Peggy Rathmann Biography (1953-)
Peggy Rathmann pulled a hat trick with her first children's book, Ruby the Copycat, turning an embarrassing personal incident into a well-received story and earning the "most promising new author" distinction in the 1991 Cuffies Awards. Her second self-illustrated book, Good Night, Gorilla, was an American Library Association Notable Children's Book. And with her third title, Offıcer Buckle and Gloria, Rathmann walked off with the Caldecott Medal in 1996. Not bad for someone who got into children's books only to curry favor with her nieces.
In her Caldecott acceptance speech, as reported in Horn Book, Rathmann explained the genesis of her writing/illustrating career. "I was vacationing with my two nieces. The girls were three and five years old, and as far as I could tell, they didn't like me nearly enough." One day on a car trip the nieces both wanted to sit in front next to another aunt. "Now, this aunt cannot help that she is extremely attractive, intelligent, and pleasant to be around. I wanted to sit next to her, too." But there was only room for one, so the younger niece was sent howling to the back seat with Rathmann. "She glowered at me; I was the booby prize." In desperation, Rathmann pulled out her sketch pad and began drawing a story "that starred my niece and me as extremely attractive people with good personalities and high IQs. It worked." It was also the start of an award-winning career. According to Diane Roback and Shannon Maughan in Publishers Weekly, Rathmann creates "characters with built-in kid appeal: a copycat, a girl who bites, a young gorilla who slips the keys away from the zookeeper." Roback and Maughan also noted that while Rathmann's books may be "spare in text," they are "long on action, much of it related through her cleverly expressive pictures."
Rathmann was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1953, one of five children. She started her illustrating career in the seventh grade, designing campaign posters for her older brother's successful bid for student council. After graduation from Mounds View High School in New Brighton, Minnesota, she attended several colleges before settling down at the University of Minnesota where she took a degree in psychology. Rathmann once said that she "wanted to teach sign language to gorillas, but after taking a class in signing, I realized what I'd rather do was draw pictures of gorillas." There followed various career plans from commercial artist to fine artist, but meanwhile she continued to work on the picture book she had begun with her nieces, a book that became "endless," as she described it in her Caldecott acceptance speech. "A whopping 150 pink-and-purple pages. . . . The book had everything—except conflict and a plot."
A publisher's rejection and a subsequent tip from a published writer sent Rathmann back to school, this time to a children's book-writing and illustration class. It was there that she began an assignment on an embarrassing incident in her life that led to her first published book. The teacher of this class suggested that students develop a story idea from the worst or most embarrassing thing they knew about themselves. At first Rathmann was unsuccessful, but as her classmates began presenting their stories, she developed the "overwhelming compulsion to swipe" the embarrassing incidents of other students, as she confessed in her Caldecott acceptance speech. Eventually she decided that this very tendency toward copying was the shameful thing she could use for the assignment which eventually turned into the book Ruby the Copycat. "Since then, all of my books have been based on embarrassing secrets," Rathmann said in her Caldecott speech.
Ruby the Copycat, a book that Kirkus Reviews dubbed "a solid debut," tells the story of a new girl in class named Ruby who tries to act just like the popular girl, Angela. Ruby's poem is almost exactly like Angela's; Ruby was a flower girl in a wedding, just like Angela. Initially, the popular girl finds such adulation flattering, but ultimately it is flat out irritating. Ruby even copies the painted nails of the teacher, Miss Hart, who finally takes Ruby in hand and lets her know it is okay to be herself. In fact, the kindly teacher advises her that is the only way she will really fit in and win friends. So Ruby shows off her hopping ability, and the other kids soon are copying her. This feat even wins Angela's friendship.
Martha Topol, reviewing Ruby the Copycat in School Library Journal, called it a "book with a strong story and complementary illustrations that addresses the philosophical question of individuality vs. conformity" and dubbed the book "a small gem." Other critics noted the originality of Rathmann's artwork and how integrally it fits in and helps develop the story. Ilene Cooper, writing in Booklist commented that Rathmann's "colorful artwork adds new bits of humor to the text," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer asserted that her "expressively illustrated, quirky and individualistic first book" would help inspire confidence in children and teach them "not to take skills . . . for granted."
