Harriette Gillem Robinet, scientist, civil rights activist and lauded children’s author, dies at 92

After a successful career as a microbiologist, Harriette Gillem Robinet of Oak Park became a widely admired author of historical novels for readers ages 9-14 and other books, all the while maintaining a strong commitment to civil rights.

Among her 12 books were “Missing from Haymarket Square,” which was set during a struggle for fair labor practices in 1886 Chicago, and “Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule,” about a 12-year-old orphaned slave who leaves South Carolina in search of a Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction.

Ms. Robinet died on May 17. She was 92.

Ms. Robinet was a longtime member of the Society of Midland Authors and won the organization’s 1998 Children’s Fiction Award for “The Twins: The Pirates and the Battle of New Orleans” (Atheneum Books, 1997). She was a judge for the group’s book awards in 2012.

Among her other awards were the Carl Sandburg Award, the Scott O’Dell Award for children’s historical fiction, the Jane Addams Award, the Friends of American Writers Award and the Chicago Literature Hall of Fame’s Fuller Award. Her book “Walking to the Bus Rider Blues” was nominated for an Edgar Award by Mystery Writers of America.

She was also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and the National Writers Union.

“To me, Harriette turned writing for children on its head,” said Marlene Targ Brill, also an author of children’s books. “She took what used to be common subjects for teaching history and wrote about characters from a Black perspective. They made you — and any reader — think and see the commonality in all of us. Her early books covered another much-neglected topic: disabilities.

“She and her husband, Mac, were early civil rights activists, joining a group to challenge redlining and desegregate housing on the North Shore. They were quiet but resolute people who changed lives,” Targ Brill said.

“My general memories of Harriette were that she was shrewd/smart, quiet but determined, welcoming, and always had this great smile.”

Children’s book author Patricia K. Kummer said, “Through 14 years of taking part in the Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy Young Authors’ Conference, I got to know Harriette. She and I and other children’s authors presented panel discussions and met with groups of young authors.

“Harriette was a lovely and gracious and modest woman with a warm smile and a twinkle in her eyes. Harriette didn’t mention hardships and heartaches of the past nor did she even hint about her academic degrees and accomplishments in the sciences. To those of us in the writing community, she was an author of wonderful historical fiction for young people. Of course throughout her life, she was so much more,” Kummer said.

Ms. Robinet’s first two books, “Jay and the Marigold” and “Ride the Red Cycle,” were about children with disabilities.

Her other books were: “Children of the Fire”; “Washington City Is Burning”; “Twelve Travelers, Twenty Horses”; “If You Please, President Lincoln!”, and “Mississippi Chariot,” all historical fiction books with African-American children and adults during in important times in U.S. history.

Ms. Robinet believed that without knowing history, people can have no perspective on life today.

“How can we know where we’re going, or appreciate where we are today, if we don’t know where we’re coming from?” she wrote.

Because African Americans have often been left out of history, she tried to “have both European and African American characters in stories, to have no villains but the systems, and to thrill as well as uplift her readers,” she wrote.

“Literature illuminates life but doesn’t hit you over the head with it,” Ms. Robinet told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003. “It lifts it and hands it to you subtly in a beautiful, haunting manner that you remember 10 years later … I think that’s good literature.”

Ms. Robinet and her husband of 64 years, McLouis “Mac” Robinet helped integrate Oak Park. They had six children. They also led marches in support of fair housing.

Ms. Robinet was born in Washington, D.C., attended the College of New Rochelle in New York and received M.S. and Ph.D degrees in microbiology from the Catholic University of America.

After graduating, Ms. Robinet worked as a bacteriologist at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and at other hospitals. She also was a biology instructor at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Besides her husband, Ms. Robinet is also survived by five of her children, Stephen, Philip, Rita, Jonathan and Linda, and four grandchildren.

Services have been held.

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