NEW YORK — Betty Miles, a writer whose books for children and young adults addressed real-life issues like sexism, racism, and censorship after she had emerged from the 1950s to become a feminist, died July 19 at her home in Shelburne, Vt. She was 90.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Ellen Miles.
In many of her more than two dozen books, Ms. Miles aimed to entertain young people while also helping them navigate the complex realities of society.
“In my books I want to present characters who can serve as models — not because they are exceptionally brave or righteous, but precisely because they are ordinary kids dealing with everyday worries and embarrassments,” she wrote in the autobiography series “Something About the Author.”
Her protagonists often stood up to prejudice or narrow-mindedness, even when they were initially reluctant to do so.
Ms. Miles wrote that in the 1950s she had struggled at first with her desire to write, feeling “both presumptuous and guilty for attempting to be anything more than the good homemaker I was supposed to be.”
“I felt a kind of private shame for doing work I wasn’t supposed to be doing — and for not doing it well enough — while my energy was drained by the endless adjustments and arrangements of making time to do it at all,” she continued.
In time Ms. Miles overcame her conflicted feelings and became an ardent feminist. She later joined a group called Feminists on Children’s Media that pointed out sexist depictions of girls and boys in children’s literature.
She began publishing picture books in 1958 and produced her first novel, “The Real Me,” in 1974. It stemmed from her frustration at pervasive sexism. The book’s heroine, a teenager named Barbara Fisher, takes a stand after she is denied a newspaper route, barred from her school’s tennis team because she is a girl and forced to take instead a gym class called Slimnastics.
“Suddenly I began to notice how many things were unfair to girls, and how angry people got if you complained about it,” Barbara thinks to herself in one passage.
The novel found a receptive audience, and Ms. Miles followed it with books that addressed social issues through believable characters. They included “The Trouble With Thirteen” (1979), about the growing pains of a girl transitioning from childhood to adolescence, and “Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book” (1980), about a girl caught up in a censorship battle after she shows a class a book to which some parents object.
Patricia Lee Gauch wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1980, “Betty Miles takes on every conceivable issue in the battle over a controversial book: The travesty of frantic parents taking an incident out of context; the difference between information and ‘smut’; what happens if one person’s freedom of speech ‘bumps into someone else’s’; and more.”
Ms. Miles also wrote books that focused on race relations, like “All It Takes Is Practice” (1976) and “Sink or Swim” (1986), and the environment, like the nonfiction work “Save the Earth: An Ecology Handbook for Kids” (first released in 1974).
She also wrote in other forms, like “The Army of Two,” a serialized story about two sisters who outsmart the British military in Massachusetts during the War of 1812; and a feminist rethinking of the Greek myth of Atalanta for Marlo Thomas’s children’s entertainment project “Free to Be ... You and Me.”
‘In my books I want to present characters who can serve as models — not because they are exceptionally brave or righteous, but precisely because they are ordinary kids dealing with everyday worries and embarrassments.’
Elizabeth Louise Baker was born in Chicago on May 16, 1928, to David and Helen (Otte) Baker. Her parents were Christian missionaries, and she spent her early years in Baghdad before returning to the United States, where she lived in Ohio, Baltimore, and Missouri.
She graduated from high school in Webster Groves, Mo., before going to Antioch College in Ohio, where she studied literature and journalism. While in college she worked as a reporter and editor for local newspapers.
At Antioch she met Matt Miles, whose parents were also missionaries. They married in 1949 and, after graduating, moved to New York City, where Betty Miles found a job as a receptionist at a private school.
Matt Miles died in 1996. In addition to her daughter Ellen, Betty Miles leaves another daughter, Sara; a son, David; and three granddaughters.
Ms. Miles’s interest in writing for children was kindled when she became a kindergarten teacher’s assistant. She took a course on writing for children at the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan and later edited Bank Street Readers, multicultural reading primers aimed at an urban audience.
She submitted books to publishers for some years without success before her first picture book, “A House for Everyone” (1958), with illustrations by Jo Lowrey, was accepted.
Ms. Miles said she thought it was crucial to instill in children a love of reading at a very young age. But she bristled at the idea of pushing more difficult books on toddlers before they were ready for them.
“I used to hate the advertisement that showed a little girl reaching high above her head to a library shelf, with the caption, ‘Only 3 years old, but she’s already reading third-grade books!,’ ” Miles wrote. “I always hoped someone was reading her ‘Goodnight, Moon,’ as well.”