Helen Cooper (1963–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1963, in London, England; Education: Attended Royal Academy of Music. Politics: Labor Party. Religion: Church of England (Anglican). Hobbies and other interests: Playing piano, classical and lounge music; Americana, especially roadside graphics, mini golf, eggs, all things small and beautiful.
Office—c/o Transworld Publishers, 61-63 Oxbridge Rd., London W5 5SA, England. Agent—Hilary Delemere, The Agency, 24 Pottery La., Holland Park, London W11 4LZ, England.
Author and illustrator.
British Society of Authors.
Smarties Young Judges Prize shortlist, Kate Greenaway Award, and TSB Children's Book Award, all for The Bear under the Stairs; Washington Children's Choice Picture Book Award shortlist, for The House Cat; Kate Greenaway Medal, 1997, Gold Award in Best Toy Awards book section, Right Start magazine, and Parents magazine Play and Learn Award, all for The Baby Who Wouldn't Go to Bed; Kate Greenaway Medal, 1998, and Kurt Maschler Award shortlist, both for Pumpkin Soup; Kate Greenaway Medal shortlist, and Norfolk Libraries Children's Book Award shortlist, both for Tatty Ratty.
Sandmare, illustrated by husband, Ted Dewan, Young Corgi (London, England), 2001.
Kit and the Magic Kite, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1987.
(With Moira Miller) Lucy and the Egg Witch, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1989.
Ella and the Rabbit, Crocodile Books (Northampton, MA), 1990.
Chestnut Grey: A Folktale from Russia, Francis Lincoln (London, England), 1993.
The Bear under the Stairs, Dial (New York, NY), 1993.
The House Cat, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1993.
The Tale of Bear; The Tale of Duck; The Tale of Pig; The Tale of Frog (board books), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1994.
Little Monster Did It!, Dial (New York, NY), 1995.
The Baby Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, Doubleday (London, England), 1996, published as The Boy Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, Dial (New York, NY), 1997.
Pumpkin Soup, Doubleday (London, England), 1998, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
Toy Tales, Young Corgi (London, England), 1999, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2000.
Tatty Ratty, Doubleday (London, England), 2001.
A Pipkin of Pepper, Doubleday (London, England), 2004.
Cooper's books have been translated into over twenty languages, including Welsh.
Saviour Pirotta, Solomon's Secret, Methuen/Dial (New York, NY), 1989.
Sally Grindley, editor, Christmas Stories for the Very Young, Kingfisher (London, England), 1990.
Eric Johns, The Three Bears Lend a Hand, Young Corgi (London, England), 1990.
Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1991.
A primarily self-taught artist, Helen Cooper has written and illustrated a number of well-received picture books that have been celebrated as much for their cadenced, flowing text as for Cooper's skilled artwork. Cooper reached the pinnacle of achievement for a British children's book illustrator with The Baby Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, which earned her the prestigious Kate Green-away Medal in 1997. In awarding the medal to the book, which was published in the United States as The Boy Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, Lesley Sim, chair of the Youth Libraries Group judging panel, announced: "Cooper has created the ultimate reassuring bedtime picture book. With warm, subtle colors, and lyrical text, she beautifully captures the surreal, twilight world of a sleepy child. In awarding Helen this prize, we are celebrating the talent, determination and sheer hard work which has made her a major figure in the children's book world."
Cooper is unusual among her fellow author-illustrators in having learned most of what she knows by self-study of other artists' works, though she does cite Angela Lee as an influential art teacher from her school days. As an undergraduate majoring in music, Cooper was already showing a marked preference for self-study, choosing to read independently for her degree before traveling to London to take her final exams. After college, she decided to pursue her interest in children's-book illustration. When she could not locate a college that offered a specialized course in children's illustration, "I went to the library and found everything that I needed," she once recalled. She found children's librarians helpful in "talking me through their newest books and explaining why they thought some worked more successfully than others." Interlibrary loans helped Cooper pursue bibliographical references on more specialized topics. "It was all an excellent fast track to knowledge of the children's book market. And it worked. I had my first book, Kit and the Magic Kite, accepted for publication in 1986."
Cooper claims that neither the text nor the art generally come easily for her, though a job in a factory painting animals on china, undertaken while she was still an undergraduate, helped her gain facility with paint and brush. "It took me longer to learn how to write," Cooper confessed to Geraldine Brennan in an interview in the Times Educational Supplement. "Writing a picture book text feels like writing haiku, having to be so concise. I learned to use rhythm, rhyme, and onomatopoeia partly to draw the child into the text and partly to give me a structure. The hard thing was discovering that any writing I really like was descriptive and it had to go. Now I find color and texture easy, but I still struggle with drawing. I start by drawing very small, to work myself into the idea."
