Aliki (Liacouras) (Aliki) Brandenberg
In her many books for children, Greek-American author-illustrator Aliki Brandenberg—known to readers simply as Aliki—has proven a rare talent in imparting information to children and newly minted readers. Sometimes using comic book-style illustrations incorporating word bubbles, and at others times using elaborate frieze pictures or styling pages to resemble an illuminated manuscript, Aliki is well known for adapting her illustrations to content. Gearing her texts to a preschool to middle-grade audience, she fills her nonfiction, picture books, and story books with warmth, humor, and enthusiasm. As she once told Children's Books and Their Creators, "I write fiction out of a need to express myself. I write nonfiction—out of curiosity and fascination. And I draw in order to breathe." In addition to the books she has written herself, Aliki has also illustrated dozens of books written by other writers, including her husband, Franz Brandenberg.
Aliki's generational tales include The Two of Them, At Mary Bloom's, and Marianthe's Story; while her picture books We Are Best Friends, Best Friends Together Again, and Hello! Good-bye! detail the emotional lives of young children. Her Greek heritage and family memories surface in still other books, among them Christmas Tree Memories and Those Summers. Moving to nonfiction, Aliki has produced award-winning biographies, including books that relate the life stories of William Tell, Benjamin Franklin, and King Louis XIV of France, as well as British playwright William Shakespeare. Aliki's other nonfiction ranges in subject matter from dinosaurs to natural history and anatomy, each book featuring her own illustrations.
Aliki was born in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey, where her parents, who lived in Philadelphia, were vacationing at the time. Starting to draw from an early age, she exhibited her first two portraits—one of her family and another of Peter Rabbit's family—in kindergarten. "Such a fuss was made over them," she remembered in the Third Book of Junior Authors, "that the course of my life was decided that day." Aliki thereafter attended art classes on Saturdays and also pursued a secondary interest in music by taking piano lessons.
After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. After graduating in 1951, she took a job working in the display department of the J. C. Penney Company in New York City. After a year she moved back to Philadelphia and worked as a freelance advertising and display artist. She also painted murals, started her own greeting card company, and taught classes in art and ceramics.
Aliki's parents were natives of Greece and had taught her to speak Greek before she learned to speak English. In 1956 she decided to use her language skills on a visit to that country, and also included Italy and other European locations in her trip. While traveling, painting, sketching, and learning about her heritage, she also met Franz Brandenberg, the man she would marry. After wedding in 1957, the couple settled in Brandenberg's native Switzerland, where Aliki continued her freelance art career. When she learned that William Tell was Swiss, she and Franz visited the territory where he lived. That experience inspired her to write and illustrate her first book, The Story of William Tell, which was published in 1960. Reviewing this debut book in School Librarian, H. Millington wrote that "Aliki has taken [the old tale] and dressed it up as fresh as the daisies with some of the most gorgeous illustrations I have seen." The characters in Aliki's biography "jump off the page," Millington continued, "with the sheer audacious simplicity of their representation." Later that same year Aliki and her husband moved to New York City, where she was asked to illustrate several books written by other authors. While working as an illustrator, she also got an idea for a second book, titled My Five Senses. From this point she has gone on to write and illustrate dozens more nonfiction titles, many of them in association with the "Let's Read and Find Out" science book series for Crowell. Some of her most popular titles deal with dinosaurs, a topic of great interest to young children. Reviewing My Visit to the Dinosaurs, a Kirkus Reviews writer commented that "what this dinosaur book has that others don't is what might be called human interest—also a sense of humor." Praising Aliki's popular Digging up Dinosaurs, Susan Bolotin noted in the New York Times Book Review that the book's "main text and energetic drawings will appeal to any child who hungers for extra information on those endlessly fascinating 'bags of bones.'" Aliki has continued to follow her personal fascination for ancient reptiles in Dinosaurs Are Different, Dinosaur Bones, and Aliki's Dinosaur Dig.
Like her books on dinosaurs, Aliki's other nonfiction books are inspired by her fascination with a certain topic. She then researches the subject, usually over an extended period of time. "The pleasure of these books," she once wrote of her nonfiction work, "is writing complicated facts as clearly and simply as possible, so readers (and I) who know nothing about a subject learn a great deal by the time we are finished." Publishers Weekly reviewer Dulcy Brainard observed that the resulting "science primers inform, entertain and delight in a way that is particularly Aliki's, using script and different typefaces, with frieze frames and borders. One doesn't have to be a kid to devour each page, intent on not missing a single bit of information it contains." Aliki spoke about her science books with Margaret Carter in Books for Your Children, remarking, "It's best for me to know nothing about a subject when I begin . . . that way I have to get it right. Because I am not a scientist I can perhaps approach the subject with fresh eyes."
