Janet Stevens (1953-) - Sidelights
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Bringing to life such well-loved storybook characters as Anansi the spider, Epossumondas, and Jackalope, children's book illustrator and writer Janet Stevens has provided the artwork for numerous books written by prominent authors, has illustrated her own retellings of traditional stories, and has collaborated with her sister and fellow author Susan Stevens Crummel, as well. Using artistic mediums such as pastel crayon, pencil, color pencil, and watercolor, Stevens is especially noted for her humorous illustrations that feature likeable animals. Her work as an illustrator has been described by Booklist reviewer Denise M. Wilms as "strong, showing a sense of movement, composition, and drama similar to that found in [noted illustrator Paul] Galdone's most successful works."
Stevens was born in 1953, in Dallas, Texas, but was raised in such places as Virginia, Rhode Island, Florida, and Hawaii because her father was a career naval officer. After finishing high school, she earned a degree in fine arts from the University of Colorado, graduating in 1975. Involved since then in such creative endeavors as advertising, textile design, and illustrations for architects, Stevens has translated her early love of drawing into a career that has filled her life.
Stevens illustrated her first children's book, an anthology called Callooh! Callay! Holiday Poems for Young Readers, in 1978, after being inspired by a workshop she attended. The editor at a New York publishing company, Holiday House, liked Stevens's work so much that she offered her a contract. Animal Fair followed in 1981, a traditional nursery song that Stevens both illustrated and adapted as a read-aloud picture book. Michele Slung commented in the New York Times Book Review that the illustrations in the book display "such an array of inventiveness" that the reader might believe they "somehow have a life of their own."
Numerous other retellings would follow, including such classic children's stories as The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor's New Clothes—where Stevens casts a rotund porker in the starring role—and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Her imaginative retelling of The Bremen Town Musicians, originally written by one of the Brothers Grimm, has been particularly praised as a book worthy of a prominent spot during story time. Using watercolor and pastel on textured handmade paper, Stevens tells of the adventures of the four old animals who set out together for the city of Bremen in hopes of becoming musicians. "That Stevens can pull off chaos without clutter is a real tribute to her powers of composition and design," noted Betsy Hearne in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books.
In How the Manx Cat Lost Its Tail, published in 1990, Stevens is truly in her animal element. Her story presents the explanation for an entire breed of tailless felines by showing Noah slamming the door on his favorite pet just as the cat scurries into the Ark at the last minute—the Manx cat's bad timing costs it one of its nine lives in addition to a tail. Hearne of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books praised the "rollicking details" of the artist's double-page spreads, while Kathy Piehl commented in School Library Journal that Stevens's watercolors "create dramatic tension" by contrasting the coming rainstorm with "the anxious and skittish expressions of the animals."
Similarly, in Coyote Steals the Blanket: An Ute Tale, Stevens introduces readers to the folklore of the Ute Indians with her characteristic action-filled and animal-packed illustrations. "I go where I want, I do what I want, and I take what I want," announces the defiant Coyote, and his daredevil attitude ends up getting him into trouble. "A scruffier, more scraggly Coyote would be hard to find," noted Janice Del Negro in Booklist, praising Coyote Steals the Blanket as useful for "reading aloud, reading alone, and storytelling." A Kirkus Reviews critic found that Stevens's illustrations create "briskly informal, well-honed telling" and found her illustrations create "an outstanding setting for a lively, sagacious, well-sourced tale."
Several fables by Aesop, including The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, Androcles and the Lion, and The Tortoise and the Hare, have also been brought to new life through Stevens's colorful artwork and updated adaptation. Despite the criticism from some reviewers that Aesop's classic stories contained a compactness and simplicity that could not be improved upon in their appeal to children, Stevens's The Tortoise and the Hare would be honored by being showcased on the Public Broadcasting System's popular Reading Rainbow television series. In addition to providing both text and pictures to old tales, Stevens has also illustrated several stories by other authors, from Edward Lear's classic nineteenth-century rhymes The Owl and the Pussycat and The Quangle Wangle's Hat to Eric Kimmel's retellings of the African Anansi the Spider trickster tales and Arnold Adoff's humorous 1985 work The Cabbages Are Chasing the Rabbits.
