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Gerald (Edward) McDermott (1941-) Biography

Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights

Born 1941, in Detroit, MI. Education: Pratt Institute of Design, B.F.A., 1964.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Children's Book Division, Harcourt Publishers, Inc., 525 B St., Ste. 1900, San Diego, CA 92101-4495.


Illustrator, author, and filmmaker. Graphic designer for public television station, New York, NY, 1962. Producer and designer of original films, including The Stonecutter, Anansi the Spider, The Magic Tree, Sun Flight, and Arrow to the Sun. Primary education program director, Joseph Campbell Foundation. Exhibitions: Films and artwork exhibited at San Francisco Film Festival, 1966; American Film Festival (France), 1971; Everson Museum (Syracuse, NY), 1975; Children's Museum, Indianapolis, IN, 1979; and Whitney Museum (New York, NY), 1980.


AOSA National Advocacy Council (charter member)

Honors Awards

Blue Ribbon, Educational Film Library Association, 1969; Silver Lion, Venice International Film Festival, 1970; American Film Festival Blue Ribbon, 1970, for Anansi the Spider (film); Caldecott Honor Book, 1973, for Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti; Honor Book citation, Boston Globe/Horn Book, 1973, for The Magic Tree: A Tale from the Congo; Caldecott Medal, 1975, for Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale; Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Book citation, and Caldecott Honor Book, both 1993, both for Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest.



Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1972.

The Magic Tree: A Tale from the Congo, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1973, reprinted, 1994.

Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale, Viking (New York, NY), 1974.

The Stonecutter: A Japanese Folk Tale, Viking (New York, NY), 1975.

The Voyage of Osiris: A Myth of Ancient Egypt, Dutton (New York, NY), 1977.

The Knight of the Lion, Four Winds Press (New York, NY), 1978.

Papagayo the Mischief Maker, Dutton (New York, NY), 1978, reprinted, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1992.

Sun Flight, Four Winds Press (New York, NY), 1980.

Daughter of Earth: A Roman Myth, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1984.

Daniel O'Rourke: An Irish Tale, Viking Kestrel (New York, NY), 1986.

Jabuti the Tortoise: A Trickster Tale from the Amazon, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1990.

Tim O'Toole and the Wee Folk: An Irish Tale, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.

Musicians of the Sun, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1992.

Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1993.

Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1994.

Musicians of the Sun, Blue Sky Press (New York, NY), 1994.

The Light of the World: The Story of the Nativity, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.

The Fox and the Stork, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1999.

Creation, Dutton (New York, NY), 2003.


Marianna Mayer, Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, Four Winds Press (New York, NY), 1981.

Marianna Mayer, Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1985.

Marianna Mayer, Alley Oop!, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1985.

Marianna Mayer, The Brambleberrys Animal Book of Big and Small Shapes, Bell Books (Honesdale, PA), 1987.

Marianna Mayer, The Brambleberrys Animal Alphabet, Bell Books (Honesdale, PA), 1991.

Marianna Mayer, The Brambleberrys Animal Book of Colors, Bell Books (Honesdale, PA), 1991.

Marianna Mayer, The Brambleberrys Animal Book of Counting, Bell Books (Honesdale, PA), 1991.

Marianna Mayer, Marcel the Pastry Chef, Bantam (New York, NY), 1991.


An acclaimed picture book artist, Gerald McDermott is motivated by an elemental interest in myth. Through films and books, McDermott has re-told classic folk tales from many different cultures, introducing new generations to the power of myths and trickster tales. Although he began his career as an award-winning producer and director of animated films in the 1960s, McDermott is best known for his innovative picture books that have earned him prestigious awards such as the Caldecott Medal. Blending modern design techniques, vibrant colors, primitive art traditions, and straightforward narratives, McDermott's books aim to depict archetypal folk symbols that elicit universal understanding.

McDermott believes picture books deserve high artistic standards. "A picture book of artistic integrity will often be the only place where a child can expand his imagination and direct his gaze toward beauty," he remarked in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, as printed in Horn Book. "In form and content, the picture book can become an essential element in the child's evolving aesthetic consciousness, and the artist creating a picture book has an opportunity—and a special responsibility—to nurture the development of his young audience's visual perception."

McDermott was born in Detroit, Michigan, and his parents enrolled him at the age of four in classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts. "Every Saturday, from early childhood through early adolescence, was spent in those halls," he recalled in Horn Book. "I virtually lived in the museum, drawing and painting and coming to know the works of that great collection. I've kept a brush in my hand ever since." McDermott also became interested in films and at the age of nine became an actor on Storyland, a local radio program dramatizing folk tales and legends. "Working with professional actors and learning how music and sound effects are integrated in a dramatic context were indispensable experiences for a future filmmaker," he noted in Horn Book. In school McDermott focused his early studies on art and graphic design at Detroit's Cass Technical High School, which offered a special curriculum in Bauhaus principles of design. While in high school, he also experimented with making his own films and gained work experience creating background art for a television animation studio.

