Peter Catalanotto (1959-) Biography
Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Surname is pronounced "KA-ta-la-NOT-to"; born 1959, in Brooklyn, NY; Education: Pratt Institute, B.F.A., 1981. Hobbies and other interests: Basketball, reading.
Freelance illustrator in New York, NY, 1982-87; freelance writer and illustrator of children's books, 1987—. Exhibitions: Work displayed with Mazza Collection, Findlay, OH; and at Keene State Gallery, Keene, NH. Included in permanent collection of Elizabeth Stone Gallery, Birmingham, MI, then Alexandria, VA.
Most Promising New Artist designation, Publishers Weekly, 1989; Best Book for Teens designation, American Library Association, 1990, for Soda Jerk; named Keystone Book (PA), 1991, for Cecil's Story; Best Book designation, Publishers Weekly, 1992, for Who Came down the Road?; Carolyn Field Award, 1993, for Dreamplace; Best Book designation, Booklist, 1999, for Letter to the Lake; Best Books designation, Booklinks, 1999, for Dad and; Me and Book; All I See and Dylan's Day Out both received Junior Literary Guild citations.
Dylan's Day Out, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1989.
Mr. Mumble, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.
Christmas Always …, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
The Painter, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Dad and Me, DK Publishing (New York, NY), 1999.
Emily's Art, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2001.
Matthew A. B. C., Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2002.
Daisy 1, 2, 3, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2003.
Kitten Red, Yellow, Blue, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2005.
Cynthia Rylant, All I See, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1988.
Cynthia Rylant, Soda Jerk (poems), Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.
George Ella Lyon, Cecil's Story, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
George Ella Lyon, Who Came down the Road?, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Cynthia Rylant, An Angel for Solomon Singer, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.
George Ella Lyon, Dreamplace, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
SuAnn Kiser, The Catspring Somersault Flying One-handed Flip-Flop, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Susan Patron, Dark Cloud Strong Breeze, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
George Ella Lyon, Mama Is a Miner, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Megan McDonald, My House Has Stars, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
George Ella Lyon, A Day at Damp Camp, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Angela Johnson, The Rolling Store, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Susan Marie Swanson, Getting Used to the Dark, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Susi G. Fowler, Circle of Thanks, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Marie Bradby, The Longest Wait, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Susan Marie Swanson, Letter to the Lake, DK Publishing (New York, NY), 1998.
Gilda Berger, Celebrate!, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
George Ella Lyon, Book, DK Publishing (New York, NY), 1999.
Katharine Kenah, The Dream Shop, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Liz Rosenberg, We Wanted You, Roaring Brook Press (Brookfield, CT), 2002.
Mary Pope Osborne, Happy Birthday, America, Roaring Brook Press (Brookfield, CT), 2003.
George Ella Lyon, Mother to Tigers, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2003.
Peter Catalanotto is an author and illustrator of children's books whose work was described by a Kirkus Reviews critic as "explosively joyful and expressive." In both his self-illustrated titles and the books he has illustrated for other authors, Catalanotto has built an impressive and distinctive body of award-winning work, teaming up with authors such as Cynthia Rylant and George Ella Lyon and working with editor Richard Jackson of Orchard Books. As an essayist noted in Children's Books and Their Creators, "the imagery throughout Catalanotto's evanescent watercolors encases emotions and reflects ruminations while enhancing the texts and adding new dimensions to the stories."
It is this enhancement of text with pictures for which Catalanotto is especially known. As he stated in an essay for the Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), "I think the most successful picture books are when the words and pictures are wed to create something bigger and better than when separate."
As Catalanotto once told Something about the Author (SATA), "I grew up in a household in East Northport, Long Island, where four of the five children went to art schools in New York City. I remember when I started school I was amazed to learn everybody didn't draw like my family." Catalanotto was, he admitted, a "shy child. Although I had a lot of friends, I most enjoyed solitude, reading, doing jigsaw puzzles, or spending endless hours drawing. Comic book characters were my favorite things to draw, especially 'Spider-Man.'"