Aliki has developed a text-within text style that uses dialogue or thought bubbles to express her characters' speech alongside a main text that presents much of the information. Among the subjects that have prompted Aliki's pen are fossils, natural cycles, manufacturing, and history. Reviewing Fossils Tell of Long Ago, Mary Neale Rees commented in School Library Journal that this "factually accurate, clearly written text will be welcomed by primary graders who are usually captivated by fossils and dinosaurs." Combining both science and history, Aliki studies the significance of corn in America in Corn Is Maize: The Gift of the Indians, in which the author/illustrator's "engaging" text presents a "successful blend of social studies, science, and history," according to Diane Holzheimer in School Library Journal.
Food also serves as the subject of Green Grass and White Milk, Milk: From Cow to Carton, and A Medieval Feast, the last which blends history and sociology to allow readers to experience what a feast of the year 1400 must have been like. Although the book took Aliki two years to produce, A Medieval Feast "seems to spring from the copy," Brainard maintained. Creating illustrations that mimic an illuminated manuscript of the period and using a lush prose style, "Aliki has provided us with a veritable feast of a book," concluded Patricia Dooley in School Library Journal. History is also at the heart of the popular Mummies Made in Egypt, which contains "stunning" art "adapted from the real article and rendered frieze-style," according to Nora Magid in the New York Times Book Review. The book's text "is uncompromisingly informative and clear," Magid added.
Aliki tackles a manufacturing process in How a Book Is Made, which uses a comic-strip format and step-by-step illustrations to "make the information easily accessible," according to Zena Sutherland, reviewing the book for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. "Yes, there are other good books on how a book is made," noted Sutherland, "but probably none better for younger readers."A more creative process is the subject of Ah, Music!, in which "the indefatigable Aliki takes on the whole of music—its origins, its history, its necessity to the human spirit," according to Booklist contributor GraceAnne A. DeCandido. After discussing the component parts—harmonics, rhythm, tempo, melody, pitch, and the function and range of instruments—she moves into different types of music, such as orchestral, jazz, pop, and different folk songs, all described within a multicultural context. The interrelation of music and dance, the use of music as therapy, and the dedication required of professional musicians are also covered in a book that "should lead young music lovers to the shelves to find out more about a type of music or composer who has piqued their curiosity," according to School Library Journal critic Jane Marino. Praising the author/illustrator's "clear, child-friendly illustrations," a Kirkus reviewer dubbed Ah, Music! a "comprehensive examination" of a broad subject, while in Horn Book Lolly Robinson wrote that Aliki breaks her topic "down into child-sized portions with a masterful sense of pacing, humor,and page design."
The art of being human is also the subject of several books by Aliki. In Communication she presents the many ways people communicate—both verbally and non-verbally—and illustrates her text using children of many races, who are linked by their efforts to write, talk, listen, and read, thereby sharing knowledge, expressing feelings, and opinions, and solving problems. Praising Aliki's text as "clear" and "succinct," Horn Book contributor Margaret A. Bush concluded that the "empathy, humor, and insight proffer very satisfying reading," making Communication "a masterful accomplishment in simple nonfiction. Emotions are the focus of Feelings, in which Aliki again uses the comic-strip format to create a "lighthearted mood," according to Booklist contributor Denise M. Wilms, who concluded that Aliki's "fresh, colorful execution lends grace beyond what often passes for bibliotherapy." With Manners Aliki presented a short course in etiquette designed to be useful for both parents and teachers, according to Cathryn A. Camper writing in Five Owls. "The playful cartoon dialogue and the funny 'good manners' quiz on the endpapers help keep the tone of the book nondidactic and lighthearted," concluded Camper.
A biography, The Story of William Tell, began Aliki's career, and she has continued to produce acclaimed life stories throughout her long career in children's books. Her award-winning The Story of Johnny Appleseed and The Story of William Penn were praise for their relaxed style and humor. Reviewing Aliki's biography of America's apple-tree planter, Millicent J. Taylor commented in the Christian Science Monitor that the author/illustrator "has a remarkable way of capturing the spirit of a small child's paintings and lighting them up with the genius of the adult painter of true primitives." The life of George Washington Carver is profiled in A Weed Is a Flower, "a simplified biography true both to its subject and the interests of early childhood," according to a Kirkus Reviews writer.
