Happy Birthday, Helen S. Hamilton!

Helen S. Hamilton with daughters Faith and Kate, 1957

Helen S. Hamilton with daughters Faith and Kate, 1957

Please join us in wishing a very happy birthday today to Helen S. Hamilton, who illustrated all 33 volumes of The Happy Hollisters by Jerry West (aka Andrew Svenson).

When we were preparing to reissue The Happy Hollisters in paperback, we searched through Andrew Svenson’s copious files to find contact information for illustrator Helen S. Hamilton. We found an address on some old letters, but it led to a dead-end, and even with the search capabilities of the internet, we were unable to track her down. Shortly after the first book was reissued in 2010, we received an email from Helen’s daughter, Faith. A friend of Helen’s had seen an article in the newspaper about the books and passed it on to her. Since Andrew Svenson had been a newspaperman before he was an author, we can’t help but think he would have been tickled that we got in touch the old-fashioned way, through a newspaper article! We were delighted to get to know Helen and her family through our online correspondence, and she, in turn, was happy to hear that the books are enjoying a revival.

The written descriptions of Pete, Pam, Ricky, Holly, and Sue sparked the imagination of many young readers, but Helen’s drawings really brought them to life. We’ve heard from many fans who fell in love with the Happy Hollisters through her illustrations, and put together a list of some of the questions we’ve been asked over the years. Faith recently visited her mother and the two of them collaborated to answer our questions.

How did you meet Andrew Svenson and become the illustrator for The Happy Hollisters?

Helen had gone to a different publisher to show her portfolio (she can’t remember which publisher). They had said that they thought maybe Doubleday would have a good job for her. She went to Doubleday and they asked her to do some samples for them. Then they hired her.

There are over 1,100 illustrations in the series – that’s a lot of drawings! How long did it typically take to do one drawing? Were there usually revisions?

At first, she presented sketches first for every illustration. The publisher made suggestions, and then she did the final pen and ink drawings. Eventually she would just do the final drawings without presenting sketches first. She had to turn out the drawings quite fast. In the first few years, she completed about three books a year, and only had about one month from start to finish for each book. Her husband, Bill Hamilton, helped with some of the drawings, especially when she needed to draw cars or bicycles. In 1952-1953, Helen was pregnant with her first child (me!) while she was working on the illustrations for the first book in the series.

Interior Illustration Suggestions for  The Happy Hollisters and the Haunted House Mystery

Interior Illustration Suggestions for
The Happy Hollisters and the Haunted House Mystery

The characters in your illustrations resemble the Svenson children quite well. Was that intentional? Did you meet the family, or work from photographs? Are there elements of your own children in the illustrations?

Helen did not meet the Svenson children until later, so the drawings were not modeled after them. They were modeled on neighborhood children, or children of friends. (As an aside, I always thought that the Hollister children were modeled after our family. Holly had braids and was a tomboy, like my sister Kate, and Ricky looked a lot like my brother Andy. However, these characters were developed and drawn before we were born.)

What medium was used for the final artwork?

The drawings for the text of the books were done with pen and ink, and for the 2-color illustrations, she did an overlay for the second color. All of the cover illustrations were done in watercolor.

Did you illustrate the covers as well as the interior artwork?

Yes, Helen illustrated all of the original covers for the series, and all of the interior artwork.

Did you travel to any of the destinations featured in the books?

Helen always wished that the publisher would send her to the places that were featured in the books, but that didn’t happen. As a family, we did travel to some of the places, like Santa Fe, New Mexico. On our trip to the west, we met people who knew of the Happy Hollisters, and were excited to meet the illustrator for the series.

Did you have a favorite Happy Hollisters book? One that was more fun to illustrate than the others?

In general, she liked the illustrations better in the later books, because she feels that she got better with more experience. The Haunted House Mystery was one of her favorites. (We had a treehouse in the woods behind our house that looked a lot like the treehouse on the cover of that book.)

Did you illustrate other books?

Yes, Helen did a lot of other illustrations. She illustrated some of the stories in the Best in Children’s Books anthologies, and also in Jack and Jill magazine. Both Helen and Bill did a lot of illustrations for textbooks and magazines.


Below is a photograph of Helen S. Hamilton from September 2013, and a photograph of her “wall of weavings” showing her art form these days: textile pieces woven on a small frame loom. Beautiful!

HH Buried Treasures1

With our gratitude for bringing the Happy Hollisters to life for millions of children, we wish you a very, very happy birthday, Mrs. Hamilton!


