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|Born||Thomas Sterling North
November 4, 1906
Koshkonong, Wisconsin, USA
|Died||December 21, 1974
Morristown, New Jersey
|Occupation||Writer, literary critic|
|Genre||Novels, children's books|
Early life and family
Sterling North's maternal grandparents, James Hervey Nelson and Sarah Orelup Nelson, were Wisconsin pioneers. Born in Putnam County, New York, James moved first to near Rochester, New York, then to Menomonee, in Waukesha County, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee), then pioneered a farm near present day South Wayne, in southwestern Wisconsin. His daughter, Sarah Elizabeth "Elizabeth" Nelson, was Sterling North's mother; she died when Sterling was eight years old. She married David Willard North, also the product of a pioneering local family, whose brother ran the family farm.
Thomas Sterling North was born on the second floor of a farmhouse on the shores of Lake Koshkonong, a few miles from Edgerton, Wisconsin, in 1906. Surviving a near-paralyzing struggle with polio in his teens, he grew to young adulthood in the quiet southern Wisconsin village of Edgerton, which North transformed into the "Brailsford Junction" setting of several of his books.
North had three siblings: two sisters, Jessica Nelson North who was an author, poet, and editor; Theo (Theodora), who was the martinet in the family; and a brother, Herschel, who survived World War I. When Sterling North was eleven (in 1917, which would have been the year of his maternal grandfather's 100th birthday), several of his uncles wrote extended biographies about their parents and their pioneer farm life. One of these uncles was Justus Henry Nelson, an early missionary in the Amazon Basin. This writing effort was at the same time as the setting of Rascal and may have been an early literary inspiration to North.
After attending the University of Chicago (he left without graduating in 1929), North worked as a reporter (eventually literary editor) for the Chicago Daily News, the New York World-Telegram, and the New York Sun, before becoming a full-time freelance writer. In 1940, in his position as Chicago Daily News Literary Editor, North was one of the first public figures to denounce the newly popular medium of comic books. Barely two years after the introduction of Superman, North wrote that comics were "a poisonous mushroom growth of the last two years" and that comic book publishers were "guilty of a cultural slaughter of the innocents." (These charges were echoed over the following 15 years by other public figures like J. Edgar Hoover, John Mason Brown, and most notably Dr. Fredric Wertham, until Congressional hearings led to the mid-1950s self-censorship and rapid shrinkage of the comics industry.)
One of North's first books, The Pedro Gorino, published in 1929, was a narrative of the life of Harry Dean, an African-American sea captain. A 1934 North novel, Plowing on Sunday, featured a rare dust jacket illustration by Iowa artist Grant Wood.
North's book Midnight and Jeremiah was made into the Disney movie So Dear to My Heart in 1949. (The movie was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Burl Ives's version of the 17th century English song "Lavender Blue"). In addition, North wrote Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House, The Wolfling: A Documentary Novel of the Eighteen-Seventies, Racoons are the Brightest People, Hurry Spring, and many other books.
In 1957, he became the general editor of Houghton Mifflin's North Star Books. This firm published biographies of American heroes for young adult readers. Although uncredited, North's beloved bride, Gladys Buchanan North, also contributed to the editing process.
North's best-selling and best-known work, Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era, was published by E. P. Dutton in 1963. It is a remembrance of a year in his childhood when he raised a baby raccoon which he named Rascal. It received a Newbery Honor in 1964, a Sequoyah Book Award in 1966, and a Young Reader's Choice Award in 1966. It was made into the Disney movie of the same name in 1969. Additionally, it was made into a 52-episode Japanese anime entitled Araiguma Rasukaru. The success of the anime was responsible for the unfortunate introduction of the North American raccoon into Japan.
Rascal is a prose poem to adolescent angst. It chronicles young Sterling's loving, troubled relationship with his father, dreamer David Willard North, and the aching loss represented by the death of his mother, Elizabeth Nelson North. The boy reconnects with society through the unlikely intervention of his pet raccoon, a "ringtailed wonder" charmer that dominates almost every page.
The author's sister, poet and art historian Jessica Nelson North, is one note of early 1900s normalcy in the book. She was not particularly pleased with how her brother portrayed her family in Rascal, yet was proud of her brother's achievement nonetheless.
Sterling North Home and Museum
Sterling North House
|Location||409 W. Rollin St., Edgerton, Wisconsin|
|Area||less than one acre|
|Architectural style||Queen Anne|
|NRHP Reference #||
|Added to NRHP||January 9, 1997|
In the 1990s, North's childhood home at 409 West Rollin Street, Edgerton, Wisconsin was restored to its 1917 appearance by the Sterling North Society and transformed into a museum. A bronze sign in front of the home, marking North's significance in the history of this southern Wisconsin community, was dedicated in October 1984. Money for the sign was contributed by the school children of Rock County, the Edgerton Area Chamber of Commerce, and friends of Sterling North.
North's hometown of Edgerton celebrated his 100th birthday during a book festival October 21–22, 2006. Journalist Helen Thomas, children's book author Kevin Henkes, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi biographer David Maraniss, Wisconsin writer and volunteer firefighter Michael Perry, and North's daughter and children's book author Arielle North Olson appeared. Since then, there have been three other book festivals held in Edgerton honoring the memory of Sterling North.
- Thompson, Maggie. "April 21, 1954: Mr. Gaines Goes to Washington," "The 1900s: 10 biggest events from 100 years in comics," CBGXtra.com (December 12, 2005).
- "Gladys Buchanan North, Editor, 81" NYTimes.com (February 6, 1989).
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13.
- The Sterling North Society Website
- The Sterling North Book and Film Festival
- Young Reader's Choice Award
- Rascal history site
- Article about the Centennial Celebration and the naming of Edgerton as "Booktown"
- Sterling North at Find a Grave