Cooper drew on her love of animals to create Kit and the Magic Kite, the tale of a cat that finds an abandoned kite in a tree and uses it to escape into a series of adventures. First Kit tries his paw as a tough alley cat but fails miserably, because his previous soft life has not prepared him for the rigors of street existence. Nor do Kit's pampered ways give him any idea of what to expect when he becomes a ship's mascot or a witch's companion. Kit enjoys boasting of his adventures, however, when he returns home. Evaluating the book in Growing Point, Margery Fisher praised the author for her "bright, brisk sequence of pictures," proclaiming the work "as attractive as it is entertaining." Writing in the Times Educational Supplement, Jenny Marshal noted the "charming" illustrations.
The year 1993 was a banner one for Cooper: it marked the release of three of her most acclaimed works: Chestnut Grey: A Folktale from Russia, The House Cat, and The Bear under the Stairs. Chestnut Grey is a retelling of a Russian folktale in which the youngest son outperforms his older brothers by taming and befriending a magic horse that enables him to win the hand of a princess. Writing in School Librarian, G.B. Harrison praised the "elegant economy" of the author's story line and the "stylish draftsmanship and composition of the illustrations." Echoing these sentiments, Junior Bookshelf critic Marcus Crouch praised Chestnut Grey as a "richly satisfying" story offering pictures that are "drawn with great assurance and a strong feeling" for the period.
Returning to a subject that inspired her initial picture book success, Cooper offers another dose of feline humor in The House Cat. In this story, Tom Cat belongs to the house, even though the families living there both think of him as their cat. When one family moves and takes Tom Cat along, he escapes and has a series of harrowing adventures before returning to the familiar old homestead. Of course, both old and new tenants continue to think Tom belongs to them. School Library Journal contributor Beth Irish praised Cooper's "rich watercolor illustrations and brief text" for capturing "the loneliness and displacement moving can bring about and the comfort of the familiar."
Casting about for a topic for her next book, Cooper took the advice of a friend who told her to try to recall her own early childhood. "I thought back to the hungry lion who lived under my stairs when I was three," Cooper recalled. "Then I sat down and wrote The Bear under the Stairs." In actuality, the process of composition was a bit more complicated than Cooper's brief summary suggests, as Jane Doonan explained in a Books for Keeps profile. The lion started out as an imaginary pet for young Cooper, but eventually got so big from being fed Smarties and cabbage leaves that Cooper grew scared of him. When she later decided to record her childhood experience in a book, "she did not intend to have the animal represented at all, in case it frightened children," according to Doonan. "But she also knew that as an idea for a picture book it somehow didn't work, so the manuscript went into a drawer. Then in 1990 she illustrated Stephen Gammell's text, 'Wake up, Bear … It's Christmas' in Christmas Stories for the Very Young…. She enjoyed drawing the bear so much she just had to find a story for it. So, she opened the drawer and there it was."
The Bear under the Stairs, Doonan noted, can be read on two levels. On the literal level it is the humorously absurd story of a bear who invites himself to stay in a family's house. From another point of view, however—that of William, the child who is afraid of bears and the dark cupboard under the stairs—it is a potentially scary tale of a boy who, like the bear, has an active imagination. Doonan maintained that William and the bear are like two sides of the same character. "William and the bear seamlessly exchange roles as hero, villain, perpetrator, and victim, depending on where we do our viewing from—inside or outside the cupboard."
Throughout the book, the art serves to emphasize the mood of the story. Doonan pointed out that readers first see William "on a small scale, from behind, climbing a darkened staircase, which curves from right to left. The banisters throw shadows of bars on his body, as if caging him in fear. His form moves away from us literally, and because of the orientation of the staircase, he appears to be turning in on himself." Doonan commended Cooper for her acute insight into the characteristics of young minds and her sense of how much they can handle. "Just how Helen Cooper manages to find equivalencies for fear and the strategies we devise for handling it, without giving her young viewers a terrible dose of the horrors, is a tribute to her skill with picture book form." The light tone of the text, for example, "plays a key role in counter-balancing the seriousness of the theme."
Other critics echoed Doonan's enthusiasm. "With elegant simplicity Helen Cooper has constructed a text admirably suited to the picture-book genre," asserted Mary M. Burns in Horn Book, while a Junior Bookshelf reviewer raved: "Cooper's beautifully and evocatively illustrated book is a gem." A Publishers Weekly com-mentator mantained that Cooper's "suny approach … is bolstered by deft use of light and shadow".
