Painting by Hilda Van Stockum

Hilda Gerarda Van Stockum was born in 1908 in Rotterdam, Netherlands, to Dutch Royal Navy officer Abraham John Van Stockum and his wife, Olga. The young and growing family moved about and traveled a great deal due to her father’s career, which led to Hilda being homeschooled until age ten (the novelty of her attending school for the first time is retold through the adventures of Pegeen).

Though Hilda had a deep and intuitive spiritual side, as the daughter of agnostic parents she received no religious formation. She recalls that after having been given a children’s Bible, “I said I wanted to go to church. My parents…sent me with the servants to the village church: a whitewashed, chilly affair with nothing that would appeal to a child. There was only a black-coated man talking a long time in a peculiar voice. I decided that I had been fooled; it wasn’t a church at all; and I didn’t ask to go again. But one day when I was walking with my mother, we passed a Catholic Church, and I immediately dragged my mother inside. “This is a church!” I cried, sniffing the incense. “This is what I meant; this is where God is.” Mother thought it all very dangerous and unsuitable and quickly hurried me away.” Hilda, astutely reflecting on her parents beliefs, commented, “Both my father and my mother always followed their consciences. When they were atheists they were so from a mistaken idealism, because the God they were asked to believe in didn't measure up to their standards. Eventually they both became ardent believers. God could not have failed to love them even in the days when they denied Him.”

At age sixteen, Hilda moved with her family to Ireland where she attended the School of Art in Dublin. After her studies there, she further pursued her art education at the Dutch Academy in Amsterdam. Her innate artistic, as well as spiritual, sensitivity is revealed in her observation, “It is light that creates beauty in nature. Without light we can't see, and all form is lost, whereas the most common and despised objects can be made beautiful by the light that plays on them. You don't have to paint heroic scenes or idealized goddesses... a common cracked cup can be beautiful." Her ability to find beauty in the ordinary, the everyday, came to characterize Hilda’s stories as well as her art.

Hilda’s interest in religion revived when, on her return to Amsterdam as a nineteen year old to study art, she discovered the writings of G. K. Chesterton, who, as she said “has since been my guiding light among mortals. I bought all his books, and felt how the sweeping broom of his intellect was cleaning the attic of my mind.”

In 1931, Hilda moved to Ireland where her brother was studying at Trinity College. It was then that she met his good friend, Ervin Ross “Spike” Marlin, an American. The couple married in 1932; he moved to New York to seek employment; she waited for him to send for her. In 1934, she joined him in America and shortly after wrote her first book, the Newbery Honor-winning A Day on Skates, and they welcomed the first of six children. Her book, lavishly and lovingly illustrated with full color paintings, would likely have been an easy favorite for the Caldecott Award. Unfortunately, it predated the establishment of the Caldecott Award by just a few years. Hilda used to joke that she was a bit hurt at first that, with all her training in art, people liked her story better than her pictures.

Illustration from A Day on Skates

In 1935, her husband secured a job in FDR’s administration and the family relocated to Washington, D.C. Much of the family’s life is chronicled in the stories of the Mitchell family; the playful antics of her children, the elderly boarder, her widowed mother moving in with the family, her husband’s overseas deployment, and her brother’s death in WWII.

Hilda, who became an American citizen in 1936, spoke to an aspiring writer sometime later about the parallels between life and story. She remembered:

[People] often asked me what I found to write about my most ordinary children and that I told [them] they'd be no use unless they were ordinary. And I went on to say that the things you gossiped about in real life, and envied and thought thrilling were boring and unconvincing in literature—that it was the normal that is needed in books rather than the abnormal. "So," I said, "the duller the life you lead, the less brilliant your companions, the more humdrum your surroundings, the less exciting your occupations, the more successful your books.

Hilda Van Stockum and her family

While Hilda’s writing career was flourishing, so was her life of faith. She writes of her awakening that began while still in Dublin, “The more I penetrated the Catholic Faith, the more my admiration for it grew. It seemed so full and many-sided and it offered so much that there I could always find the answer for some special need…The ritual opened up the channels of my emotions, and in acts of devotion I found an outlet for my religious enthusiasm. Very soon I began to notice the effects of a practiced Catholicism. Instead of wavering between extremes of penitence and gigantic resolutions, my devotional life became more stabilized, more human, more humorous. I learned to take things with a little salt, to mistrust sweeping statements, and to be content with growing slowly and steadily.” In 1938, Hilda joined the Catholic Church along with her small children.

Hilda’s enthusiasm for an everyday, “lived” Catholicism made her a perfect match for Maria Trapp’s family camp. The Marlin family spent several weeks at Music Camp at the Trapp Lodge in 1947. Hilda’s son remembers, “We all learned to play instruments—especially the recorder—and to sing in parts. Most of the music was religious because the Trapps' brilliant but forgotten (i.e., not in the script of the Sound of Music) musicologist was Fr. Franz Wasner…The Trapp Family Lodge experience kindled a desire by our Dad to expose us to more culture and led to the multi-week vacation trips that we took around Europe in our Volkswagen bus in 1954-55.” Hilda was invited back by Maria several times to teach plein air painting to camp attendees.

Illustration from Mogo's Flute

Hilda’s maturing faith transformed her writing. While her early stories are lively and captivating reflections of her Dutch and Irish childhood, her later stories, especially The Winged Watchman and The Borrowed House, explore the complex and changing realities of Europe in the grips of the World War II and the spiritual struggles of those caught in its destructive wake. In The Winged Watchman, based on letters she received from family still in the Netherlands, she has a character muse, “In the camp we saw our own people kill each other over a crust of bread. In the old days I used to think that religion did not matter much, that people could be good without it. That was not true in the camps. If you had no hope or faith to keep you human, you sank to the lowest depths.”

Hilda’s understanding that true religion is not extraneous, but essential; that it is the love of God that is the light that transforms the common and broken into the extraordinary and beautiful; is the overarching conviction that lends such realness and truth to Hilda’s writing. This light, this love, that captivated Hilda from her earliest childhood shines through her stories of seemingly unremarkable families and their ordinary lives. In the words of her hero, G. K. Chesterton, “the most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.”

In 1974, just as her final book was published, Hilda and her husband retired to England to be near several of their grown children and grandchildren. As changing fashions in children’s literature left her family-centered stories behind, Hilda laid aside her writing and returned to painting, her first love, and spent her days in thought, humor, and prayer. She died in England in 2006.

Johanna Bittle

Johanna Bittle writes from a lifelong love of captivating story. Homeschooled through high school, she graduated from Hillsdale College having studied History and Classics. She shares her pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful with her half-dozen precocious children, whom she schools at home.