Award-winning children’s book author Jean Fritz, who received numerous accolades for her well-crafted books about American history, died on May 14. She was 101.
Fritz was born Jean Guttery on November 16, 1915 in Hankow, China, where her parents were serving as missionaries. Early on, writing proved a solace for her, and she faithfully kept a journal. In a 2010 Publishers Weekly article, Fritz’s longtime editor and friend Margaret Frith noted that Fritz largely felt like an outsider as a girl living in a foreign country, attending a British school there. At age 13, Fritz and her family returned to the States, settling in Washington, Pa., and she experienced being an outsider yet again. “I felt like a girl without a country,” she told Something About the Author, explaining that writing about American history stemmed from “a subconscious desire to find roots.” She later expanded on these themes in the autobiographies Homesick: My Own Story (Putnam, 1982), which won a Newbery Honor and the American Book Award, and China Homecoming (Putnam, 1985).
Fritz earned a B.A. in English from Wheaton College in 1937 and soon after landed a job as a research assistant for textbook publisher Silver Burdett in New York City. In 1941 she married Michael Fritz and the couple moved to San Francisco, where Fritz wrote children’s book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Ledger-News-Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. By the early 1950s, Fritz and her husband were again living in New York City and Fritz moved among several different jobs creating educational materials.
At this same time, she turned her attention to writing for children. Fritz published short stories in Humpty Dumpty magazine during the years she was at home with her young son and daughter. Fritz’s early works were picture books, including Bunny Hopwell’s First Spring (Wonder) and Fish Head (Coward), both published in 1954. She continued to write picture book texts and also wrote a handful of historical novels before deciding to focus on historical nonfiction and biography, beginning with And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973), the first of the titles that fans referred to as her “Question Books.”
Even as her writing career took off, Fritz still pursued other professional positions. She served as a children’s librarian at the Dobbs Ferry Library in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. from 1955–1957, and in 1962 she launched the Jean Fritz Writers’ Workshops in Katonah, N.Y., where she was also an instructor until 1970. Fritz was an intrepid traveler, for pleasure as well as for research, visiting the places she wrote about in her books whether it be Philadelphia, Plymouth Rock, England, or Ireland.
In all, she published more than 45 books for young people. In 2003 she received a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush.
Margaret Frith offered this reminiscence of her author: “Jean was such a wonderful part of my life. She was simply an amazing and original person. I will always remember a wonderful time in Washington with Jean and her family when she received the National Humanities Medal in the Oval Office. A smiling President leaned over Jean’s wheelchair and said quietly, ‘Jean, are you ready? Shall we do it?’ ‘Yes, Mr. President,’ she answered. ‘After all,’ Jean told us later, with a twinkle in her eye, ‘when would I ever get to say those words?’ ”