Bill Martin Jr., who wrote more than 300 books for children, including such classics as “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” and “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” that delighted young readers with adventurous stories told in rhythmic language, has died. He was 88.
Martin died Aug. 11 of natural causes at his home in Commerce, Texas, according to his neighbor, Michael Sampson, who collaborated with him on more than 20 books.
A struggling reader until he reached college, Martin improved his skills by memorizing poems by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman that his professor read in class. Once he had learned the verses by heart he could pick out the words on the printed page.
He remembered his own learning experience when he started to write books for preschoolers. His frequent repetition of words and phrases was intended to help them remember new terms.
“Children will only read when they have language inside of themselves,” Martin told the Northwestern University alumni magazine earlier this year.
Despite his slow start, Martin earned a doctorate in early childhood education at Northwestern and went on to develop several innovative reading programs as the editor in chief of the school division of Holt, Rinehart & Winston publishers through the 1960s.
He pioneered a participatory approach to learning, with stories that encouraged a child to answer the questions that were raised throughout a book.
He was also one of the first children’s authors to tour schools and bookstores, promoting his new books by reading aloud to children, often accompanied by music and dancing.
For a time in the 1950s he was the host of a regional television program, “The Storyteller,” and years later produced audiotapes of his books.
“Bill was the soul of modern reading instruction,” Ken Goodman, a former president of the International Reading Assn., told The Times on Monday. “He made learning how to read something emotional, not just didactic.”
Martin often made animals his main characters -- “fluting” flamingos and “braying” zebras -- which he described with words that a child might not recognize at first, but could begin to understand by listening.
He credited his grandmother, a gifted storyteller, and his fifth-grade teacher, who read to his class every day, for enticing him into the world of reading and writing.
“Bill came from an Ozark tradition of storytelling and was himself a very good storyteller,” said Goodman, a retired professor at the University of Arizona, who first met Martin at a reading conference in the late 1960s.
Martin wrote two of his best-known books, “Brown Bear” and “Chicka Chicka” on his own, but he liked to collaborate with a writing partner, talking the story through as the first step.
“Bill had to bounce ideas off someone else,” Sampson told The Times on Monday. “He was orally based and liked to work with collaborators who were visually based. Besides that, he was very social; he liked to be with other people.”
Martin and Sampson wrote as many as 30 drafts of each book they developed together, including “Swish!” (1997) about a girls’ basketball team. Most of the books rely on a carefully chosen rhythm.
“The flow and number of syllables in each word has to be right,” Sampson said. “Bill could hear a line and tell if it was there yet.”
William Ivan Martin was born in Hiawatha, Kan., the son of a paperhanger and a housewife and one of five boys. He graduated from Emporia State University in Kansas and taught high school drama until the start of World War II. He served four years in the Army Air Forces.
He wrote his first children’s book for his brother, Bernard, an artist who had asked him to create a story he could illustrate. The brothers published “The Little Squeegy Bug,” (1945) about a bug who turns into a firefly, under their own Tell Well imprint.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt praised the book in her syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” and it eventually sold 1 million copies. The Martins went on to publish 10 more books together.
After finishing his graduate studies at Northwestern in 1961, Martin moved to New York to work in publishing. At Holt, Rinehart & Winston he developed a series of “Instant Reader” books as well as a “Sounds of Language” series for beginning readers.
He turned to writing full time in 1972 and always worked with hand-chosen artists, including Eric Carle, who illustrated “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” (1967) and “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?” (1991).
“Bill’s many books for the very young have been an introduction to literature to millions of children,” Carle said in a statement last week.
At Sampson’s invitation, Martin in 1994 moved to Texas, where he built a house on Sampson’s 26-acre property. Several of their books will be published in the year ahead.
Martin married Betty Jean Bachmann in 1942 and divorced in 1978. He is survived by a daughter and two brothers. His only son died in 1963.