About Ruth Stiles Gannett Kahn

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Ruth Stiles Gannett Kahn, author of the children’s book classic My Father’s Dragon, will tell you that she isn’t a “real” writer, that real writers work at their craft every day. She will explain that her book was written by the child within her and that is why children respond to it. Born in 1923 in Brooklyn, NY, to journalists Mary Ross Gannett and Lewis Stiles Gannett, Ruth moved at the age of 3 to Greenwich Village, NYC, within walking distance of a progressive elementary school called City and Country. There, for the next 10 years, she played with large and small blocks, learned to sing, read and write, modeled clay, painted, built furniture, conducted science experiments, and wrote stories for her own amusement. She credits much of her creative success to the school’s philosophy of respecting children’s capacities and encouraging them to learn through doing.

For high school, Ruth attended the George School, a co-educational Quaker boarding school near Philadelphia. Entering Vassar College in 1940 at the beginning of World War II, she graduated in 1944 with a degree in chemistry. She then moved to Boston and worked first at Boston General Hospital and then at the Massachusetts Radiation Laboratory.

Ruth began to write a story about a baby dragon, which she put aside when she found work at a Vermont ski lodge. Spring came early, and the job ended. She returned to her parent’s home while seeking work. During two particularly rainy weeks, she decided to take up the dragon story again. She read the story to her parents, who encouraged her to send it to Random House, a children’s book publisher. The editor sent the manuscript to a Boston school to have children read it to see whether it should be published. The editor accepted the book for publication despite the comment of one teacher from the school that “it is the work of a maddened mind, but the children liked it”!

Illustrated by Ruth’s stepmother, Ruth Chrisman Gannett, who illustrated such children’s classics as Miss Hickory, the book’s typeface was chosen by Hans Peter Kahn, an artist friend who also designed the space between the lines for the ease of young readers. Ruth and Peter were married on March 21, 1947, the year that My Father’s Dragon was published. It won the Newberry Honor Award the following year.

Ruth’s next book, The Wonderful Houseboat Train, illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg, was published in 1949. She then tackled a sequel to My Father’s Dragon, published in 1951 as Elmer and the Dragon, to satisfy the curiosity of children who wondered whether Elmer had made it home safely to his family. The Dragons of Blueland followed the next year, getting Boris the dragon safely home to his family as well. All three books are now published individually and as a group under the title The Tales of My Father’s Dragon.

Over the course of their long marriage, Ruth and Peter lived in New York City, Louisianna and Virginia, where Peter chaired the art department at Hampton Institute. In 1957, they moved their family, which by then numbered 5 daughters, to upstate New York, to be near Cornell University, where Peter had been offered a job teaching graphic arts.

On an old farm in a rural township not far from Cornell, Ruth and Peter raised chickens, geese, pigs, and other animals, and tended to a large vegetable garden as well as their still-growing family that by 1963 included 7 daughters. Inspired by her years at City and Country School, Ruth built an oversize set of wooden building blocks, read books to her daughters every night and sang the songs. Ruth also collaborated with friend and illustrator Ellie Simmons on a potential comic strip with story lines and accurate spelling suitable for early readers. Finding it difficult to enter that market, they turned the first installment into a book titled Katie and the Sad Noise.

After a year in Victoria, B.C., Canada, where Peter taught art at the University of Victoria, the family moved to Ithaca, NY, where Peter could walk to his teaching job at Cornell, and the children could walk to school. With two young children still at home, Ruth worked with other parents and educators to create a progressive elementary school in Ithaca, called East Hill School. Ruth became the school clerk, supporting the principal, teachers, students and their families to fulfill the school’s mission. When Peter retired in 1984, Ruth and Peter moved from Ithaca to the nearby farming community of Trumansburg, where they took on new roles. Peter became a volunteer fireman and Ruth was elected to the school board and became an avid library volunteer. Together, they renovated an old barn with a studio where Peter could paint, and where visiting daughters and their families could stay. Eight grandchildren were born before Peter’s death in 1997. Ruth later oversaw the completion of Peter’s book, Learning from the Masters of Modern Art.

