You may know Monica Shannon as the author of the 1935 Newbery Award-winning book Dobry, but have you read her fairy tales set in California? They are remarkably descriptive and among the strangest books, I’ve read in a long time. We also have her to thank, at least partly, each time we walk through the doors of the Central Library. Women's History Month marks the perfect time to remember Monica Shannon (1889-1965), the library staff member who became a Newbery Award-winning author of whimsical children’s books and, as the person in charge of the early 1920s library bond issue campaigns, played a large role in the construction of Central Library and several branches.
Monica Shannon grew up in a household of bibliophiles and storytellers which may have contributed to her choice of librarianship as a profession. She was one of the fourteen graduates from the 1915 class of the training class of the Los Angeles Public Library, which prepared attendees for library work. At the time, the library rented three upper floors within the Metropolitan Building at the corner of S. Broadway and W. 5th Street “in the very center of the shopping district.” For the next two years following her graduation, Ms. Shannon worked as an attendant in the circulation department of the library. Something about her, perhaps her work ethic or way with people, propelled her through the ranks. By 1918, according to the library’s annual report, Ms. Shannon was the attendant-in-charge of the science and industry department, assisting patrons with reference questions and requests which were often focused on the petroleum industry. She was soon given a new position, one that required excellent organizational and personal skills.
The Metropolitan Building location was quickly being outgrown and City Librarian Everett C. Perry understood the value of sharing the library’s plight with the city. On October 1, 1919, Monica Shannon became responsible for the newly created Department of Publicity. Her first order of business was to educate the public on the benefits of the library and the need for a “suitable central building.” An effort to highlight library departments, locations, and services began in earnest in late 1919 within the Los Angeles Public Library Monthly Bulletin, given freely to patrons. Topical articles were written by Ms. Shannon or under her direction. For example, the August 1920 issue centered on the impact of branches and small locations called deposit stations. Meanwhile, another issue chronicled the history of the Los Angeles Public Library from its inception in 1872 until 1920. Thanks to these informative bulletins, Angelenos became better acquainted with the library and its contributions to the city. They more easily understood the importance of having a “Main Library” in a building the library owned that offered a sense of permanence and eliminated rent payments.
By 1921, the reasons for the library of Los Angeles to have its own building were many. Los Angeles was one of the fastest growing cities in the United States and, remarkably, the number of library patrons were multiplying quicker than the population. It required an elevator ride, at the Metropolitan Building, to access the library and it wasn’t a particularly large elevator. The library was in a great part of town but it was difficult to get to, the space was crowded and the rent was set to go up by a considerable amount within a few years. Anticipating that it may take quite some time for the approval and construction of a new library, on April 1 the Library Board of Commissioners appealed to the Los Angeles City Council to include a library bond issue on an upcoming ballot. The City Council agreed to place a $2,500,000 bond on the June 7 ballot for a library building and site.
City Librarian Everett R. Perry, the board of library directors, and Monica Shannon, as the director of publicity for the Los Angeles Public Library, created a plan for the bond issue drive that was impressive, all the more so when you realize it was just a four-week campaign.
“Immediately the Library organized a campaign force, embracing every worker in the library system, from Directors to pages, and entered a period of four weekends devoted to intensive continuous publicity designed to bring home to every resident of Los Angeles the reasons of practical economy and civic interest that made a central library building an imperative necessity.”—Report of the Librarian, Thirty-Third Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Public Library, 1920-21
An outline for the library campaign was drawn up and committees were formed to focus on each activity, with Ms. Shannon to keep it all straight. The 1921 annual reports briefly described the work that went into the campaign, including meetings, charts, word choice, distribution, and clear communication. There were staff-written articles and ads in large and small newspapers around the city; banners and signs were hung throughout the library and in the branches; exhibits were created in the library, banks, and stores; talks were given in women’s clubs, civic, social, fraternal and religious organizations, businesses and union meetings; and the candidates for local office were enlisted to support the library measure.