After graduating from high school, Catalanotto enrolled at Pratt Institute, where he took classes in illustration, drawing, and painting. "It was at Pratt that I developed the watercolor technique I still use today," he added. "I think it's important for an artist to find a medium that suits his/her personality. Watercolor allows me to stop and start without a lot of preparation. I can be loose or tight with my style with washes and rendering."
Graduation from Pratt in 1981, Catalanotto then started freelance illustrating, working initially for newspapers, where he did most of his painting in black and white. He then started getting assignments from magazines such as Reader's Digest, Family Circle, Woman's Day, and Redbook. A job painting the covers of young-adult book jackets in 1984 led, three years later, to the illustrator's association with Richard Jackson at Orchard Books. "I did a couple of jackets for Orchard Books," Catalanotto once explained to SATA. "The editor, Richard Jackson, offered me a picture-book manuscript, All I See, written by Cynthia Rylant. I became enamored with the process of creating paintings for an entire story. The research included spending time on a lake, since this was the setting for the story. I spent thirteen hours in a rowboat, sketching and photographing the lake at all angles and times of the day. Seasick and sunburned, I started my sketches. As the months on this project passed, Jackson and I became friends and had many discussions on writing and illustrating books for children."
This eventually led to Catalanotto's self-illustrated picture book, Dylan's Day Out, done in black and white and detailing the adventures of a Dalmatian with a serious case of cabin fever. The book was well received and inspired Catalanotto to pursue further solo efforts in addition to the illustration work he was doing for other writers. In 1989 came his second solo title, Mr. Mumble. As the artist once explained, "My own shyness as a child inspired this off-beat tale of one being misunderstood—a feeling I think most people, especially children, can relate to. I tried to create a character I felt everybody knew, so when I'm approached and told 'Mr. Mumble is exactly like my grandfather,' I feel like I succeeded."
A third picture book followed, Christmas Always …, a story of a girl who gets more visitors than she expects on Christmas Eve. "When my parents would have parties on Christmas Eve," Catalanotto recalled, "I was always sent to bed long before the party ended. This story is simply what I wished happened to me, instead of being in that bedroom all by myself."
Book illustration quickly became Catalanotto's creative focus. "I think writing and illustrating picture books suits my personality much more than simply illustrating book jackets and magazine articles," he once told SATA. "I can be quiet and subtle with my work while trying to catch someone's eye. A book jacket yells at you to take it off the shelf. An entire picture book slowly unfolds before you, almost inviting you to stay."
Meanwhile, Catalanotto was also doing illustration work for other authors. The illustrations for Cecil's Story began a long cooperative effort between Catalanotto and author George Ella Lyon. Lyon's powerful, yet simple poem about a boy whose father goes off to fight in the U.S. Civil War speaks of the boy's hopes and fears, leaving the imagery up to Catalanotto to create. "The images her words evoked in my mind were endless," Catalanotto recalled to SATA, "and I spent many nights editing and altering to create what I felt were the right ones."
Further collaborative efforts with Lyon followed. Who Came down the Road? tells of a curious boy and his mother who discover a pathway through the woods. Though the mother and son are contemporary, the people who have used the road before—whom the mother speculates about as they walk along—come from epochs as distant as the Civil War and the age of the mastodon. To illustrate Dreamplace Catalanotto traveled to Colorado to see Mesa Verde and the Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings. As he explained in SAAS, "The spirit of the Anasazi people … haunted me as I painted their stories. I walked in the same place as my characters." A Publishers Weekly acknowledged the artist's efforts, writing that the book provides "an atmospheric, shimmering glance" back in time highlighted by "Catalanotto's extraordinary watercolors."
