Alice Esther Glen was born in Christchurch on 26 December 1881, the third of twelve children of Robert Parker Glen, an accountant, and his wife, Alice Helen White. She grew up in spacious surroundings in Gloucester Street, Linwood, and exhibited early literary promise when, at the age of 11, she won a story competition in the English magazine Little Folks.
After leaving Christchurch Girls' High School, Esther (as she was known) helped her elder sister, Helen, to run a kindergarten before taking an extended holiday in Australia. While there, she became aware of a flourishing Australian literature for children, particularly in the novels of Ethel Turner and Mary Grant Bruce. The enormous success of Turner's Seven little Australians (1894) challenged Glen to provide similar domestic fiction for New Zealand children – something conspicuously lacking at the time. The result was Six little New Zealanders (1917), set on an imaginary Canterbury sheep station, Kamahi, owned by three bachelors whose six nephews and nieces come from Auckland to spend a memorable summer with them. The cheerful juxtaposition of uncles unused to children and children unaccustomed to the country makes for hilarious reading, and in the lively narration Glen moves far from the didacticism of earlier children's fiction.
The comedy is authentically based. Robert Glen's position as an agent for Dalgety and Company had meant frequent visits to sheep stations, often accompanied by his children. This fact, combined with Esther's own experiences in the hurly-burly of a large family and her keen eye and ear for detail, ensured that Six little New Zealanders and its sequel, Uncles three at Kamahi (1926), are as readable today as when they were written.
The lightness of touch and deftness of construction that mark these two books is less evident in her two other published works for children. Both are more didactic and more concerned with prevailing social conditions. In one of two fantasy stories in Twinkles on the mountain (1920), fairies wave banners of peace after the carnage of the First World War. Her last book, Robin of Maoriland (1929), is for teenaged readers and chronicles the lives of a poor urban family in the late 1920s. It is more sentimental and considerably less humorous than the earlier family stories.
Her success in competition and with Six little New Zealanders prompted Glen to venture into the world of free-lance journalism, and she began sending regular articles to the Christchurch Sun. The editor, acting on her suggestion that something be done for children, began a children's section in 1922. By 1925 this had proved so popular that Glen was appointed to a full-time position as its editor as well as assisting with the women's page and general reporting.
The energetic, slightly built young woman became 'Lady Gay', and her chaotic office was filled not only with children's stories and art work, but also with the products of their hobbies, and even their pets. To many Christchurch children, the office became almost a home. However, Glen was acutely aware of the isolation of many country children, and her first remedy was to organise pen-friends for them, to encourage them to become 'citizens of the world'. The next was to set up a network of clubs throughout Canterbury and Westland, where children could meet to make friends, develop their interests and hobbies, and gain confidence through taking turns to entertain and to speak on various subjects.
As the depression years of the 1930s began to take their toll, the clubs became increasingly involved in alleviating hardship. Children learnt to knit and sew for the needy, and at Christmas time Glen set into motion an enormous pudding-making enterprise. The puddings were stirred in the Sun offices by as many children as possible and cooked on the stoves of the neighbouring Christchurch Gas, Coal and Coke Company. In 1939 the children provided 120 puddings and 130 gift parcels for the poor. This was a triumph for the organisational abilities of 'Lady Gay'.
Club children were also brought in as actors in several pantomimes devised by Glen in association with Georgina Mackay, and as advisers and critics for Glen's pioneering radio work. She wrote broadcasting versions of the classics for children and scripts for some of the earliest junior radio plays.
Glen was part of a close and lively literary circle in Christchurch, meeting frequently with Edith Howes, Eileen Soper, Mona Tracy, Jessie Mackay and H. C. D. Somerset, and joining in their bridge parties. She developed a keen interest in New Zealand history and also enjoyed more vigorous pursuits. Her love of tramping took her into remote country and furnished her with material for the Sun. She grew particularly fond of Banks Peninsula, and wrote a series of articles about the early settler families. She was the only woman journalist included in the short list of the New Zealand Journalists' Association competition in 1934.
In 1935 the Sun closed down and Glen was transferred to the Press. Here, she was given two children's supplements, the Gay Gazette and the Press Junior; Joan Mayo continued to be her regular illustrator.
Esther Glen never married but her love of children inspired her work. Increasingly, however, she was drawn into social service for adults. Her contribution to the Christchurch Women's Unemployment Committee was to persuade the city council to provide appropriate accommodation for single women, and she was instrumental in setting up the Christchurch Home Service Association as well as the Cholmondeley Memorial Children's Home.
Esther Glen died on 9 February 1940 at Christchurch. At her best, she was undoubtedly one of New Zealand's finest writers for children. She has been commemorated since 1945 by the Esther Glen Award, which is given by the New Zealand Library Association for only 'the most distinguished' contributions to New Zealand literature for children.