Betty Miles, the pioneering feminist author of more than 25 books for children and young adults, and a writer and editor for the Bank Street Readers, the first multicultural, urban-oriented primers, died on July 19 at her home in Shelburne, Vt. She was 90.
Miles was born Elizabeth Baker in Chicago on May 16, 1928, the only child of missionary and social activist parents, David and Helen Baker. “When I was three months old,” she wrote in her autobiographical essay for Something About the Author, “my parents carried me in a laundry basket to Baghdad, where I lived until, at six, I came ‘home’ to a country I didn’t know.” She retained vivid, colorful memories of those early years in Baghdad and recalled that learning to read “for myself” at age five, while living there, was “most exciting of all.”
Miles grew up in Baltimore and the Midwest where she was an avid reader, and a writer of poems, essays, stories, and school newspaper articles. She revealed in her autobiography that one of the first times she took a stand for social justice was during high school when she was the lone holdout in her homeroom, refusing to purchase (WWII) war savings stamps each week as was the strongly encouraged practice. “I had decided, for myself, that my twenty-five cents would go to war relief rather than waging war,” she wrote, “and each week I slipped the quarter into a relief collection box at home.”
After high school, Miles attended Antioch College, where she met Matthew Miles, whom she married at the start of the couple’s senior year in 1949. In 1950, following their graduation, they moved to New York City; their family grew to include three children. In the years when she was first married, Miles found work as an assistant kindergarten teacher in a private school in Manhattan. Working with the students there proved a great inspiration. “Reading children’s books on my own and then reading them aloud to children made me want to try writing them myself,” she wrote. Miles pursued her professional passion by taking a “Writing for Young Children” course at Bank Street College of Education taught by Claudia Lewis, whose mentor was Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Bank Street’s founder. Miles continued to study writing there and later became a distinguished author, editor, and teacher at the institution.
While her three children were still young, and following several years of rejection letters, Miles published her first picture book, A House for Everyone (Knopf, 1958), describing various kinds of families. That initial title was quickly followed by What Is the World? (Knopf, 1958), a poetic collaboration with the artist Remy Charlip. Miles wrote solely picture books for the next decade or so, and during that time became active in the women’s movement. She also was a key member of the Feminists on Children’s Media group, whose presentation, “Little Miss Muffet Fights Back,” helped change publishers’ and libraries’ consciousness about sexism in children’s books. Some of that work influenced her first young adult novel, The Real Me (Knopf, 1974), which broke ground for its story of a girl speaking up for her rights. The same year, Miles contributed a story to the Ms. Magazine anthology Free to Be You and Me (McGraw-Hill, 1974).
A prolific and wide-ranging writer, Miles showed respect for her readers: “I want to present characters who can serve as models,” she wrote in her autobiography, “not because they are exceptionally brave or righteous, but precisely because they are ordinary kids dealing with everyday worries and embarrassments... who, like my readers, are working hard to figure out what they believe and make their own choices.”
Newbery-winning author Avi was a close friend of Miles for more than 50 years. In a remembrance on his website he shared the following: “I first became acquainted with her in the offices of Pantheon and Knopf Books, where we were both being published. Shortly afterward, we met again during an anti-war march in Washington, D.C. My friendship with her (and her husband Matt, who was himself important in the world of education reform) continued from then on.
As I knew her, she was an energetic, warm-hearted, and welcoming person, who began each day with a close reading of the New York Times so she might be informed about everything. She was a gardener and a serious amateur musician. Laughter and compassion were equal parts of her persona. Her great appetite was for people, with deep loyalty and engagement with many friends.
She often read my books in early drafts, provided generous critiques along with—teacher that she was—grammatical corrections. All useful, always welcome.
My oldest friend. I—and the world—shall miss her greatly.”
As an example of how far Miles’s stories reached into the lives of her readers, Elizabeth Bluemle, author, owner of Flying Pig Bookstore, and contributor to PW’s ShelfTalker blog, wrote a blog post in 2016 expressing her deep and abiding admiration for what she called a “life-changing story” by Miles. Bluemle had come to know Miles as she was a regular customer of her store, which is located in Shelburne, Vt.
In addition to her body of children’s books, Miles wrote about and taught early childhood literacy, and spoke at libraries and schools around the country. She was also an active member of the Authors’ Guild, and a plaintiff in its copyright infringement class action lawsuit against Google for the company’s Book Search project, first brought in 2005. Her husband died in 1996; she is survived by three children, Sara, David, and Ellen Miles, and three grandchildren.