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.
Picture book writer and illustrator Uri Shulevitz came into a world on the brink of a devastating war. The son of son of Abraham and Szandla (Hermanstat) Shulevitz, Uri (pronounced oo-ree), he was only four years old when German bombs falling on Warsaw drove his Jewish family out of the city and into an eight-year period of travel in exile throughout Europe before finally settling in Paris in 1947, when Uri was twelve years old.
"As soon as he entered the wood all those great trees, and the interlaced brambles and thorns, separated to let him pass. He walked towards the castle, which he could see at the end of a great avenue. He was surprised that none of his companions had been able to follow him, since the trees had closed in again as soon as he had passed. But he did not falter. A young prince in love is always brave."
Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella. Puss in Boots. Little Red Riding Hood.
These enduring stories were created as we know them by a brilliant man who lived in 17th-century France. Although similar, but simpler stories were gathered more directly by the folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century, it was Charles Perrault's addition of delicate and amusing words, crafted to entrance a noble audience, that caught fire with readers' imaginations and were the basis for the way these stories are remembered today. It is easy to see the difference between a story collected by Grimm and a tale sculpted by Perrault. A Grimm tale is simple and direct and sometimes alarming while Perrault's are laced with details that still fire modern imaginations.
Wilbur Munro Leaf is best known for his beloved book, The Story of Ferdinand. It’s the tale of a peaceful yet rebellious bull that would rather enjoy the flowers in his meadow than fight in an arena. Munro Leaf and his friend, award-winning artist and writer Robert Lawson, had been talking about the kind of book they would want to write if they could get past the publisher’s ideas of what made a good book. It took him less than an hour—“25 minutes on a rainy Saturday”--to scribble down the story on a yellow pad of paper. With Lawson’s illustrations, the beatific bull was on his way to becoming internationally famous for his peaceful message in 1936--a time when the world was coming apart in war.
Libraries are chock full of Marjorie Sharmat’s books, especially the many tales of her young detective, Nate the Great. Nate is indeed great—at solving mysteries--but only after a plate of pancakes! Nate the Great is the start of one of the most popular series ever written for beginning readers. These mysteries are also drily witty and have been enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
As a girl, Marjorie Weinman was rather shy. She enjoyed playing the piano, reading and drawing. But her ambitions were not so tame. When she grew up, she wanted to be a writer or a detective or a lion tamer! With a friend, she published The Snooper’s Gazette; filled with news they learned by spying on grown-ups! She kept writing throughout her high school years, eventually getting published in school magazines and newspapers.
A Solid Beginning
Arnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902, in Alexanderia, Louisiana, a child of middle class parents of mixed racial heritage--what is sometimes called Creole. His father, Paul Bismark Bontemps, was descended from French plantation owners living in Haiti and their slaves. After coming to the United States, the Bontemps family lived free in Louisiana for decades, and the many of the men worked as skilled brick and stone masons for generations. In addition to working his trade, Arna’s father also played music with a popular band. Arna’s mother, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) Carolina Pembrooke was descended from an English planter and his Cherokee wife. Maria taught public school and enjoyed creating visual art.
He was trouble, into everything at once, with an imagination that just wouldn't quit. Neither his teachers nor his parents knew quite what to do with him. But when he opened his mouth the most beautiful sounds came out. Young Jack Prelutsky had a glorious voice, so good they called him a prodigy, and the New York Metropolitan Opera's choirmaster gave him free lessons. But he gave up his dream of being the world's best opera singer when he heard Luciano Pavarotti perform. He knew he couldn't match that amazing voice, and he did know for certain that whatever he did in his life, he wanted to be the very best at it.
Artist and author Glen Rounds was neither a tenderfoot nor a city slicker. He was the real deal of the nearly Wild West--though he wasn’t beyond telling a few tall tales, too, here and there. Born in a sod house in the Badlands of South Dakota, when he was just a babe he and his family traveled by covered wagon to the open spaces of Montana.