Yesterday we received the sad news that Peter Spier, illustrator of classic children’s books, had passed away on April 27. Given his age (89) and output, we can safely say he lived a long and fulfilling life and his work should be enjoyed for years to come. The following is a re-post of a tribute from two years ago . . . and be sure to see our review of Noah’s Ark, winner of the 1977 Caldecott medal.
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We met over my children’s downy heads. That is, when the kids were little (one was born in 1975, the other in 1978), Peter Spier was publishing his most popular and enduring picture books. He himself is enduring: at 87, he was able to help restore the coloring to some of the picture books that Doubleday, his original publisher, has seen fit to brush up and re-publish.
The Star-Spangled Banner (with Ft. McHenry, the War of 1812, and full lyrics) and We the People (the story of our Constitution) went on sale in July. The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, Spier’s visualizing of an American folk song and winner of a Caldecott Honor Award in 1963, appeared in September. This month saw the return of Noah’s Ark (Caldecott Medal winner in 1977) and The Book of Jonah.
Once I discovered him, while searching for picture books that I wouldn’t mind reading over and over (and over) to my little ones, I went back for more. Though born in the Netherlands, where he grew to adulthood (and experienced some exciting times during World War II), he made the United States his home in 1950. After a few years in advertising, he made connections at Doubleday and was soon contracted as an illustrator for a Dutch story called The Cow Who Fell into the Canal. From there he went on to writing and illustrating his own concepts. His particular interest was in the history and folklore of his native country and his adopted one—and the places where they met, like Old New York (New Amsterdam, they used to call it). One of my all-time favorites was his treatment of The Erie Canal—illustrated lyrics of the folk song, with a historical appendix. The illustrated appendix details how the canal was built (without the benefit of trained engineers; just American know-how). Mules on towpaths, water crossing water, crowded barges rising in the locks, and passengers quickly ducking (Low bridge! Everybody down!) communicate a sense of history without a word of exposition.
Line drawing that somehow manages to be both disciplined and free is the chief characteristic of Spier’s illustration. The coloring happens on a flat plane without much depth, but his pen coaxes out a wealth of detail that will keep young readers and not-yet-readers searching the page for hours. People, animals, objects, period technology, and motion collide exuberantly, creating a sense of cheerfulness without sanitation. (Sometimes literally—where he pictures animals there’s almost always dung and dirt.) His vision is realistic but also optimistic, and even adults who are feeling down about their country or life in general could probably find something in a Peter Spier book to cheer them up.
In months to come, we might find occasion to review other Spier books, especially some of the re-issues. For now, be sure to peruse our review of Noah’s Ark, another of my all-time favorites.
Cover images from Amazon