Some avid Little House fans may already know this, but others may not. The Garth Williams illustrations that we all know and love today were not the original illustrations for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s iconic children’s book series. The illustrators of the original editions of the Little House books were Helen Moore Sewell and Mildred Boyle.
Helen Sewell was born in 1896 in California and became a famous author and illustrator. She started out drawing for Christmas and greeting cards and then illustrated her first book, The Cruise of the Little Dipper, and Other Fairy Tales, in 1924. Her most famous work was Blue Barns, which is a children’s book that she wrote and illustrated, which depicted beautifully illustrated farm animals. She then became known for her realistic style, which made her a likely candidate for the Little House books. Sewell started illustrating Wilder’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods in 1932. She would also then illustrate Farmer Boy and Little House on the Prairie; however, by the time On the Banks of Plum Creek came out Sewell was too busy illustrating other books, that she could not continue illustrating Wilder’s series by herself.
Wilder’s books still needed to be fully illustrated, which is where Mildred Boyle came in. It is likely that Boyle had known Sewell for a long time, as they had gone to school together and also worked for the same greeting card company; however, the documentation from their school and work company were insufficient to prove this (LORE 8,1). Boyle took over most of the illustrations, especially Wilder’s last four books as Sewell was busy illustrating other books at the time.
By the end of Sewell’s life, she had illustrated over seventy books, with one of her most famous being, The Thanksgiving Story, which she won a Caldecott Honor for in 1956. Sewell passed away in 1957, at the age of 60, which was the same year Laura Ingalls Wilder passed away at the age of 90.
With Wilder’s series being co-illustrated, shortly after the publication of These Happy Golden Years, Harper Collins Publishing decided that they wanted the books re-illustrated with one illustrator. In the 1940’s, they asked Garth Williams to illustrate Wilder’s Little House book series. Williams’ illustrated editions were then released in 1953, which are the illustrations that many of us know today. For more information about Garth Williams, visit our blogs, The Man Behind the Famous Illustrations and Illustrating the “Little House” Books.