Born Eleanor Ruth Rosenfield in West Haven, Connecticut, on May 9, 1906, Estes was the third of four children. Her father, Louis Rosenfeld, was a bookkeeper for a railway; her mother, Caroline Gewecke Rosenfeld, was a seamstress and story teller. Her father died when Estes was young, and her mother's dressmaking provided for the family. In 1923, after graduating from West Haven High School, she trained at the New Haven Free Library, and became a children's librarian there.
In 1931 Estes won the Caroline M. Hewins scholarship for children's librarians, which allowed her to study at the Pratt Institute library school in New York. In 1932 she married fellow student Rice Estes. They both worked as librarians throughout New York, and he later became a professor of library science. Estes began writing when tuberculosis left her confined to her bed. Her best known fictional characters, the Moffats, live in Cranbury, Connecticut, which is Estes’ hometown of West Haven. She based The Moffats after her family, including patterning younger daughter Janey after herself, and basing Rufus on her brother, Teddy.
Eleanor based the story The Hundred Dresses from her real life experience as the girl who (unbeknownst to Peggy) received Peggy's hand-me-down dresses. She felt so guilty for not having defended the Wanda character in real life, that she wrote the story as both an exercise to assuage her guilt, and to encourage others to stand up against bullies.
The Estes had one child, Helena, born in Los Angeles in 1948, where Rice Estes was assistant librarian at the University of Southern California. In 1952 they moved back to the East coast, where she lived until her death. Besides writing and working as a librarian, Estes also taught at the University of New Hampshire Writer's Conference.
Eleanor Estes died July 15, 1988 in Hamden, Connecticut.
Estes's book Ginger Pye (1951) won the Newbery Medal. Three of her books were Newbery Honor books: The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses. In addition The Moffats won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1961. Estes also received the Certificate of Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Literature from the New York Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development in 1968. She was awarded the Pratt Institute Alumni Medal in 1968. In 1970 she was nominated for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.
According to reviewer Carolyn Shute, Estes had the "ability to distill the very essence of childhood." Anita Silvey said she possessed a "rare gift for depicting everyday experiences from the fresh perspective of childhood." Estes is primarily recognized as a writer of family stories, and as one who "shaped and broadened that sub-genre's tradition", primarily through her "seemingly artless style". Eleanor Cameron, in an article for The Horn Book Magazine, included Estes' Moffat books among "those that sit securely as classics in the realm of memorable literature".
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