Thursday, February 15, 2024

Q&A with Caroline Arnold



Caroline Arnold is the author of the new memoir Settlement House Girl: Growing Up in the 1950s at North East Neighborhood House, Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is her first book for adults; she has written many books for children, including My Friend from Outer Space


Q: What inspired you to write Settlement House Girl?


A: Settlement House Girl is a collection of stories about my childhood living in a settlement house in Minneapolis. It is my first adult book.


The inspiration came from a children’s book project called Children of the Settlement Houses (Carolrhoda Books, 1999) a nonfiction book illustrated with historic photos featuring children who came to activities at settlement houses in the early 20th century.


It occurred to me that the same title could be used for a different book, about children like me and my brothers, who actually lived in settlement houses and viewed the activities from the inside. I discovered that there weren’t many families like ours and began to realize how unique our experience was.


From 1948 to 1966 my father was the director of North East Neighborhood House, a settlement house in Minneapolis. It was a time when settlement houses were in transition from their roots in immigrant communities to the modern social service centers that they are today.


A goal of my book, Settlement House Girl, is to provide a record of this moment in history. It is also a story about me, and how those experiences shaped my view of the world.


Q: How much of the book comes from your own memories, and how much from research?


A: I am told that I have a remarkable memory for the events of my childhood, but of course they are buttressed by research and a rich collection of memorabilia.


I come from a family of savers and letter writers. Every Sunday night when I was growing up my parents sat down at the dining room table to write letters to their families about the week’s activities. Many of those letters were returned to me in later years.


I also have packets of (sometimes blurry) black and white family photos to reinforce my memories and keep them alive.


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about settlement houses?


A: Most people I meet have no idea what a settlement house is, or if they do, that they are a thing of the past.


The aim of the settlement house movement (which started in England in 1864 and spread worldwide) was to create positive social change in immigrant and poor urban neighborhoods by offering services such as English classes, childcare, job help, bathing facilities, medical and dental services, sports and clubs for kids, and so on.

Although often founded by religious institutions, they were nonsectarian, funded by donations. Activities were led by volunteers, and by staff members on site, mostly college students who lived at the settlement house and worked part-time.


While many of the early settlement houses have closed, others have evolved to meet the changing needs of their communities. North East Neighborhood House, founded in 1915, continues today as East Side Neighborhood Services.


Q: What impact do you think growing up in a settlement house had on your life?


A: North East Neighborhood House was a large, brick, purpose-built structure. Living there was a little bit like living in a YMCA, with access to a gym, fully equipped play yard, and activities every day after school. Meals were communal—we ate with other residents, our meals prepared by the settlement house cooks.  To me, as a child, it felt like a large extended family.


Although my parents were social workers, I never wanted to be a social worker when I grew up. I always liked to make things—perhaps that’s why I loved the arts and crafts and puppet clubs at the settlement house so much.


My love of art led me to writing and illustrating books for children. I often use my group work skills, learned by observing my parents and working as a camp counselor, when I do author visits at schools and libraries.


But perhaps the biggest impact on my life at the settlement house was Camp Bovey, the ESNS camp founded by my father, where I spent my summers and where I learned to love nature and the out-of-doors. Many of the books I write for children today focus on wildlife and the environment.

North East Neighborhood House

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a picture book biography about the life of Lizzie Kander, editor of the best-selling Settlement Cook Book (first edition 1902), which grew out of her work at a community center in Milwaukee called The Settlement.  


As I read about Lizzie Kander’s cooking classes at The Settlement, they reminded me of learning to make muffins in my cooking club at North East Neighborhood House. After my family moved and we had our own kitchen, I learned to cook using my mother’s copy of the Settlement Cook Book--the 25th edition!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have been working on Settlement House Girl for 10 years. In early versions I included footnotes and extra material in the main text, but it tended to slow the story down. Now I have moved most of it to the back of the book as end notes and added an appendix.


I also decided to write the story in the present tense to make it more of a narrative and less a historical document.


In 1954, after living for six years in our third-floor apartment at North East Neighborhood House, my family moved to a house in South Minneapolis and my father commuted to work. But we still returned to the settlement house for events such as the Yule Tide Tea and the Camp Reunion, and we always spent our summers at Camp Bovey.


The book ends when my father takes a job in California and the family leaves Minneapolis. My life went on but I will always be a settlement house girl.


You can learn about my books for children at my website


Thank you, Deborah, for the opportunity to share Settlement House Girl with your readers.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Caroline Arnold.

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