In her next two books, Cooper takes on two fairly common subjects in children's literature—favorite stuffed toys, and sibling rivalry—but manages to give each a fresh new twist. In The Tale of Bear, one of a series of four board books, Bear goes wherever Tim goes. Bear, a stuffed toy, worries that as he gets scruffier, especially after being put in the washing machine by mistake, Tim may not like him as much. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. A Junior Bookshelf reviewer called The Tale of Bear an "enchanting story." In Little Monster Did It! the prospective parents of a new baby buy toddler daughter Amy a stuffed monster to care for, in hopes that the toy will alleviate some of the inevitable jealously Amy will feel watching the new baby receive so much attention. "Little Monster," however, is the one that proves to be not at all pleased by the arrival of the baby, and wreaks comic havoc throughout the household to make his feelings known. "Warm watercolors show Amy and Little Monster as irrepressible partners in crime," noted a Kirkus Reviews critic, who added that the book "stand[s] out from the pack of sibling rivalry books on the strength of the appealing artwork, Amy's conflicting feelings, and a great twist at the end." Elizabeth Bush, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, remarked: "The darkish, densely textured watercolors of the petulant toddler, cheerfully passive baby, and exhausted, befuddled parents have a cozy credibility that makes all this lunacy plausible as well as enjoyable." London Guardian reviewer Sarah Harrington deemed Cooper's "stunning picture book" "a delight to read."
The idea for The Baby Who Wouldn't Go to Bed "came from watching a friend's daughter playing with a toy pedal car," Cooper once recalled. "It struck me that the image of a baby driving along a wide open road would be a lovely symbol of childhood imagination and adventure." The text took the author only two hours to write down once she had the opening lines: "'Bedtime!' said the Mother. 'No!' said the Baby." Yet it took another year for Cooper to complete her artwork for the story. She was inspired by a trip to Las Vegas, with its surreal architecture and unique imagery, which she found eminently suitable for a child's sleep-time fantasy.
The Baby Who Wouldn't Go to Bed was described as "wonderful…. A meaty book, with touches of brilliance," by Stephanie Nettell in Books for Keeps. Cooper's pictures "handily move between the pedestrian reality of the boy's home hallway to the fantastical roadway of his bedtime journey," commented Janice M. Del Negro in a review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Noting the "looming toilet" in the boy's bathroom, a Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that Cooper "exhibits a visual wit that keeps her pictures from lapsing into self-conscious prettiness."
Cooper's Pumpkin Soup met with similar praise, and was awarded a Kate Greenaway medal. In the story, Cat, Squirrel, and Duck are making soup together, and each has a specific job. When Duck wants to switch tasks, the friends get into a terrible argument and Duck leaves angrily. The other two realize, however, that the soup is just not the same without Duck, and worry about where he might have gone; when Duck eventually comes home they greet him excitedly and give him a big welcome. "Cooper's richly colored illustrations … suggest a sense of security," wrote Kay Weisman in Booklist, noting that readers will feel confident that everything will turn out right in the end. A Publishers Weekly critic commented, "children will be able to laugh at this trio … and recognize that true friendship can weather most any storm."
The three friends return in A Pipkin of Pepper, in which they realize that they must go into the city to retrieve the appropriate spices for their famous soup. Duck manages to get separated from his friends, and it is only with the help of a kindly mother hen that he can retrace his steps and be reunited with his companions. Jennifer Mattson, in Booklist, noted the book's "folksy paintings in spice-cabinet colors and a text that sparkles brightest when read aloud," while a Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that A Pipkin of Pepper is "at least as charming" as Pumpkin Soup and deemed the author's "glowing pictures … both gorgeous and delightful." Noting that the message may come across as heavy to some, Julia Eccleshare wrote in the London Guardian that "Duck's terrors in a landscape of skyscraping pepperpots is a visual treat that far outweighs any moralising."
Tatty Ratty returns Cooper to her stuffed-animal themes, but this time, the tale is of young Molly who has lost her favorite stuffed rabbit, Tatty Ratty. In order to comfort Molly, her parents make up stories of the adventures Tatty Ratty is having as he tries to get home to Molly. As he meets characters from fairy tales, battles fierce pirates, and makes friends with a dragon, Tatty Ratty also finds himself being restored and made good as new. When Molly's parents take her to the toy shop to "find" her lost companion, the fact that he looks different does not fool Molly—she knows she and her beloved toy have been reunited. "This is a wise and respectful tribute to children's storytelling power," wrote a Publishers Weekly critic. According to Joy Fleishhacker in School Library Journal, "Cooper presents a common dilemma and then allows her protagonist to confront the problem by using her imagination." A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that "whimsical illustrations depict the dual story of Tatty Ratty's adventures and Molly's life at home," giving young readers both sides of the story. "Cooper creates two wonderful worlds: one where comforting parents take a child's concerns seriously, and a fairy-tale realm" of bunny adventures, noted Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper.
