Helen Sewell, the First Little House Illustrator


Sally Gabble and the Fairies (1929) demonstrated Sewell’s ability to depict a fairy tale woods.

Little House in the Big Woods is a “lovely little book,” Marion Fiery told author Laura Ingalls Wilder when it appeared in 1932. Fiery, who had been Wilder’s editor while the book was under consideration by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, assured Wilder that Harper & Brothers had produced a volume with “distinct charm” due to the artwork of Helen Sewell. She is “one of our best children’s illustrators,” Fiery noted.1 Black-and-white line drawings that occasionally resembled woodblocks characterized Sewell’s work in Big Woods. As she had in earlier works, the artist deftly evoked a fairytale wood from a bygone era. When I first read the book as a ten-year-old in the late 1950s, I found the artwork an appealing part of the overall package. Recently, however, I learned that Garth Williams, Wilder’s 1953 illustrator, had dismissed Sewell’s edition as “decorated, not illustrated,”2 and today I can see his point. Sewell’s work is stylized and quaint, suggesting a different era in both time and art.

Helen Moore Sewell.

But in the 1930s, Helen Moore Sewell (1896–1957) was “one of the busiest artists at work in the field of children’s illustration.”3 She had begun her studies at a young age, attending classes at the Pratt Institute in New York City, where she studied with, among others, sculptor and graphic designer Aleksandr Archipenko, whose influences led to her distinctive style of line drawings. Sewell began her career as a designer of greeting cards and illustrated her first book in 1923 when she provided the artwork for Susanne Langer’s The Cruise of the Little Dipper and Other Fairy Tales. Over the next thirty years, she illustrated over sixty books, some of which she also wrote. In addition to children’s books, she provided line drawings for adult classics written by Jane Austen and Emily Dickenson. In 1955, she provided the artwork for Alice Dalgliesh’s The Thanksgiving Story, which earned a Caldecott Medal Honor Book designation. She died at age sixty in 1957.4

The daguerreotype of Caroline and Charles Ingalls (ca. 1860) which Sewell used as a model for her illustration in Big Woods. Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association

When illustrating landscapes, scenes, or people for fairy tales, the well-traveled Sewell relied on her own memories of places and used family members as models. But for Little House in the Big Woods, which was an autobiographical tale of a specific family, she wanted more background. She consulted photographs that Wilder sent to Harper & Brothers editor Virginia Kirkus, who passed them along to the artist. With one exception, however, we do not know what photographs Wilder shared with editor and artist. The exception is a daguerreotype of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, probably taken in 1860 when they were married.5 Before sending this rare image, the author wanted some assurances, but Kirkus made no promises on Sewell’s behalf. “I am afraid the possibility of her reproducing it satisfactorily is almost out of the question,” Kirkus told Wilder. “Line drawings of portraits are so often disappointing, but I am sure that it will help her get the feel of the individuals, even if she finds she is not able to do the portrait itself.”6

Sewell’s illustration of Pa playing “mad dog” with the girls.

Despite these misgivings, Sewell faithfully rendered the daguerreotype as a black-and-white line drawing for the half-title page of Little House in the Big Woods. The artist also used the image to inform the illustrations that feature Pa, whose bushy beard and hairdo derive straight from the portrait. Likewise, Ma’s face in the frontispiece and elsewhere bears a strong resemblance to the young Caroline Ingalls of the daguerreotype. Beyond that, not surprisingly, Sewell portrays the Ingalls girls as small and round, with heart-shaped faces. Her generic representation of the girls is understandable as Wilder had no photographs of the Ingalls girls to share with Sewell except those taken when Mary and Laura were teenagers. Wilder seemed pleased with the result, telling a correspondent that the first drawing in the book “was a very good copy of an old daguerreotype of my Father and Mother, Ma and Pa in the story.”7

Sewell’s rendering of Ma and Pa in the half-title page of Big Woods.