The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Midnight Trolls by Jerry West

The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Midnight TrollsToday is the 44th anniversary of the original copyright date of The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Midnight Trolls by Jerry West (aka Andrew Svenson). This book was #33, the final volume before the series was discontinued. It also had the smallest print run of all the books in the series and only 6,510 copies were sold. (By comparison, more than 200,000 copies of the first volume were sold through retail outlets, i.e., not including book club sales.) Accordingly, fewer people have read this book than others in the series, and the hardcover books have become increasingly difficult to find. Collectors have noted prices of $150 and more for a single copy!
If you’re curious about the story, here’s a sneak peak at Chapter One: The Lost Letter.

“HERE comes Daddy’s sailplane,” shouted Ricky Hollister as he ran across the lawn.
“Where?” his six-year-old sister Holly asked, looking up into the blue summer sky.
“Not there, silly,” said red-headed Ricky, who was seven. “It’s coming down the road!”
“Oh,” said Holly and raced after him, her pigtails flying.
The Hollister house stood between Pine Lake and Shoreham Road. Ricky and Holly reached the curb to see a pickup truck pulling a boat trailer.
On it was a long airplane fuselage, and inside the truck were the two wings. Several neighborhood children skipped behind as the load turned into the driveway.
“I’m going to fly in it when the wings are on,” Holly said.
“Oh boy, it’s really neat!” called out twelve-year-old Dave Mead. He added, “Hey, where are the rest of the kids?”
There were three more Hollister children. Pete, the oldest, was twelve, and Pam, ten, was next in line. They had gone on a bicycle errand for their mother. Little Sue was the youngest. The four-year-old had been inside playing with her dolls but at that moment she flung open the front screen door to scamper out as fast as her chubby legs would carry her.
As she reached the truck, down stepped Mr. Hollister, tall, broad-shouldered and grinning like a boy. He was followed by Indy Roades, who helped him in the Trading Post. This was a hardware, toy and sports shop in downtown Shoreham.
The children’s father was a flying enthusiast and had built a sailplane himself in the huge garage behind his store. Now he was going to assemble it on his property.
Sue leaped up into his arms. Following her was Mrs. Hollister, a pert and pretty woman.
“Oh, John!” she said. “I didn’t know you plane was so big!”
Just then bicycle tires squealed, and Pete and Pam zoomed into the driveway. Pete was a sturdy boy with blond hair and clear blue eyes. Pam had fluffy golden hair, which blew about in the breeze as she skidded to a halt and stepped off her bicycle.
Smiling, they joined the excited youngsters watching the men pull the fuselage onto the lawn beside the garage. Then Pete and his friend Dave helped to carry the wings and lay them down on either side of the fuselage.
“Is your father really going to fly that glider without an engine?” seven-year-old Donna Martin asked.
“Sure,” Ricky said. “He’s a good flyer!”
Just then a boy a little larger than Pete strode by, his hands thrust deep in his pockets. Joey Brill was Pete’s age and a classmate. But instead of a smile, he wore a frown. “What’s going on here?” he demanded.
“Daddy’s sailplane is ready,” Pam said.
“You mean glider.”
“No. The real name is sailplane,” Pam replied. “But lots of people call them gliders.”
“He made it himself,” Pete stated proudly.
“Our father is an inventor too,” Ricky bragged, watching the men attach the wings.
Joey sniffed and walked around the plane, looking at it from every angle. “I’d say this thing can’t fly at all,” he proclaimed.
“Of course it will,” said Pete. “And I’m going up with Dad too!”
“You think your father’s great, don’t you?” taunted Joey.
“Of course.”
“My father can do more things than yours.”
“So what?” said Pete and walked away.
Before Joey could think of any more mean things to say, the mailman came along the sidewalk, waving a fistful of letters toward the Hollisters.
Pam raced over to get them. “Hello, Mr. Barnes. They’re all for us?”
“Every one of ’em, young lady.”
Pam thanked him and read the envelopes as she walked toward her mother. A big brown one, postmarked Froston, Canada, was addressed to the Happy Hollister Children.
“Something from Gram!” Pam cried out joyfully.
With the other children looking on, she pulled out a piece of heavy paper. On it were small dots arranged in an odd pattern.
“Yikes!” Ricky exclaimed. “Grandma has sent us a funny message.”
“A bumpy code,” Holly giggled, pulling on one of her pigtails.
Mrs. Hollister told her children that this was Braille, the kind of writing used by blind people.