After graduating, McDermott received a Scholastic Publications national scholarship to attend the Pratt Institute in New York City. He also began work as a graphic designer for New York's public television station, Channel 13, and was granted independent credit by Pratt to pursue filmmaking. "I began to experiment with animated films," he stated in Horn Book. "My principal goal was to design films that were highly stylized in color and form. I also hoped to touch upon themes not dealt with in conventional cartoons. Instinctively, I turned to folklore as a source for thematic material." McDermott chose the Japanese folktale "The Stonecutter" and developed a method that became his filmmaking trademark. After designing a storyboard, McDermott drew a thousand frames, each synchronized painstakingly to the notes of a specially composed musical score. The Stonecutter, as McDermott explained in Horn Book, is based on "an ancient fable of a man's foolish longing for power—a tale of wishes and dreams that can be understood on many levels.…The story contains in microcosm the basic theme of self-transformation that was consciously developed in my later work. While my approach to the graphic design of [ The Stonecutter ] … was unconventional, traditional animation techniques were used to set the designs in motion."

In 1965, after completing The Stonecutter, McDermott met Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and later featured in the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series, The Power of Myth. McDermott became profoundly influenced by Campbell's theories of mythology's role in world cultures, and of his view that it functions "to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, 'to waken and give guidance to the energies of life,'" as McDermott explained in Horn Book. With Campbell as his consultant, McDermott began making films that explore the theme of heroic quest in various cultures. From Africa McDermott found material for his next films, Anansi the Spider and The Magic Tree, and from the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest, Arrow to the Sun. Each tale embodies Campbell's depiction of the classic heroic quest, as restated by McDermott in Horn Book: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

In the late 1960s, McDermott moved to southern France and visited the studios of European filmmakers. Before leaving, however, he was offered a multi-volume book contract by American editor George Nicholson to adapt his films into picture books. While in France, McDermott first focused his energies on producing a book version of his film Anansi the Spider. The change of medium posed some initial problems for McDermott, as he explained in Horn Book. "There was no longer a captive audience in a darkened room, its gaze fixed upon hypnotic flickering shadows. Gone were the music and sound effects and the ability to guide the viewer through a flow of images with a carefully planned progression. Now the reader was in control. The reader could begin at the end of the book or linger for ten minutes over a page or perhaps merely glance at half a dozen others. As an artist, I was challenged to resolve these problems."

His success was apparent in 1973, when his book version of Anansi the Spider was runner-up for the Caldecott Medal. Featuring montage-type illustrations in bold colors, along with Ashanti-inspired art and language patterns, Anansi the Spider tells the story of a father spider saved from a series of misadventures by his six more responsible sons. "Within each body of the six sons, an abstract symbol represents the individual's particular skill," noted Linda Kauffman Peterson in Newbery and Caldecott Medal and Honor Books. "Amid geometric landscapes of magenta, turquoise, emerald, and red, the black figures, readily visible, rock across the pages on angular legs." McDermott followed Anansi with a book adaptation of The Magic Tree: A Tale from the Congo, and established himself as an innovative, highly stylized illustrator of children's books. "Like the similarly spectacular Anansi the Spider," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor, The Magic Tree "is adapted from an animated film and it's difficult not to hear the pulsing jazz music that seems to be visualized on these dynamic, semi-abstract pages, which are distinctly African in patterns and motifs but just as distinctly cinematic in their vibrant color and kinetic energy."

In 1974, McDermott embarked upon his first simultaneous film and book project, Arrow to the Sun, which went on to receive the Caldecott Medal. The book adapts the popular legend of a Pueblo Indian boy who journeys to the heavens in pursuit of his cultural heritage. Using limited text and featuring stylized depictions of important Indian symbols—corn, rainbows, and the sun—Arrow to the Sun was an important step in McDermott's own search of the "hero-quest" in world mythologies. "This theme finds its fullest expressions in my book and in my film of Arrow to the Sun—with a significant difference," he commented in Horn Book. "In previous works, the circle was broken. Through some weakness or failing, or perhaps sheer foolishness, the protagonist fails in his search.…In this Pueblo Indian tale, however, the circle is complete, and the questing hero successfully finishes his journey."

McDermott's other adaptations of folktales from around the world include a book version of The Stonecutter; The Voyage of Osiris, concerning the death and afterlife of an ancient Egyptian god; Sun Flight, which retells the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus; Daughter of the Earth, which retells the Roman myth about the origins of spring; Knight of the Lion, a black-and-white illustrated adaptation of a King Arthur legend; and two tales from Ireland, Daniel O'Rourke and Tim O'Toole and the Wee Folk. The illustrations in the 1992 work Zomo the Rabbit, a trickster tale adapted from African myth, "masterfully integrate a variety of styles the artist has used in the past," Marilyn Iarusso stated in School Library Journal. The critic also lauded the "great good humor" used to create an entertaining story.