Lyon and Catalanotto also worked together on Mother to Tigers, which tells the story of Helen Martini, who, with her husband Fred, started the first nursery at the Bronx Zoo in 1944. Fred Martini was a zookeeper who began bringing home baby animals for extra care, which Helen gave them. Because some young animals could not be brought to the couple's apartment, Helen suggested opening a nursery right at the zoo. Though she had no professional training, she had a lot of love to give to the baby animals, and through her care many newborns were given a chance to survive into adulthood. "Catalanotto adds a bold graphic dimension to the story," noted Margaret Bush in her review for School Library Journal. A contributor to Publishers Weekly commented that Catalanotto's "watercolor paintings are drenched in sunlight while charcoals and chalks on brown paper reinforce the 1940s context," and in Kirkus a reviewer pointed out that the paintings are "especially breathtaking in the closeups of lion and tiger faces."
Catalanotto has gone on to illustrate the works of several other authors. As he explained at VisitingAuthors.com, "When I illustrate another writer's text, I want to extend the words by adding new ideas into the art.… I enjoy illustrating stories that are ethereal, airy, and emotional, not locked into a specific time and place." Reviewing his work for SuAnn Kiser's The Catspring Somersault Flying One-handed Flip-Flop, a contributor to Publishers Weekly found the artist's "sun-drenched watercolors … as lush and complex as ever." Writing in Horn Book about the artwork for Susan Patron's Dark Cloud Strong Breeze, Nancy Vasilakis commented that the illustrations possess "an unusual three-dimensional effect" that allows them to "really capture attention."
Portraying children of many different cultures in Megan McDonald's My House Has Stars, Catalanotto created "watercolor paintings in soft, misty colors" that "reflect the awesome quality of the universe as viewed by youngsters throughout the world," according to Sally R. Dow in School Library Journal. Reviewing Susan Marie Swanson's Letter to the Lake, a Publishers Weekly reviewer enjoyed Catalanotto's "exquisite paintings," while Booklist reviewer Shelle Rosenfeld called the same work a "fine and visually astonishing book about the power of dreaming and memories."
A mystical tale from the tundra is presented in Susi Fowler's Circle of Thanks, which describes how the rescuing of an otter sets off ever-increasing acts of benevolence among Arctic animals. Rosenfeld applauded Catalanotto's "beautiful watercolor illustrations" that "dramatically portray the ever-changing landscape of the Far North," while Pam Gosner noted in School Library Journal that the "artist uses unusual points of view to increase the drama … and beautifully captures … the love shared by the boy and his mother."
The Longest Wait, a picture book by Marie Bradby, details the effects of a blizzard on an African-American family living in pre-industrial America. Thomas's father determines to deliver the mail, blizzard or no, and the family waits in anticipation for him to return. When the determined postman becomes down with a fever following his deliveries, Thomas must again wait before he can go outside and enjoy the winter landscape, this time until his father's fever breaks. A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that the artist's "dreamlike drawings" effectively portray the "family's anxiety" and suggest "both past and future events."
The Dream Shop, by Katharine Kennah, is set in a magical store filled with children shopping for their dreams. Unfortunately, the store also holds nightmares, and the two main characters accidently allow one to escape into the store. Though noting that the chaos caused by the nightmare might scare some readers, a Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that "Kenah and Catalanotto give readers a window-shopping tour that's worth the trip." Featuring a more realistic setting, Liz Rosenberg's We Wanted You follows a young child from his adoption until he leaves home to attend college. The story is narrated by his parents, who assure the boy throughout that he was the child they chose, and that he will always have their love. Although a Kirkus Reviews critic noted that the book does not always use "positive adoption language," Judith Constantinides complimented Catalanotto's "glowing illustrations" in her review for School Library Journal, and a reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that the book's "radiant paintings … form a kind of treasured photo album."
For author Mary Pope Osborne, Catalanotto created a home-town America setting that captivated readers of Happy Birthday, America. In Osborne's story a young boy and his family all gather to celebrate the Fourth of July, going together to parades, a dance performance, a carnival, and finally, the fireworks. Julie Cummins, in her Booklist review, commented that Catalanotto's choice of color "lends a candlelike glow to scenes," while a critic for Kirkus Reviews maintained that "Catalanotto's watercolor illustrations invoke summer."