Another trickster tale is the focus of Stevens's 1995 picture book Tops and Bottoms, which was awarded a Caldecott Honor citation. A clever Hare, noting that the rich but lazy Bear sleeps through the growing season, offers to work Bear's land in exchange for half of the crops—and Bear can even choose which half, tops or bottoms. When Bear chooses tops, Hare outwits his landlord by planting carrots and beets; when the Bear then selects bottoms, Hare raises lettuce and celery. "Stevens retells the story with vigor and humor," Susan Dove Lempke noted in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "but the artwork is the real star." The critic added that the vertical, top-to-bottom positioning of the illustrations creates "an ingenious twist." Horn Book contributor Ellen Fader similarly praised the artist's "bold, well-composed watercolor, pencil, and gesso illustrations," and concluded that "the story contains enough sly humor and reassuring predictability to captivate listeners."
Stevens uses the technique of anthropomorphism—endowing animals with human characteristics—in approaching her work as an illustrator. In 1995's From Pictures to Words: A Book about Making a Book, she even uses animal characters to describe how she comes up with the idea for each new story. In fact, "Stevens barely has time to introduce herself before the text is taken over by a cast of imaginary animals clad in colorful clothing," according to Joy Fleishhacker in School Library Journal. "We need to be in a book," her animal characters demand of the illustrator at the start of her day in the studio. "We want something exciting to do. We need places to go, people to meet. We're like actors without a stage, burgers without buns, aliens without spaceships!" Faced with pitiful entreaties such as these, Stevens launches into a step-by-step guide to the way a children's picture book is constructed—setting, plot, cast of characters, and the development of a problem and solution that comprise the basics of dramatic tension. She portrays the creative task of bookmaking in a way that inspires young writers and concludes by encouraging them to try their hand at the process as well. "I hope I always have the opportunity to create books for children," Stevens once said, "so that my animal characters will have homes."
Stevens has also enjoyed success as an illustrator of books by others, including 1997's To Market, to Market by Anne Miranda. In this story, readers follow the adventures of a dedicated shopper as she travels between her kitchen and the hectic activity of the market in an increasingly harried effort to complete her grocery shopping. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted that Stevens brings "hilarity to scenes that combine acrylics, oil pastels, and colored pencil with photo and fabric collage elements." Horn Book Magazine reviewer Marilyn Bousquin found that Stevens's illustrations help to draw readers into the text, commenting that the pictures "evoke the reckless feeling of being caught—like the increasingly disheveled shopper—in the loop of this rhyme."
Beginning in 1999, Stevens began collaborating with her sister, Susan Stevens Crummel. Their third book, My Big Dog tells the story of a family cat who is accustomed to ruling the roost. When a new puppy comes along, though, the cat thinks they cannot be friends and decides to run away. After a series of adventures, the dog comes to rescue him, and the two go home together. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the story an "irresistable tale," and praised Stevens's effectiveness at showing the cat's inner life through illustrations. In a review for School Library Journal, however, Martha Topol noted that the cat's moping might cause "readers' interest and sympathy . . . to wane."
Several of the Stevens sisters' joint efforts have taken place in the world of nursery rhymes and expanded or retold familiar stories. Cook-a-Doodle-Doo! tells the story of a rooster, the great-grandson of the Little Red Hen, who sets out to make a strawberry shortcake from a recipe in his great-grandmother's cookbook. In an echo of the Little Red Hen story, the first few animals he asks for help refuse, saying, "Not I," but he soon finds enthusiastic, if somewhat inept (and unusual), helpers in Turtle, Iguana, and Pig. The animals learn about teamwork as well as about cooking and following a recipe, and readers can make their own strawberry shortcake with the recipe and cooking tips provided. A critic for Kirkus Reviews felt that "though entertaining, the story is not seamless in its many functions," but praised Stevens' "hilarious illustrations." Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, called Cook-a-Doodle-Doo! a "gloriously illustrated picture book . . . with parody and puns and nonsense slapstick that kids will love."
Another continuation and expansion of a familiar story was found in And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon. One evening, Dish and Spoon run away and do not return, and Cat, Dog, and Cow must go find them and bring them back for the next evening's reading of their rhyme. They make their way through an enchanted landscape filled with literary landmarks, visual puns, and other well-known characters. As Carolyn Phelan wrote in Booklist, "children who know their nursery rhymes . . . will best appreciate" this rich picture book. A reviewer for Horn Book called it "an inventive, amusing farce that blends elements of Gilbert and Sullivan with Monty Python and Mel Brooks." Several reviewers praised the illustrations but pointed out that young children may not understand the puns and double meanings—however, as Rosalyn Pierrini wrote in a School Library Journal review, "those sophisticated enough to get it will love it."