Following her own interest, Aliki continues to seek out fascinating individuals as subjects of her biographies. In The King's Day she details the life of the "Sun King," Louis XIV of France, whose long reign lasted from 1643 to 1715. In a book full of fascinating details and fine artwork, she recreates the baroque opulence of the king's royal court at Versailles. "Color is the most striking element in Aliki's drawings," observed Shirley Wilton in a School Library Journal review of the book. "The richness of the king's costumes, his wigs, lace, red stockings, and high-heeled shoes are echoed by the attire of his courtiers."A famous English playwright also gets the Aliki treatment in William Shakespeare and the Globe, "one of the most appealing and responsible biographies of Shakespeare" produced for middle-grade readers according to Sally Margolis in School Library Journal. While noting facts about Shakespeare's life, Aliki concentrates on his work as a playwright, includes quotes from his plays, and even structures her book in the five "acts" the Bard used in his plays. She recounts the history of the Globe Theatre and the role of drama in Elizabethan England, then moves ahead to the twentieth century to profile the successful effort by American actor/director Sam Wanamaker to construct a new Globe in Stratford-on-Avon. Margolis called William Shakespeare and the Globe a "thoroughly enjoyable and reliable introduction to the Bard." while a Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that in the book "Aliki creates a cascade of landscapes, crowd scenes, diminutive portraits, and sequential views, all done with her trademark warmth and delicacy of line." Calling the book "an ambitious project," Booklist reviewer Carolyn Phelan commended Aliki for a successful story that contains "a pervasive sense of history and fine sense of style."
In addition to her nonfiction books and her work as an illustrator for other writers—including her husband—Aliki is also noted for creating fiction. Many of her books are inspired by day-to-day incidents, particularly those relating to the raising of her own two children. Human anatomy becomes the central joke of Keep Your Mouth Closed, Dear, an "altogether winning creation," according to Richard Kluger in Book Week, while in All by Myself a young boy strives to be independent, wrestling with buttons, zippers, faucets, and other everyday hurdles facing small humans. In School Library Journal Sharon R. Pearce called the book "jubilant" while in Publishers Weekly Aliki's "brighly hued" illustrations were praised for "convincingly convey[ing] . . . the protagonists's high energy and enthusiasm."
Babies—both mouse and human—beckon in At Mary Bloom's and Welcome, Little Baby. The former title, a generational story about a little girl and an older neighbor, was praised as "great fun," by Sutherland in a review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Another powerful generational tale is The Two of Them, a story inspired by Aliki's own father that recounts the mutual love between an old man and his granddaughter. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called the tale "a moving but unsentimental story," and concluded that The Two of Them is a book "parents who read to their children will probably appreciate even more than will the young." In the two-part book Marianthe's Story a young immigrant girl learns a new language sufficiently to tell her school class the story of how her family came to this new land. "The words and illustrations combine to tell a powerful story of growth, acceptance and overcoming adversity," commented Kristi Steele in Children's Book Review Service, while a Kirkus reviewer called the "storytelling . . . vivid and exquisitely emotional, making Aliki's story painfully personal, yet resonant, in very few pages."
Aliki's story of the Greek philosopher in Diogenes underlines her interest in her Greek heritage. Adapting the style of the Greek fresco for this biography, she introduces young readers to someone they might not otherwise know. In her retelling of Greek myth and folktales, she also has introduced new and less typical information to young readers. In her award-winning Three Gold Pieces, she retells the story of a submissive Greek peasant and the meager pay he receives for ten years of work. Eleanor Dienstag noted the "almost Biblical quality" of the story in her appraisal of Three Gold Pieces for the New York Times Book Review, and also praised Aliki's "rich, Oriental illustrations." More folktales are presented in The Twelve Months and The Eggs, while in The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus Aliki moves to Greek myth, presenting a winning introduction to an endlessly fascinating subject.
Aliki's personal memories of friends and family are gathered in several books, including Christmas Tree Memories, June 7!, and Those Summers. Reviewing the birthday party book, June 7!, Edward Hudson noted in Children's Book Review that Aliki "has a simplicity of line and an eye for detail that children seek out," while Judith Gloyer observed in School Library Journal that Aliki's Those Summers "offers vivid memories of childhood summers spent at the ocean with her cousins, parents, aunts, and uncles." Gloyer concluded that the book provided a "delightful glimpse of a cherished childhood."
Due to the many topics she has covered throughout her long career, and the wealth of information she packs into each of her illustrated nonfiction picture books, Aliki's books are a staple in the recommended reading lists of preschool to middle-grade readers. The simplicity of her approach belies the fact of the expertise and research that go into each title. As Aliki noted in an essay for the St. James Guide to Children's Writers, "Much of my work involves intricate and time-consuming research—made doubly difficult because I both write and illustrate. I spend long hours at my desk. Some books take three years to complete. That is why I call what I do 'hard fun.' But I love the challenge of a new idea, and finding out something I don't know about a subject—or even myself."
