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Marguerite de Angeli, Award-Winning Author and Illustrator

September 1, 2010

Marguerite de Angeli is one of Germantown’s most treasured and well-known artistic residents despite her brief tenure here, as she offered the area several award-winning and bestselling children’s books directly dedicated to its unique history. She spent much of her adult life in Philadelphia, and lived in Germantown for only a few years, but the village’s impact on her literature was tremendous.

For about two years in the mid-1940s—de Angeli moved around a lot, and its hard to pin down an exact time frame—de Angeli lived in what she refers to in her autobiography Butter at the Old Price, “a sturdy stone house on Carpenter Lane in Germantown” that she, her husband, and her children moved to in search of a sense of community that their old home had lacked. The library, public schools, community and its people would all play a great role (including character inspirations) in shaping the books de Angeli would write while living in this “spacious and homelike” house.

The area provided a wealth of inspiration for de Angeli, who was noted for her immaculate research: the nearby Skippack School, for example, was the inspiration for an eponymous book on dedicated schoolmaster Christopher Dock (1939); Elin’s Amerika (1941) describes the Delaware Valley’s first Swedish settlement; and Turkey For Christmas (1944) was de Angeli’s childhood memories of her struggling family’s first Christmas in Philadelphia at the turn of the century.

But Germantown’s starring role came in 1946’s Bright April. The story of a nine-year-old black girl beginning to understand the repercussions of prejudice and racism as she grows up in Germantown, the book was an incredibly daring one for its time. As someone who often sought out topics and people ignored by other writers, de Angeli had been longing to write a story on a young black girl since 1940, but her publishers worried that the topic was too risky for a white children’s book author.

Illustration from 'Bright April', published in 1946.

It was Germantown that finally brought Bright April to fruition. She sought out a number of members of the village’s black community, who engaged in honest conversations with her about the kind of book they wanted to see and pointed her to other friends and community members who had more to share.

She describes in her autobiography a discussion with Nellie Bright, a woman who provided not only a last name, but a great deal of understanding, for de Angeli’s character and what she would represent. Nellie told de Angeli that as a child she had told a teacher that she wanted to teach at a girl’s college, to which the teacher replied, “Don’t you know you can’t do that?” “We wept together,” de Angeli writes. “This was new to my experience and heartbreaking.” A very similar experience appears in Bright April.

Furthermore, Germantown provided the story’s setting, almost a character itself : “The drawings I did for Bright April I did from memory, from my walking up and down the streets of Germantown, from the sketches I had made at the Rittenhouse School, and from what I knew of the old houses in that neighborhood.” Many of her drawings still resemble the town today.

The book is not watertight in its amelioration of prejudice—it sets April and her family out as “cleaner,” kinder, and more responsible than other members of the black community. But for its time it was a highly progressive topic for a children’s book, one not commonly addressed in the neighborhood, and one that would not have been possible without the vibrant setting and community of Germantown.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jule Gill permalink
    February 16, 2011 3:56 pm

    De Angeeli visited our library club in Collingswood Jr. High in the late ’40s. She was a most interesting and kind person. She told us how she would set up her easle in the children’s playpen and let the children play in the rest of the room.

  2. Marge Crawford permalink
    December 3, 2016 10:38 pm

    My late uncle, John Kogel, painted her portrait that hangs in the library. I wonder if it is still their. I was at the unveiling of the portrait so many years ago and met Marguerite and she signed many of her books that I had as a child.

    • December 5, 2016 5:11 pm

      Hi Ms. Crawford,
      I recently read “Butter at the Old Price” and consider “Bright April” brilliant for its time. I’m curious, which library do you refer to? I’m happy to check into the location of the portrait for you.

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