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Corydon & Thelma Bell displaying their art, October 1959

Note: This article is reprinted from a July 7, 2022 version.

Transylvania County Library’s North Carolina Rowell Bosse will have a new local history display on the second floor from now through the end of January featuring writer-illustrator couple Corydon and Thelma Bell.

Corydon and Thelma Bell were a married couple who achieved notoriety by collaborating to author and illustrate many children’s books. Their connection to Transylvania County began when they moved to Rainey Knob in Sapphire in 1944. The duo partnered on seven children’s books: Thelma as the writer and Corydon as the illustrator. Many of their books featured the North Carolina highlands as a setting. At the time, children’s books were an up-and-coming genre, and their unique perspective on southern Appalachian life was novel and previously unseen in children’s book publishing.

Thelma was born in Detroit, Michigan and graduated from Western Reserve University with B.A. in English and minor in Psychology. She worked as a copywriter in advertising for a large department store in Cleveland, Ohio before marrying Corydon and putting her career on hold to focus on raising their three children: Patricia, Whitten, and Nancy.

Corydon was born in Tiffin, Ohio and attended the University of Michigan as a pre-med major, but his studies were interrupted by World War I before completion. He was stationed at Camp Jackson, South Carolina, working as a bacteriologist on the base during the day and conducting the camp’s theatre orchestra in the evenings. Post-war, Corydon abandoned the idea of becoming a doctor and turned to graphic arts. He and Thelma opened an advertising studio in Cleveland, Ohio where he created advertising art while Thelma wrote the copy for their clients. 

After the children were grown, the couple left Cleveland and moved to Rainey Knob in the Sapphire area of Transylvania County. Thelma loved the plant life that now surrounded them and in addition to writing, painted rhododendrons, mushrooms, and flowers of the southern Appalachians. Her art was more than a hobby – her plant illustrations were published and in high demand.

Illustration from “Mountain Boy” 1947

Thelma was an award-winning children’s author. In 1959 she received the AAUW Award in North Carolina for “Captain Ghost”, and in 1961 the same title received the Dorothy Sanfield Fisher Children’s Book Award. “Captain Ghost” and “Yaller Eye” were both Junior Literary Guild selections. In addition to her fiction writing, she also wrote children’s science books such as “Thunderstorm,” “Snow,” “The Riddle of Time,” and “North Carolina.”

Corydon was one of 150 artists whose works were included in the Ford Times Collection of American Art. The collection, created by the Ford Motor Company, was grouped into 12 exhibits that traveled the world. He illustrated numerous magazine articles and children’s books in addition to those written by his wife. He also was a writer and completed a history of the Champion Paper Company that is currently held in the Western Carolina University Special Collections.

In addition to being a skilled artist, Corydon was also a proficient musician, playing both piano and organ as well as composing his own musical works. The Bells had a close relationship with the Brevard Music Center’s director, James Christian Pfohl, when the site was known as Brevard Music Camp. Some of Corydon’s compositions were played by the NBC Orchestra in Cleveland, Ohio and the Transylvania Symphony under Pfohl’s direction. The couple donated Corydon’s large collection of sheet music to the Western Carolina University music department in 1978.

Corydon passed away in 1980 in Knoxville, TN. It’s unclear why the couple moved there, but five years later when Thelma also passed away, she was also in Knoxville. The impact they left on children’s literature and the admiration that they gave to this region will be forever remembered.

Photographs and information for this column are provided by the Rowell Bosse North Carolina Room, Transylvania County Library. This article was written by Local History Librarian Laura Sperry. Sources available upon request. For more information, comments, or suggestions, contact NC Room staff at [email protected] or 828-884-1820. 

Autographed copy of award-winning “Yaller-Eye” from library archives

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