Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom.
Author and illustrator Elizabeth Orton Jones of Mason sits with her book, “Twig.” She created the book almost 60 years ago based on an experience she had while riding a train through the Loop in Chicago.
A Twig with strong roots
By JESSIE SALISBURY, Telegraph Correspondent
Nashua Sunday Telegraph. December 30, 2001.
Separating “Twig,” the author, from “Twig,” the book, is sometimes difficult.
Elizabeth Orton Jones wrote the story of little girl with a big imagination in 1942. Soon afterwards, a friend introduced Jones as “Twig” and she has had the nickname ever since, even using it as her license plate.
It was “Twig” the character who bought Jones’ little house in Mason, the author said recently, and it was another little girl, Little Red Riding Hood, who helped her modernize the house, which had no water, no electricity and no central heat when she bought it. “They really gave me my house.”
“Twig” has just been re-released, and Jones, 91, recently talked about it to more than 50 friends and fans at Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough.
It is a story she has told frequently: How she was on the train going into Chicago from her home in Highland Park, Ill., and caught a glimpse of a little girl on a fourth-floor back porch. She stayed on the train and rode around the loop again, and again glimpsed the little girl. Those five minutes, Jones said, changed her life.
“Twig” is the story of a small girl in a tenement who fills her small, shabby back yard with magical creatures of her imagination. Its message of hope and happiness, no matter the circumstance, has resonated with readers for more than a half-century.
Not long after the book was published, Jones came to Mason to bring some pictures she had drawn for a book by Gladys Adshead, “What Miranda Knew.”
On her way up from the train station in Fitchburg, Mass., she passed a little house she was told was “up for taxes.”
She asked Adshead what that meant, learned the town had taken the house for back taxes, and then she inquired further. She had with her the first royalty check for “Twig,” $2,000, and that was what was needed to buy the house where she still lives.
But it was a year before she could come back. The family in the house had to find another place to live.
In the meantime, Jones won the Caldecott Medal for her illustrations in “Prayer for a Child” by Rachel Field. While in New York for the Caldecott ceremonies, she gave in to pleas from Little Golden Books and agreed to retell and illustrate “Little Red Riding Hood.”
“I knew I needed money to put in a well,” she said. “And electricity only came to Depot Road. And I needed a furnace.”
She used a bit of her new hometown in the book: The farmhouse used for Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother’s House is now known as Pickety Place, a restaurant that draws customers from Boston and beyond.
Jones has written more than 20 books, and has had a varied artistic life. She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1932. After graduation, she went to Paris to study art at Fountainebleau, a well-known art school where she was trained to draw from memory, a technique she still uses.
As a child, she created cards for her parents and grandparents. Her designs impressed a greeting card company and she did more than 200 for them, as well as a series of covers for the Chicago Tribune Magazine of Books.
“That was fun,” she said, “but nothing I wanted to do for a living.”
After moving to Mason, she continued to write and illustrate books, but also embarked on a series of other ventures. Early on, she met C.W. “Andy” Anderson, the Mason resident for whom Andy’s Summer Playhouse is named.
“He was the Pied Piper of Mason,” she said, “a very picturesque person. He had a bright yellow Chevy roadster with a rumble seat and a big Dalmatian dog. He used to walk into the school and teach the kids art and I sort of inherited that, but I did mostly history and stories about Mason. They (the kids) adored those early stories and we’d dramatize them and act them out.”
Working one year with fourth- and fifth-graders in a portable class, “which was very difficult,” she said, “we went back to the beginnings of Mason. The kids became those early people, the proprietors, and spent the whole year in the roles.”
The manuscript they wrote about Wolf Rock – one of Mason’s best-known legends – is now in the town library, she said.
“When Andy died (about 30 years ago),” she continued, “the seventh- and eighth-graders were going to New Ipswich” and they did a presentation of “Charlie Brown.” A group of teachers got together to continue the theater program at the Town Hall, a project she suggested be named for Anderson.
“That was 10 years of perfectly marvelous theatrical experience,” she said of her writing and making costumes.
After the Summer Playhouse moved to Wilton in the 1980s, Jones went on to volunteer at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield, first as a mural painter in the new hospital, then establishing a church on the site, and finally as general confidante of the residents. A Christmas pageant performed by the residents became the basis of her book, “How Far is it to Bethlehem?”
“(The children) needed someone who wasn’t a doctor or a nurse or a parent to talk about things, like not being wanted at home, and parents who didn’t come to visit. It was heart-rending.”
She is still involved in the history of Mason and served as editor of the town history in 1968. “The Historical Society wants to reprint it,” she said, “but it needs to be updated and I don’t have time to do it. I spent a year on that (project) and I don’t have time. I have too many other books to write.”
One of those books is about Samuel Wilson, best known as “Uncle Sam,” who spent his early years in Mason, moved to Troy, N.Y., and eventually became a symbol of our country. A booklet, “The Story of Uncle Sam,” which “sets the record straight,” was published last year by the Historical Society.
“Mason is making a big mistake” by not promoting its connection to Uncle Sam, she added, noting that a new book “Red, White and Blue” by Teresa Bateman, “doesn’t even mention Mason. And there is a lot of stuff out there that is just plain wrong. Mason needs to get the word out.”
Jones is working on a book about Uncle Sam “from time to time,” she said.
People ask why she decided to become an artist, she said, “But you don’t decide to become an artist, you just are.”