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John Prater Biography (1947-) - Sidelights

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British author-illustrator John Prater has created for picture-book audiences a jubilant mini-universe full of reluctant bath-takers, cozy bears, mischievous children on outings to the park, dreamland birthday parties, and a very peculiar circus family. Known for his tongue-in-cheek wit as well as colorful illustrations, Prater was a self-described failure as a graphics illustrator and school teacher. "Third time lucky," he once told SATA, "I became a not-so-far-failed children's book illustrator and writer."

Born in Reading, Berkshire, in England, he attended the Brighton College of Art, earning his B.A. in 1969. After a difficult stint freelancing as an illustrator in London, he returned to school and received his teacher's diploma in art from Reading University in 1972, subsequently teaching for a dozen years. "My own daughters and their mischievous ways were the source of my early books," Prater once told SATA. "When they grew bigger than me I began sifting through my own childhood experiences."

Prater's first self-illustrated title was On Friday Something Funny Happened, a book that was a runner-up for a Mother Goose Award in 1983. The story of a week in the life of "two horribly active children," as a reviewer in Junior Bookshelf described it, Prater's first picture book uses a spare fifty-four words to describe activities such as shopping, visiting the park, helping with home decorating, and entertaining friends. Prater relied heavily on "bold keenly-observed pictures" to make "his hilarious point," according to the reviewer in Junior Bookshelf. Kicki Moxon Browne, reviewing the title in Times Literary Supplement, observed that the text is paired with "frenzied drawings, capturing wonderfully the built-in slapstick quality of early childhood." Gabrielle Maunder noted in School Librarian that where "John Prater is so clever is in the way he has messages for both the adult reader and the listening child," with children loving the rambunctious girl and boy, and parents "wincing alongside the adults in the story who clearly spend each day clearing up after the day before."

Tessa Rose Chester, writing in Times Educational Supplement, described Prater's next picture book, The Party, as "a boisterous romp in comic-strip style." Dialogue here was inserted in balloons, and the story involves the fantasies young Lauren creates when she is bored at her parents' party. She fancifully turns relatives into animals and her parents into clowns, reminiscent, as several reviewers noted, of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. "The transition from polite conversation and staid respectability to pirates, pigs, goats and lions mingling in glorious uproar is effectively done," concluded Chester. A Junior Bookshelf critic commented that "the basis of the story is an adult joke which children can share. . . . A clever book."

Bath-time was the inspiration for Prater's third picture book, You Can't Catch Me!, in which Jack is peeved that his playtime should be interrupted for reasons of hygiene. He leads his parents on a merry chase with the taunt, "You can't catch me!" Of course, they finally do, but only after Jack falls into a pigsty and is badly in need of a bath. A Junior Bookshelf reviewer called this book an "attractive and amusing picture book," and Growing Point's Margery Fisher commented that the repeated taunt "sweeps one through near-natural pictures with a strong sense of movement in them; two or four vertical images to a page add to the narrative excitement." Denise L. Moll noted in School Library Journal that the brief text "is just enough to complement the pictures, which really tell the story."

Spare text is a Prater trademark. "Writing is so difficult," Prater once told SATA. "I really admire those who can apparently do it with ease. I overcame this problem once when I produced a picture book with no words at all, The Gift. Perversely, it was turned into an hour-long radio play by the BBC." The Gift portrays a brother and sister who receive two child-size chairs as a present. They soon tire of the chairs but become enthralled with the large carton in which the gift arrived. Climbing into the box, they fly away from civilization and over a jungle where they make friends with the animals and then have an adventure which makes them wish they were safe back home. "The radiant watercolors and good natured, down-to-earth children give the book immediate appeal," observed Booklist's Carolyn Phelan, who called The Gift "a well-crafted yet unpretentious picture book with more than a little charm." A Junior Bookshelf reviewer had high praise for Prater's wordless picture book, dubbing it "brilliant, original, drawn with a highly individual style and with infectious gusto." The same reviewer concluded that "John Prater gets better all the time."

