13 minute read

Helen Ketteman (1945–) Biography

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

Born 1945, in Augusta, GA; Education: Young Harris College, A.A., 1965; attended Georgia Southern College, 1965–66; Georgia State University, B.A., 1968.


Agent—Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown Ltd., 10 Astor Pl., New York, NY 10003.



Honors Awards

Best Books of the Year listee, Boston Globe, 1995, for Luck with Potatoes; Pick of the Lists designation, American Booksellers Association, 1998, for I Remember Papa; Georgia Children's Book Award for Picture Storybook nomination, 2002–03, for Armadillo Tattletale. Bubba, the Cowboy Prince has been named to the reading award lists in seven states.


Not Yet, Yvette, illustrated by Irene Trivas, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1992.

Aunt Hilarity's Bustle, illustrated by James Warhola, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.

The Year of No More Corn, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1993.

One Baby Boy: A Counting Book, illustrated by Maggie Flynn-Staton, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.

The Christmas Blizzard, illustrated by James Warhola, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.

Luck with Potatoes, illustrated by Brian Floca, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Grandma's Cat, illustrated by Marsha Lynn Winborn, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1996.

Bubba, the Cowboy Prince: A Fractured Texas Tale, illustrated by James Warhola, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.

Heat Wave, illustrated by Scott Goto, Walker (New York, NY), 1998.

I Remember Papa, illustrated by Greg Shed, Dial (New York, NY), 1998.

Shoeshine Whittaker, illustrated by Scott Goto, Walker (New York, NY), 1999.

Armadillo Tattletale, illustrated by Keith Graves, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2000.

Mama's Way, illustrations by Mary Whyte, Dial (New York, NY), 2001.

Armadilly Chili, illustrated by Will Terry, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2004.

The Great Cake Bake, illustrated by Matt Collins, Walker (New York, NY), 2005.

Also contributor to periodicals, including Spider and Highlights for Children.


Picture-book author Helen Ketteman is known for spinning tall tales and introducing rambunctious protagonists. She weaves stories out of droughts and blizzards, out of bustles and a cowboy prince closely resembling Cinderella. Many of her stories, which include The Christmas Blizzard, Mama's Way, and The Year of No More Corn, reflect a nostalgia for bygone days and are rich with the sights and sounds of rural America. Reviewing Mama's Way, a story about a single, hardworking mother who, despite the lack of money, manages to make her sixth-grade daughter's dream come true, was praised by Booklist reviewer Shelley Townsend Hudson as a "celebration of old-fashioned values," while in Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted that Ketteman "ably outlines both the friction and the underlying love between mother and daughter."

Ketteman's first book, Not Yet, Yvette, tells of a girl who waits impatiently while she and her dad busily prepare a surprise birthday party for her mother. Together this African-American father and daughter vacuum, dust, and bake. Excited by the preparations, young Yvette must repeatedly be cautioned by her father that it is not yet time for the celebration. "In this homey picture book, excitement and anticipation run high for a girl and her father," according to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, the critic adding: "It would be hard to find more likable party givers … who aptly illustrate just how much fun giving can be." Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan predicted that the book "will appeal to any child old enough to enjoy secrets and surprises," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that the "simple story is deftly conveyed in natural-sounding dialogue," and with its accompanying illustrations by Irene Trivas, "nicely reflect[s] this black family's warm pleasure in each other's company."

Fashion foibles are put on display in Aunt Hilarity's Bustle, a "funny story about a heroine with plenty of spark," according to Michelle M. Strazer writing in School Library Journal. Unable to find a high-fashion bustle in the backwater town of Willow Flats, Aunt Hilarity determines to make one herself. Her initial creation, made out of a hay-filled grain sack, has fleas; when she uses paint rags as stuffing for a bustle, these scraps of cloth quickly catch fire when Aunt Hilarity backs too close to a candle flame. A bystander spills a glass of punch onto her bustled backside to extinguish the flames, but unfortunately much of the punch drenches Mrs. Anna Belle Prather, precipitating a food fight of gargantuan proportions. Finally a chicken-wire frame provides support for the dress Hilarity wears to a Christmas party, but when the wire begins to unravel, the woman is forced to don the Christmas tree. Aunt Hilarity's Bustle "is bound to be a winner with the preschool set and with early readers," commented Booklist reviewer Sheilamae O'Hara.

