Ruth Garver Gagliardo

"She was affectionately known as the 'Book Lady of Kansas' and she probably influenced good reading for children and encouraged the establishment of libraries more than any one person."

Marguerite Schmitt

Library Media Specialist, ret.

KASL News, December 1983

Ruth Gagliardo and the William Allen White Children's Book Award*

In 2002 the William Allen White Children's Book Award celebrates its 50th anniversary. You can check ESU's William Allen White Library home page for details about the special events that are planned to commemorate the anniversary. To highlight this special event, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the person responsible for starting the award in 1952.

Ruth Jane Garver was born in 1895 in Hastings, Nebraska. In the introduction to her book Let's Read Aloud she credits her mother with nurturing her love of books and reading:

When I count my blessings I name always the "Granny" of the dedication who began it all. Motherless at seven, widowed in her middle twenties, life was never easy for our mother but she gave my brother and me a singularly happy childhood. She did this largely through her blitheness of spirit and her deep love of books which she shared first with our father, and very early, with my brother and me.

Our mother knew the glow that books and reading aloud can bring to everyday living; my brother and I could see it shining in her. Everything was shared-the grown-up books from my father's collection, the children's books which she managed always to get for us. Age levels meant nothing to her. What was grist to her mill was seed as well for our growing.

When Ruth was seven, her mother re-married and the family moved to Topeka. Ruth entered Topeka High School in 1908 and said that even at that young age she "wanted to write and have 12 children." After high school she taught in rural schools. Her successful efforts to bring books to Culver High School led to the high school achieving accreditation. This meant that she was out of a job because she didn't have a teaching certificate. She went to the University of Kansas and in 1922 earned a degree in English.

Even at a young age Ruth displayed an energetic, "can do" attitude. From her time in high school until she graduated from the University of Kansas in 1922 she:

  • Organized a debating society at Topeka High School.
  • Won three prizes in one year in writing contests sponsored by Arthur Capper. She used the prize money to begin her own private library.
  • Earned a one-day suspension for skipping school to attend the inauguration of a Democrat as Governor. In the process, she got an interview with the new governor.
  • Helped organize a student government at the University of Kansas.
  • Wore slacks while competing on the rifle team.
  • Fought for students' right to attend downtown dances in Lawrence.

After graduating from KU, she worked for two years at the Emporia Gazette. She was responsible for the "Highbrow Column," a mixture of reviews of art, music, and books. She included reviews of children's books in her column, thus making the Gazette one of the first to review children's books regularly. She returned to Lawrence in 1924 and in 1925 married Domenico Gagliardo, who became professor of labor economics at KU. They adopted three children. Despite a busy personal life, Ruth Gagliardo still pursued her interest in the education of Kansas children. Mary E. Bogan, reference librarian at ESU, knew Ruth Gagliardo and says that she was a person with lots of ideas, an infectious enthusiasm, and the energy to carry out ideas that she thought would enable Kansas children to enjoy good literature. In the years after her marriage she:

  • Served as director of library services for the Kansas State Teachers Association.
  • Wrote "The Children's Bookshelf" in The Kansas Teacher.
  • Established "The Kansas Plan," a program credited with beginning the concept of the book fair in the U.S.
  • Originated traveling author exhibits.
  • Started the University of Kansas Radio Book Program in 1947.
  • Organized the University of Kansas Reading Program for Children in 1949.
  • Established the reading and library program at the Boys Industrial School in Topeka.
  • Helped improve the library program at the State Training Center for the Retarded in Winfield.
  • Founded the William Allen White Children's Book Award.

During her time at the Gazette she developed a warm relationship with the editor and his family. She maintained this relationship in subsequent years. When William Allen White died in 1944, Ruth began searching for a proper memorial program involving children and books that would honor him. She credited the idea to an evening conversation with her husband. The White Award was announced April 22, 1952 at the dedication of the William Allen White Library on the Emporia State University campus. The first medal, awarded October 9, 1953 at the Kansas Library Association meeting in Hays, went to Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. In keeping with the concept of involving the children with the award, Chris Cunningham, a student, presented the award to Yates.

Award Procedure

1. The Book Selection Committee, composed of five members-at-large and representatives of educational institutions in Kansas as well as Kansas educational and professional organizations concerned with children, chooses the annual Master Lists. Authors and publishers may not make nominations. The committee attempts to develop a list that encompasses a wide range of reading levels and interests.

2. Students in grades three through eight are eligible to read titles from the Master Lists and then vote for their favorite.

3. In November voting report forms and ballots are sent to Kansas schools. At this time the schools also receive the Master List for the following school year so that they can begin ordering the books.

4. Participating schools set aside a day in the spring for the voting. Students may vote for only one book.

5. Schools send the voting reports to the William Allen White Library at ESU. The Executive Director of the White Award Program announces the winner of the award in the spring.

6. The White Award presentation is held in the fall. Sculptor Elden Tefft designed the bronze White Award Medal.

Ruth Garver Gagliardo died January 5, 1980. On hearing of her death, author Mary Francis Shura wrote:

"...In a world where so many take inordinate pride in small achievements, her humorous, low-key humility was a classic lesson. Yet she is immortal in her field as she so richly deserves to be. By founding the William Allen White Award she has given the field both a memorial to a man who should not be forgotten and the example of a brilliant woman whose life could make a difference long past the brief span of a human life."

* Information in this newsletter is from:

"Our Tribute to Ruth Gagliardo" Kansas Association of School Librarians Newsletter, Volume 30, Number 1, May 1980

"The White Award: The first statewide reader's choice award" by Mary E. Bogan in Kansas Journal of Reading, Spring 1993, pages 50 - 57.

Kansas Association of School Librarians Newsletter, Volume 33, December 1983.

I would like to thank Mary E. Bogan for her assistance in putting this newsletter together. Julie Johnson, Center for Great Plains Studies