The theme of mischievous children is further explored in The Perfect Day, Along Came Tom, and "No!" Said Joe. In the first of these titles, young Kevin is the fly in the ointment at a family's seaside outing. He refuses to have a good time, instead whining all the while about the seaweed and a lost flipper. It is only when the rain comes to spoil this perfect day that Kevin perks up. Joe refuses to go shopping with his parents, and even tongue-in-cheek alternatives such as visiting a wicked witch don't change his mind in "No!" Said Joe, written and illustrated by Prater. "Readers of all ages will recognize a familiar theme in the words of this small grouch," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

A rambunctious toddler keeps his sisters hopping in Along Came Tom, in which "Prater's expressive water-color illustrations tell the real story," according to Kay Weisman in Booklist. Once again, a Junior Bookshelf reviewer had high praise for Prater, noting that "we all know how a small child can wreck the best party or picnic, but Mr. Prater brings these painful experiences vividly before us with his swift unsentimental washes."

Yet another uncooperative child is present in "No!" Said Joe, in which Joe does not want to get ready to go shopping. Threats of witches and ghosts and giants will not budge him, but finally the bribe of a treat does the job and suddenly Joe is cooperative. "Prater wrings every drop of visual humor from his juxtaposition of the parents' (tongue-in-cheek) threats," observed a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Chris Sherman, writing in Booklist, noted that "Prater's rhyming text is accompanied by bold, colorful watercolor illustrations that are not scary at all."

Fantasy comes into play in Lots to Do, when Tom and Jemma make housework less tedious with daydreams and imaginary games. These action-filled daydreams "are shown in bright, lively strip-cartoon form crammed with amusing detail," according to a Junior Bookshelf reviewer. The two transform washing dishes into a circus juggling act, and loading the washing machine becomes a deep-sea diving adventure.

In Vivian French's Once upon a Time and its sequel, Once upon a Picnic, a bored little boy encounters fairy tale characters such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and Humpty Dumpty, all of whom amuse the boy and make him forget his boredom. Kristina Lindsay, reviewing the first title in Magpies, thought that children would like the "simple and rhythmic text (which is perfect for reading aloud) and the bright, colourful pictures which are a visual treat." Of the second title, Once upon a Picnic, Booklist's Susan Dove Lempke noted that kids would "enjoy following the familiar tales as they spin out in softly dappled watercolor landscapes that abound in funny vignettes." A Kirkus Reviews critic felt that the second title was not "as much fun as the original," but that it still "affords droll, amusing moments for fans."

A book that employs both imagination and a very independent child is Prater's The Greatest Show on Earth, in which little Harry presents the members of his traveling-circus family. Where his family are skilled at their jobs, Harry has no talent. His parents fly high on the trapeze, yet he can barely manage the low bar; his juggling sister keeps six objects going at once while Harry can barely toss two. Thus Harry is relegated to looking after the family's tight-rope walking dog, Wellington. One night Harry discovers his true function in the circus: dragged around by the leashed Wellington, Harry becomes a natural clown. Booklist's Phelan commented on the "deep hues of the pencil-andwatercolor artwork" which "provide an effective backdrop for the characters' personalities and emotions, so brilliantly portrayed through their bodies and faces." Lempke noted in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that "Prater makes the most of his circus setting . . . capturing motion and personality." Once more, a Junior Bookshelf reviewer offered good words for Prater, ones that could equally well be used to sum up much of his achievement in picture books. Noting that Prater's pictures for his circus book were "more exuberant than usual," this reviewer concluded that "John Prater has been one of the exciting arrivals on the picture-book scene in recent years."

Again!, the story of an exuberant Little Bear who nearly wears Grandpa Bear out, is "a sweet offering of inter-generational love," thought School Library Journal reviewer Maryann H. Owen. Over and over the two build towers of blocks and castles of sand, just to knock them down and begin again. Then it is on to watering the garden, filling up the watering can and pouring it out dozens of times. Finally, Grandpa Bear convinces Little Bear to try something a little less strenuous: reading while lying in their hammock, which soon leads to a much-needed nap. Owen went on to declare the "softly hued" watercolors "endearing."

