Marie Hall Ets was born on December 16, 1895 in the town of North Greenfield, Wisconsin, an area later renamed West Allis, located near the city of Milwaukee (“History of West Allis”). Ets demonstrated an early gift for art, so impressing an art teacher with her drawings that she was invited to enroll in an art class for adults (Hoyle). While her interest and skill were apparent early on, it would be years into her professional life before Ets would find her way to writing and illustrating books for children.
            After graduating in three years from Fond du Lac High School in June of 1911, Ets enrolled at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she studied art (Ets,
Kerlan 5; Diploma; Collier and Nakamura 791). Wanting to be an artist and feeling that she was wasting her time at Lawrence, she dropped out after her first year (
Ets, Kerlan 5). Ets borrowed money from her parents, which she promised to pay back upon obtaining her first job, and moved to New York where she studied interior decoration and earned a two-year diploma in June of 1914 from the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, now Parsons School of Design (Ets, Kerlan 5; Hoyle). She held jobs as a sketch artist for decorators first in San Francisco and later in Los Angeles (Ets, Kerlan 5).
            In 1917, while living in San Francisco and volunteering as an English teacher in the Little Italy area, she met and fell in love with Milton Rodig, a fellow volunteer (Ets, Kerlan 5). Ets and Rodig married, but their marriage was short-lived. Rodig, who was enlisted in the army, contracted measles and pneumonia and died in 1918 (Massee, “Biographical” 214).   

Ets abandoned her sketch work and began volunteering in support of the war effort. This new venture took her to the Midwest where she worked in protective services with girls at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Waukegan, Illinois and also worked occasionally for the Red Cross in disaster relief efforts around the country (Ets, Kerlan 6). On the encouragement of a social worker and friend at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Ets embarked on a career in social work (Ets, Kerlan 6). She moved to Chicago where she studied at the University of Chicago, earning a Baccalaureae in Philosophia (Ph.B) in 1924, and at the School of Civics and Philanthropy (Diploma; Hoyle). While a social work student she lived as a volunteer at the Chicago Commons Settlement House, one of the earliest settlement houses in the country. As a social worker, Ets primarily worked with and advocated for children. It was this experience that first brought to Ets the awareness of the near absence of people of color in children’s books (Miller 180). Although she would not publish her first children’s book until years later, Ets was not only thinking about children’s books, but was already writing for children while living in Chicago and doing social work. A series of manuscripts of children’s stories about transportation sent by Ets to Viking in the early 1970s show her Chicago Commons address at 955 West Grand Avenue (Ets, “Young Fire-Engine”). 

Ets’ first official job as a social worker was with the United States Coal Commission (Ets, Kerlan 6). She worked in the mountains of West Virginia conducting a cost-of-living survey among miners (Ets, Kerlan 6). When her work with the United States Coal Commission was completed, Ets was sent to Czechoslovakia where she spent a year working with the American Red Cross organizing a children’s health program for the Czechoslovakian government (Hopkins 63). While in Czechoslovakia, she developed a chronic illness, the details of which are not revealed in other biographies, but which resulted from being administered two doses of the same experimental vaccinations she was given to protect her from diseases (Ets, Kerlan 7). Her illness resulted in her departure from social work and, soon after, her entry into the world of children’s books.
            Upon ending her career as a social worker, Ets turned again to art, studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Ets, Kerlan 7). In the early 1930s, Ets also studied child psychology at Columbia University (Hoyle). Her studies in child psychology led Ets to an interest in how children interpret and respond to art (Kingman, Foster and Lontoft 105). During this period of work and studies, she married Harold Ets, a faculty member at the Loyola University School of Medicine with whom she had been friends for many years, having met him during his time as a volunteer resident at the Chicago Commons (Kunitz and Haycraft 115; Ets, Kerlan 7). Her husband’s involvement with an exhibit of human embryos at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair would later influence the work Ets considered her most important contribution to children’s literature, The Story of a Baby (Senick 64). Published in 1939 and only her second book for children, The Story of a Baby illustrates the development of an infant from the fertilization of an egg through the embryonic stages and up to the baby’s first smile. Ets used the human embryos displayed at the World’s Fair as models for her sketches (Senick 64). The book, unique for its appeal to children and its scientifically accurate drawings, is often noted as a pioneer in sex education (Irvine 43). It was endorsed by the Journal of the American Medical Association and reviewed in The American Journal of Nursing where it was described as "exquisite" and as exhibiting "no sugary sentimentality" (Irvine 143; N.V.B. 613).
            Ets stated that in her initial attempt at writing and illustrating for children she sought to do so in a manner similar to that of a child, a style that was quickly discouraged by the artist Frederick V. Poole, under whom she worked while at the Art Institute of Chicago, and by Viking Press children’s book editor, May Massee (Kunitz and Haycraft 115-116). Ets followed the advice of Poole and Massee, and in her first book for children, Mister Penny (1935), she used a batik process to produce striking black and white illustrations. Her art work is often praised for its ability to accurately capture the dual nature, both the simplicity and complexity, of a child’s world (Senick 64).