Along with her self-illustrated titles, Cooper has also collaborated with her husband, author/illustrator Ted Dewan, in Sandmare. In the book, Polly wishes that the horse she draws with her father in the sand could run free, like a real horse. The horse wishes it as well, and soon, the magical creature rises from the sand and gallops across the dunes. Sandmare knows there is a chance that her image will get washed up as the tide changes, putting an end to her adventures. Reunited with Polly, the two try to solve the dilemma so that Sandmare can always run free. "Young readers will happily curl up to read each chapter in this creative tale," assured a critic for Kirkus Reviews. Diane Foote, writing in Booklist, noted that "Beach buffs, horse lovers, and fantasy fans will enjoy this light, fantastical story."
On her home page, Cooper commented about the differences she has observed between writing and illustrating children's books. "I write my stories quite quickly, sometimes it takes me a morning and sometimes two weeks. The pictures take a year to draw and paint." When explaining what she likes best about being a children's illustrator, she responded: "That I can explore my own preoccupations within my books and that I can listen to the radio or my favorite music while I work."
"Children's perception of the world fascinates me," Cooper once told SATA. "The blurred hinterland where fantasy and reality meet, where bears live under the stairs, and toys have lives of their own…. Sibling rivalry, fear of the dark, secret fears that niggle in the back of the brain…. Children have these fears a lot, and build them up into huge problems. Books are a way of finding solutions."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, August, 1993, p. 1898; September 1, 1999, Kay Weisman, review of Pumpkin Soup, p. 147; February 15, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Tatty Ratty, p. 1019; May 1, 2003, Diane Foote, review of Sandmare, p. 1591; August, 2005, Jennifer Mattson, review of A Pipkin of Pepper, p. 2033.
Books for Keeps, May, 1993, p. 35; May, 1994, pp. 4-5, 7; July, 1995, p. 7; September, 1996, Stephanie Nettell, review of The Baby Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, p. 32.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1996, Elizabeth Bush, review of Little Monster Did It!, p. 297; September, 1997, Janice M. Del Negro, review of The Boy Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, p. 8; April, 2003, review of Sandmare, p. 309.
Carousel, winter, 1997, p. 18.
Christian Parenting Today, July, 2001, Carla Barnhill, review of The Boy Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, p. 52.
Growing Point, September, 1987, Margery Fisher, review of Kit and the Magic Kite, p. 4866.
Guardian (London, England), April 25, 2000, Sarah Harrington, review of Little Monster Did It!; October 23, 2004, Julia Eccleshare, review of A Pipkin of Pepper.
Horn Book, May-June, 1993, Mary M. Burns, review of The Bear under the Stairs, pp. 313-314.
Junior Bookshelf, April, 1993, Marcus Crouch, review of Chestnut Gray, p. 57; August, 1993, p. 127; February, 1995, p. 8.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1996, review of Little Monster Did It!, p. 743; February 1, 2002, review of Tatty Ratty, p. 178; January 1, 2003, review of Sandmare, p. 141; September 1, 2005, review of A Pipkin of Pepper, p. 970.
Library Media Connection, October, 2003, Kim Sutherland, review of Sandmare, p. 56.
Publishers Weekly, June 14, 1993, review of The Bear under the Stairs, p. 68; May 12, 1997, review of The Boy Who Wouldn't Go to Bed, p. 75; November 1, 1999, review of Pumpkin Soup, p. 83; December 24, 2001, review of Tatty Ratty, p. 63; January 6, 2003, review of Sandmare, p. 60.
Reading Teacher, October, 2003, review of Tatty Ratty, p. 167.
School Librarian, February, 1991, p. 18; May, 1993, G.B. Harrison, review of Chestnut Gray, p. 54; spring, 2002, review of Tatty Ratty and Sandmare, p. 17.
School Library Journal, January, 1995, Beth Irish, review of The House Cat, p. 83; July, 1996, p. 58; September, 1999, Gay Lynn Van Vleck, review of Pumpkin Soup, p. 179; April, 2002, Joy Fleishhacker, review of Tatty Ratty, p. 102; July, 2003, Shara Alpern, review of Sandmare, p. 89; September, 2005, Rosalyn Pierini, review of A Pipkin of Pepper, p. 168.
Times Educational Supplement, June 5, 1987, Jenny Marshal, review of Kit and the Magic Kite, p. 62; January 31, 1997, Geraldine Brennan, interview with Cooper, p. R7.
Helen Cooper Home Page, http://www.wormworks.com/helenpages (March 29, 2006).
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