Aileen Kilgore Henderson (1921-2023) was an award-winning author of children’s literature who produced all of her major works late in her life. Her first novel for children, The Summer of the Bonepile Monster, was published in 1995, when she was 74 years old. She later published three more children’s books and two memoirs.
Aileen Kilgore Henderson Gertrude Aileen Kilgore Henderson was born in Cedar Cove, Tuscaloosa County, on April 10, 1921, to William O. and Gertrude Kilgore; she was one of five children. In 1928, the family moved to Brookwood, Tuscaloosa County, where the children attended the new consolidated school system. After graduating from high school, Kilgore worked from 1938 to 1942 at the S. H. Kress store in Tuscaloosa. She spent one year (1942-43) as a civil service employee before enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps. After completing basic training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, she worked as an airplane engine mechanic and a photo lab technician at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas from 1944 to 1945.
Returning home to Alabama after the war, she earned an education degree from the University of Alabama, and in 1950 she began her teaching career in Northport, Tuscaloosa County. By 1952, she was teaching 43 fourth graders for $1,700 a year; finding her time completely absorbed by teaching and school-related duties, she decided to move back to Texas. She accepted a teaching position for $2,600 a year in Panther Junction, located in Big Bend National Park, where she taught grades four through seven from 1952 to 1954.
While there, she met Arthur Henderson, a park ranger. They married in December 1954 and had one daughter. Henderson was relocated for work several times, and the family lived in Ashville, North Carolina; Washington. D.C.; and the Badlands of North Dakota. During this time, Henderson held a variety of jobs. She taught school in Minnesota in the 1960s and earned a master of arts in education from the University of Alabama in 1966. In addition to teaching, Henderson worked as a museum docent, a freelance writer, and a photographer. When Arthur Henderson retired from the National Park Service, they returned to Brookwood. Arthur died in 2006.
Henderson had begun writing short stories and magazine articles in the 1960s, but her first novel, The Summer of the Bonepile Monster, was not published until 1995. It earned both the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature from the Minneapolis-based Milkweed Editions publishing company and the Alabama Author Award from the Alabama Library Association. The hero of the novel, Hollis Orr, is spending the summer with his great-grandmother in rural Alabama while his parents try to resolve their marital problems. By piecing together various clues, he is able to solve a mystery that has threatened to destroy his family.
The Monkey Thief, Henderson’s second novel, is set in Costa Rica, where Steve Hanson spends the summer working with his Uncle Matt as he establishes a nature preserve. Hanson prevents an evil botanist from smuggling a historic artifact out of the country. In The Treasure of Panther Peak, the setting shifts to Panther Flat, Texas, where 12-year-old Page and her schoolteacher mother flee from an abusive father and husband. Page’s adventures in learning to cope with life in the Big Bend country reflect Henderson’s experiences as a young schoolteacher in the 1950s. This novel earned a nomination for the American Library Association Notable Children’s Book Award. Both books were chosen by the New York Public Library for their list of Best Books for the Teenage.
In Hard Times for Jake Smith (2004), Henderson returned to Alabama and set the novel during the Great Depression. “Jake” is actually Maryjake Wildsmith, a young girl who seeks to understand why her parents have abandoned her. In finding the answer to this mystery, she rescues her younger brothers, develops relationships with new friends, and learns to understand and forgive her mother. The novel won the Alabama Library Association Award in 2006. The Horses of Lost Valley (2016) is set in San Diego pits 12-year-old Tillery Hubbs against a wealthy land owner who threatens a neglected horse herd. The book won two Purple Dragonfly Awards in 2017.
In addition to her novels for young readers, Henderson published three memoirs. Stateside Soldier: Life in the Women’s Army Corps, 1944-45, is a collection of letters to family members and her own journal entries written while she was stationed at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas. In Tenderfoot Teacher: Letters from the Big Bend 1952-1954, Henderson shares the letters she wrote to family and friends during the two years that she taught at Panther Junction. In 2010, Henderson’s essay “In the Shadow of the Long Leaf Pines,” about her childhood years spent in a Tuscaloosa County coal mining camp, was published by New Letters magazine. She expanded on her reminiscences of life in the mining camp as well as farm and small-town life in Alabama between the Depression and World War II in her 2020 memoir The World through the Dime Store Door: A Memoir. She also contributed short stories and articles to the numerous journals. Henderson died on April 17, 2023, in Tuscaloosa.
Works by Aileen Kilgore Henderson
The Summer of the Bonepile Monster (1995)
The Monkey Thief (1997)
Treasure of Panther Peak (1999)
“Treeva’s Own” (1999)
Stateside Soldier: Life in the Women’s Army Corps, 1944-1945 (2001)
Tenderfoot Teacher: Letter from the Big Bend 1953-1954 (2002)
Hard Times for Jake Smith (2004)
“Ezell and the Black Speckled Gizzard Stone” (2010)
Eugene Allen Smith’s Alabama: How a Geologist Shaped a State (2011)
The Horses of Lost Valley (2016)
The World through the Dime Store Door: A Memoir (2020)