors.

The four authors of this book have been intimately related to the Haders' work: Joy Hoerner Rich, the Haders' niece and founder of the Hader Connection; Karen Tolley, director of Hader Connection; and book illustrators John and Judy Waller. The book was published by the indie press Joyful Productions, established by Joy Hoerner Rich. Visit the publisher's website.

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