“Oh,” Pam cried out. “Is Grandma—”
“No, there’s nothing wrong with Grandma,” her mother assured her and explained that Gram had been working for some time preparing Braille books for the blind in Canada. She and Gramp Hollister lived there in retirement.
“She has a special machine that types Braille,” Mrs. Hollister said.
“Can I see it?” Ricky asked and took the sheet to show it around to his friends.
“It’s my grandmother’s secret code,” he said importantly.
Joey Brill edged up, and before anyone could stop him, he grabbed the Braille letter.
“Let me figure out the code,” he said. “I’ll bet it’s easy.”
“Hey! Give it back!” Ricky shouted, but the bully scooted off, turning only briefly to stick out his tongue.
Ricky raced after him. Then Pete, Pam and Dave hurried to the street, but by the time they looked up and down, Joey was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’d he go, Ricky?” Pam called out to her brother, who stood dejectedly two blocks away.
“I don’t know. He disappeared between those houses.”
“Joey’s just terrible,” Dave said angrily.
“Don’t worry,” Pam replied. “His mother will make him give the letter back.”
“I’ll go over to his house right away,” Pete volunteered. “Want to come, Pam?”
The Brills lived nearby and the Hollisters reached their home in a few minutes. Joey was on the front porch, rocking back and forth in a chair.
“What do you want?” he asked rudely.
“To see your mother!” Pam declared.
“She’s not home.”
Hearing the voices, Mrs. Brill appeared at the door, her hands white with flour. “Oh dear, are you children fighting again? What is it now?”
“Joey took a letter our grandmother sent to us,” Pete said, “and we want it back.”
“Aw, I didn’t take any letter!” Joey said.
“It wasn’t exactly a written letter,” Pam explained. “It was in Braille.”
“For blind people?”
“Why, there’s nobody blind in your house,” Mrs. Brill said loftily. “So how could my Joey have taken your letter?”
“But it was written by our grandmother,” Pam went on stoutly. “She helps blind people.”
Mrs. Brill wiped her hands on her apron and looked at Joey. “Give back the letter!” she ordered.
“I don’t have it.”
Tears came to Pam’s eyes. “Mrs. Brill,” she said, “he’s lying. We saw him take it.”
The woman eyed her son sternly. “Give back the letter, I said!” As she moved toward him, Joey cringed.
“I—I don’t have it now!”
“Then where is it?”
Joey said he had tucked it into his shirt, but as he ran home it fell out and was lost.
Disappointed, the children turned and left, wondering whether there was an important secret in the lost letter. What had their grandmother written? Did it require an urgent reply?
When they reached home, they were surprised to see a newspaper photographer taking pictures of the sailplane. Their father was talking to a reporter.
“I plan to take part in several soaring meets,” he said and explained that he would give his two-seater a tryout soon.
At supper the Hollisters talked over the day’s events. The sailplane was good news, but Gram’s letter was not. They must write and tell her of the loss. After they had finished eating dessert Mr. Hollister said, “Come on, boys. We’ll have to tie down the plane for the night.”
Ricky wrinkled his nose and scratched his head. “So it won’t fly away?”
“If there happens to be a strong wind it would lift up like a kite,” his father said. He explained that they would have to tie ropes around the wings and attach them to pegs, driven into the ground.
After this had been done, Pam called Zip, their collie dog. He came bounding up and licked her hand. “Down, boy,” she said and attached a long leash to his collar. She tied the other end to a tree.
“Zip can stand on guard just in case,” Pam said.
As dusk settled down over the shore of Pine Lake, Ricky, Holly and Sue chased fireflies around the house and put them in a glass jar.
Finally Mrs. Hollister called her children inside. “Time for bed,” she said.
Ricky punched holes in the tin lid and screwed it at the top of the jar.
“May I take these into my bedroom?” he asked.
“All right,” his mother replied, “but let those poor little things free in the morning.”
Just before Pete went upstairs Zip started barking wildly. The boy dashed out onto the lawn.
“Quiet! Quiet, Zip!” he commanded.
The collie stopped barking. Instead he whined and growled.
Pete looked around. He could see nobody. All of a sudden he heard a rustle. Then, as his eyes became used to the darkness, he spied a small, bent-over man hastening out of the driveway!
“What do you want? Wait!” Pete shouted and set off after the intruder. By the time the boy reached the sidewalk, however, the stranger had vanished.
From the porch, Mr. Hollister called to his son. “Who is it?”
“Don’t know, Dad. I’m looking around.” Pete peered into the dark bushes bordering the walk and listened.
Then something touched his leg slightly, and he cried out in fright!