A Local Author’s Groundbreaking Children’s Book Addressed Race, Class and Religious Differences
In 1946, local children’s book author and illustrator Marguerite Loftt de Angeli published her seminal work, Bright April, which was set in Germantown and dealt with racism as well as issues of class and religious differences at a time when these topics were rarely presented in children’s literature, by discussing everyday life as seen from a child’s perspective.
As Carla Hayden, who is both the first Black person and first woman to be appointed Librarian at the Library of Congress noted in an article in the August 8, 2017 New York Times, “[the book] was about a young African-American girl who was a Brownie with pigtails. And that was me. It was the first book I remember where I really saw myself. I think books are so important as windows to other worlds, but they can and should also be mirrors. For young readers to see themselves in something important like a book, that really makes an impression.” It is with this feeling and in celebration of the 75th anniversary of de Angeli’s publication of this book that we feature her accomplishments in this month’s Time Machine.
Marguerite Loftt was born in Lapeer, Michigan, in 1889. From an early age, she was a lover of music, and though discouraged by her parents, she had hopes of pursuing a career in the field. After moving several times, she met her future husband, John Dailey de Angeli in 1908. He was a neighbor of hers while she was living in Toronto, Canada, and they shared a passion for music. They married two years later and by 1915, they had moved to Collingswood, New Jersey.
Her life would change in 1921, when she met Maurice Bower, an illustrator. He became her mentor and played a critical role in her life, as Marguerite named her fifth child Maurice Bower de Angeli, in his honor. It was at that time that she began to see her interest in illustrating as a potential career and that she could perhaps publish illustrated works. In 1935, Marguerite published her first illustrated work, Ted and Nina Go to the Grocery Store, which was inspired by two of her children.
The Depression had hit the family hard, and as a result, the de Angeli moved several times in the Philadelphia area, living at various times in Jenkintown and Manoa. In 1944, they moved to 308 Carpenter Lane in Mount Airy; it was there that Marguerite wrote Bright April.
The book was in part informed and inspired by Nellie Bright, who was the principal of the Joseph E. Hill School, an elementary school for Black children on West Rittenhouse Street in Germantown at a time when many public schools in Philadelphia were still largely segregated. Marguerite had met her on several occasions, as she wanted to write a children’s book about a Black child growing up in what was then a predominantly white neighborhood and wanted to hear Bright’s thoughts and experiences on the subject. Marguerite would continue to write books in the same genre, including The Door in the Wall which won a Newbery Award in 1950, this suggests that her Bright April received at least some level of success.
Marguerite continued to publish books into the 1970s, which included her autobiography, Butter at the Old Price, in 1971. Though her legacy in the communities of Germantown, Mount Airy, and Chestnut Hill had perhaps partially faded from view by the time of her death in 1987, it had not done so completely. This is illustrated by the installation of a small exhibit that year at the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Remembering Mrs. DeAngeli, which featured an exhibit case with some of her books and associated newspaper clippings on display. It also included three dolls which were produced in the 1940s and ‘50s; these were inspired by characters in her books, and included Anelia, who was featured in Up The Hill. Marguerite de Angeli’s legacy continues to live on, in her works and in those inspired by her.
NOTE: An exhibit on Bright April and its relevance to the community and issues of race is currently being designed for installation at the Germantown Historical Society this spring. Oral histories, content on the website of the Lapeer, Michigan District Library, and de Angeli’s autobiography, Butter at the Old Price informed the writing of this article.
About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.