Catalanotto's self-illustrated titles have also continued to win critical acclaim. The Painter tells the story of a little girl whose father is a busy painter. She is forbidden to enter his studio, and outside of the studio he is usually too busy to give her his full attention. Finally, however, the pair works out a solution, and the girl is rewarded for her patience after dinner with entrance to the studio where she paints her own family portrait.
The Painter was in part inspired by Catalanotto's own child, Chelsea, for whom, as a toddler, his studio was off limits because of all the potentially harmful tools that were used and stored there. A Publishers Weekly critic remarked that the picture book "subtly attests to the joy inherent in the creation of both life and art." A Kirkus Reviews contributor praised Catalanotto for creating "sparkling watercolors" in which his "loose fluid style focuses on important details" and results in a book that "is simply and beautifully done." Cassie Whetstone concluded in Five Owls that the author/illustrator "draws a circle with a line of love that connects the mother, father, daughter, and dog and unites them into a unit that we know as a family."
Another busy, distracted dad is at the heart of Dad and Me. Tommy is looking forward to sharing the good news of Gemini IV—the first U.S. space walk—with his father. Rushing home from school, the boy dons a colander as space helmet. Returning from the office, dad is far from amused when he sees his son. Reprimanded for wearing the colander at dinner, Tommy is sent to his room. Finally, Tommy makes his father reconnect with a child's world by giving him a newspaper photo of the astronaut with a photograph of his own face inserted in it. A Kirkus Reviews critic commented that "Catalanotto's watercolors deftly capture both Tommy's disappointment and his longing for adventure," while a Publishers Weekly contributor called Catalanotto's watercolors "breathtaking."
Creativity is the focus of Emily's Art. On SimonSays.com, Catalanotto explained that the concept for the book developed through conversations he had with students at school presentations. "To most, [being a good artist] means 'drawing things the way they really look.' I believe, and teach that there are many ways to draw, and everyone draws differently," he explained. In his book, Emily draws things the way she sees them. For example, to represent her mother's business in one picture, she draws her mother in several places while the rest of the family are only in one place. When she draws her dog, she draws him with large ears, because he's a good listener. She submits the picture of her dog to a school competition. When the judge sees it and thinks Emily has painted a rabbit, the judge praises her, but when Emily explains it is her dog, the judge no longer likes her painting and gives someone else first place. "Catalanotto subtly conveys the value of creating art for art's sake in this tender picture book," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Marta Segal, writing in Booklist, called Catalanotto's illustrations "stunning," while Wendy Lukehart concluded in School Library Journal that the "creative and heartfelt book is a masterpiece."
With Matthew A. B. C. Catalanotto began a series of concept books. In addition, as he commented in the Simon and Schuster Web site, the book "marks a return to my cartooning roots." The alphabet book centers on an entire classroom full of students named Matthew. Luckily, each Matthew's last name begins with a different letter, and his letter corresponds to a specific trait he has: for example, Matthew A. is affectionate, while Matthew N. is nearly naked, wearing only "briefs and a superhero cape" explained Christine M. Hepperman in Horn Book. In School Library Journal, Jody McCoy wrote that the book would appeal to "Catalanotto's fans and those with a soft spot in their hearts for the quirky." A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that "the artist's often wacky depictions … offer kids plenty of laughs."
Catalanotto uses a similar concept to explore numerals in Daisy 1, 2, 3. Set in a dog training school, the book features twenty dalmatians, all named Daisy, each of which has a particular talent or trait that corresponds to a number. For example, Daisy 2 wears two name tags, Daisy 3 plays three different musical instruments, and Daisy 20 has fooled twenty fleas. Carolyn Phelan noted in Booklist that the book has "plenty of visual humor," and Blair Christolon wrote in School Library Journal that Catalanotto's "canines exude winning personalities."
