Cat Club's motto

Esther Averill
Photograph of Esther Averill

Esther Holden Averill was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on July 24, 1902. Her parents were ornithologist Charles Ketchum and Helen Holden Averill.

Averill's interest in writing and illustrating developed when she was a teenager, writing and drawing cartoons for her local newspapers. After graduating from Vassar College in 1923, she worked in the editorial department of Women's Wear Daily, where she was further entranced by the publishing trade.

In 1925, she moved to Paris, and worked as an assistant to a photo-journalist who reported on fashion and the arts. She remained there for over ten years.

In 1931, she embarked in the publishing industry with her own imprint, The Domino Press. Her first product was Daniel Boone. The biographical story of the adventurer was illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky (1891-1970), a Russian emigre who later produced illustrations for over 100 books, including Frog Went-A-Courtin', for which he received the Caldecott Medal in 1956. The American version of the book was distributed through The Bookshop for Boys and Girls in Boston. Bertha Mahoney's ground-breaking store opened in 1916 and championed the publication of quality children's literature. Mahoney furthered the cause of children's literature again in 1924 by co-founding The Horn Book Magazine, the first magazine devoted to children's reading.

According to Averill, "the aim of The Domino Press was to specialize in children's picture books illustrated by gifted young artists and reproduced by means of the excellent color processes that were available in Paris."

The work went slowly because Averill was learning the trade, studying both contemporary works and the texts of old French children's books, while she expanded the business.

The Domino Press' next book was Powder (1933), the story of a horse that was published simultaneously in French under the Domino imprint and in English by Faber and Faber (in England) and Harrison Smith and Robert Haas (in America). A sequel, Flash, came out the same way in 1934. That same year, another Domino book, The Fable of a Proud Poppy, illustrated by Hungarian painter Emile Lahner (1893-1980), came out.

International publishing, especially in the turbulent years leading up to the WWII, proved beyond the means of an experimental "fly-by-night" outfit operating on a small budget, so Averill returned to America in late 1934 and revised her imprint as The Domino Press: New York. Averill brought two projects in progress with her. The Voyages of Jacques Cartier appeared in print in 1937, and was the press' first young adult text. Once again, Averill teamed up with illustrator Rojankovsky.

The second Domino book published in America, Tales of Poindi (1938), was the English version of Contes de Poindi, the work of French poet and writer Jean Mariotti, who hailed from the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.

The Domino Press still had strong connections in Paris, and in 1938 the storm clouds of war ended the publishing chapter of Averill's career.

Her next project was a book about a shy black cat named Jenny Linsky. This red-scarfed heroine was based on a cat owned by Averill, and she drew on the personalities of her other cats, as well as those belonging to friends, for the membership of the Cat Club. This book was written and illustrated by Averill.

One can only speculate whether
the name of the charming character
that would reappear in a series of
books was based on The Horn Book's one-time managing editor and
later editor from 1951 to 1958,
Jennnie D. Lindquist.

See a virtual history exhibit celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Horn Book

"[My] next active involvement with a printed book was a story that [I] wrote and illustrated [myself], as best [I] could, with simple, pen and ink drawings. It was about [my] own little black cat with the red scarf, Jenny Linsky, and was entitled The Cat Club. . . . . This launched me on my cat career."

The original Cat Club had 12 members, but with subsequent adventures the cast grew in number. The established characters appear repeatedly throughout the novels, sometimes in the center of the action and sometimes as peripheral players, and the most of the tales unfold within the confines of an established locale, "little old New York." Averill's manner of chronicling the exploits of the feline ensemble led her to claim she was "a kind of Balzac of the Cat Club."

Averill appreciated the connection that the Cat Club series brought her with people engaged in caring for wayward cats, and recognized that the humanitarian effort was extremely demanding work.

Jenny shy demeanor was based on the personality of Averill's own unassuming cat, and all of the other cats' personae were drawn from animals owned or known by the author. Even Tom (the protagonist of The Hotel Cat) was based on a real feline prototype, in that case a cat Averill knew when she lived in a New York hotel.

Averill eventually wrote 12 Cat Club books, which were published by Harpers. Recently, they were combined into new editions by the New York Review of Books. The original titles and publication dates are as follows:

The Cat Club, Harper, 1944
The School For Cats, Harper, 1947
Jenny's First Party, Harper, 1948
Jenny's Moonlight Adventure, Harper, 1949
When Jenny Lost Her Scarf, Harper, 1951
Jenny's Adopted Brothers, Harper, 1952
How the Brothers Joined the Cat Club, Harper, 1953
Jenny's Birthday Book, Harper, 1954
Jenny Goes to Sea, Harper, 1957
Jenny's Bedside Book, Harper, 1959
The Fire Cat, Harper, 1960
The Hotel Cat, Harper, 1969

She combined her work as an author and illustrator with service as a librarian at the New York Public Library.

In the 1980s, Averill renewed her long-time interest in the influences of old French children's books and illustrations. She had written Political Propaganda in Children’s Books of the French Revolution, in 1934, and returned to the subject of French illustration with her 1969 work, Eyes on the World; The Story & Work of Jacques Callot: His Gypsies, Beggars, Festivals, "Miseries of war", and Other Famous Etchings and Engravings, Together with an Account of His Days.

On May 12, 1992, Averill died in New York at age 89. But her gentle humor and charmingly innocent illustrations live on in her immortal works.

Source: Something About the Author, Volume 28, 1982

Here's a fan letter to Esther Averill
written by Milwaukee third-grader Kailee in 2009:
A fan letter to Esther Averill from Kailee

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Page copyright 2000 - 2009 by Esther Trosow. All rights reserved.
Last updated March 7, 2009.