Living and working in England since 1977, Aliki continues to produce new titles. "I'm one of those lucky people who love what they do," she once commented. "I also love my garden, music, theater, museums, and traveling. But I'm happiest when I'm in my studio on the top floor of our tall house in London, alone with the book I'm working on, and Mozart."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995, p. 16.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 9, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985, pp. 15-32.
St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, edited by Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999, pp. 17-20.
Third Book of Junior Authors, H. W. Wilson (Bronx, NY), 1972, pp. 8-9.
Booklist, December 1, 1994, Denise M., Wilms, review of Feelings, p. 520; August, 1995, p. 94; May 1, 1996, p. 1511; July, 1996, p. 1827; June 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of William Shakespeare and the Globe, p. 1824; November 1, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of All by Myself!, p. 544; July, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of One Little Spoonful, p. 2022; June 1, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Ah, Music!, p. 1781.
Books for Your Children, spring, 1984, Margaret Carter, "Cover Artist—Aliki," p. 9.
Book Week, October 30, 1966, Richard Kluger, "Crocodile Smiles," pp. 4-5, 8.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 1976, Zena Sutherland, review of At Mary Bloom's, p. 37; November, 1986, Zena Sutherland, review of How a Book Is Made, p. 41.
Child-Life, May-June, 2003, review of Ah, Music!, p. 26.
Children's Book Review Service, summer, 1975, Edward Hudson, review of June 7!, p. 55; October, 1998, Kristi Steele, review of Marianthe's Story, p. 19.
Christian Science Monitor, November 14, 1963, Millicent J. Taylor, "Peopling the Past," p. 7B.
Five Owls, February, 1991, Cathryn, A. Camper, review of Manners, p. 53.
Horn Book, May-June, 1993, Margaret A. Bush, review of Communications, p. 342; March-April, 1994, p. 198; July-August, 1995, p. 446; September-October, 1997, p. 589; September-October, 1998, p. 595; January, 2000, review of William Shakespeare and the Globe, p. 50; September, 2000, review of All by Myself, p. 545; May-June, 2003, Lolly Robinson, review of Ah, Music!, p. 366.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1965, review of A Weed Is a Flower: The Life of George Washington Carver, p. 1039; September 1, 1969, review of My Visit to the Dinosaurs, pp. 930-931; September 1, 1998, review of Marianthe's Story, p. 1282; May 1, 1999, review of William Shakespeare and the Globe, p. 718; April 1, 2003, review of Ah, Music!, p. 530.
New York Times Book Review, April 30, 1967, Eleanor Dienstag, review of Three Gold Pieces, p. 26; November 18, 1979, Nora Magid, review of Mummies Made in Egypt, pp. 30-31; March 8, 1981, Susan Bolotin, Digging up Dinosaurs, p. 30; October 16, 1983.
Publishers Weekly, September 10, 1979, review of The Two of Them, p. 65; July 22, 1983, Dulcy Brainard, interview with Aliki, pp. 134-135; August 8, 1994, p. 434; June 3, 1996, p. 82; August 19, 1996, p. 66; August 11, 1997, p. 402; July 20, 1998, p. 219; May 31, 1999, p. 91; August 21, 2000, review of All by Myself!, p. 71; February, 24, 2003, review of Ah, Music!, p. 70.
School Librarian, H. Millington, review of The Story of William Tell, December, 1961, p. 567.
School Library Journal, November, 1962, Allie Beth Martin, review of The Wish Workers, p. 39; September, 1972, Mary Neale Rees, review of Fossils Tell of Long Ago, p. 111; April, 1976, Diane Holzheimer, review of Corn Is Maize, p. 58; September, 1983, Patricia Dooley, review of A Medieval Feast, p. 114; October, 1989, Shirley Wilton, review of The King's Day, Louis XIV of France, p. 99; April, 1993, p. 104; May, 1995, Sally Margolis, review of William Shakespeare and the Globe, p. 134; August, 1996, Judith Gloyer, review of Those Summers, p. 115; October, 1998, p. 86; September, 2000, Sharon R. Pearce, review of All by Myself, p. 184; September, 2001, Karen land, review of One Little Spoonful, p. 182; May, 2003, Jane Marino, review of Ah, Music!, p. 133; February, 2004, Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, review of William Shakespeare and the Globe, p. 81.*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Shennen Bersani (1961-) Biography - Personal to Mark Burgess Biography - PersonalAliki (Liacouras) (Aliki) Brandenberg Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Career, Writings