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Julie Downing Biography (1956-) - Sidelights

review book tom stories

Author and illustrator Julie Downing's work often focuses on the gentler topics of children's books, including lullabies, charming animals, and family relationships. Known for her soft, appealing illustration style, Downing's books tell Bible stories, historical tales, and reassuring vignettes. In Where Is My Mommy? Downing provides a "gentle offering about young animals (including the human variety) reuniting with their mothers," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. In the book, Downing's watercolors depict several creatures in two spreads; in the first, each creature is looking for its mother, and in the second, the animal is shown being taken care of by its mother. Bunnies, puppies, birds, and human children all seek, and find, their mommy, reassuring toddlers and young readers that their mothers have not abandoned them.

Downing addresses another powerful symbol of childhood security, the lullaby, in Lullaby & Good Night: Songs for Sweet Dreams. The book contains the lyrics to fourteen well-known lullabies, including popular English lullabies, a Puerto Rican song, and "Kumbaya." Melody lines are included to provide basic information on the song's tune, but Downing notes that the lullabies can be sung or read to other tunes than those provided. Downing also offers "luxurious illustrations" of tired children, attentive parents, and sleeping animals, wrote Mollie Bynum in School Library Journal. "The detailed watercolor illustrations are what shine here," Bynum concluded.

Downing's solo work also includes a series of Bible stories adapted to board book format, including Noah's Ark, Baby Jesus, Joseph's Colorful Coat, and Jonah and the Whale. The illustrator's pictures depicting "Jonah being swallowed by the whale are a highlight," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic in a review of the books.

As an illustrator, Downing frequently collaborates with other authors on their books. In The Chicken Salad Club, written by Marsha Diane Arnold, young Nathaniel loves to share sandwiches and stories with his one-hundred-year-old great-grandfather, "Greatpaw." Nathaniel relishes Greatpaw's stories of the old days, but Greatpaw hopes to find a wider audience for his tales. Early attempts to start a storytelling club are unsuccessful, but Nathaniel persists until an ad in the paper brings ninety-nine-year-old Sadie Johannsen to the door with her own stories and welcome company. Neighborhood children gather to listen, and Sadie and Greatpaw's stories are transmitted to a new generation. "The soft lively watercolor and colored-pencil drawings pull readers into the plot and will make their . . . spirits yearn for a good yarn," commented Beth Tegart in School Library Journal. Kathleen Squires, writing in Booklist, observed that Downing's artwork "bring[s] to life this heartwarming story about an intergenerational bond."

In Soon, Annala, written by Riki Levinson, Anna and her family, immigrants to early-twentieth-century America, eagerly look forward to the day when Anna's two younger brothers are able to join them in New York City. Everyone works to earn the money to bring the rest of the family over, while Anna embraces her new life by learning English to augment the Yiddish she and her family speak at home. Finally, the news arrives that Anna's aunt, uncle, their new baby, and her two brothers are on their way to a joyful reunion. As the boys sit on Anna's bed and look out the window at their new home, they begin to count the stars, in Yiddish. But Anna stops them and teaches them the English words, gently beginning their transition to a new life. "Downing's watercolor illustrations are full of warmth and of period details lovingly rendered," remarked Hanna B. Zeiger in Horn Book. The book is "a touching portrait of immigrant life in the early 1900s," Zeiger concluded.

Downing's "delicately misted, shimmery watercolors are the chief attraction" of Toby Speed's Water Voices, commented a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. The text offers riddles describing familiar uses for and interactions with water, from a bath to a yard sprinkler to a thunderstorm. Writing in School Library Journal, Judith Gloyer found the illustrator's "watery watercolors in soft blues and greens . . . a lovely accompaniment to the text," while Ilene Cooper, writing in Booklist, observed that "the watercolor artwork [is] suitably misty in many spreads."


Tom Mouse, by Ursula K. LeGuin, is the story of a small mouse with an overwhelming desire to go out and explore the world. He offers good-byes to his family and leaves his home in the wall of a train-station diner, seeking adventure and knowledge of what is out there in the world. Tom is exhilarated when he hops aboard a cross-country train and realizes that he has indeed become a "world traveler," but his thirst for adventure is soon dimmed by the realities of travel in a large, sometimes dangerous world outside his familiar home. Tom worries about finding food and being discovered, but finds a safe place in a sleeper car, which is all his for the first night. On the second night, Ms. Powers, a human passenger traveling on business, moves in. Though Tom expects the woman to raise a fuss and cause trouble for him, she is instead charmed by her little passenger and offers him snacks to eat, companionship on the long train ride, and mutual enjoyment of the exciting journey. "Realistically rendered, Tom is a wonderfully believable and alive mouse," remarked An adventure-seeking little mouse boards a train in Ursula K. LeGuin's Tom Mouse, and expressive pictures by Downing effectively depict Tom's floor-level point of view. Susan P. Bloom in Horn Book. Kathie Meizner, writing in School Library Journal, noted that "The bright, clear illustrations are well suited to the text, giving readers a close-up look from Tom's perspective and mirroring the warmth of the story." A Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that "the soft colors and the somewhat misty look of the art are in keeping with the mood: daring yet protected."