Rathmann followed up this success with the illustrations for Barbara Bottner's Bootsie Barker Bites, and then with her own story, Good Night, Gorilla, inspired by another classroom assignment and aided by a childhood memory. The writing and illustrating, however, were not the matter of a quick study session. The initial draft of the manuscript had value, but everyone who read it found the ending problematic. It took two years and ten more trial endings to put together the final manuscript for Good Night, Gorilla, which went on to win an American Library Association Notable Book citation in 1994. This book relies heavily on pictures to convey story; words are limited to a bubbled "Good night," as the keeper of a zoo makes his rounds, tucking in the various animals he cares for. Little does the zookeeper know that the gorilla in the first cage has lifted his keys and is setting free the animals in back of him, and that they are all following the zookeeper home to the cozy security of a surrogate "parent."
Deborah Stevenson, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noted both the story and pictorial value of Good Night, Gorilla in her review. She noted that Rathmann's lines are "rounder here than in her previous work," while her animal characters are drawn with "a cheerful simplicity of mien" and her palate "relies on a twilit glow of pink and green that lends a gentle circus flavor to the proceedings." Booklist critic Ilene Cooper noted that the author/illustrator's "jaunty four-color artwork carries the story and offers more with every look," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor dubbed the book "delightful" and Horn Book reviewer Ann A. Flowers called it "an outstanding picture book." Considering the effect of both picture and story, Jan Shepherd Ross in School Library Journal concluded that Good Night, Gorilla is "a clever, comforting bedtime story."
"There's a funny thing that happens between words and pictures," Rathmann said in her interview for Publishers Weekly, explaining that she learned the symbiotic nature of the two in her classes at Otis Parsons. She also learned that neither can exist without the other. In fact, it was yet another class assignment that led to Officer Buckle and Gloria and her Caldecott Medal. "The assignment was to write and illustrate a story which could not be understood by reading the text alone," she related in her Caldecott acceptance speech. "I did it because the teacher told us to, but in the process I discovered that this challenge was the very definition of a picture book. Officer Buckle was the words, Gloria was the pictures, and neither could entertain or enlighten without the other."
Employing the acrobatic and clowning talents of her own family dog, Rathmann wrote and illustrated a story about a school safety officer and the dog who makes him fabulously popular for a time. Officer Buckle knows more about safety than just about anybody in the town of Napville, but he is a tremendous bore when he gives assemblies to impart his safety tips. One day, though, the Napville Police Department buys a police dog with the improbable name of Gloria. Buckle begins taking Gloria with him to his demonstrations and, behind his back, the jolly dog performs a series of skillful acrobatic tricks, much to the amazement and amusement of the audience. Suddenly, Officer Buckle is much in demand, and things go along wonderfully until the policeman sees a video of his performance on the television news and understands that the cheers have been for Gloria, and not for him. Outraged, Officer Buckle refuses to visit any more schools, and when Gloria goes on her own, she is a bomb. In fact, the two need each other, and when they return to the stage, they present a final safety tip: "Always stick with your buddy."
Deborah Stevenson, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noted that Offıcer Buckle and Gloria "is at heart the old story of the importance of friendship, but the safety tips . . . and the rest of the plot devices give it a fresh twist." Indeed, Rathmann spent much time and money on the 101 safety tips posted throughout the book. With deadlines approaching and more tips needed, Rathmann offered her nieces and nephews $25 apiece for any safety tips that made it past her editor. "The response was very expensive," she recalled in her Caldecott acceptance speech. Though many such tips are quite humorous, Stevenson went on to note that the illustrations are "the lifeblood" of the book: "scratchy-edged watercolors in a luminous palette." Carolyn Phelan, writing in Booklist, commented that "the deadpan humor of the text and slapstick wit of the illustrations make a terrific combination." Kathie Krieger Cerra, reviewing the book for Five Owls, noted especially how Rathmann's illustrations "move beyond the story and enrich it," and concluded that Offıcer Buckle and Gloria "is a book that children return to repeatedly, for there is much to be discovered in the illustrations and the language." A Publishers Weekly reviewer asserted that Rathmann "brings a lighter-than-air comic touch to this outstanding, solid-as-a-brick picture book," and Horn Book's Ann A. Flowers called it "a glorious picture book." In Ten minutes till Bedtime a father announces to his son that he has ten minutes until he has to go to bed. As the boy begins to prepare, his pet hamster welcomes a hamster family that arrives in time for the bedtime tour. The baby hamsters wear numbers one through ten, and they all watch the boy go through his routine. Thanks to the numbered hamsters, children can practice counting forward and backward as the boy's father counts down the time to bed. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly praised the book as a"captivating series of mini-plots," concluding,"If Rathmann has her way, young slumberers will be counting hamsters, not sheep, as they drift off to sleep." David J. Whitin, reviewing the book for Teaching Children Mathematics, found that the book is better suited as a bedtime read than as a group storytime selection because of the small numbers on the hamsters backs and the task of finding them all. Barbara Bader, writing in Horn Book, commented that while Ten Minutes till Bedtime "hasn't the one-two punch of its predecessors," nonetheless it contains the "Rathmann sense of small-fry mischief" and the book's ending, a "mad scramble to exit as the countdown comes to a final ringing close, is the essence of explosive fun."