Beanie and his grandfather are at opposite ends of the age cycle in The Year of No More Corn. Neither can help out with the corn planting on the family farm this year: one is too young and the other too old. Instead, Old Grampa tells Beanie of the dreadful year 1928 when local farmers had to plant and replant their corn crop because of weather conditions, and Old Grampa himself finally resorted to planting corn kernels carved out of wood. He grew a forest of corncob-bearing trees from such ingenuity and saved the day. Booklist reviewer Phelan applauded Ketteman's wild tall tale, noting that, "with its well-written text and accessible story and artwork, [The Year of No More Corn] … be a good choice to read aloud, even to somewhat older children studying tall tales." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "Ketteman spins her tall tale in a pleasingly folksy deadpan style, her vivid descriptions bringing the old man's outrageous account to life until the reader, like Beanie, would like nothing better than to believe every word." A Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that The Year of No More Corn is a "lively, likable tall tale."

The Yuletide season is at the center of Ketteman's The Christmas Blizzard, a "tale taller than the Empire State Building," according to a reviewer for School Library Journal. The winter of 1922 saw weather so crazy, according to Maynard Jenkins, that the North Pole became a slush pond and Santa had to pull up stakes and set up shop at narrator Maynard's hometown of Lizzard, Indiana. Although cold, there was no snow in Lizzard, until a visit to a local weather spell-caster made the suitable climactic corrections. "This is a fun-filled story with more hyperbole than a Christmas turkey has stuffing," a critic wrote in the School Library Journal. "Ketteman's rollicking original tall tale has a true Christmasy flavor," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, while Kay Weisman commented in Booklist that the book is an "appealing choice for holiday readalouds or for older children learning to write their own tall tales."

The weather once more goes haywire when a passing heat wave gets snagged on a weather vane at a Kansas farm in Ketteman's Heat Wave. In fact, it gets so hot on the farm that the corn in the fields starts popping and the cattle are almost cooked. Finally it is left to the young girl of the farm—who has repeatedly been told that girls cannot farm—to save the family by planting iceberg lettuce to cool things off. A critic writing in Publishers Weekly called Heat Wave a "rollicking original tall tale that would do Paul Bunyan proud." Lee Bock, in a School Library Journal review, also praised
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Ketteman's "rollicking American tall tale," noting that while "things go from bad to worse," "younger children will enjoy the prescribed exaggeration and silliness, and older children might well be encouraged to create their own."

Farming again provides a venue for a tall tale in Luck with Potatoes, in which giant potatoes pop out of the earth at a farm where there was never any luck before. One huge potato fills the bed of the farmer's pick-up truck, and several cause earthquakes as they grow. In fact, the tubers are so big that the farmer, Clemmon Hardigree, starts cutting them into planks to sell to the local lumber company. "Ketteman has a firm grasp on the humor and stylistic elements of the tall tale," noted Janice Del Negro in a Booklist review. "Her narrative voice is bemused yet down-to-earth, retaining its laconic style even as the situation becomes more and more outlandish." Horn Book contributor Ann A. Flowers called Ketteman's creation a "cheerful story," while Virginia Opocensky, writing in School Library Journal, cautioned young readers: "Don't miss the fun!"

