- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society.
Mabel O’Donnell, the Aurora educator and storyteller with the golden pen, helped hundreds of millions of children around the world learn to read, and to love reading. After graduating from East Aurora High School circa 1906 and from DeKalb Normal School (now Northern Illinois University), she began her career as a rookie teacher in a classroom at Brady Elementary School on the east side of Aurora around 1908, and later served as principal of Young School.
Half a century later, she retired from publishing as a foremost American specialist in literacy, with the creation of a multi-track system of instruction to her credit, and 100 million schoolbooks sold.
Her greatest claim to fame was the Alice and Jerry series, published by the eminent house of Row Peterson from 1936 until it was discontinued by the successor company, Macmillan, in 1979 because it was “outdated.”
Very young students were given books about Alice and Jerry, a pair of American tots playing in the back yard during the 1930s and ’40s, but by the time students reached the fourth and fifth grade, they were plunged a century back in time into the thrilling and unfamiliar world of pioneer America, where stagecoaches got stuck in the mud fording rivers, wolves roamed the nearby woods, and a boy of 12 would get his own pair of oxen to help with the endless heavy work in the fictional village of Hastings Mills.
Modeled After Aurora
It was Hastings Mills that captured the attention and affection of many, especially children in Aurora, who knew that it was modeled after their own home town, and filled with characters like millers, blacksmiths, shopkeepers, teamsters, a schoolteacher, a preacher and even a proto-industrialist, who were based on actual people from Aurora history.
Hastings Mills and the Hastings family were introduced in the fourth-grade reader titled Singing Wheels, and further developed in the fifth-grade (and final) book, Engine Whistles. At least one commentator has suggested that the Hastings children of 1834 were the ancestors of 20th century Alice and Jerry.
The final books were merely the capstones of Mabel O’Donnell’s career in educational publishing, during which she authored 43 titles.
Before the river, the wolves and the oxen came many years as a teacher, school principal, and manuscript writer.
Still at District 131 in Aurora, but working part-time for Row Peterson Company in the 1930s, O’Donnell created the Alice and Jerry basal reading series, built upon her innovative concept of a three-track system that provided reading experiences for superior, average and “immature” readers, and were accompanied by materials for teachers, including large-size reproductions of the book illustrations suitable for classroom display.
By 1946, when she was lured away to work full-time as the head of the Reading Department at Row Peterson, her schoolbooks were on their way to selling 100 million copies, read by 300 million children in the U.S., Great Britain, South Africa, Germany, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. One estimate of her royalties is $2.7 million.
Writing Creativity And Discipline
Her approach to teaching literacy through reading required great discipline from her as a writer. At the beginning levels, for instance, she used no more than one new word per page.
Author of the 1967 study, The American Schoolbook, educator Hillel Black wrote of her, “Despite the limited vocabulary, every sentence and paragraph had to flow smoothly, and her plot had to be sufficiently imaginative and universal in theme for a child in the suburbs, a youngster in the slums, and a farmer’s son to want to read more.”
In contrast, her plots for older children were wide-ranging and exciting, based on Aurora history and filled with a large cast of characters.
O’Donnell’s work also offered children fine watercolor illustrations by the Philadelphia sisters Margaret and Florence Hoopes. Little is known of the author/artist collaboration but the graphic art historian D. B. Dowd has pointed out how their style evolved from “well-mannered” for the youngest readers to “nearly abstract” as the stories progressed.
In the later books both the watercolors and the plethora of small line drawings of pioneer objects extended the educational value of her books beyond literacy to art and history, as well.
Although she glossed over some of the less-edifying history of America’s westward advance, such as the U.S. government tactics regarding Indian removal, even having a character triumphantly say, at one point, “I bought all of this land from the government for twenty dollars!”, and dismissed the language of visiting natives as “strange Indian sounds and grunts,” these were attitudes that were hardly, if ever, challenged at the time.
She also freely acknowledged her debt to various other authors, such as Charles Pierce Burton, another Aurora author and fellow East High graduate (1880), as well as Laura Ingalls Wilder, for ideas and details about activities and occupations.
A Great Storyteller
When it came to the characters and personalities of the children in her stories, though, O’Donnell’s work was 100 percent drawn from real-life Aurora. She said that they were an amalgam of children she knew in her teaching days, and she drew upon their personal stories and problems, as well.
She followed her own advice to aspiring young writers: “write about what you know about.” She knew children, and she knew Aurora.
Even as a prognosticator of the future, Mabel O’Donnell did well. In the final chapter of Engine Whistles, the great-great grandson of Tom Hastings flies home to join his family for the centennial celebration of the city.
Now there is an airport, tall office buildings, traffic congestion, a population of 200,000 and — most touching of all to this Aurora Historical Society volunteer — the house his great-great-grandfather built, now the Hastings Historical Museum.
In the parlor there are big red roses on the carpet and fancy white and gold paper on the walls. And the black-and-white portraits of his ancestors looking down from heavy gold frames on either side of the white marble fireplace.
It’s a great way to end a story, but then, Mabel O’Donnell was a great storyteller.
More About Mabel O’Donnell
Mabel O’Donnell was born in Aurora, Illinois in 1890 to Cornelius and Margaret “Maggie” (Horan) O’Donnell, one of at least four children.
She attended Center School and graduated from East Aurora High School c. 1908, going on to DeKalb Normal School (now Northern Illinois University), and later getting a degree from Columbia University and a Doctorate from the University of Chicago. She lived on what is now East Downer Place in Aurora, never marrying.
She worked as a teacher, principal and curriculum director for School District 131 for 38 years before becoming, in 1946, the head of the Reading Department at Row Peterson and Company in Evanston.
In 1965, District 131 named the new school at 1640 Reckinger Road, (60505) in her honor.
She was honored in her lifetime by the Aurora Cosmopolitan Club, the Aurora Association of University Women and the East High School Alumni Club.
She continued to live in Aurora, on South Randall Road, from 1960 until her death, at the age of 95, in 1985, and was survived by a brother, John, and a nephew.
A New Book Set in Aurora
The Wings Trilogy by Angelina Steffort is a fantasy-romance with a strong historical backstory. It is the latest fiction book for young people to utilize the beauty and heritage of Aurora, and the author is expected to visit the city sometime in later 2018 or early 2019.
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