For over 80 years, when the children who attended the campus elementary school visited the library, they worked with the college librarian. They read and were read to, learned how to find items using the catalog, and were allowed to check out books from a curated children’s collection.
But in 1949, the Lida Lee Tall School hired its first dedicated librarian, A. Isabel Wilner.
As almost every story ever written about her mentions, Wilner was born to Christian missionaries in Shanghai, China and lived there until she was seven when her family moved to the Philippines. When she was ready to go to college, she moved to the United States and attended William Smith College and then the Carnegie Library School. She spent World War II working as an Army librarian in the Philippines and Japan. Just before coming to Towson, she had been working at the New York Public Library.
Her work at Towson would be transformative.
Wilner saw the role of the librarian not just as someone who opened the door to allow quiet, well-behaved children to come in and be read to, to return books and to choose new books to borrow with every visit. For her, children were partners in exploring the joy of reading. In a 1978 Baltimore Sun article, Wilner said: “Children read stories – turn the pages of books – to find out what happens next. Delight or interest drives them on.”
For Wilner, the natural gateway to the delights of reading was poetry. In that same Sun article, she said “Poetry, with sounds and images, makes children participate in something they delight in and feel they are creating. They want to sustain the delight until the end of the poem.”
Poetry was second-nature to Wilner. It peppers her correspondence with fellow faculty and students alike, as do her recognizable drawings.
In May of 1946, Wilner had a collection of poems and drawings published by Horn Book Magazine entitled “The Triumph of Little by Little: Being a History of Children’s Literature from the Remote Past to the Less Remote Past”. The collection included pieces about Rousseau’s “Emile or On Education“, the author Maria Edgeworth, and the Brothers Grimm.
The desire to instill not just how to find and use books but a love for them led to the creation of events like the celebration of Children’s Book Week with authors in attendance as guest speakers. Wilner also helped coordinate the Festival of Children’s Literature which ran annually in the late 1960s. Editors, teachers, and authors such as Madeline L’Engle came to campus for the two-day event which was open to the community.
Wilner herself began publishing books in 1977 with The Poetry Troupe: An Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud.
In the 1978 Sun article, Wilner explained how the book was created:
“One day, I was in a hurry to find a couple of poems for children to read to a college class,” Miss Wilner recalled. “So I asked the children to help me search around and find some.
“And then it occurred to me that we should keep the children’s favorite poems together.” It was a matter of having them in one book, just like having well-honed tools, ready to do any job that comes up, Miss Wilner remarked.
The creation of The Poetry Troupe embodies Wilner’s feelings about how children learn to read and why, and how teachers shape that experience. The children at Lida Lee Tall brought poems to her that they loved.
“Searching for new poems is part of the fun. Everyone pores over books — a good poem, when it is found, has instant participants among children,” she said.
“Look, we have children reciting dirges and lingual gyrations despite the fact that their teachers never thought they were near the reading level,” Miss Wilner said.
1978 marked the year that Wilner retired from Towson, but she continued to publish. In 1990, over thirty years after she wrote it and began sending it out to publishers, Dutton Children’s Books published her book, B is for Bethlehem. A Garden Alphabet followed the next year. Both were inspired by co-workers – Ella Bramblett worked at Lida Lee Tall teaching second grade and had looked for alphabet books with a Christmas theme while Maud Boyles who taught in the Education department was a gardening expert . Both were illustrated by other artists.
Her final book, The Baby’s Game Book, was published in 2000.
Isabel Wilner passed away in 2011, after spending a lifetime connecting children to words, poems, and stories.
A collection of Wilner’s works is housed in the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi.
This piece was included in her poetry anthology under the chapter, “Songs, Dirges, Lamentations”.