In one of her most popular books, Ketteman revises the famous Cinderella fairy tale; in Bubba, the Cowboy Prince a Texas cowboy serves as something of a Cinderella stand-in. The Prince Charming of the story—or rather Princess Charming—is Miz Lurleen, a rich and feisty young cowgirl who decides it is time to find a husband and throws a ball in order to do so. The fairy godmother's role is taken over by a cow. Poor Bubba is overworked and under-appreciated by his step-dad and no-account stepbrothers, Milton and Dwayne, but manages, Cinderella-like, to attend Lurleen's ball courtesy of his fairy godcow. "Ketteman wisely leaves the [Cinderella] plot unchanged," noted Lauren Peterson in Booklist, "but the story has a distinct western flair and a humorous tall-tale feel." A Kirkus Reviews contributor remarked that this "Cinderella parody features the off-the-wall, whang-dang Texas hyperbole of Ketteman," while a Publishers Weekly critic joined in the linguistic fun: "Rustler lingo and illustrations chock-ablock with Texas kitsch make this ranch-spun Cinder-fella a kneeslappin' tale…. Just the ticket for buckaroos lookin' fer a good read."

An armadillo is at the heart of both Armadillo Tattletale and Armadilly Chili In Armadillo Tattletale, the creature's habit of eavesdropping and then spreading gossip makes Armadillo persona non grata with the other ani-Determined to win Mayor Fargenberg's July 4th bake-off, Donna Rae becomes frustrated after her patriotic-themed confection falls flat in The Great Cake Bake. (Illustration by Matt Collins.)mals, until they finally find a way to cure him of the bad habit of listening in on private conversations. In Armadilly Chili Miss Billy Armadilly decides to mix up some of her special-recipe chili for a passel of friends, but when she passes out a list of ingredients—beetles, a peck of hot peppers, and even a piece of prickly pear cactus—excuses abound. In Booklist Julie Cummins described Armadilly Chili as "a surefire hit for the lap-sit crowd," while a Kirkus Reviews writer noted that Ketteman's "is a tale guaranteed to warm the bones on a cold night."

More mischief is served up in The Great Cake Bake, as well as in Ketteman's counting book One Baby Boy, in which the baby in question performs a series of rather naughty deeds that introduce, in rhyme, the numbers from one to ten. In The Great Cake Bake a young woman with more imagination than cooking skill is nonetheless determined to win the local July 4th cake-baking contest. With the town mayor as her judge, she tries several ill-conceived cakes, and when contest-day arrives, the disaster her cake causes is balanced by the announcement that she will become a judge from now on. Dubbing the story a "lightly amusing tale," Booklist reviewer GraceAnne A. DeCandido called special attention to illustrator Matt Collins's use of "vivid colors" in his "hyperrealistic" art.

In Grandma's Cat, a book written from a child's point of view, a little girl visiting her grandmother tries to make a friend of an aloof cat. The girl has no idea how to go about her task; she makes the cat hiss and spit at her by treating it roughly and pulling its tail. Finally the kindly grandmother intervenes, showing her granddaughter how to befriend the animal. "The story will appeal to the many children whose ideas of befriending animals work better in their dreams than in reality," commented Booklist reviewer Phelan, the critic adding that "the story reads aloud well, making this a good choice for storytime." Christina Linz, writing in School Library Journal, noted that Grandma's Cat "is delightfully told in brief, rhymed sentences that make a charming group or individual read-aloud, yet are simple enough for beginning readers to try on their own." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly felt that "Ketteman delivers a full roller coaster of emotion with an economy of words." The same reviewer went on: "Her rhythmic, rhyming (mostly) couplets speak to every child who has tried desperately to express fondness for a pet."

Another family story forms the core of I Remember Papa, featuring young Audie who has saved his allowance for months in hopes of buying a baseball mitt. He gets his chance one Saturday when he and his dad take the morning train to Cincinnati to see a Reds game. While shopping before gametime, Audie finds the perfect baseball glove, while his dad finds a pair of new work boots, and plans to return to the store and purchase them after the game. When Audie loses his money in the stands, his dad sacrifices his new boots to buy his son the prized mitt. Christine A. Moesch called I Remember Papa a "warm story set in the past" in a School Library Journal review, and also noted that the story "is warm without being treacly." Booklist contributor Weisman felt that "baseball fans will appreciate this rich family story," while a Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that "the theme at the center of the story is the hallowed relationship between father and son in a bygone era, fondly remembered."