            In the forty years that followed the publication of Mister Penny, Marie Hall Ets wrote and illustrated twenty-one books for children and won numerous awards, including five Caldecott Honors for In the Forest (1945), Mr. T.W. Anthony Woo (1952), Play With Me (1956), Mr. Penny’s Race Horse (1957), and Just Me (1966); the New York Herald Tribune’s Children’s Spring Book Festival Award for Oley, the Sea Monster (1947) and for Gilberto and the Wind (1963), and a Hans Christian Andersen Honor for Play With Me (1956). Ets was also cited for artistic merit by the jury of the American Institute of Graphic Arts Children’s Book Show and was one of three recipients of the first Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota in 1975. Her work has also been included in numerous recommended books lists. In 1960, Ets was awarded one of the highest honors in the world of children’s books when she won the Caldecott Medal for Nine Days to Christmas.

Nine Days to Christmas is the story of Ceci, a little girl anticipating the posadas, the nine-day Mexican celebration that leads up to Christmas day and during which the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem is reenacted. Ceci and her family will host the celebration on the first night of the posadas, and young Ceci takes on the responsibility of selecting the piñata she and her friends will break that evening.

The book was co-authored by Aurora Labastida, the children’s librarian at the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico City. Labastida lamented the representation of Mexicans in children’s books where they were often depicted as “villagers wearing ponchos and following burros,” especially considering so many Mexican people lived in cities (Massee, “Ets Wins Caldecott” 1279). In her Caldecott acceptance speech, Ets spoke of her conversations with Labastida and her explanation for such stereotyping: “We like to point out the picturesque and exotic, to emphasize the differences in costume and customs of children everywhere, but at the same time to show that they are all very much alike in their joys and their sorrows, in love of their families, their friends, their pets, in their goodness and their naughtiness. And it may be that we choose the poor because our sympathy is with them and we can more easily gain the sympathy of our readers” (Kingman 209). Ets urged Labastida to write a story that more accurately reflected Mexican people in an urban setting. Labastida did so, and her magical ending in which the star piñata becomes a real star was used in the final version of the book (Ets, Kerlan 9). Ets filled in the details and created the illustrations. Her editor at Viking, May Massee, came up with the title for the book (Ets, Kerlan 9).
            With Nine Days to Christmas, Marie Hall Ets set to work on a book that placed a Mexican child in an urban setting, a setting that would not only be more familiar to an American child but that would show the similarities in the lives of children from different countries and cultures. In her Caldecott acceptance speech, Ets noted as an example of similarities in lifestyles an illustration of the piñata factory that she drew with a view from the middle of the street in order to include the antennae on the roofs of buildings so that children in the U.S. could see that Mexicans also had televisions (Kingman 211). Ets spent two winters in Mexico City where, with the help of Aurora Labastida, she explored the area, met locals and familiarized herself with the way children in the city lived (Massee, “Ets Wins Caldecott” 1279). Ets was concerned with making her illustrations as true to life as possible so that people would be able to recognize themselves in the drawings. She spent a great amount of time sketching in Chapultepec Park and in the public markets of Mexico City, often surrounded by crowds who gathered to watch and ask questions (Ets, “Caldecott Acceptance” 210). The characters included throughout the book were actual people she sketched while in Mexico (Ets, “Caldecott Acceptance” 210). Ets would continue to use real models in subsequent books including Gilberto and the Wind and Bad Boy, Good Boy, both which were based on a young boy she encountered while walking through an alley in La Jolla, California (Hopkins 62). To create her protagonist, Ceci, Ets used a real five-year-old, the niece of Aurora Labastida, as a model (Lembke 46). Interestingly, Ets considered the real Ceci to be “too large and too blonde” to use as a model for her illustrations and so created the appearance of the child as she imagined her (Ets, “Caldecott Acceptance” 210).

Nine Days to Christmas marks one of Ets' earliest uses of color in her books. Due to budget restrictions she was limited in the amount of color she could use so Ets selected yellow, orange and shades of red, bright colors she associated with Mexico (Massee, “Ets Wins Caldecott” 1280). Ets used the technique of local color, in which an object is painted its true color (Bader 173). Throughout the book color is used to emphasize the vibrant details of the world in which Ceci lives: the fire burning in the stove of a tortilleria over which two women stand patting masa into flat disks, the bundles of calla lilies and bougainvilleas two women carry to the market, the bows in Ceci’s hair, the papel picado that hangs in the Christmastime market and, of course, the shining gold star piñata. In contrast, background images are shaded in gray; the sky varying from light to dark gray to indicate the time of day.

In 1972, Ets published a book for adult readers titled Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant, the biography of an Italian immigrant in Chicago whom Ets befriended while a social worker (Femminella 84). Marie Hall Ets continued to write and illustrate for children until 1974 when her final children’s book, Jay Bird, was published. Currently, only two of Ets’ books for children, Gilberto and the Wind and Play With Me, are in print. Marie Hall Ets retired to Inverness, Florida and died on January 17, 1984 at the age of 89 (Miller 180).


Bader, Barbara. American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, Inc.; London: Collier MacMillan Publisher, 1976. Print.

Collier, Laurie and Joyce Nakamura. “Ets, Marie Hall 1893-1984.” Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults: A Selection of Sketches from Something About the Author. Vol. 2, Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993: 789-792. Print.

Diploma to Marie Hall from Fond du Lac High School, June 23, 1911. Marie Hall Ets Papers. Box M.C. 41. Children’s Literature Research Collections / Kerlan Collection. University of Minnesota Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.

“Ets, Marie Hall.” Illustrators of Children’s Books, 1957-1966. Compiled by Lee Kingman, Joanna Foster, and Ruth Giles Lontoft. Boston: The Horn Book, Inc., 1968. Print.     

Ets, Marie Hall. “Caldecott Award Acceptance.” Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-1965 with Acceptance Papers, Biographies & Related Material chiefly from The Horn Book Magazine. Ed. Lee Kingman. Boston: The Horn Book, Incorporated, 1965. Print.

Ets, Marie Hall. "Self Portrait." The Kerlan Awards in Children's Literature, 1975-2001. Ed. Ruth Berman. St. Paul: Pogo Press, 2001. Print.

Ets, Marie Hall. “Young Fire-Engine-Truck.” N.d. TS. Marie Hall Ets Papers. M.F. 300, Folder 1. Children’s Literature Research Collections / Kerlan Collection. University of Minnesota Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.

Femminella, Francis X. Rev. of Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant, by Marie Hall Ets. International Migration Review (1972) 6.1: 84-85. Print.

“History of West Allis.” West Allis, Wisconsin: City at the Center. City of West Allis, n.d. <> Web. 20 Sept. 2010.

Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Books Are By People: Interviews with 104 Authors and Illustrators of Books for Young Children. New York: Citation Press, 1969. Print.

Hoyle, Karen Nelson. “Marie Hall Ets.” American Writers for Children, 1900-1960. Ed. John Cech. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 22. Literature Resources Center. Web. 27 Aug. 2010.  

Irvine, Ruth R. “Marie Hall Ets–Her Picture and Storybooks.” Elementary English 33 (May 1956): 259-265. Rpt. in Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books: Writings on Their Lives and Works. Ed. Miriam Hoffman and Eva Samuels. New York & London: R.R. Bowker Company, 1972. 141-148. Print.

Lembke, Ruth C. “We Met Aurora Labastida of Mexico.” Elementary English 39 (1962): 46-47. Print.

“Marie Hall Ets.” The Junior Book of Authors. Ed. Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft. Rev. 2nd ed. New York: 1951. The H.W. Wilson Company, 1970. Print.

"Marie Hall Ets (1893-1984)." Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Vol. 33. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. 64-92. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 24 Sept. 2010.

Massee, May. “Biographical Note: Marie Hall Ets.” Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-1965 with Acceptance Papers, Biographies & Related Material chiefly from The Horn Book Magazine. Edited by Lee Kingman, Boston: The Horn Book, Incorporated, 1965. Print.

---. “Marie Hall Ets Wins Caldecott Award.” Library Journal, 15 Mar. 1960: 1278-1280. Print.

Miller, Mary Joan. “Marie Hall Ets.” Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Ed. Philip A. Greasley. Vol. 1. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print.

N. V. B. Rev. of The Story of a Baby, by Marie Hall Ets. The American Journal of Nursing (1940) 40.5: 613. Print.

Image Sources and Other Significant Sources of Information:

Fig. 1. Marie Hall Ets. Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Vol. 33. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. 64-92. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 24 Sept. 2010.

Fig. 2. Diploma to Mariam Hall Rodig from the University of Chicago, Baccalaureae in Philosophia, 1924. Marie Hall Ets Papers. Box M.C. 41. Children’s Literature Research Collections / Kerlan Collection. University of Minnesota Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.

Fig. 3. Caldecott Medal to Marie Hall Ets for Nine Days to Christmas. Marie Hall Ets Papers. Box M.C. 425. Children’s Literature Research Collections / Kerlan Collection. University of Minnesota Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.

Shor, Rachel. “WLB Biography: Marie Hall Ets.” Wilson Library Bulletin Oct. 1960: 178. Print.

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Created by Celia C. Perez, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne GSLIS, Fall 2010