Karla Kuskin dies at 77; children's author and illustrator
By By Valerie J. Nelson
Aug 24, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Karla Kuskin, an award-winning children's author and illustrator who first achieved fame with "Roar and More," a 1956 book about animals and the noises they make that was her senior project at Yale, has died. She was 77.
Kuskin died Thursday at her Seattle home of a Parkinsonian neurological disease, said her son, Nick.
Among her more than 50 books of prose and poetry are such popular titles as "Any Me I Want to Be" (1972), a self-illustrated collection of poems that tried to show how animals and things might perceive the world, and "The Philharmonic Gets Dressed" (1982), which celebrated mundane routine and was nominated for a National Book Award.
Her ability to captivate children -- and capture the essence of their thinking -- in verse and prose was regularly praised, as was her wit and often alliterative style.
She could "think herself into a child's skin" by using memories of her childhood as inspiration, Margaret F. Maxwell wrote in the "St. James Guide to Children's Writers" (1999). "That she has been able to distill these memories into simple yet lighthearted verses . . . is Kuskin's lasting talent."
An early work, "James and the Rain" (1957), was "one of the best read-aloud stories" for the very young "to appear in a long, long time," Publishers Weekly said when a new edition was released in 1995. As the young boy looks out the window, she writes:
James pressed his nose against the pane
and saw a million drops of rain.
The earth was wet,
the sky was gray,
it looked like it would rain all day.
The only child of Sidney and Mitzi Seidman, she was born July 17, 1932, in New York City and mainly grew up there.
At 4, she dictated her first poem, about a hydrangea bush outside their country house, to her mother.
Her father owned a small advertising agency.
Through a work-study program at Antioch College in Ohio, she worked in sales in a Chicago department store.
When an executive read a job report she had written in verse for Antioch, he had her write promotional material and she was exposed to graphic arts.
After three years at Antioch, she transferred to Yale University's School of Fine Arts.
Before graduating in 1955, she was required to create and print a book using the school's small press.
The result was "Roar and More," which used typography to illustrate its creatures' "purrs" and "snarls."
The year she graduated she married Charles Kuskin, an oboist, and by the early 1960s had two children. Her new role as a parent found its way into some of her books, she later said.
The couple divorced in 1987 and two years later she married William L. Bell Jr., who had once been a neighbor.
Working with illustrator Marc Simont, she wrote some of her most acclaimed books.
They included "A Space Story" (1978), a tale about the solar system that received an award from the New York Academy of Sciences; "The Philharmonic Gets Dressed," honored by the American Library Assn.; and "The Dallas Titans Get Ready for Bed" (1986), which again used a behind-the-scenes approach to share the experiences of a victorious football team after a difficult game.
She wrote "Jerusalem, Shining Still," after a trip to the city and chose woodcut artist David Frampton to illustrate the 1987 book, which was praised for making the city's complex history accessible to children.
Among her many honors was an award for excellence in poetry for children, given by the National Council of Teachers of English in 1979.
"Moon, Have You Met My Mother?" (2003) collected more than 40 years of Kuskin's poems and focused on some of her favorite topics -- animals, the seasons, food, day and night, and our secret selves, or "the outside me" and the "me inside of me."
One succinct poem on the passing of time and life reads:
A turtle walks across the lawn
and when he gets there
In addition to her son, Kuskin is survived by a daughter, Julia, and three grandchildren. Her husband, William, died in 2006.