The rag-snapping hero of Shoeshine Whittaker discovers the town of Mudville and thinks he has found the perfect place to ply his trade. But freshly shined boots are quick to lose their luster on the soggy streets of this aptly named town, and Shoeshine's satisfaction guarantee soon gets him into trouble. Quick thinking and a creative solution save the day, however. "Ketteman's colorful yarn is all twang and swagger, sheer catnip to read-aloud enthusiasts," declared a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Ketteman once told SATA: "I believe children should be exposed to books early and often. If children learn at an
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early age that books can be fun and entertaining, I think the battle with television and video games can be won. Readers that are created early will be lifelong readers."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, February 15, 1993, Sheilamae O'Hara, review of Aunt Hilarity's Bustle, p. 1067; September 15, 1993, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Year of No More Corn, p. 158; September 15, 1995, Kay Weisman, review of The Christmas Blizzard, p. 170; October 1, 1995, Janice Del Negro, review of Luck with Potatoes, p. 326; April 1, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of Grandma's Cat, p. 1372; December 1, 1997, Lauren Peterson, review of Bubba, the Cowboy Prince, p. 641; February 1, 1998, p. 922; March 15, 1998, Kay Weisman, review of I Remember Papa, p. 1249; December 15, 2000, Kelly Milner Halls, review of Armadillo Tattletale, p. 827; February 15, 2001, Shelley Townsend Hudson, review of Mama's Way, p. 1140; June 1, 2004, Julie Cummins, review of Armadilly Chili, p. 1742; June 1, 2005, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Great Cake Bake, p. 1821.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1992, p. 265; September, 1993, p. 14; December, 1997, p. 131; November, 2000, review of Armadillo Tattletale, p. 108.

Horn Book, January-February, 1996, Ann A. Flowers, review of Luck with Potatoes, pp. 64-65.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1992, review of Not Yet, Yvette, p. 186; August 1, 1993, review of The Year of No More Corn, p. 1003; November 1, 1997, review of Bubba, the Cowboy Prince, p. 1646; December 1, 1997, p. 1776; January 15, 1998, review of I Remember Papa, p. 114; February 15, 2004, review of Armadilly Chili, p. 180.

Magpies, September, 1993, p. 29.

New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1992, p. 34; August 25, 1996, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly, February 24, 1992, review of Not Yet, Yvette, p. 53; March 15, 1992, Carolyn Phelan, review of Not Yet, Yvette, p. 1388; July 26, 1993, review of The Year of No More Corn, p. 70; May 30, 1994, p. 54; September 18, 1995, review of The Christmas Blizzard, p. 100; April 15, 1996, review of Grandma's Cat, p. 67; November 17, 1997, review of Bubba, the Cowboy Prince, p. 61; December 15, 1997, review of Heat Wave, p. 58; November 15, 1999, review of Shoeshine Whittaker, p. 66; January 29, 2001, review of Mama's Way, p. 89.

Reading Today, August, 2001, Lynne T. Burke, review of Mama's Way, p. 30.

School Library Journal, May, 1992, p. 90; February, 1993, Michelle M. Strazer, review of Aunt Hilarity's Bustle, pp. 72-73; October, 1995, review of The Christmas Blizzard, p. 38, and Virginia Opocensky, review of Luck with Potatoes, p. 105; May, 1996, Christina Linz, review of Grandma's Cat, p. 93; March, 1998, Lee Bock, review of Heat Wave, p. 182; June, 1998, Christine A. Moesch, review of I Remember Papa, p. 112; March, 2001, Rosalyn Pierini, review of Mama's Way, p. 214; May, 2004, Mary Elam, review of Armadilly Chili, p. 133; May, 2005, Linda M. Kenton, review of The Great Cake Bake, p. 86.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal