Robert (John) Byrd (1942-)
New Jersey-based author and illustrator Robert Byrd created artwork for several picture books written by others before he penned his first solo effort, Marcella Was Bored, in 1985. In his humorous debut, he tells the story of a cat who, bored with her usual activities, runs away from home, only to discover that the sympathy and attention she receives from her family are what she really wants after all. A reviewer for Growing Point noted that in this telling of a familiar story, the cat stands in for the usual portrait of a dissatisfied teenager, and the humor created by the switch from human to cat shed a new light on "an all too familiar family situation." School Library Journal contributor Lorraine Douglas dubbed Byrd's illustrations "charming" and declared: "Filled with details, these gently colored scenes are filled with activity and portray Marcella as a childlike and expressive feline."
Taking time out to illustrate books by Stephanie Calmenson and Riki Levinson, Byrd returned for his next solo effort, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm tale The Bear and the Bird King. This little-known fable highlights how easily and how foolishly wars get started. School Library Journal critic Linda Boyles described Byrd's successful adaptation as "an easy narrative" with "bright watercolor washes [that] are filled with humor and movement" and "complement the text." Other reviewers found the book's intricately designed illustrations equally enjoyable, noting that the author/illustrator's detailed drawings ground the story in the eighteenth century, with birds in frock coats, top hats, and bustled costumes. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that the "verve and humor that infuse" Byrd's retelling "are reflected and multiplied in wonderfully detailed artwork."
Byrd's picture books draw on stories and legends from history, as in Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey, which features Byzantine-styled artwork, and his adaptation of a Celtic myth in Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife. In Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife the giant Finn and his wife Oonagh possess magical powers that they use to outsmart their enemy, the bully Cucullin, whose loss of a golden finger means the end of his power. The story, filled with historical and cultural details, attracts children because of its combination of humor and suspense. Karen Morgan, writing in Booklist, praised Byrd for his creative partnering of text and illustration, while a Kirkus reviewer dubbed the illustrations "elegant" and praised the author's inclusion of historical detail. Byrd's intricate watercolor renderings "spur interest" in the story's plot and also "convey a palpable sense of the Celtic past," according to the critic.
Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey presents what Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns praised as a "loving and reverent tribute to the saint who was perhaps the first documented ecologist," and relates the story of a lowly beast's important role in the story of the Nativity, complete with what a School Library Journal contributor described as Byrd's "wonderfully colorful, humorous pen-and-ink pictures of a multitude of animals."
Byrd continues to combine his interest in historic detail and his artistic talents in Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer. In "as thorough an exploration of Leonardo's achievements as can be wrought in picture-book format," according to a Kirkus reviewer, Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer tells the story of one of the most creative geniuses of the Renaissance world. Tracing Leonardo da Vinci's many accomplishments thematically rather than chronologically, Byrd is able to convey a vast amount of information yet not overwhelm young readers. In his book's layout, Byrd copies the style of da Vinci's famous notebooks, which included sketches of futuristic flying machines and notes about perspective along with shopping lists and other miscellaneous information. Praising the author's creation of "finely detailed tableaux, brimming with content," Horn Book contributor Peter D. Sieruta dubbed the work "a celebration" of its subject's "inquiring spirit and creative vision." Christine E. Carr, writing in School Library Journal, described the book as "a gorgeous bigraphy suitable for group sharing," while in the New York Times Book Review, Daria Donnelly maintained that Leonardo, Restless Dreamer "exudes an energy that mimics Leonardo's own restless creativity."
Byrd once told Something about the Author: "To me, illustrating means making pictures. That is all I really ever wanted to do with my ability. I always drew as a child, but oddly enough never thought of it as a profession, or what you did when you grew up....
"I could always draw, but I never took art courses in high school. After a stint in the Navy I went to Trenton Junior College for a year, trying to 'find myself' academically and otherwise. I did well in the art courses and switched to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art. I wanted to be an illustrator from the very beginning of my studies there.
"Out of all my creative work, illustrating children's books gives me the greatest satisfaction. It is my 'fine art.' It keeps me going aesthetically. The books have a permanence and a quality of something meaningful. I have complete freedom working with [author] Robert Kraus and this is of the greatest importance to me."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, January 1, 1999, Karen Morgan, review of Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife: A Giant of a Tale from Ireland; August, 2003, Julie Cummins, review of Beautiful Dreamer, p. 1973
Growing Point, May, 1987, review of Marcella Was Bored, p. 4806.
Horn Book, November, 2000, Mary M. Burns, review of Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey p. 744; September-October, 2003, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, p. 625.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1994, p. 67; December 15, 1998, review of Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife; June 15, 2003, review of Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, p. 857
New York Times Book Review, November 16, 2003, Daria Donnelly, review of Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993, review of The Bear and the Bird King, p. 69; September 25, 2000, Elizabeth Devereaux, review of Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey, p. 69.
School Library Journal, January, 1986, Lorraine Douglas, review of Marcella Was Bored, p. 55; May, 1994, Linda Boyles, review of The Bear and the Bird King, p. 108; October, 2000, review of Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey, p. 57; September, 2003, Christine E. Carr, review of Leonardo, Beautiful Dreamer, p. 227.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) BiographyRobert (John) Byrd (1942-) Biography - Career, Sidelights - Personal, Member, Honors Awards, Writings