WHEN PARENTS who were growing up during World War II go shopping for children’s books this Christmas they’ll find a whole new literature at their disposal — nursery tested and psychologically sound. There are no Grimm fairies or traumatic dragons in this crop. But some parents, preferring to trust childhood memories, will still buy classics. First the A. A. Milne books: then The Wind In the Willows. Say, what ever happened to Just Mary?
What happened to Just Mary, one of the best-selling series of juvenile books of all time, is itself a modern fairy story. Once upon a time, in 1939. the CBC waved its magic wand over a 39-year-old Fredericton, NB, primary-school teacher named Mary Evelyn Grannan and made her a legend. Twenty-three years later the CBC waved its wand again and Mary Grannan vanished. The rest is silence.
Mary Grannan had a remarkable facility for entertaining children. For 15 years in Fredericton she had started her mornings in the classroom with one of her own stories — on subjects the children themselves had requested. The owner of CFNB gave her a 15-minute spot Sunday nights to try out her material and she called her show' Just Mary — because that is w'hat it was. Mary Grannan wrote and read the stories herself, played all the parts and produced all the sound effects. She was paid nothing — but the experience and the satisfactions she derived from a chance to emote were enough for her.
By 1937 she was ready and an audition was arranged w'ith the CBC. The same night she received a phone call inviting her to come to Toronto and produce Just Mary over the network. Two years later she took a year’s leave of absence from her teaching job — and never went back. By 194!, children all over Canada were refusing to miss their Sunday afternoons with Kitty Kinsella, Géorgie The Rat or Orville Bug. and there were so many people writing in for scripts of the shows that the CBC, in co-operation with an educational publishing firm, printed a Just Mary book that was sold at cost.
In less than a month, 5,000 copies had been purchased and so the follow-
ing year, the same company printed Just Mary Again — and it sold even faster than the first. Mary Grannan acquired a commercial publisher, Thomas Allen Ltd., and proceeded to become big business.
She was receiving mail from Canadian servicemen all over the world — many of whom carried copies of her books in their kit bags, some of w'hom named their planes and anti-tank guns after characters in her stories.
Another series, Maggie Muggins, was begun. It too was carried on radio and published by Thomas Allen and it sold 10,000 copies in the first printing. In 1948 she was presented with a key to the city of Fredericton, the CBC did a 25-minute dramatization of her life story and Mary Grannan broadcasts were included in school programming in 11 American states.
She acquired an American publisher and was lavishly fêted at publicity parties in Chicago and New' York. In 1951 copies of her books were placed in the Mark Tw'ain Library at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Mary Grannan herself was made an honorary member of the Mark Twain Society, a distinction she shared with such artists as Eugene O’Neill and Lionel Barrymore.
News stories invariably described her appearance. Many reporters were surprised to find that the sw'eet, girlish “take-you-by-the-hand” voice that so entranced children belonged to a tall,
"ultra-svelte” middle-aged woman whose hat collection rivaled that of Hedda Hopper, whose dangling earrings grew larger and longer every year and who wore slave-maiden bracelets designed especially for her by Canadian artisans.
By 1960, when Mary Grannan reached retirement age, many of her original listeners had grown up and were buying Just Mary books for their children. The head of children’s programming at the CBC advised her to go freelance rather than apply for an extension of her time and said that so long as he was in charge, she would have work. But two years later he left and Bruce Attridge, the new executive producer of youth programming, canceled the Just Mary and Maggie Muggins shows.
"Her friends were appalled,” says one of her friends (and she had many). "Attridge seemed to have the idea that her stuff was outdated, but I don’t think fantasy ever goes out of style. A lot of children really loved that Maggie Muggins show.”
“Mary Grannan was a fabulous person with a tremendous contribution to make,” says Dan McCarthy, present head of children’s programming. “But the success of Just Mary on radio was partly because of the media. Radio is made for fantasy.”
There was nothing for her to do. After 23 years of uninterrupted creation and production of 4,000 children’s shows, Mary Grannan went back to Fredericton.
Last June, the remaining Just Mary and Maggie Muggins books were jobbed out to a book club by Thomas Allen Ltd. “We’d rather not get involved in the story,” says a publicity man for the firm. “Perhaps she was more famous as a radio personality.” (During six weeks in 1946, a new Just Mary book sold 23,000 copies — a record for any juvenile book anywhere; by 1962 her 29 works had sold 400,000 copies and total sales of Mary Grannan books had brought the publisher $300,000.)
“There was a lot of discussion in the book trade when the books went out of print,” continues the PR man. “Talk that she was a legend and the books were Canadiana etcetera, etcetera. But they had run their course. The publicity could be awkward, to say the least.” (Especially on the brink of a Centennial year.)
Had Just Mary run its course? The manager of children’s books at a downtown Toronto bookstore where I bought what is probably the last available retail copy of a Just Mary book in this city did not think so. "No Canadian books for children survive because they just don’t get the promotion,” she says. “There have been very few requests for Mary Grannan books since the shows went off the air, but I don’t feel they are outdated. I’m sure children would still enjoy them.”
“All the excitement of my life is behind me,” says Mary Grannan, who now lives quietly in her family home in Fredericton, and occasionally talks
to women’s clubs. “I think my kind of material is finished. There used to be a code that you shouldn’t frighten children but today they like Batman and The Man From UNCLE. Nobody seems to want anything pretty any more.” SANDRA PEREDO
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