The Day the Babies Crawled Away relates the story of a well-meaning little boy who sets about rounding up five babies who crawl away to follow butterflies while their parents are distracted during a picnic. He quickly realizes that returning the babies to their parents is not simple task, and when he finally reunites each infant with its parents, he is one exhausted little hero.The illustrations in this book are a departure from Rathmann's usual art; here she uses silhouettes against a changing sky to create excitement and to reflect the closing of the day. According to Susan Dove Lempke in Horn Book, the illustrator's choice of technique "isolates the important parts of the tale, highlighting each gesture and detail Rathmann wants us to see." To ensure that readers can always locate the boy, Rathmann puts him, fittingly, in a firefighter's hat, making him easy to find in each picture and adding to his role as rescuer. McClelland also praised Rathmann's illustrations, noting that "the babies and their adventures are rendered in stunning, sharply detailed "silhouette." A Publishers Weekly contributor made the point that in this "rollicking rhyming tale," parents are never cast as neglectful, but instead the focus is on the "sleepy, baby-wrangling hero." A School Library Journal reviewer deemed the lighthearted book "inspired silliness," while Kate McClelland, also writing for the same periodical, dubbed The Day the Babies Crawled Away "fanciful."
Hard at work on further picture books, Rathmann is still tongue-in-cheek about her achievements. As she said in her Publishers Weekly interview, "To be frank, I like making these books so I can crack myself up." And at last report, her nieces seem to like her a lot better now.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 15, 1991, Ilene Cooper, review of Ruby the Copycat, p. 631; July, 1994, Ilene Cooper, review of Good Night, Gorilla, p. 1956; November 1, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of Offıcer Buckle and Gloria, p. 471; October 15, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Ten Minutes till Bedtime, p. 428.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1994, Deborah Stevenson, review of Good Night, Gorilla, p. 299; October, 1995, Deborah Stevenson, review of Offıcer Buckle and Gloria, p. 66.
Five Owls, March-April, 1996, Kathie Krieger Cerra, review of Offıcer Buckle and Gloria, pp. 85-86.
Horn Book, July-August, 1994, Ann A. Flowers, review of Good Night, Gorilla, pp. 443-444; July, 1994, Ilene Cooper, review of Good Night, Gorilla, p. 1956; November-December, 1995, Ann A. Flowers, review of Offıcer Buckle and Gloria, pp. 736-737; July-August, 1996, Peggy Rahtmann, Caldecott Medal Acceptance speech, pp. 424-427; September-October, 1998, Barbara Bader, review of Ten Minutes till Bedtime, pp. 598-599; September-October, 2003, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Day the Babies Crawled Away, p. 600.
Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1991, review of Ruby the Copycat, p. 1474; April 15, 1994, review of Good Night, Gorilla, p. 562; July, 1994, Ilene Cooper, review of Good Night, Gorilla, p. 1956; November-December, 1995, Ann A. Flowers, review of Offıcer Buckle and Gloria, pp. 736-737; September 15, 2003, review of The Day the Babies Crawled Away, p. 1181.
Publishers Weekly, November 8, 1991, review of Ruby the Copycat, p. 64; February 20, 1995, p. 125; July 17, 1995, review of Offıcer Buckle and Gloria, p. 229; June 15, 1998, review of Ten Minutes till Bedtime, p. 58; September 22, 2003, review of The Day the Babies Crawled Away, p. 102.
School Library Journal, January, 1992, Martha Topol, review of Ruby the Copycat, p. 96; July, 1994, Jan Ross Shepherd, review of Good Night, Gorilla, p. 87; September, 1995, Lisa S. Murphy, review of Offıcer Buckle and Gloria, p. 185; November, 2003, Kate McClelland, review of The Day the Babies Crawled Away, p. 113; April, 2004, review of The Day the Babies Crawled Away, p. S26.
Teaching Children Mathematics, April, 2000, David J. Whitin, review of Ten Minutes till Bedtime, p. 532.*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dudley Randall Biography - A Poet from an Early Age to Ferrol Sams Jr BiographyPeggy Rathmann (1953-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights