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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Literary Landmarks: Home of William Allen White

Literary Landmarks: Red Rocks, the home of William Allen White

Honoring the Namesake of the William Allen White Children's Book Award - Kansas

By Beverley Olson Buller
Photographed by Beverley Buller

Scott O’Dell, Beverly Cleary, E.B. White, Gary Paulsen, Jerry Spinelli, Lois Lowry, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Ann M. Martin, Andrew Clements and Mary Downing Hahn are all familiar names to children’s book lovers—and Kansas children have chosen their books to win at least one William Allen White Children’s Book Award.  Red Rocks is a literary landmark in Emporia, Kansas—the home of the namesake of the William Allen White Children's Book Award.

During his lifetime, 1868-1944, William Allen White was known around the world as the editor/owner of the Emporia (KS) Gazette and the author of nearly 20 books, two of which were made into early-day motion pictures.  The William Allen White Children's book award, named in his honor, has kept his name alive.  The award celebrated its 60th birthday in 2012 and continues to bring authors from around North America to Kansas, each year, to accept the award.  The award winner is chosen by Kansas children.   

White’s home, Red Rocks, in Emporia, Kansas, continues to honor the award’s namesake and, as a state historic site, is open for visits from readers of all ages. Red Rocks received its name from the Colorado red sandstone used in its 1885 construction.  It became the home of Will and Sallie White in 1899 and remained in the family until their granddaughter donated it to the state of Kansas in 2001.  The house saw much activity during the White years due to Will’s involvement in literature and politics.  Theodore Roosevelt, a personal friend of Will, enjoyed the guest room more than once, and a dinner party was held for Herbert Hoover in the backyard garden.  Presidents Taft, Harding, and Coolidge also visited.  Author Edna Ferber took advantage of the guest room often and summed up the appeal of Red Rocks in her autobiography:  “When your world is awry and hope dead and vitality low and the appetite gone, there is not ocean trip, no month in the country, no known drug equal to the reviving quality of twenty-four hours spent on the front porch or in the sitting room of the White’s house in Emporia.  Practically everyone of any importance in America has at one time or another stopped at the White house on their way East or West.  There are hundreds of stories about the White’s hospitality, and they’re all true.” (Ferber, p. 227)
For the first 20 years of the White’s time there, Red Rocks was a Queen Anne Victorian featuring what Will called “…towers, turrets, tumors and all.” (White, pg. 324) By 1915, with several books under his belt and the newspaper doing well, Will was able to secure the services of Frank Lloyd Wright for a drastic remodel of the house to better meet the needs of all those guests.  “The house might pass away under the aesthetics (sic, meaning “anesthetics”) of the necessary surgical operation, but if you can face that possibility calmly, I can and will do my best.” (Wright. 1915 letter)  Before the plans were complete, however, White and Wright, agreed to part ways and employ a Midwestern architect recommended by Wright to finish the work.  Wright’s touch is evident in the remodeled home, which the family began to inhabit in 1921.  Will died in the home in 1944 and lay in state in his second floor study.
White’s death spurred one of his Gazette employees to begin thinking of a suitable way to honor her old boss who, by 1946 had won two Pulitzer Prizes.  Joining William Allen White and children’s books came naturally for Ruth Garver Gagliardo.  With her employer’s encouragement, she wrote reviews of children’s books for the Gazette two years before any other newspaper in the nation did. (Gagliardo, p. 5)  Gagliardo conceived the idea of an award chosen by children from a master list of books selected by a committee of children’s literature experts.  She first ran the idea past Dorothy Canfield Fisher, herself a children’s book author.  Fisher knew White well, having served 18 years with him on the Book-of-the Month Club jury.  Not only did she heartily approve of the idea, she let it be known in her home state of Vermont, and the year before her death in 1958 had such an award named after her.  Following the approval of White’s surviving wife and son, the William Allen White Children’s Book Award program was born.  The first award, a handsome bronze medal designed by Kansas sculptor Eldon Tefft,  was presented in 1952 to Elizabeth Yates  for the book Amos Fortune, Free Man.  

2010 Winners and their award winning books.   Barbara O'Connor
  (How to Steal a Dog) and Cynthia Kadohata (Cracker! The Best Dog
in Vietnam) -- at Red Rock House

 The award program has changed very little in its over 60 years. The biggest change occurred as the award neared its 50th anniversary, when it was updated to reflect changes in children’s literature and school structure.  Rather than one master list for readers in grades 4 through 9, a selection committee made up of over 20 librarians, teachers, parents, and children’s literature now selects books for two master lists (grades 3 to 5 and grades 6 to 8).  Children choose one winner from each list.  Since its 50th anniversary, the awards program has been driven by the motto “Bringing Authors, Books, and Children Together.”  The awards ceremony, which used to take place during a formal luncheon, is now the culminating event in a morning of autographing and children’s activities, including a parade with the authors, on the campus of the sponsoring institution, Emporia State University. During the ceremony, lucky representative students from the state of Kansas still present the awards to the winning authors who then share with the audience the “story behind the book” which won them the award.
In 2012, the home of its namesake joined the awards festivities when the Red Rocks community partnership sponsored a book signing and reception for the two award winners on its porch the evening before the awards ceremony.  Winning authors Wendy Mass and Diana Lopez managed a quick tour of the home before the evening was over and were in full agreement that Red Rocks still maintains the hospitality of its former owner William Allen White.  In 2013, Red Rocks will host Patrick Jennings, the winner for the grades 3 to 5 award on its porch so he can soak up a bit of White’s hospitality and meet with some of the children from across Kansas who are responsible for him being there.

The author of this article, Beverley Olson Buller is a retired—but still certified—school librarian and author who heads the William Allen White Children’s Book Awards selection committee and serves as board president for William Allen White Community Partnership which oversees Red Rocks with the Kansas State Historical Society.  Her website is:

Cynthia Kadohata (2010 winner)
with a life sized cutout of
William Allen White.
Additional resources:
Red Rocks Historic Site:
The William Allen White Children’s Book Awards:

American Association of School Librarians. “Past AASL Statements of Commendation”.  Retrieve 27 July 2013 from:
Buller, Beverley Olson.  From Emporia:  The Story of William Allen White.  Kansas City, MO:  Kansas City STAR Books, 2007.
Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  New York:  Doubleday, Doran & Company Inc., 1939.
Gagliardo, Ruth Garver.  “I Knew William Allen White”. Address delivered at the 1967 meeting of the William Allen White Foundation, Emporia, KS.  Housed at Emporia State University Archives.
White, William Allen.  The Autobiography of William Allen White.  New York:  MacMillan, 1946.
Wright, Frank Lloyd.  Letter to William Allen White, February 25, 1915.  Library of Congress.

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