Helen Wells: Cherry's Creator
Cherry nodded, smiling, and he nodded his head in time with hers.
"Now isn't that the best story I ever told you?"
--From Cherry Ames, Veterans' Nurse, p. 196
The creator of the Cherry Ames series, Helen Wells, was a social worker turned full-time writer, and, like her most famous heroine, an Illinois native who loved New York City.
Life and Career
Helen Wells (she legally changed her name from Helen Weinstock) was born on March 29, 1910, in Danville, Illinois. Her brother, Robert, has said that "Danville is pretty much the town that Cherry Ames lived in, and our house was her house."
The family moved to New York City when Helen was about seven, and she loved New York. The family retained ties to Danville, however; almost every summer, they spent some time visiting relatives there.
As a teenager, Wells studied painting at the Art Students League in New York City; she also studied music. At New York University, she became the first female editor of the school's literary quarterly. She graduated from NYU in 1934, with a major in philosophy and a minor in sociology and psychology. After graduation, she worked for a time as a social worker and began to write for magazines, and eventually turned to writing full-time after winning prizes in two short-story contests.
During World War II, she served as a volunteer with the State Department's Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, escorting Latin American visitors in the United States.
She traveled widely, visiting Brazil, Spain, France, Austria, Israel, Mexico, England, and several other countries. Among her other interests were reading, theater, ballet, and jazz. She also was a cat lover; two of her cats were Gigi, a blue Persian, and Crissy, an orange Angora.
In Polly French and the Surprising Stranger (written under the pseudonym Francine Lewis), Helen Wells wrote about a Latin American exchange student and her difficulties in adjusting to life in the United States.
She was active in several author organizations, especially the Mystery Writers of America, and taught writing courses at the Institute of Children's Literature in Redding Ridge, Connecticut.
Series and Nonseries Books
Helen Wells is best known for the Cherry Ames series, which was published in numerous countries besides the United States, including Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Japan, France, Italy, Holland, and Bolivia.
But Wells wrote two other series. Under her own name, she wrote the Vicki Barr books, about a young mystery-solving flight attendant--like Cherry Ames and Helen Wells herself, another Illinois-to-New York transplant. And, as Francine Lewis, she penned the short-lived Polly French series, published by Whitman in the early 1950s: Polly French of Whitford High, Polly French Takes Charge, and Polly French and the Surprising Stranger; these books, about a young teenager, are aimed at a younger readership.
Among her other books for young people were several so-called Career-Romances for Young Moderns--novels that featured a young woman pursuing a career, published by Julian Messner: The Girl in the White Coat (1953), A Flair for People (1955), Introducing Patti Lewis, Home Economist (1956), and Doctor Betty (1969). Wells also wrote Escape by Night: A Story of the Underground Railway (1953), a "Winston Adventure Book" for young people, based on a true story; and A City for Jean (1956), a novel about a young social worker, for Funk & Wagnalls; and Adam Gimbel, Pioneer Trader (1955) and Barnum, Showman of America (1957) for McKay.
After writing the first eight books of the Cherry Ames series and the first three Vicki Barr books, Wells decided to abandon both series to write for television and radio, and Julie Tatham took over (however, both the ninth Cherry Ames book and the fourth Vicki Barr book were published under Wells's name). Tatham later returned the Vicki Barr books to Wells in 1953 and the Cherry Ames books in 1955.
Helen Wells also used the Underground Railroad as a plot feature in Rural Nurse
"A story starts for me with an emotional charge about one person. That person may be a man seen on the street with an expression on his face that makes me wonder: 'What has happened to him?'" Wells said. "Before going to sleep at night, I hold the story I'm working on in my mind and order my unconscious to think about it. On waking, often a new idea has surfaced--and I keep pen and paper at bedside to write it down immediately. Ditto pen and paper in my handbag, for ideas or scraps of dialogue that occur during the day.
"I start by writing a biography and character study for each character. Plot grows out of character and the character's relationships."
Helen Wells died in New York City on February 10, 1986, and is buried in Danville, Illinois. The 1986 Juvenile Series Writers Conference in Corning, New York, was dedicated to her memory.
The biographical information about Helen Wells comes from Something About the Author, vol. 49, pp. 201-04; Contemporary Authors Online; dust jackets from The Girl in the White Coat and A City for Jean; and the New York Times, February 13, 1986.
The quote from Ms. Wells is from The Mystery Writer's Handbook, by the Mystery Writers of America, ed. by Lawrence Treat (1976), pp. 28, 61.
The photograph is from the back cover of A City for Jean, copyright © 1956, Funk & Wagnalls.
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