An additional concept book, Kitten Red, Yellow, Blue, uses a similar strategy to teach youngsters about color. In the book each animal in a group of kittens goes to live with someone who has a color matching the color of that kitten's fur. For example, the red kitten goes to live with a firefighter, the orange kitten lives with a basketball player, and the brown kitten's owner delivers parcels. According to a critic for Kirkus Reviews, "the artist renders each lively, humorous scene in neutral tones," but closes the book in a "chromatic bash" as all the kittens are reunited.
"I feel very lucky that my job is something I love to do," Catalanotto concluded in SAAS. "My work is a constant challenge, and I grow as a writer and artist with every book. The most important thing I want children to know when I visit their school is this: if you love to write and draw, you can do it for life!"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Silvey, Anita, editor Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995, p. 125
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 25, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998, pp. 37-52.
Booklist, September 1, 1988, p. 83; October 1, 1989, p. 346; November 1, 1996, p. 508; April 15, 1998, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Letter to the Lake, p. 1454; September 15, 1998, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Circle of Thanks, p. 236; December 1, 1998, pp. 669-670; July, 2001, Marta Segal, review of Emily's Art, p. 2018; July 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Matthew A. B. C., p. 1854; May 1, 2003, Julie Cummins, review of Happy Birthday, America, p. 1605; November 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of Daisy 1, 2, 3, p. 500.
Five Owls, September-October, 1995, Cassie Whetstone, review of The Painter, p. 10.
Horn Book, May-June, 1994, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Dark Cloud Strong Breeze, p. 318; July-August, 2002, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Matthew A. B. C., p. 441; May-June, 2003, Betty Carter, review of Mother to Tigers, p. 369.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1995, review of The Painter, p. 1186; July 15, 1999, review of Dad and Me, p. 1131; January 15, 2002, review of We Wanted You, p. 108; February 1, 2003, review of Mother to Tigers, p. 236; April 15, 2003, review of Happy Birthday, America, p. 609; October 15, 2003, review of Daisy 1, 23, p. 1269.
New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1990, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, September 29, 1989, p. 65; July 13, 1990, p. 53; January 25, 1993, review of Dreamplace, p. 86; July 26, 1993, review of The Catspring Somersault Flying One-handed Flip-Flop, p. 70; August 21, 1995, review of The Painter, p. 64; August 26, 1996, p. 97; April 20, 1998, review of Letter to the Lake, p. 65; September 21, 1998, review of The Longest Wait, p. 83; October 19, 1998, p. 79; August 19, 1999, review of Dad and Me, p. 351; June 18, 2001, review of My House Has Stars, p. 83; July 2, 2001, review of Emily's Art, p. 75; October 15, 2001, review of Circle of Thanks, p. 74; December 10, 2001, review of The Dream Shop, p. 70; February 25, 2002, review of We Wanted You, p. 66; May 20, 2002, review of Matthew A. B. C., p. 64; December 23, 2002, review of Mother to Tigers, p. 71.
School Library Journal, September, 1990, p. 196; October, 1996, Sally R. Dow, review of My House Has Stars, pp. 102-103; May, 1998, p. 126; December, 1998, p. 81; December, 1998, Pam Gosner, review of Circle of Thanks, p. 82; June, 1999, p. 119; June, 2001, Wendy Lukehart, review of Emily's Art, p. 105; April, 2002, Judith Constantinides, review of We Wanted You, p. 121; June, 2002, Jody McCoy, review of Matthew A. B. C., p. 91; March, 2003, Margaret Bush, review of Mother to Tigers, p. 220; December, 2003, Blair Christolon, review of Daisy 1, 2, 3, p. 111.
SimonSays.com, http://www.simonsays.com/ (April 21, 2005), "Peter Catalanotto."
VisitingAuthors.com, http://www.visitingauthors.com/ (June 10, 2005), "Peter Catalanotto."*
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