Downing once told SATA: "When I was young I loved to read and I loved to draw. Some of my earliest memories involve the words and pictures in books. My mother would read aloud to my brothers and me every night before we went to sleep. I remember lying in my bed and listening to the adventures of Alice and the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, or imagining the picnic in the woods from The Wind in the Willows. I was especially fond of stories about animals, because I was allergic to everything except goldfish. I spent a lot of time drawing imaginary pets and reading animal stories. I developed a great affection for books, but I never knew real people were responsible for the words and pictures in my favorite stories.


"When I was young, I wanted to be an actress, a singer, an artist, or maybe a detective. By the time I was eighteen, I followed my interest in drawing and painting and decided to go to the Rhode Island School of Design. My second year, I took a class in children's book illustration and immediately felt comfortable. I found a way to perform through the characters in my books. As an illustrator, I am also the director, the costume designer, and the set designer. I spend days deciding what my characters look like and what they do in each picture. I also spend a great deal of time researching the costumes and setting. Sometimes I feel like a detective, as I try to discover what kind of clothes a shepherd boy might wear, or what was a medieval king's favorite food. I visit libraries, museums, antique stores, and even the post office in hopes of finding the perfect chair for a character or a medieval pattern I can use on a castle floor.


"After illustrating four books, I wrote my first book. White Snow, Blue Feather began as a memory of growing up in Colorado. I loved the sense of mystery during winter and how familiar things change after a snowfall. It began as a series of drawings about the season, and the small boy's journey evolved slowly. It was exciting to discover the process of writing. In some respects, it is very similar to painting. I am constantly in the process of molding and twisting an idea, of building focus and adding details. Instead of paint, I am using ideas.


"My next book was a biography of Wolfgang Mozart. I visited Vienna one Christmas. It was one of the most beautiful cities I had ever seen, and I thought it would be a wonderful place to set a book. While I was there, I noticed plaques on a dozen buildings that said 'Mozart lived here.' I have always loved Mozart's music, and I began to wonder about his life. I learned that Mozart rarely made enough money to pay the rent, and so he and his family always moved to a new apartment before the rent payment was due. He lived in twelve apartments in nine years. Mozart had a difficult life, and I was inspired by his courage to continue composing in a time that did not always appreciate his music. It is important to remember that things are not always easy, and even great people feel frustrated and worried.


"Each book is a new challenge and seems to take longer than the last one. I think about ideas for years before I actually write anything. When I finally do sit down to write the book, it is very hard. I am sure I throw away ten pages for each one I keep. I always try to write for the first two hours each morning, and then draw for the rest of the day. I love the variety that comes with writing, researching, and illustrating books. Some days I am learning about life in Shakespeare's England, and other days I am trying to imagine what a goldfish feels like when confronted by a large cat. Working on a book is always hard work, often frustrating, and sometimes a little scary. But it is never dull. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to explore the worlds of my imagination and to share those worlds with young readers."

Biographical and Critical Sources


PERIODICALS


Booklist, April 15, 1991; November 1, 1993, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Soon, Annala, pp. 530-531; February 1, 1996, Lauren Peterson, review of The Magpies' Nest, p. 933; February 1, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Water Voices, p. 919; July, 1998, Kathleen Squires, review of The Chicken Salad Club, p. 1884.

Horn Book, November-December, 1993, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Soon, Annala, pp. 735-736; May-June, 2002, Susan P. Bloom, review of Tom Mouse, pp. 316-317.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1991, p. 543; February 15, 2002, review of Tom Mouse, p. 260.

Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1991, p. 72; August 25, 1997, review of Baby Jesus, Jonah and the Whale, Joseph's Colorful Coat, and Noah's Ark, p. 66; December 15, 1997, review of Water Voices, p. 57; November 29, 1999, review of Lullaby and Good Night: Songs for Sweet Dreams, p. 73; March 11, 2002, review of Tom Mouse, p. 71; April 7, 2003, review of Where Is My Mommy?, p. 64; February 16, 2004, review of The Firekeeper's Son, p. 171.

School Library Journal, November, 1989, p. 79; April, 1991, p. 110; January, 1996, JoAnn Rees, review of Robin Hood in the Greenwood, p. 116; March, 1996, Ruth S. Vose, review of The Magpies' Nest, pp. 188-189; April, 1998, Judith Gloyer, review of Water Voices, p. 110; August, 1998, Beth Tegart, review of The Chicken Salad Club, p. 132; February, 1999, Patricia Pearl Dole, review of A First Bible Story Book, p. 97; December, 1999, Mollie Bynum, review of Lullaby and Good Night, p. 118; May, 2002, Kathie Meizner, review of Tom Mouse, p. 120.*

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