Friday, June 4, 2010

Spotlight on Shannon Garst

Among the age group who grew up in the 1950's and 60's, there are many readers who fondly remember the writings of Shannon Garst. In a career that spanned nearly 4 decades, Mrs. Garst wrote some 38 volumes of the most popular and most respected children's literature of the 20th century, both fiction and non-fiction.

Born in Ironwood, Michigan on July 24, 1894, Doris Shannon (her step-father's surname) initially trained to be a school teacher and principal. She married Joseph Garst, an attorney, and settled in Douglas, Wyoming, the county seat of Converse County, Wyoming. Here she continued her teaching career, and began to write. Her first book, "The Story of Wyoming," was published in 1938. Because the publisher did not believe that a Western-themed book for young people written by a woman would be saleable, she adopted the pen name of "Shannon Garst," a name she would use for the rest of her writing career.

To both her surprise and the publisher's, "The Story of Wyoming" proved to be so successful that Mrs. Garst soon abandoned her teaching career and turned to writing on a full-time basis. Since she lived in ranch country, and with her background as a school teacher and principal, it was only natural that most if not all of her 38 books were oriented toward what today would be called a "tween" audience--that is, kids (especially boys) between the ages of 10 and 13--and that, especially during that era, cowboys and Native Americans would play a major role in most of those books.

In addition to juvenile Western fiction, however, Mrs. Garst authored a number of biographies of well-known figures of her time, including Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Daniel Boone, and Wild Bill Hickok. Her last book, published in 1965, was a biography of Hans Christian Andersen. In addition, Mrs. Garst co-authored 3 books with her son, Warren Garst, who for many years was closely associated with the beloved TV series, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

After the death of her husband, Joseph, in 1965, Mrs. Garst, now in her 70's, retired from writing. She lived very quietly in her adopted home town of Douglas, Wyoming, until her death in 1981. The Children's Reading Room of the Converse County, Wyoming Public Library is named in her memory.

Sadly, with the changing tastes of later years, juvenile Western fiction has largely gone out of style, and the works of Mrs. Garst and other authors of her time and genre have been largely forgotten, and have been allowed to go out of print. Indeed, many libraries, due to space and budget constraints, have withdrawn Mrs. Garst's works from their collections, selling their copies in order to make room and raise much-needed funds for newer books. More's the pity, in my opinion, for Mrs. Garst's books, even today, can still hold the reader's interest. One major reason for this is that character growth and development on the part of the characters in the stories involved is an integral part of the story lines in most if not all of Mrs. Garst's books, in a way that is sadly lacking in many tween-oriented books that are currently available.

Among the best-known of Mrs. Garst's books are "Cowboy Boots" (1946), "Silver Spurs for Cowboy Boots" (1949), "Rusty at Ram's Horn Ranch" (1951), and "Ten Gallon Hat" (1953). All of these, and many if not most of Mrs. Garst's other works can often be found on eBay, Amazon, and such used book websites as Alibris, at extremely reasonable prices.

UPDATE:  Since I originally posted this entry in 2010, a number of Mrs. Garst's best-known books have been reprinted (presumably under license from the original publishers), and are available on eBay (and possibly through other websites as well).  Unfortunately, these new editions do NOT include reproductions of the original dust jackets--possibly due to licensing and/or copyright issues, especially since the dust jackets were created by a number of different illustrators.  Also, the prices of these reprints are substantially higher than one might expect, even given the rate of inflation since the books in question were originally published.  Also, since Mrs. Garst is no longer as well-known an author as she once was, the demand for her works is considerably less than it was during the mid-20th century, when Western-related juvenile fiction was in its heyday.  This in turn virtually eliminates the economy of scale which helped keep the prices of these books low.  Given all of that, however, it is still heartening to see at some of Mrs. Garst's works coming back into circulation, especially for use in homeschooling situations, which still place a high value on character development.

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