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Cyndy Szekeres Biography (1933-) - Sidelights

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Cyndy Szekeres is a well-known illustrator of both her own children's books and those of such writers as Betty Boegehold, Patsy Scarry, and Jan Wahl. Szekeres began drawing at an early age and soon showed promise. As she later recalled in Something about the Author (SATA): "I can't remember a time when I didn't draw. I was the artist in the family, an aptitude inherited from my father who never had a chance to develop his talent."


A child of the late-Depression era, Szekeres drew on paper bags flattened and trimmed by her father, a toolmaker. Although she continued drawing throughout adolescence and her young-adult life, she harbored few illusions about actually working as an artist. "I assumed that I was headed for a job in a factory and probably marriage," she told SATA.


Before Szekeres graduated from high school, however, her father learned that advertising might prove a lucrative and fulfilling career for her. Though she did not plan to become a commercial artist, she enrolled at Pratt Institute at her father's urging. "I had no intention of embarking on a career in advertising," she related to SATA. "I had my heart set on becoming an illustrator."


Szekeres won admittance to Pratt and studied there until earning her certificate in 1954. Upon leaving the school, she discovered that few career opportunities existed for budding illustrators, so she obtained commercial work as a designer at display houses serving prominent New York City department stores. "Then I did children's fashion illustration for the Saks Fifth Avenue department store, requiring overly well-groomed, coiffed children wearing perfectly fit clothing," Szekeres told SATA. "This interrupted the way I usually drew children and I didn't appreciate the influence. It caused me to focus more keenly on anthropomorphic animals and I eventually decided (later on, after several books) to illustrate these animals only."

Marriage to a fellow artist in 1958 changed Szekeres' career plans. Her husband encouraged her to continue working at becoming an illustrator and gradually her luck began to turn for the better. In 1959, the publishing house Doubleday, which had been maintaining a file of Szekeres' department-store works, contacted her with a request that she produce illustrations for Sam Vaughan's New Shoes, a book for children. By this time Szekeres was pregnant with her first child, but she nonetheless accepted the Doubleday offer. The results were a success.

In the ensuing years, though her family grew, Szekeres assumed a considerable pace illustrating various children's books. In 1969, for instance, she provided drawings for five works, including Adelaide Holl's Moon Mouse, and in the next two years she illustrated five more books, including Patsy Scarry's Little Richard—Szekeres' first full-color work—Waggy and His Friends, and Little Richard and Prickles.

In 1981 Szekeres signed an exclusive contract with Western Publishing, and as of 1996, more than fourteen million copies of her books had been sold. Her success has also been confirmed by reviewers, who have noted that her books, which often feature animals with childlike personalities, are illustrated with attractive, bright artwork brimming with ingenious details.

Working beyond the parameters of Western Publishing, Szekeres has continued to build a respected list of self-illustrated works while continuing to provide illustrations for the texts of others. Among popular books in the latter category are A Small Child's Book of Prayers and A Small Child's Book of Cozy Poems. Szekeres acted as editor and compiler of both of these books in addition to illustrating them. Reviewing A Small Child's Book of Cozy Poems, Booklist critic Hazel Rochman praised Szekeres' "gentle, domestic line-and-watercolor pictures of animals in old-fashioned dress," and indeed such animals have become something of a trademark of this author-illustrator.

Illustrating her own texts, such as The Deep Blue Sky Twinkles with Stars, Szekeres displays her full talents for anthropomorphic tales and warm, feel-good settings. "There is a very detailed, three dimensional anthropomorphic world, up there in my head," Szekeres once told SATA. "It has been there since I could read. Now, characters rattle around in my brain, tumble out and run around my desk. When I am pleased with my work it is because I listened to them! When I am disappointed it is because I tried to please and accommodate others. There is a fine line between the two."

Booklist critic Ellen Mandel praised the world Szekeres creates in The Deep Blue Sky Twinkles with Stars, commenting on the "sunny, spring colors of golden chicks, tawny bunnies, pink blossoms, and green grass" in this "inviting bedtime tale." A contributor to Publishers Weekly called the same book a "sprightly tale of a woodland bunny family getting ready to call it a day." More bunnies take center stage in Learn to Count, Funny Bunnies, a rhyming board book. Kristina Aaronson, reviewing the title in School Library Journal, felt that "children will love the rhythm of the story, the amusing illustrations, and the small size of the book."

An "energetic young mouse"—as a contributor for Publishers Weekly described the protagonist—stars in Szekeres's "Toby" series, board books with an educational intent. Numbers, the alphabet, colors, feelings, and manners are just some of the topics covered in this "spunky series" of concept books, according to the Publishers Weekly critic, who further commented that the author's "spirited artwork offers winsome particulars." In the series Toby prefers being busy to being bored, and his adventures include pretending to be a dinosaur, learning to fly, and helping with Christmas preparations. Toby received such popularity among young readers that in 2001, a stuffed toy based on the character was released to toy and book stores; Simon & Schuster also released coloring pages on their Web site for story hours and for children who want to color their own versions of Toby's adventures.

Among Szekeres' influences is another luminary of children's literature: Richard Scarry. "I am proud to have had Richard Scarry as my mentor," Szekeres once told SATA. "I never met him," she said, but "we've exchanged letters that began with his encouragement. He said, 'If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right.' Sometimes, it is so hard. I was trained as a child to be obedient. It stuck! It takes discipline and conviction to be true to oneself and one's labors, to remember they should produce a smile! Encouragement is paramount. Mine, from special editors, art directors my ever-patient agent Marilyn Marlow and another most important mentor, my husband, Gennaro Prozzo (a fine artist) of forty-three years."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Pendergast, Sara, and Tom Pendergast, St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Ward, Martha E., and Dorothy A. Marquardt, Illustrators of Books for Young People, 2nd edition, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, NJ), 1979.


PERIODICALS

Booklist, January 1, 1985, p. 643; December 1, 1985, p. 577; March 1, 1992, p. 1287; February 1, 1997, p. 949; February 15, 1998, Ellen Mandel, review of The Deep Blue Sky Twinkles with Stars, pp. 1020-1021; January 1, 1999, p. 891; February 1, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of A Small Child's Book of Cozy Poems, p. 976.

Junior Literary Guild, April, 1973; September, 1974; March, 1975.

Publishers Weekly, September 26, 1977, p. 137; September 19, 1980; October 30, 1981, p. 63; March 26, 1982; June 22, 1984, p. 99; August 12, 1988, p. 455; June 15, 1992, p. 101; January 20, 1997, pp. 400-401; January 12, 1998, p. 58; January 12, 1998, review of The Deep Blue Sky Twinkles with Stars, p. 58; February 22, 1999, p. 97; June 5, 2000, review of Toby!, p. 92; January 22, 2001,"Toby,", p. 184; May 14, 2001, p. 84.

School Library Journal, April, 1985, p. 83; March, 1986, p. 153; April, 1997, p. 118; October, 1997, p. 48; March, 1998, p. 188; February, 1999, p. 89; April, 1999, p. 126; May, 2000, Kristina Aaronson, review of Learn to Count, Funny Bunnies, p. 156.

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