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Ruth and Peter in Trumansburg

Now in her nineties, Ruth lives in the Trumansburg farmhouse with one daughter. Ruth bakes her own bread, tries to finish the crossword every morning, collects berries to make jam, feeds the birds and often has a book and jigsaw puzzle going. She still loves to sing — especially with others — and to live sensibly by composting, recycling and walking, and by keeping in touch with family and friends. She remains an active supporter of women’s and civil rights, the environment, peace, and progressive politics. Ruth received many letters and comments, that let her know how important My Father’s Dragon has been — and still is — to readers of all ages around the world.

This biography was written by Ruth’s daughters in collaboration with her.

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Ruth and Peter with their 7 daughters

In 2015, Akie Maezawa wrote a biography of Ruth in Japanese. It is titled Ruth S. Gannett The woman who wrote My Father’s Dragon (ISBN: 978-8340-8193-0), published by Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, Inc., Tokyo.

 

 

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About Ruth Chrisman Gannett

Ruth Chrisman was born on December 16, 1896, in Santa Ana, California. She loved to draw from an early age, and also showed a rebellious streak. When an art student at the University of California, Berkeley, she broke with the art department gender barrier, picking up her easel and setting it down in the men’s class, where they were drawing a nude. She received a Bachelor’s degree in 1919 and a Master’s in 1920.

After a stint teaching art to public school students in California, Ruth moved to New York City, studying art at the Arts Student League, working at Vanity Fair and marrying industrial designer and publisher Egmont Arens.

Of her early years in New York, Ruth later wrote: “The city seemed full of great artists; I was frightened of it and quit drawing.” She began drawing again after her marriage in 1931 to Lewis Stiles Gannett, a writer for The Nation and New Masses and for many years the daily book reviewer for the Herald Tribune. She recalled that drawing was the best way to communicate with her husband’s children, including eight year old Ruth Stiles Gannett, with whom she would later collaborate professionally. She also illustrated several books written by her husband Lewis Stiles Gannett,: Sweetland, an American travelogue, and Cream Hill: Discoveries of a Week-end Countryman, in 1949.

While Ruth’s drawing and prints appeared in many places, including several New Yorker magazine covers, and her 1934 illustrations for John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat garnered her national recognition, she is best known for her award-winning children’s book illustrations, including the My Father’s Dragon trilogy and:

  • Miss Hickory, by Carol Sherwin Bailey, a Newberry Honor Book in 1946
  • My Mother Is The Most Beautiful Woman In The World, by Becky Reyher, a Caldecott Honor Book in 1946.

Other books illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett include Prairie Girl, by Lucile F. Fargo (1937), Paco Goes To The Fair, A Story of Far-Away Equador, by Richard C. Gill and Helen Hoke (1940), Hi-Po the Hippo, by Dorothy Thomas (1942), and Home Place, by Dorothy Thomas (1966).

Ruth was as imaginative in three dimensions as in two, transforming tin cans into Valentines and cupids, folded newsprint into marionettes and champagne corks into the heads of flying ballerinas and angels. She made lively-eyed puppets from felt and velvet, bringing alive the animals in My Father’s Dragon and the “Babar” books’ leading characters.

Residing for decades in a “penthouse” apartment with roof garden in Lower Manhattan – actually a renovated janitor’s apartment atop a mattress factory – the Gannetts spent weekends on an old farm in West Cornwall, Connecticut, where they divided their time between work, gardening and socializing. Wanda Gag, author and illustrator of the children’s classics Millions of Cats and ABC Bunny, was a frequent guest. Her visits are memorialized in lithographs depicting their home.

Ruth Chrisman Gannett died peacefully in her West Cornwall home. A cat lover, she would have been pleased to know that her longtime companion Tookum, whom she had rescued from a terrible fate, jumped into the hearse taking her away to say farewell before she departed.

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