"Illustrating comes easier to me [than writing]," Prater once summed up for SATA. "It is a strange occupation because often the best results come when you least expect them. A casual doodle can capture a moment, mood, or expression that can never be repeated."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, June 15, 1986, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Gift, p. 1544; May 15, 1992, Chris Sherman, review of "No!" Said Joe, p. 1688; July, 1992, Kay Weisman, review of Along Came Tom, p. 1945; May 1, 1993, Jim Jeske, review of Once upon a Time, p. 1598; October 15, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Greatest Show on Earth, p. 412; August, 1996, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Once upon a Picnic, p. 1908; February 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of On Top of the World, p. 982.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1992, p. 219; October, 1995, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Greatest Show on Earth, p. 65; April, 1996, p. 264.

Growing Point, July, 1982, pp. 3916-3917; November, 1983, p. 4171; November, 1984, Margery Fisher, review of You Can't Catch Me!, p. 4349.

Junior Bookshelf, October, 1982, review of On Friday Something Funny Happened, p. 182; April, 1984, review of The Party, p. 58; December, 1984, review of You Can't Catch Me!, p. 248; April, 1986, review of The Gift, pp. 60-61; February, 1987, review of The Perfect Day, p. 23; February, 1988, p. 25; August, 1990, review of Along Came Tom, p. 166; December, 1991, review of Lots to Do, p. 245; December, 1992, p. 246; April, 1995, review of The Greatest Show on Earth, p. 65; October, 1996, p. 183.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1996, review of Once upon a Picnic, p. 744.

Magpies, November, 1994, Kristina Lindsay, review of Once upon a Time, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, June 27, 1986, review of The Gift, p. 86; February 27, 1987, review of The Perfect Day, p. 162; January 6, 1992, review of "No!" Said Joe, p. 64; May 31, 1993, review of Once Upon a Time, p. 53; July 24, 1995, review of The Greatest Show on Earth, p. 63; December 3, 2001, review of The Big Baby Bear Book, p. 63; January 20, 2003, review of Hold Tight!, p. 84.

School Librarian, June, 1983, Gabrielle Maunder, review of On Friday Something Funny Happened, p. 130; May, 1987, pp. 128, 130; May, 1991, p. 60; November, 1991, p. 142; August, 1992, p. 98; November, 1992, p. 145; May, 1995, p. 59.

School Library Journal, April, 1987, Denise L. Moll, review of You Can't Catch Me!, p. 88; June-July, 1987, Hayden Atwood, review of The Perfect Day, p. 88; December, 1989, Jane Dyer Cook, review of Lily's Picnic, p. 88; March, 1993, Nancy A. Gifford, review of "No!" Said Joe, p. 184; September, 1993, Claudia Cooper, review of Once upon a Time, p. 207; November, 1993, Jan Shephard Ross, review of Tim and the Blanket Thief, p. 88; February, 1995, Martha Topol, review of Letter to Grandma, p. 81; October, 1995, Lynn Cockett, review of The Greatest Show on Earth, p. 113; August, 1996, Judith Gloyer, review of Once upon a Picnic, p. 122; p. 122; November, 2000, Maryann H. Owen, review of Again!, p. 130; November, 2001, Carolyn Jenks, review of The Big Baby Bear Book, pp. 132-133; October, 2003, Susan Patron, review of Is It Christmas?, p. 67.

Times Educational Supplement, June 18, 1982, p. 28; January 13, 1984, Tessa Rose Chester, "Fantastic Creatures," review of The Party, p. 44; November 15, 1985, p. 48.

Times Literary Supplement, July 23, 1982, Kicki Moxon Browne, "Romantic and Real," review of On Friday Something Funny Happened, p. 793; September 9, 1988, Lindsay Mackie, review of Lily's Picnic, p. 1000.

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