In 2002, Stevens illustrated the first of Coleen Salley's books about the hapless possum Epossumondas, using the author herself as the model for the animal protagonist's human mother. In Epossumondas, readers are introduced to the title character, and to his often misguided attempts to follow the advice of his Mama. School Library Journal's Jane Marino praised Salley's text and took note of Stevens's "delightful watercolor and colored-pencil art." A Kirkus Reviews critic commented that while readers familiar with Salley's work as a storyteller will recognize "her signature tale . . . it is the lively, outsize illustrations that spark the story."
In 2003, another of the Stevens sisters' collaborations resulted in the publication of Jackalope, the story of a jackrabbit who wants to be fierce. His fairy godrabbit gives him horns, but they come with a Pinocchio-type curse, and the entrance of Coyote into the tale adds further conflict. Stevens' unique illustrations for this tale combined watercolors and colored pencils with photographs and collage. Although a critic for Kirkus Reviews called Jackalope "a labored slog through a confused tall-fairy-tale landscape," other critics had more positive reactions. A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked favorably upon "the double ending, the puns, and the artwork," and Cris Riedel, writing for School Library Journal, found that "the nutty plot, sympathetic characters, and handsome illustrations make for a roaring good time."
Stevens told SATA: "I treasure humor a great deal, and enjoy drawing animals in people situations. Facial expressions, clothing, movement, and accessories help make the animals become distinct personalities. Putting the diaper on Epposumondas brought him to life for me, and gave him his individuality; similarly, Jack doesn't need his glasses when he's transformed into Jackalope.
"I've always loved to draw and read—and I love children—so what a great combination for a career in illustrating and writing children's books!
Biographical and Critical Sources
McElmeel, Sharron L., An Author a Month (for Dimes), Volume 3, Teacher Ideas Press (Englewood, CO), 1993.
Stevens, Janet, Coyote Steals the Blanket: An Ute Tale, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1993.
Stevens, Janet, From Pictures to Words: A Book about Making a Book, Holiday House (New York, NY), 1995.
Stevens, Janet, and Susan Stevens Crummel, Cook-a-Doodle-Doo!, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1999.
Booklist, October 1, 1984, Denise M. Wilms, review of The Tortoise and the Hare, p. 251; October 15, 1985, p. 341; May 1, 1987, p. 1371; November 1, 1989, p. 559; April 1, 1993, Janice Del Negro, review of Coyote Steals the Blanket: An Ute Tale, p. 1428; February 15, 1994, p. 1086; March 15, 1995, p. 1329; April 15, 1995, p. 1504; January 1, 1999, Kathleen Squires, review of My Big Dog, p. 891; April 15, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Cook-a-Doodle-Doo!, p. 1530; May 15, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Shoe Town, p. 1705; April 1, 2001, Carolyn Phelan, review of And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, p. 1472.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1981, p. 181; October, 1990, Betsy Hearne, review of How the Manx Cat Lost Its Tail, p. 47; November, 1992, Betsy Hearne, review of The Bremen Town Musicians, p. 73; April, 1995, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Tops and Bottoms, p. 287.
Horn Book, May, 1995, Ellen Fader, review of Tops and Bottoms, p. 337; July-August, 1996, p. 473; November-December, 1997, Marilyn Bousquin, review of To Market, to Market, p. 671; July, 2001, review of And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, p. 444.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1993, review of Coyote Steals the Blanket, p. 537; October 15, 1997, review of To Market, to Market; March 15, 1999, review of Cook-a-Doodle-Doo!, p. 457; August 1, 2002, review of Epossumondas, p. 1142; April 1, 2003, review of Jackalope, p. 541.
New York Times Book Review, April 26, 1981, Michele Slung, review of Animal Fair, p. 66.
Publishers Weekly, September 26, 1986, p. 78; November 2, 1992, p. 70; December 7, 1998, review of My Big Dog, p. 58; January 13, 2003, review of Jackalope, p. 60; February 9, 2004, review of Plaidypus Lost, p. 81.
School Library Journal, May, 1990, Kathy Piehl, review of How the Manx Cat Lost Its Tail, p. 101; May, 1995, p. 103; July, 1995, Joy Fleishhacker, review of From Pictures to Words: A Book about Making a Book, p. 75; January, 1999, Martha Topol, review of My Big Dog, p. 102; May, 1999, Sharon R. Pearce, review of Shoe Town, p. 85; May, 2001, Rosalyn Pierrini, review of And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, p. 136; September, 2002, Jane Marino, review of Epossumondas, p. 217; July, 2003, Cris Riedel, review of Jackalope, p. 108.
Janet Stevens Illustrations, http://www.janetstevens.com/ (January 21, 2004).