The publisher and the public were so happy with Little House in the Big Woods that Harper & Brothers engaged Sewell as illustrator for the next two books. With Wilder’s fourth book, On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), however, Sewell’s health and the demands on her time led the publisher to employ another illustrator to help with the Little House series. Sewell’s name remained on the books, and she may have provided the cover and frontispiece for the fourth and fifth volumes, but artist Mildred Boyle essentially took over the project and produced most of the artwork for the following books. When it was completed in 1943, Wilder’s eight-book series came in two different book sizes with two different types of illustrations, neither of which pleased Wilder’s then editor, Ursula Nordstrom. “Miss Sewell was, during the thirties,” Nordstrom wrote, “one of the country’s most distinguished illustrators,” but her style was “extremely decorative and stylized.” As the series went on, Sewell’s and then Boyle’s illustrations of Wilder’s “forthright realistic frontier stories” suited the books less and less.8

Nordstrom selected artist Garth Williams, who had illustrated E. B. White’s Stuart Little for Harper & Brothers in 1945, to modernize the illustrations, and in 1953, the publisher reissued the entire Little House series in a uniform edition with Williams’s artwork throughout. Unlike Sewell, Williams had done extensive research, visiting Wilder and her husband in Missouri and traveling to the sites of various novels.9 Rather than simply provide drawings that suggested how things might look, Williams “thoroughly integrated” his drawings into the text and “focused reader’s attention on specific aspects of the story.”10 Even though I had read and enjoyed the Sewell-illustrated editions, I bought the entire Williams edition when Wilder’s posthumous novel The First Four Years (also illustrated by Williams) debuted in 1971. Times had changed, and Wilder’s series had taken on a new look for a new era of readers. I wanted to be among them.

Garth Williams’s illustrations were much more detailed, as seen in his cover illustration of Big Woods.

  —Nancy Tystad Koupal

  1. Fiery to Wilder, Apr. 7, 1932, file 190, box 13, Rose Wilder Lane Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
  2. Williams, quoted in William Anderson, “Garth Williams: An Artful Life,” presentation sponsored by Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, De Smet Event Center, De Smet, S.Dak., July 22, 2023.
  3. Anita Silvey, ed., Children’s Books and Their Creators (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995), p. 594.
  4. Ibid., pp. 594–95; Elizabeth K. Wallace and James D. Wallace, Garth Williams, American Illustrator: A Life (New York: Beaufort Books, 2016), pp. 81–83. See also “Helen Sewell Biography,” http://www.nocloo.com, which contains a fairly complete list of Sewell’s publications.
  5. Nancy Tystad Koupal, ed., Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2023), p. 173.
  6. Kirkus to Wilder, Dec. 31, 1931, file 189, box 13, Lane Papers.
  7. Wilder to [Ethel Calvert] Phillips, Apr. 19 [1932], folder 14, fr. 84, Laura Ingalls Wilder Papers, Microfilm ed., Collection 3633, State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia.
  8. Nordstrom to Doris K. Stotz, Jan. 11, 1967, in The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. Leonard S. Marcus (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 233.
  9. Anderson, “Garth Williams: An Artful Life”; Wallace and Wallace, Garth Williams, pp. 66–71.
  10. Wallace and Wallace, Garth Williams, p. 84.  

3 thoughts on “Helen Sewell, the First Little House Illustrator

  1. I grew up with the originals illustrated by Helen Sewell, and despite their stylization and decorative quality, I have always found them, along with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing, magic. Garth Williams’ work is certainly admirable, and no doubt authentic by his extensive research, and yet… there is something too realistic, and at the same time, something too fanciful about it… Fortunately, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work (with the exception of The First Four Years) stands on its own, illustrated — and fictionalized — as it may be, as eternal witness to truth, all our truth.

  2. I’ve cherished the Little House books since I was a child. I read them to my children (now grown) and have read them myself several times in adulthood (I am now 65 years old). The artwork in all of the books is charming and cozy. I always loved the way I felt when reading them – safe and happy. Thank you for this article and for your wonderful newsletter!

  3. I owned the Garth Williams-illustrated series as a child, but the style of Sewell’s illustrations remind me of another book I owned — Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl (illustrated by the author). I owned a copy that came in a packet of Newbery Honor Books published by Harper in the late 1970s. It seems like for that book, at least, Lenski’s own illustrations were maintained in many later editions. Maybe it was considered more important to market LIW’s work to the “modern” reader than it was for other authors, but so-called “nostalgic” illustrations often persist, it seems to me, rather than being changed. Maybe not least b/c parents buy books for their children that they themselves enjoyed.

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