21 Fascinating Facts about Rachel Field, Novelist, Poet, & Illustrator

Rachel Field, American author

Rachel Field (1894 – 1942) was an astonishingly prolific playwright, poet, children’s writer, novelist, and illustrator. I knew almost nothing about her before I moved into her old house on an island in Maine, but now I know better. Here is a selection of fascinating facts about Rachel Field, a talented and prolific author who deserves to be rediscovered and read. (photo at right, Beineke Library,  Yale)

Due to the tragedies that reverberated from her sudden death and the subsequent hardships of her bereaved family, Rachel’s work and her famous bright spirit faded prematurely from the national literary scene. Fortunately, the first biography of Rachel Field arrived in 2021 to celebrate the woman and her writing.

The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine includes a thread of contemporary memoir. In the form of letters that I composed to Rachel Field, or perhaps, to her spirit, the book weaves in the story of how my evolving relationship with Rachel transformed my life, both as a writer and as a mother. She continues to uplift her readers, even now.

Successful playwright: One of her plays, Three Pills in a Bottle, was so successful that for decades following its publication in 1918, it was performed an average of once a week, year-round, in community theaters all over the country.

Prolific poet: She published seven collections of poetry during her life (with an eighth posthumous publication). Her poetry was widely celebrated, anthologized, and made into picture books throughout her lifetime and beyond.

First woman to win the Newbery Medal: She received the award in 1930 for her book, Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, published in 1929.

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Rachel and Spriggin on Sutton Ilsand

Learn more about Rachel Field
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National Book Award winner: In 1936 she won the National Book Award for her first novel for adults, Time Out of Mind.

Three of her novels were made into films: The first of which, All This and Heaven Too, was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The film’s star, Bette Davis, became a dear friend to Rachel and her husband.

An honored book of poems for children: An illustrated children’s book made from her poem, Prayer For a Child, won the Caldecott Medal in 1945, three years after Field’s tragic and untimely death in 1942 at the age of 47 years old.

A very late reader: Rachel couldn’t read until she was 10 years old. “I literally wrote before I could read,” she told interviewers. This might have been because she loved hearing books read aloud, and learned entire plays and passages of poetry by heart, sometimes after a single hearing.

A youthful thespian: Young Rachel played the part of Shylock in a performance of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” when she was only 9 years old.

Publishing debut as a teen: Her first published story, “A Winter Walk,” came out in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1911, when she was 16.

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The Field House - biography of Rachel Field

Q&A with Robin Clifford Wood, author of The Field House
The Field House on Bookshop.org*
The Field House on Amazon*
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Photographic memory: It was her “camera memory,” Rachel said, that allowed her to recall every minute detail of the contents and décor of a home or room that she visited. This skill came to play in her novel writing.

“Special student” status at Radcliffe: “Rachel Field didn’t officially graduate from Radcliffe when she completed her studies in 1918. She had attended under a program that allowed “special students,” otherwise unqualified, to enroll in the College to pursue particular aptitudes (in Rachel’s case, her writing skill).

Honorary degrees: Twenty years after she attended Radcliffe, she was awarded honorary degrees from Colby College and the University of Maine.

Directed her own play: In 1918, Rachel directed a group of Sutton Island children in a performance of her play, “Three Pills in a Bottle.” Fifteen minutes before showtime, the child playing the part of the scissors grinder “fell ill with mumps,” and Rachel had to play the part.

An avid collector: Rachel was an avid collector of antique dolls, patchwork quilts, and music boxes.  What ever became of her collections? I never found out.

Illustrious family lineage: Rachel was part of an illustrious line of Field family fame. Two of her relatives were Supreme Court justices, and one, Cyrus Field, laid the first successful transatlantic communications cable in 1858.

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Hitty-Her first hundred years by rachel field

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Hitty is a real doll: The original “Hitty” doll that inspired Rachel’s Newbery Medal winning book lives in a glass case in the library of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, right next door to the home where Rachel spent her childhood.

Continental criss-crossing: Before Rachel Field made the permanent move from New York City to Hollywood, she made the lengthy, cross-country trek between the two coasts numerous times. In one year, from July 1936 – July 1937, she crossed the continent six times.

Collaboration with her husband: In 1937, Rachel and her husband Arthur Pederson co-wrote a book called To See Ourselves that highlights a charmingly unusual depiction of 1930s Hollywood as a neighborly small-town community.

Screen rights windfall: In 1938, Rachel negotiated with Warner Brothers Studios for a $52,000 advance for the film rights to All This and Heaven Too. That’s equivalent to almost a million 2021 dollars!

Screenplay contender for GWTW: Rachel Field was short-listed as a contender to write the screenplay for Gone With The Wind. The list included names like William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Thornton Wilder.

Contributor to Fantasia: Disney Studios chose Rachel Field to write the English lyric used for the “Ave Maria” sequence in their 1940 film, Fantasia.

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Taxis and toadstools by Rachel field

See also: 9 Poems by Rachel Field
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Contributed by Robin Clifford Wood: Robin has a BA from Yale University, an MA in English from the University of Rochester, and an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. During twenty-five years as a full-time mom, she published local human-interest features in New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts and spent seven years as a regular columnist, first in Massachusetts, then for Maine’s Bangor Daily News. She began teaching college writing in 2015.

Her articles have appeared in Port City Life magazine, Bangor Metro, and Solstice literary magazine, which published her powerful essay “How Do You Help Your Parents Die?” in its spring 2019 issue. Her award-winning poetry received national recognition from the 2020 Writer’s Digest Competition. Wood lives in central Maine with her husband and dogs. The Field House is her first book. Visit her at robincliffordwood.com

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