Merrill was born on 27 January 1923, in Rochester, New York, to Earl and Elsie Merrill. She grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario in Webster, New York. Merrill received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theatre in 1944 from Allegheny College and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Society. She received her master’s degree from Wellesley College in 1945.
After leaving Wellesley, Merrill was an editor for Scholastic Magazines from 1945 to 1949. She subsequently edited Literary Cavalcade from 1950 to 1957. Starting in 1952, Merrill received a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Madras in India. Her folklore studies in India would lead her to write a number of stories based on Asian folklore: “Shan’s Lucky Knife” (1960, based on a Burmese folktale), “The Superlative Horse” (1961, based on a Chinese folktale), and “The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars” (1992, based on a Japanese folktale). From 1965 to 1971, Merrill worked as an editor and consultant at Bank Street College of Education.
Merrill started writing books while working at Literary Cavalcade, including “Henry, The Hand-Painted Mouse” (1951) and “The Woover” (1952). Merrill received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1963 for The Superlative Horse.
In 1964, Merrill published her best-known work, “The Pushcart War,” for which she won her second Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, in 1965. Set in New York, the book was written in the style of a historical report from the future, looking back at earlier events from a class warfare struggle between trucking companies and pushcarts.
Alberta Eiseman of The New York Times wrote “...it’s rare to find a book for young people with both a point of view and a sense of the ridiculous.” The book has been reissued a number of times, with the dates adjusted to keep it set in the future. In 2006, a musical adaptation was presented by Edric Haleen in Holt, Michigan. It has been translated into dozens of languages
Merrill published “The Black Sheep” in 1969. This was followed in 1972 by “The Toothpaste Millionaire.” In 1974, an ABC special was based on “The Toothpaste Millionaire.” This book earned Merrill the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, which the children of Vermont voted as their favorite book in 1975/6.
Other titles are “The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars;” “High Wide and Handsome;” “Red Riding;” “A Few Flies and I;” “Please Don’t Eat My Cabin;” “Mary Come Running;” “Travels of Marco;” “Tell About the Cowbarn, Daddy;” “How Many Kids Are Hiding On My Block;” and others.
Books had a great impact on Merrill as a child, which motivated her to write for children. Her books often illustrate universal human values serving to resolve conflict.
“I think one of the things children unconsciously seek in the books they read is the strength to discover and be themselves,” she said.
Her books embrace themes she was passionate about: the struggle of little people over larger powers, the need to preserve the world around us, and the virtue of non-conformity. These ideas resonate with children and The Pushcart War is still used in fifth and sixth grade classrooms around the world. It is considered a landmark children’s book of the 20th century.
With her qualities of humor, kindness, intellect and curiosity she has enriched the lives of all who knew her.
She was fascinated by the natural world around her and developed an expertise in mushrooms and forestry. Her favorite place in the world was the Old Pepper Place, an old hill farm near Washington, Vermont. It was there she penned many of the books that made her name known to children around the world.
Jean wielded a mean croquet mallet and her one-handed grip has been much imitated by lesser players. She was a proud embracer of liberal and progressive politics but always quick to laugh at the foibles of all who sought the spotlight in political office. Her recipes for dandelion wine and rhubarb chutney have been handed down to many, but no one has been able to make a pan of fried chanterelles or fiddleheads taste as good as hers. She sported a fine wardrobe of second-hand clothing and was amazed that anyone would consider buying something new. In an interview with a reporter she once said “I don’t feel too much attachment to possessions and consider them an unnecessary clutter in one’s life.”
Jean leaves behind her lifelong companion Ronni Solbert, a sister, Marjorie Skott, and her nephews, Christopher Ramsey, Andrew Gilbert and Larry Gilbert and their families. They and her friends are proud to have known such a remarkable person.
A memorial service will be held at the Old Pepper Place in Washington Vermont on Sunday, October 7. Details about the service and remembrances of Jean can be found at jean-s-merrill.forevermissed.com/
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to Kimball Library, 67 Main Street, Randolph, Vermont, 05060 or to Central Vermont Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Box 747, Montpelier VT 05602.