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Virginia (Virginia Miller) Austin (1951-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

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Born 1951, in Buckinghamshire, England; daughter of a Royal Air Force flight lieutenant.

Addresses

Agent—c/o Author Mail, Candlewick Press, 2067 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140.

Career

Advertising art director and painter; illustrator of children's books, 1990—. Exhibitions: Works exhibited at the Tyron Gallery, London, England.

Honors Awards

Worldwide CLIO award for advertising, 1979, for art and design; runner-up, Mother Goose Award for newcomers to British children's book illustration, Books for Keeps, 1991, for Squeak-a-lot.

Writings

SELF-ILLUSTRATED

(Under name Virginia Miller) On Your Potty, Walker Books (New York, NY), 1991.

(Under name Virginia Miller) Eat Your Dinner, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.

(Under name Virginia Miller) Go to Bed!, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.

Say Please, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.

ILLUSTRATOR

(Under name Virginia Miller) Martin Waddell, Squeak-alot, Walker Books, 1991.

Martin Waddell, Sailor Bear, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.

Valiska Gregory, Kate's Giants, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.

Martin Waddell, Small Bear Lost, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1996.

Sidelights

With her watercolor illustrations, British artist Virginia Austin creates a cozy, familiar world for children to enter through the pages of books like Small Bear Lost by Martin Waddell and Kate's Giants by Valiska Gregory. In addition to creating illustrations for children's books by several authors, Austin has also successfully written and illustrated her own children's stories, among them Eat Your Dinner and Say Please.

Small Bear Lost, published in 1996, tells the story of Small Bear, a character originally introduced in Waddell's 1992 picture book Sailor Bear. In the sequel, Small Bear awakens one day, to find himself on board a train heading far from home. Realizing his dilemma, Small Bear exits the train and decides to takes a bus back to his home. Unfortunately he exits the bus on the wrong side of the street, and finds himself in a park across from his house. Small Bear knows that he is too little to cross the street by himself, so instead, he decides to wait for his little girl to find him. The simple story sets an example for children readers, who can relate to Small Bear, and urges children to be self-reliant but stay within their limits. "Austin's charming pencil and water-color illustrations have an old-fashioned air and plenty of child appeal," stated Carolyn Phelan in a review of Small Bear Lost for Booklist. Peter F. Neumeyer commented on Austin's appeal in the Boston Globe, noting that the artist's watercolor renderings recall "a world of perhaps 50 years ago," and add a touch of tenderness to Waddell's story.

Austin's illustrations for Waddell's Squeak-a-lot earned her consideration for Great Britain's 1991 Mother Goose Award, given annually to the most exciting new illustrator of the year. Award judge Anthony Browne noted in Books for Keeps that in her portrayal of a mouse looking for a playmate, Austin's "superbly flowing drawing style" gives her a completely "original approach" to a familiar storybook animal. London Observer contributor Naomi Lewis likewise found that Austin's pictures have "their own verve and quality" and compared them to the work of author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. Similarly, Ann Waldron in the Philadelphia Inquirer called Austin's illustrations for Sailor Bear "simply wonderful," and a Publishers Weekly critic stated that her "polished and gentle" paintings help create a "classic, comforting bedtime story."

Discussing her illustration projects, Austin once told SATA that Waddell's stories "were a challenge, demanding completely different approaches in style. Squeak-alot is lively, rhythmic and economical, Sailor Bear is more gentle, contemplative and moves at a slower pace… Overall, I was attempting to achieve an old fashioned feel to Sailor Bear because I felt the story line was classical: a small bear goes to sea, capsizes, is washed up on the shore, found by a little girl and taken home safe and sound. The timing was crucial, so I paced the story using a repetitive format, altering the layout when I felt it necessary to emphasize the bear's plight."

Austin has also contributed pencil-and-watercolor illustrations to Kate's Giants, by Valiska Gregory. Gregory's story centers around a young girl who is frightened by ghosts and wild beasts she imagines enter her new bedroom in her new house at night. Harnessing her imaginative energy, the young girl follows the advice of her parents and decides to overcome her fears by imagining friendly creatures. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that Austin's full-spread illustrations, "show the girl appropriately frightened and small in her corner of the bedroom, while allowing lots of space for the imaginary creatures to fill."

Say Please combines Austin's talent as an illustrator and author. In the book, a boy named Tom hears the everyday sounds of common animals, like dogs and ducks, but translates these sounds into polite spoken requests. For example, to young Tom the dog's "woof woof!" actually means "Throw my ball, please." All animals, in fact, are well mannered, and say "please!" in Tom's view. While the book's message is simple, Austin adds another layer to her story through illustrations that depict friendly, busy animals. "There's something very charming about this book," noted Ilene Cooper in Booklist, adding that the pictures, featuring "appealing animals cavorting across the pages," make Say Please "a good choice for preschool story hours."

"The three books I have written are simple ideas attempting to highlight the humor in what must seem at times the more mundane aspect of child rearing," Austin once commented: "potty training, eating dinner, and going to bed. Needless to say I had specific children in mind for each of the titles."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, July, 1992; March 1, 1995, Ilene Cooper, review of Say Please, p. 1246; September 15, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of Small Bear Lost, p. 251.

Books for Keeps, July, 1991, p. 25.

Boston Globe, October 5, 1997, Peter F. Neumeyer, review of Small Bear Lost.

Observer (London, England), March 24, 1991, p. 63; June 6, 1993.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 7, 1992, Ann Waldron, review of Sailor Bear.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), November 8, 1992.

Publishers Weekly, April 20, 1992, review of Sailor Bear; September 11, 1995, review of Kate's Giants, p. 84.

School Library Journal, May, 1995, Sally R. Dow, review of Say Please, p. 81; December, 1995, Tana Elias, review of Kate's Giants, p. 81; September, 1996, Ellen M. Riordan, review of Small Bear Lost, p. 193.*

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