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date: 28 March 2020

Miller, Olive Beaupréfree

(11 September 1883–25 March 1968)
  • Jane L. Andrews

Miller, Olive Beaupré (11 September 1883–25 March 1968), author, editor, and publisher of books for children, was born in Aurora, Illinois, the daughter of William Beaupré, a banker, and Julia Brady. Miller liked to describe herself as “born with pencil in hand.” Before she learned to write, she recorded her first stories in picture form. By the age of seven, she was filling homemade notebooks with stories. Following a comfortable and carefree childhood, she went to Smith College, where she studied French and German, sharpened her writing skills, and contributed to college publications. After her graduation in 1904, she returned home and for several years taught English at the local high school. On 2 October 1907 she married Harry Edward Miller, a successful, self-made salesman, first of textbooks, then of commodities.

In 1908 Miller faced a major change in her life. Because of her husband’s job transfer, the young couple moved to Streator, Illinois. Separated from family and friends for the first time, once again she turned to writing, cramming her notebooks with ideas for a great American novel. In 1912 her husband was transferred to Chicago, and their daughter was born. Miller soon found that writing interfered with her determination to be a good mother to her long-awaited baby. The writing was set aside, but she always found time to read to her daughter.

Selecting stories for reading eventually helped Miller realize her vocation. In her view, the available children’s literature left much to be desired. “Grimm seemed much too grim,” she said. Moreover, she thought most stories and poems for children did little to help develop character. She began to write verses for her daughter. Generally these drew on familiar situations and surroundings to celebrate the joy of life. Her husband found her poems engaging and submitted them to a publisher. Much to her surprise, they were accepted. Sunny Rhymes for Happy Children was published in 1917, followed by Come Play with Me in 1918. Meanwhile, she began collecting more stories and verses to read to her daughter and filled her notebooks with stories for children that would teach as well as entertain. Other mothers expressed interest in what she was doing and asked her help in selecting reading for their children.

Miller’s husband, observing this response to his wife’s project, envisioned favorable prospects in publishing books for children. Together, they decided to produce a set of carefully edited and graded books of stories for children that would be sold door-to-door on a subscription basis. Printed on the highest-quality paper and attractively illustrated, the books were designed to be read over and over again. The Millers published the first volume of My Book House in 1920. It was an immediate success. Miller’s husband resigned his job to devote his considerable energy and sales talent to the development of their new company, The Book House for Children.

Olive Miller worked hard selecting, editing, and, if necessary, writing material for the other five volumes of My Book House, published in 1920 and 1921. She used three criteria in selecting stories: (1) Does the story have literary merit? (2) Will it interest the child? (3) Will it develop character? Acceptable stories were then graded according to vocabulary, complexity of plot, and the age of the child. Like many educators and child-development professionals of her time, she believed that education has a function in character development, that children pass through developmental stages, and that parents who follow proper procedures can foster character development and enhance their child’s readiness to learn. A Parents’ Guide Book accompanying each volume explained these ideas and showed parents how using My Book House could support and enrich their child’s educational experiences.

In the 1920s and 1930s Miller and her husband took many trips throughout the world to gather material for their books. From 1921 until her retirement in 1965, Miller’s work schedule included preparation of My Book House for additional printings or for revised editions. An expanded twelve-volume set was published in 1934 and contained almost 800 selections from about 180 authors in various parts of the world. Another new edition, which also was the thirty-third printing of My Book House, came out in 1950. In all these editions, Miller sought to give the child “an association with the greatest authors in English literature” (introd. to vol. 7, 1950 ed.). One can find, for example, selections from such English writers as Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Tennyson, and Shelley; works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louisa May Alcott, and Howard Pyle are typical of the American writers in the collection. An article in the education section of Newsweek (16 Oct. 1950) reported that the 1950 edition also included “220 pages of new material from such authors as Kenneth Grahame, A. A. Milne, and Pearl Buck.”

For the most part, Miller seemed unaffected by the depression of the 1930s. The business continued to prosper and the Millers lived well. Encouraged by letters and words of praise from her readers and their parents, Miller became more and more immersed in her world of writing and editing stories for children. Meanwhile, her marriage foundered, and the Millers were granted a divorce in May 1935. Miller bought out her husband’s interest in the company. In addition to being editor, she became vice president of the board of directors. The directors hoped this position would keep her from demanding a more managerial role in the company, but she wanted to be chair, a position she attained in 1939. She remained chair until her retirement. In the 1960s poor health prompted her to move to Tucson, Arizona, where she lived with her daughter until her death. In Tucson, her thoughts turned once again to writing the great American novel. Now, however, she often was too weak to hold a pen and so had to dictate her ideas to her nurse.

Olive Beaupré Miller is remembered primarily as editor of My Book House. Through these books, she played a major role in the imaginative experiences and reading pleasure of several generations of twentieth-century American children.

Bibliography

The Olive Beaupré Miller Papers are in the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College. They include published and unpublished manuscripts, drawings, correspondence, research materials, reviews, promotional material for her books, and published and unpublished articles about her. See also her Engines and Brass Bands (1933), based on her childhood memories of life in a small midwestern town. Miller’s involvement in introducing sex education to the public schools of Winnetka, Illinois, led her to edit, with George L. Bird, How Life Begins (1935). Miller’s other works include Heroes, Outlaws, and Funny Fellows of American Popular Tales (1939) and Heroes of the Bible (1940).