Movie studios, railway systems, and retail establishments were also valuable advocates for the library. According to the Los Angeles Times, Vitagraph, Universal, Goldwyn, Metro, and Ince Studios co-produced a film showing the cramped quarters of the library for a newsreel that played in the downtown theaters. The Los Angeles Railway printed up messages of support on their tickets. The Foster & Kleiser billboard company donated forty billboards in prominent locations. A large department store created a special flyer they included in all packages. Some restaurants that printed daily menus added the message “Food for Thought. Vote Yes on Proposition 3, Own your own Central Library Building.” Artist and patron Edouard Vysekal often found the library’s art department useful for inspiration. As a thank you, he designed a poster, written in Czech, urging a yes vote for a library building. With the abundance and variety of endorsements for the library, it would have been difficult for Angelenos to avoid seeing these messages of support.
The library bond passed, providing $2,500,000 for a central library building. City Librarian Perry noted the “campaign in all of its elaboration, was carried out with unflagging enthusiasm and efficiency.” Planning for the new library building commenced but, sadly, the Publicity Department was dismantled. The annual reports do not specify which department Monica Shannon returned to but other sources suggest she worked with children at the library. Luckily her talent for organizing a successful campaign was enlisted twice more, for library bond issues in 1923 and 1925. These bonds helped provide funding for the Flower Street frontage of Central Library and several branch library buildings, respectively. A tip of the hat to Monica Shannon. Thanks to her effective leadership of the library bond campaigns, the Los Angeles Public Library received funding to build the Central Library. In 1925, she left the Los Angeles Public Library, married a rancher, and relocated to Three Rivers, California, near the entrance of the Sequoia National Park.
Monica Shannon’s new life afforded her time to write. Her first book, California Fairy Tales (1926), was already years in the making. While hiking in the hills surrounding Los Angeles, she tried her stories out on young family members and their friends. Some stories were adaptations of fairy tales from Ireland, Spain, and Mexico, which she updated with the plants and animals of California sprinkled in. The fairy tales in California Fairy Tales take place in locales all over the state and have characters that eat Valencia oranges and “manzanita-tree apples”, chew on Yerba Santa to keep their throats moist, and pick lima beans, which were a popular crop in early twentieth-century Southern California.
Eyes for the Dark (1928) and Goose Grass Rhymes (1930), Monica Shannon’s second and third books, are more often set in the Sierra Nevada, near her new home. The Kaweah River, a portion of which ran through their property, appears in her books several times as does the Giant Forest where the famous Sequoia, General Sherman, lives. Eyes for the Dark, features whimsical fairy tales similar to her first book with flora and fauna native to the Southern Sierra Nevada (e.g. Golden trout, Sugar pine, Buttonwillow trees, chamise, etc) throughout. Book reviews at the time found her fairy tales interesting but were not quite sure how to describe them. For example, the Horn Book offers “there are fine mouthfuls of words here and rhythmic patterns, totally charming and full of liveliness and vigor.” Another reviewer gamely admitted, “I can testify that it took more than one reading of Miss Shannon’s Goose Grass Rhymes to bring me to an appreciation of its unique quality.”
Monica Shannon only wrote two more books. Tawnymore (1931), set in 19th century Baja California peninsula, and her Newbery Award-winning novel Dobry (1934). Dobry lives in a Bulgarian village with his widowed mother and grandfather but wants to leave the village and study to become a sculptor.
[Interesting tidbits about Dobry—Monica Shannon wrote the book in Santa Monica while convalescing from a critical illness. It was loosely based on the life of the artist/sculptor who illustrated the book, Atanas Kachamakoff. Katchamakoff worked for the movie studios as a sculptor and, for a time, relocated to Palm Springs where he opened an art school and ran a gallery.]
Monica Shannon’s library past served her literary career well. One can almost imagine her categorized lists containing the names of flowers, trees, fruits, and animals she came across while wandering through nature. These details gave all of her books, especially the fairy tales, a surreal quality when sprinkled so heavily throughout the story. She often traveled to conduct research for her books and happily promoted them after publication. To get the word out to the largest number of people, she spoke or read her stories at women’s clubs, bridge parties, urban and rural libraries, and campfire talks for 4-H clubs. She also gave interviews to columnists (e.g. Lee Shippey and Ed Ainsworth) in the Los Angeles Times as well as smaller newspapers in her new Central California home. Even after her move to the High Sierra, she returned to Los Angeles numerous times to read her fairy tales at Bullock’s department store at 7th and Broadway. She was very adept at publicizing her work. After all, publicity had been a large part of her library career with the Los Angeles Public Library.