Coyote is a favorite trickster character in Native American lore. In Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest McDermott tells of Coyote's wish to be the greatest of his kind. A flock of crows suggest he join them in flight, with perhaps predictable results: the vain beast falls into the dust. Booklist correspondent Hazel Rochman found the work "great for storytelling: kids will love the slapstick action and the bright, comic art about this gawky fool." A Publishers Weekly reviewer likewise deemed the book "a splendid take, perfectly paced for an amusing read-aloud." Jabuti the Tortoise: A Trickster Tale from the Amazon introduces another character who suffers for his vanity. Jabuti plays beautiful music on his flute, and most of the forest creatures enjoy his songs. Vulture is jealous, however, and decides to play a trick on the tortoise. Offering Jabuti a ride on his back, Vulture says he will take Jabuti to heaven to play for God. In mid-air, the Vulture tosses Jabuti, whose shell is shattered on a rock. The birds of the rain forest work together to restore Jabuti's shell, each receiving rewards of bright feathers. Teri Markson, writing in School Library Journal, declared the book "a worthy addition to the artist's impressive series of trickster tales."

More recently McDermott has turned his attention to creation myths. Musicians of the Sun offers an Aztec version of the beginnings of the earth. Sun, in this telling, keeps prisoner the musicians, Red, Yellow, Blue, and Green, leaving the earth smothered in darkness. The colors are freed when Wind and Sun engage in a battle and Wind emerges victorious, showering the people of earth with color and music. A Publishers Weekly critic praised Musicians of the Sun as "an imposing visual interpretation of legend," concluding that McDermott's "sumptuous paintings … command this splendid volume." Hazel Rochman in Booklist likewise concluded that children "will love [the book] for the clash of battle and the triumph of joy."

Creation is McDermott's re-telling of the origin of earth according to the Book of Genesis. Using first-person narration done in poetic meter, he describes how God wrought changes to the heavens and earth, culminating in the creation of humankind. In her review of Creation for School Library Journal, Margaret Bush wrote: "Sumptuous, rhythmic, and mystical, this book is arresting and evocative." A Publishers Weekly correspondent similarly stated: "Masterfully executed, this will kindle and fuel much thought."

Given the themes he pursues, McDermott's works appeal to adult readers as well as young audiences. "My life and work are inseparably bound up together," he explained to David E. White in Language Arts. "If an artist puts himself into his work in the fullest sense—his emotions, his intellect, the symbols from his own psyche—then the work will touch others because it springs directly from the artist's own inner life." McDermott is primary education program director for the Joseph Campbell Foundation.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Children's Literature Review, Volume 9, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.

Peterson, Linda Kauffman, Newbery and Caldecott Medal and Honor Books: An Annotated Bibliography, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1982, p. 358.

St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Stott, Jon C., Gerald McDermott and You, Libraries Unlimited (Westport, CT), 2004.


Booklist, August, 1994, review of Coyote, p. 2041; November 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of Musicians of the Sun, p. 467; September 15, 2001, Carolyn Phelan, review of Jabuti the Tortoise: A Trickster Tale from the Amazon, p. 228; September 1, 2003, Abby Nolan, review of Creation, p. 123.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November, 2003, Deborah Stevenson, review of Creation, p. 91.

Five Owls, spring, 2004, Kara Fondse van Drie, review of Creation, p. 84.

Horn Book, April, 1975, Gerald McDermott, "On the Rainbow Trail," pp. 123-131; August, 1975, "Caldecott Award Acceptance," pp. 349-354; July-August, 1993, Margaret A. Bush, review of Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest, p. 470; September-October, 2003, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Creation, p. 632.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 1972, review of The Magic Tree: A Tale from the Congo, p. 1187.

Language Arts, March, 1982, David E. White, "Profile: Gerald McDermott," pp. 273-279.

Publishers Weekly, September 19, 1994, review of Coyote, p. 70; September 29, 1997, review of Musicians of the Sun, p. 88; August 6, 2001, review of Jabuti the Tortoise, p. 88; August 4, 2003, review of Creation, p. 76.

School Library Journal, November, 1992, Marilyn Iarusso, review of Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Aftrica, pp. 84-85; November, 1994, Marilyn Iarusso, review of Coyote, p. 99; December, 1997, Pam Gosner, review of Musicians of the Sun, p. 111; September, 2001, Teri Markson, review of Jabuti the Tortoise, p. 218; September, 2003, Margaret Bush, review of Creation, p. 234; April, 2004, review of Creation, p. 20.


Gerald McDermott Home Page, http://www.geraldmcdermott.com (July 15, 2005).

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