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Karen Katz (1947-) - Sidelights

review book counting lena

Illustrator and designer Karen Katz has published a number of picture books and lift-the-flap books for young readers. Katz, a graduate of the Yale School of Art and Architecture, is also the author of such works as Over the Moon: An Adoption Tale, Where Is Baby's Belly Button?, Grandpa and Me, and Twelve Hats for Lena: A Book of Months. In 2002, she received the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal Award for Counting Kisses, one of several honors Katz has earned for her work.

Published in 1997, Katz's debut picture book Over the Moon was inspired by events from her own life: she and her husband adopted their daughter, Lena, from Guatemala. Marked by elements of fantasy, Over the Moon follows a couple's journey to a distant land to adopt the tiny baby they both had seen in their dreams. "Bold colors and lively patterns swirl across the pages," noted Booklist critic Stephanie Zvirin, and a Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the "contagious exuberance" of Katz's "playfully stylized collage, gouache and colored pencil illustrations, which display a vibrant palette and all the energy of a flamenco dance."

The Colors of Us, a 1999 picture book, is another tribute to Katz's daughter. In the work, a young girl wants to use brown paint for her self-portrait. The girl's mother, an artist, takes her daughter for a walk through their neighborhood, pointing out the many different shades of brown skin on the people they meet. In the words of Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman, Katz's illustrations "celebrate the delicious colors of the individual people, all brown, and each one different."

Counting Kisses, a "delightfully simple, interactive story," according to Childhood Education reviewer Susan A. Miller, appeared in 2001. A fussy baby is coaxed to sleep by a series of kisses from her mother and father, her grandmother, her older sister, and even the family pets. "With buoyant cartoons rendered in a bouquet of vibrant pastel tones, Katz creates a book as irresistible as a baby's smile," observed a contributor in Publishers Weekly.

In Counting Christmas, a 2003 work, a family prepares lights, presents, and cookies for their holiday celebration. "The collage, gouache, and colored-pencil illustrations are cheery and have a nice textural feel," wrote Linda Israelson in School Library Journal. A young girl creates a different style of headgear for each month of the year in Twelve Hats for Lena. January's stocking cap is adorned with pictures of snowmen and sleds; March's hat is decorated with shamrocks. When December arrives, Lena cannot decide which holiday to emphasize, so she designs an oversized headpiece that includes symbols from Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas. "Katz's mixed-media artwork, primarily a combination of gouache and collage, has a kicky brightness that refreshes such traditional subjects as valentines, a spring flower garden, [and] American flags," remarked a contributor in Publishers Weekly.

Katz looks at holiday celebrations in the 2003 work My First Kwanzaa and the 2004 title My First Chinese New Year. In the former, a preschooler discusses the seven underlying principles of Kwanzaa. Katz's text and illustrations "combine to convey the wider sense of community that is the essence of the holiday," stated Booklist critic Hazel Rochman. In the latter, a young girl makes an altar to honor her ancestors, enjoys a meal with her relatives, and attends a parade in Chinatown. Katz "introduces readers to the traditions and importance of this holiday," noted a reviewer in Publishers Weekly.

Katz told Something about the Author: "I have always loved to paint and experiment with pattern, texture, collage, and color. I have always been interested in folk art from around the world, Indian miniatures, Mexican ceramics, fabrics, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, children's art, and primitive painting. My careers have included costume design, quilt making, fabric artistry, and graphic design. Looking back, I can see that all of these passions and career choices have had a part in influencing me to become a children's book author and illustrator.

"I am fascinated by babies and little kids. The simplest words and gestures can make them laugh. Sometimes while I'm standing in line at the supermarket and watching kids sitting in grocery carts, my best ideas are born. I am also fascinated by people from all over the world—what they look like, how they live, and the differences that make us all unique.

"After my husband and I adopted our daughter from Guatemala, I was inspired to do a children's book for her. My first book, Over the Moon, was the story of that magical adoption experience. I painted, I drew, I collaged, and I wrote, and after working very hard, a beautiful book was born! More than twenty books later my daughter is still an inspiration to me (although she is a teenager now).

"When an idea for a story pops into my head, I ask these questions: Will a child want to read this book? Will parents want to read this book with their children? Will this book make a child laugh? Will this book make a parent and child feel something? Is there something visual here that will hold a child's interest? Will a child see something in a different way after reading this book? If the answer to any of those questions is 'yes,' then I know I'm on the right track.

"I am very lucky to get to do what I do. Everyday I go into my studio and have fun. Don't get me wrong: some days are very frustrating. Sometimes the colors are all wrong and the words don't sound right, but after I work at it for a while . . . and try to do it a different way . . . and think . . . and change the words or colors . . . and try some more . . . suddenly, there it is—a great page of writing or a great illustration. And nothing is more satisfying than that."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Over the Moon: An Adoption Tale, p. 133; September 15, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of The Colors of Us, p. 268; February 1, 2001, Lauren Peterson, review of Counting Kisses, p. 1056; September 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of My First Kwanzaa, p. 134; November 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Counting Christmas, p. 501.

Childhood Education, spring, 2002, review of Counting Kisses, p. 173.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of Twelve Hats for Lena: A Book of Months, p. 1134; November 1, 2003, review of My First Kwanzaa, p. 1317.

Publishers Weekly, August 4, 1997, review of Over the Moon, p. 73; June 5, 2000, review of Where Is Baby's Belly Button?, p. 96; November 27, 2000, review of Counting Kisses, p. 75; April 29, 2002, review of Grandma and Me, p. 73; July 15, 2002, review of Twelve Hats for Lena, p. 72; September 22, 2003, review of Counting Christmas, p. 69; December 20, 2004, review of My First Chinese New Year, p. 61.

School Library Journal, February, 2001, Kathleen Kelly MacMillan, review of Counting Kisses, p. 102; October, 2002, Joy Fleishhacker, review of Twelve Hats for Lena, p. 114; October, 2003, Linda Israelson, review of Counting Christmas, p. 64, and Virginia Walter, review of My First Kwanzaa, p. 64; December, 2004, Rachel G. Payne, review of My First Chinese New Year, p. 112.

ONLINE

Karen Katz Web site, http://www.karenkatz.com (February 1, 2005).

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