Author and educator Irma Simonton Black was born on June 6, 1906 in Paterson, New Jersey. She received an A.B. from Barnard College in 1927, majoring in English and mathematics. While at Barnard, Black wrote for Barnard Barnacle, the college’s quarterly magazine, and Barnard Bulletin, the college newspaper.
Following college, she studied at the Bureau of Educational Experiments (BEE) and New York University. She began teaching at the Harriet Johnson Nursery School of the BEE in 1931. She also worked in the Research Division and as a faculty member teaching children’s literature.
The BEE was renamed Bank Street College of Education in 1950, and Black became the head of the Division of Publications and Communications, a position she would hold for the rest of her life. She participated in the Writers Laboratory, conducted by Bank Street founder Lucy Sprague Mitchell, and later became its head. The Writers Lab was home to many well-respected children’s book authors and illustrators.
Black was an author and editor of The Bank Street Readers, the first multicultural, multi-ethnic readers. The Readers featured recognizable children in urban settings dealing with everyday situations. She also edited Bank Street’s Early Childhood Discovery Materials and Discoveries series for intermediate grades that allowed students to progress from group reading under teacher supervision to individualized reading without a teacher.
Black was the author of more than twenty children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction, and wrote three non-fiction books for adults. She and Lucy Sprague Mitchell were also the editors of Believe and Make-Believe, stories by Bank Street writers.
In the 1940s, she wrote a weekly newspaper column called “Life with Junior.” Through the 1950s and early 1960s, she contributed the monthly “You and Your Child” column to Redbook, articles on art for children to Art in America, and a column, “Books for Young People,” to Saturday Review. She wrote many articles and reviews of children’s books to popular and professional publications. She also contributed to a radio program, The Baby Institute, that featured Jessie Stanton–also of the BEE– and Dr. Benjamin Spock.
Among her professional honors and affiliations were: the National Association for Nursery Education, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Barnard College Alumni Association. She married attorney James Hammond Black in 1934, and the couple had a daughter, Constance Kirkland Black. Constance Black married Earl E. Engle and they had two sons, James Simonton Engle, an artist, and Douglas Harrison Engle, a professional photographer.
Following Black’s untimely death in 1972, Bank Street College of Education established the annual Irma Simonton Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature with the encouragement and support of her family. The Award was presented in Irma’s name only until 1992, when it was renamed the Irma Simonton Black and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature in recognition of his ardent support of the Award.
Many thanks to Constance Black Engle (1936-2021) for her contributions to this biography.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
This collection was donated to the Bank Street College Archives by Constance Black Engle in 2007 and 2008. Accession numbers: 2007.15, 2008.06. A second accretion was donated by Douglas Harrison Engle in 2021. Accession number: 2021.01.
The initial collection was processed in 2012 by Lindsey Wyckoff and Nicole Frisone with funding made possible in part by a grant from the Documentary Heritage Program of the New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department. A second accretion was processed in Fall, 2021 by Julia Gatenio as coursework for a Masters degree in Archives and Public History from New York University, with additional processing by Brett Dion in Spring, 2022.