When Mercer Mayer was a young artist looking for book illustration work, a potential employer suggested he give up and throw away his portfolio. Fortunately for the thousands of children who have enjoyed his many books, he did not give up. Indeed, he went on to create one of the first widely-published wordless books for children, A Boy, A Frog, and a Dog. That book and its successors were hugely popular.
Soon after that, Mayer tackled one of the biggest problems facing young children—how to cope with fears of the unknown. Rather than write pedantic, matter-of-fact, non-fiction children’s books, he turned the process of dealing with those fears into engaging stories from a child’s point of view: There’s a Nightmare in My Closet; There’s an Alligator under My Bed; and There’s Something in My Attic.
Children’s author and illustrator Margot Zemach was born into a show business family--her father was a theater director, and her mother was an actress. Growing up, she drew imaginatively costumed characters to retell her favorite fairy stories and folktales, something she continued to do as an adult that would lead her to worldwide fame.
As she wrote in her autobiography, Self-Portrait: Margot Zemach: "I can create my own theater and be in charge of everything. When there is a story I want to tell in pictures, I find my actors, build the sets, design the costumes and light the stage. . . . If I can get it all together and moving, it will come to life. The actors will work with each other, and the dancers will hear the music and dance. When the book closes, the curtain comes down."
“I have always thought my best stuff was in my sketchbooks. I have hundreds and hundreds of sketchbooks. I like to work at night, I suppose because that’s when my defenses are sort of low. I have my most creative ideas at night. I’m less inhibited, and I really let it rip.”
From: Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book, edited by Leonard S. Marcus. p. 96; pp. 82-106 are on James Marshall
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, James Marshall’s whimsical drawings added humor to dozens of children’s picture books. While many were made for other writers’ works, including classics such as Mother Goose, Edward Lear, and Ogden Nash, he was also a talented writer on his own. Indeed, he became one of the most popular and prolific illustrators in children’s publishing. In high school, however, he wasn’t so much about the art--though he did doodle, as he called it--as about the music which he saw as a way to get a scholarship to college far away from swampy Texas town where his family lived.
Elizabeth Winthrop Alsop grew up in a rambling house, surrounded by woods, and with a stream nearby for catching crayfish. With no television until she was twelve, she and her five brothers would make up all sorts of imaginative games. Their home was filled with books to feed that imagination. Among her favorites were C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, as well as books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles Dickens. Both her parents loved to read, and her father was a journalist.
A Writer in the Wings
“My father read aloud from Shakespeare—he made us take parts and read from plays in the evenings sometimes… Reading was like breathing.”*
In his autobiographical novel for young people, Bad Boy, Walter Dean Myers wrote of a world--1940s Harlem--that was markedly different from that of today. Most families were tightly-knit as was the community itself. Even so, it wasn’t a perfect place. As he grew up his family struggled to get by, and, as he became a teenager, he became more aware of racism and how it could affect his future.
But during his early years, he didn’t think too much about race. He had friends who were white and black, and the woman he thought of as his mother was of German and Native American ancestry. The man who raised him, though not his biological father, was African American. Herbert and Florence Dean took Walter and his half-sisters in to be fostered when they needed a loving and caring home.
“...it makes me uncomfortable to know that my story Tuck Everlasting is required reading in some classrooms. My sympathies are entirely with the children, for many will react to Tuck as I well might have--with a shudder. Many will find its language too ‘fancy,’ its pace too slow, its topic unsettling, the behavior of its hero incomprehensible.”--Natalie Babbitt in "Saying What You Think." The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress*
It is perhaps surprising that an author would almost prefer her books were not required reading. But it is less surprising in Natalie Babbitt’s case. Her best-beloved books are sweet and strong and true in spirit while containing enough wonder and marvel to lend a sparkle to a reader’s otherwise mundane childhood. This children’s author, like many of the best, remembers what it is like to be a child. What she liked to read--and what she didn’t. She understands that children have strong opinions on their favorite books, even if they may not be comfortable in expressing them. She certainly remembers what she liked:
Born: New York City, June 27, 1928
Education: Graduated from Hamilton College, Clinton, NY, in 1950
Military service: Korean War, infantry, discharged in 1951
Family: married Carol Burrows in 1952. They had two children: Geoffrey and Andrew. Divorced his first wife and married Ida Karen Potash.
Work: worked as a magazine editor from 1952 to 1958 in New York City; also part-time trombonist at jazz clubs in Greenwich Village during the 1950s. He gave up the editing work and became a freelance writer full-time in 1958 and continues to work occasionally as a jazz musician.
Currently Lives in: New York City
First Books: Cheers, an adult book, in 1961; Battleground: The United States Army in World War II, a non-fiction children’s book, in 1965; The Teddy Bear Habit; or, How I Became a Winner, a children’s novel, in 1967.
Selected Awards: My Brother Sam Is Dead, Newbery Honor book, ALA Notable Book, Jane Addams Honor Book Award, National Book Award Finalist, Phoenix Award; War Comes to Willy Freeman, Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People; Chipper, Notable Studies Trade Book for Young People; Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, Christopher Award; Jump Ship to Freedom, Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People; The Making of Jazz, American Book Award Finalist.
Leo Lionni was born into a family that appreciated art, and, from a very young age, he knew he wanted to be an artist. He loved nature and started keeping small creatures--minnows, birds, fish, and more--in his attic room in Amsterdam. He also created terrariums, and many of these natural details found their way into his later work. Like so many successful children’s authors, Leo Lionni was able to remember and tap into the things that were important to him when he was a child.
As his interest in drawing grew, he was mentored by his Uncle Piet, who was both an architect and an artist. Leo was very lucky to live just a few blocks from two wonderful museums. Further, as a child he had a special pass so he could go there to draw whenever he wished. He learned to draw details from great works--plaster casts of famous statues, and they made such an impression on him that many decades later he could still remember them perfectly, as he could with clarity recall so much about his tiny pets and naturescapes.
Alvin Schwartz, writer of many books for children that collected and shared traditions from times past, first became interested in folklore as a child, although at the time he did not think of it as something to study. Folklore was just something that was part of his childhood: the games, riddles, rhymes, superstitions and scary stories. He grew up to become a journalist and also worked as an adjunct English professor. Later, his writing and research skills would play an important part in the job he eventually took on to make many types of folklore familiar to young readers.
“Any memorable children’s book will possess drama, vitality, vividness, possibly wit and humor, and its own dignity—that is, a deep respect for the child’s quick and devastating perceptions. As for the story itself, it will convey a sense of complete inevitability, a feeling of rightness throughout the whole structure. This can only be attained by the writer’s evoking the true aura of childhood through re-experiencing that emotional state he lived in as a child, a state composed of delight in the simplest, most secret, sometimes the oddest things, of sadnesses and fears and terrors one could not or would not explain, of a continuing wonder about much that seems drab and familiar to adults”
--Eleanor Cameron writing in The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children’s Books, pg. 14
Eleanor Cameron was capable of doing all these things, whether writing science fiction, fantasy or more everyday stories. She was a celebrated children’s writer of the 1960s and 1970s and was known for her lyrical style and the honesty with which she told her tales. A mature reader of That Julia Redfern, featuring an aspiring young writer living in the 1910s Berkley, can easily find grown-up themes that are layered into the story and come to fruition in books about an older Julia, such as A Room Made of Windows.