One of the best loved and most decorated authors of children’s books, Marguerite Henry was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1902. At the age of six, she contracted rheumatic fever, which affected her severely until the age of twelve. Not only bed-ridden for long periods, she was kept out of school and isolated from other children for fear of contagion. Pouring herself into reading, she soon showed a flair for writing. One year’s Christmas present from her parents was a child-sized writing desk, complete with all the supplies a writer would need. The gift changed her life, and ultimately, the lives of countless children to come. As she later recalled, “At last I had a world of my own – a writing world …” The fledgling author sold her first story at age 11!
Growing up in an urban setting, Henry attended the Milwaukee State Teachers College. She soon married and moved with her husband to rural Illinois. There she developed a lifelong affection for animals – especially horses. It was also there that she gradually became a professional writer, and her love of animals filled her children’s books.
Henry generally did not invest her animal characters with cartoon-like human attributes, but she let her readers see the animals’ individual qualities such as loyalty and determination. Henry valued historical authenticity, and her books were meticulously researched. Most of them were fact-based, with her imagination filling out the stories.
Seeking out the best children’s book illustrator she could identify, Henry sent a manuscript to Wesley Dennis. He was captivated by the story, and the two partnered for more than 20 books.
Through the years, Henry’s work earned prestigious Newberry awards. In 1946 she received Newberry Honors for Justin Morgan Had a Horse, the story of an Eighteenth Century American horse breeder who developed the well-known Morgan breed. More Newberry Honors followed in 1948 for Misty of Chincoteague. To research that book, Henry visited Chincoteague Island, off the coast of Virginia. She witnesses the annual Pony Penning Day, in which wild horses were rounded up and auctioned off. Misty of Chincoteague follows two children who long to own a horse, finally capture a mare and are rewarded with the foal Misty. In 1949, Henry won the Newberry Medal, the top award, for King of the Wind, about the Arabian horse who sired the line of thoroughbreds we celebrate today.
After a lifetime of charming and thrilling children with her many books and stories, Henry died at age 95 in 1997 at her home in Rancho Santa Fe.