I first interviewed Harriette Robinet back in the 1990s because she was a highly regarded author of historical non-fiction books for middle-grade readers. A stay-at-home mom, she somehow found time to write her novels while raising six children, four of them adopted. Couldn’t have been easy.
I figured she must be a natural-born writer. Not really, she said. Her scientific background made her an experienced researcher, but literature didn’t come naturally. She said she taught herself how to write novels by copying passages from famous authors, writing them in longhand, which is also how she wrote her books.
That seemed … painstaking. Why couldn’t she just read those authors? There was an extra dimension in writing it out, she said. You get closer to the writing and how it’s constructed. You can see how these authors worked, how they composed their sentences and paragraphs, how they engineered their voice.
She was right, I discovered when I wanted to use an extended quote from another writer in one of my articles or columns. These days, of course, it’s easy to cut and paste on my computer. But I found when I wrote it out in a notebook and then typed it in, I understood the passage at a deeper level than merely reading it. Writing it out slows down and deepens the comprehension process. That is particularly true with poetry. If a poem doesn’t impress you on first reading, try writing it. You might be surprised how it comes alive.
For Harriette, that extra effort seemed to pay off. She published a dozen books, which won awards and were used in classrooms as a way to make history come alive for students. Her own daughter, Linda, still uses them to teach fourth-graders in the same classroom at Beye School that she attended as a child.
But Harriette did more than pen a dozen excellent books for young readers — as if that weren’t enough for one productive adulthood.
She and her husband Mac also helped integrate Oak Park in the 1960s, being one of the first black couples to move into the village, serving as a “test couple” to expose unethical real estate practices, leading protest marches calling for open housing, and then helping spearhead efforts to pass a local fair housing ordinance, which produced the diverse village, and more enlightened community, we enjoy today.
They also raised a remarkable family — and are still here 58 years later as community anchors.
But it’s Harriette’s literary legacy that is being recognized next Tuesday, March 14, from 6 to 7 p.m. at Dominican University’s Performing Arts Center, when the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame honors her with its Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The CLHOF was founded by Oak Park resident Don Evans. The award is named for Henry Blake Fuller, one of Chicago’s earliest novelists.
“The Fuller,” as the award is known, has other meanings as well. According to the CLHOF website, “a fuller is also a tool used to form metal when it’s hot, an important part of building and a nice metaphor for Chicago, home to the ‘First Chicago School’ of architecture that rose up from the ashes of the Chicago Fire of 1871. … Chicago emerged as a resilient city that took risks and made bold decisions — using iron and steel to frame its buildings, giving rise to the world’s first skyscraper. The fuller was one such tool that made it happen, a symbol of possibility and perseverance.”
The statue that Harriette will receive on March 14 is “based on Hephaestus, the Greek god of the blacksmith’s fire and patron of all craftsmen. … The patron of artists and craftsmen, he seemed a fitting symbol to capture the spirit of excellence embodied by the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s Fuller Award.”
Previous winners include Rick Kogan (2022), Ana Castillo (2022), Luis Alberto Urrea (2021), Sandra Cisneros (2021), Sara Paretsky (2019), and Stuart Dybek (2018), so Harriette is in very good company. She, too, excelled at her craft, which celebrated possibility and perseverance.
Kudos to Don Evans and CLHOF for recognizing that and choosing her. So Oak Parkers have good reason to turn out on March 14 to cheer Harriette Robinet’s lifetime achievement. If you don’t know the Robinets, they are among the finest individuals I’ve ever met, here or anywhere else. They have made a significant contribution to turning this village into what we celebrate today. This is an opportunity to thank them for everything they’ve done.
If you’re not familiar with the books and you have young readers at home, Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore in Forest Park carries them, and The Book Table in Oak Park can order them if they aren’t already in stock.
The Fuller Award event, at 6 p.m. on March 14 at Dominican, is free but they ask that you register at https://chicagoliteraryhof.org/events_entry/fuller-award-for-harriette-gillem-robinet.