On Tuesday, March 14, at the Dominican University Performing Arts Center, Harriette Gillem Robinet, age 91, was honored by the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame with the Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement. Mrs. Robinet is the 14th recipient of the award since it was first presented in 2012. The Fuller Award is named for Henry Blake Fuller, one of Chicago’s earliest novelists, and is the highest honor that the Hall of Fame can bestow on a living writer.
Don Evans, founding executive director of the Hall of Fame, explained that they had never before honored a children’s author with the Fuller Award.
“There’s a tendency for certain kinds of writing to be devalued, including writing for a younger audience,” Evans said. “Harriette was up for consideration and so when the [selection committee’s] conversation turned to her, we discussed the value of writing for young people and how impactful and important it was and the level of artistry involved in doing it at the highest level.”
At the ceremony, Mrs. Robinet sat in the front row, with her husband McLouis by her side, surrounded by the 150 family members and friends who filled the Martin Recital Hall. Due to Alzheimer’s disease, she did not address the crowd, but spent the evening smiling broadly seemingly enjoying the stories, tributes, and dramatic readings adapted from her books. She later was said to have joyfully and repeatedly asked, “All of that was for me?”
Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park & River Forest, told the story of the Robinets’ move to Oak Park in 1965 as one of the first African-American families in the village. That experience eventually became the seed for Mrs. Robinet’s first significant piece of writing, published in February 1968 in Redbook magazine as part of their Young Mothers series. In the essay, she related that they needed a “straw buyer,” a white couple who bought the house first and then discreetly sold it to them as a way to get around real estate restrictions of that era; how they had to move-in in the middle of the week so as not to draw attention; and how some neighbors welcomed them warmly and others moved away.
Mrs. Robinet went on to write 11 books of historical fiction for school-aged children from 1976 to 2003. Her first two books were books about children with physical disabilities. Although she rarely wrote about specific incidents from her own life, her experiences influenced her writing. She felt strongly about the importance of learning from the past. As she said on her website, “Unless we know our history, we have no perspective on life today. How can we know where we’re going, or appreciate where we are today, if we don’t know where we’re coming from?”
This need for context was highlighted by Nora Brooks Blakely, daughter of poet Gwendolyn Brooks and one of those delivering tributes to Mrs. Robinet at the ceremony, who emphasized the importance of understanding “who was who and what was what” in the past or “you won’t know the ramifications of those times and you won’t recognize the aftereffects in the world of today.” She continued, “People need a road to empathy and that’s where you’ll find Harriette, subtly paving that road, smoothing our path not with concrete but with context.”
Due to her mother’s illness, Linda Robinet, the youngest of the Robinets’ children, accepted the Fuller Award on her mother’s behalf. Because the story of the Robinets’ move to Oak Park and their subsequent life here is well-known, Ms. Robinet focused on Mrs. Robinet’s life leading up to their move. She talked about her mother’s childhood growing up in Washington D.C. She talked about how, despite excelling academically in college with the highest grade point average in her class, her mother wasn’t awarded any honors at graduation because “honors were given to students whose parents were generous donors.” Linda also talked about her parents’ love story and the priest who played matchmaker and then eventually married them.
When asked what prompted her mother to start writing books, Ms. Robinet said, “She had a conversation with one of the librarians at the Oak Park Public Library, who told her that there were no books about disabled children. My mom looked at her and said, ‘I can do that,’ and that’s where her first two books came from.” (The Robinets’ son, Jonathan, has cerebral palsy.) “She wrote for children because her life was children,” Linda added. It was six kids. And she loved history and she loved researching and she was very familiar with how kids feel and how they respond. She was knee-deep in kids.”