12 minute read

Susan Gaber (1956–) Biography

Personal, Career, Member, Illustrator, Sidelights

Born 1956, in Brooklyn, NY; Education: C.W. Post College/Long Island University, B.F.A., 1978. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, herbology.


Illustrator and graphic artist.


Graphic Artists' Guild.


Alvin Silverstein, The Story of Your Ear, Coward, McCann &Geoghegan (New York, NY), 1981.

Jay H. Heyman, The Gourmet Guide to Water Cookery, Avon (New York, NY), 1983.

Heather Forest, The Baker's Dozen, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1988.

Heather Forest, The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1990.

Jacqueline Briggs Martin, The Finest Horse in Town, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.

Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.

Elizabeth Enright, Zeee, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1993.

Emma Bull, The Princess and the Lord of Night, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1994.

Lee Bennett Hopkins, Small Talk, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1995.

Steve Sanfield, Bit by Bit, Philomel (New York, NY), 1995.

Alma Flor Ada, Jordi's Star, Putnam (New York, NY), 1996.

Liz Rosenberg, Eli and Uncle Dawn, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1997.

Rafe Martin, The Brave Little Parrot, Putnam (New York, NY), 1997.

Heather Forest, Stone Soup, August House, 1998.

Erica Silverman, Raisel's Riddle, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.

Rhonda Growler Greene, The Stable Where Jesus Was Born, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1999.

Jennifer Armstrong, Pierre's Dream, Dial (New York, NY), 1999.

Rafe Martin, The Language of Birds, Putnam (New York, NY), 2000.

Nancy Van Laan, When Winter Comes, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.

Phyllis Root, Ten Sleepy Sheep, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 2004.

Heather Henson, Angel Coming, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2005.

Dianna Hutts Aston, Mama Outside, Mama Inside, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2006.

Illustrations have appeared in Child, Spider, Home, Fifty Plus, and House Beautiful.


Whether working in muted impressionistic tones, in more vibrant colors, or in a folksy, homespun medium, Susan Gaber has built an impressive list of illustration credits, and has garnered much critical acclaim for her work. Worked in watercolors, acrylics, or colored pencils, Gaber's illustrations "captivate the eye," as Barbara Elleman noted in School Library Journal. At times her artistic contributions imbue stories with a folksy feel, while others impart a lushness and vividness of tone, sometimes gaining the feel of elegant fine-art reproductions. Her versatility is particularly well suited to mythic stories and folk tales such as The Baker's Dozen by Heather Forest and Rafe Martin's The Language of Birds, as well as to fanciful stories such as Phyllis Root's Ten Sleepy Sheep.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Gaber grew up in Wantagh, Long Island. Graduating from high school in 1974, she attended Long Island University where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree with honors in 1978. That same year she began her freelancing career, working as an illustrator for card companies as well as newspapers and magazines. By 1988 she had enlarged her repertoire to included illustrations for children's books.

Gaber's first children's title was 1988's The Baker's Dozen, published the same year she married. The artist teamed up with Forest again in 1990 for The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies, and again in 1998 for Stone Soup, another traditional tale about two hungry travelers who declare they can make soup from a stone when they are denied food at a mountain village. But they explain they just need a carrot for taste, and then perhaps a little potato would also help. In this way the duo manage to outwit the villagers and create a pot of steaming soup. "Gaber's bold acrylic paintings emphasize the black soup tureen and the brightly colored vegetable ingredients," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, while Kathleen Whalin commented in School Library Journal that "Gaber's brilliantly colored paintings illuminate a mountain village with a multicultural population."

Gaber teamed up with writer Jacqueline Briggs Martin for The Finest Horse in Town and Good Times on Grandfather Mountain. The first book, a fictionalized memoir of Martin's two great-aunts, introduces readers to sisters who run a dry goods store in nineteenth-century Maine and to their carriage horse, Prince. A contributor to Publishers Weekly felt that "Gaber's exquisite watercolors have the naive beauty of early American folk paintings," and Charlene Strickland noted in School Library Journal that the book's "full-color paintings illustrate the mild humor of the incidents and capture the essence of small-town concerns." Good Times on Grandfather Mountain tells of Old Washburn who always looks on the bright side of things: when the cow runs off he has a drum instead of milk bucket; when the pig follows suit, the former fence posts become drum sticks. Told in the cadences of a folk tale, the book is a "rustic narrative," according to Publishers Weekly, and "Gaber's watercolors imbue this cautionary tale with a folksy flavor that suggest good times indeed." As Horn Book contributor Nancy Vasilakis noted, "The imagery of humans in communal harmony with nature is carried through in illustrations."

Gaber turns from rustic to fanciful with illustrations for Elizabeth Enright's Zeee. The book introduces an ancient, misanthropic fairy whose hatred for humankind changes when he is befriended by young Pandora, a girl who offers Zeee the comfort of her dollhouse. Writing of Gaber's illustrations in School Library Journal, Valerie F. Patterson noted that they are "colorful and attractive," and "feature colored shadings of brown and green with occasional flashes of red." Booklist critic Ellen Mandel commented that "Gaber's lush watercolors delight in their conjuring of Zeee's first tidy home, with its milkweed pod bed, clamshell bathtub, and chrysalis lantern."

Gaber's illustrations for Emma Bull's The Princess and the Lord of Night bring to life the story about a lord who puts a curse on the infant princess so that if she ever wishes for something she cannot have, the kingdom will fall and her parents will die. Reviewing the book in School Library Journal, Lauralyn Persson wrote that Gaber's "romantic watercolor-and-colored pencil illustrations are lush yet delicate, with clear, rich colors and lovely, flowing lines," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer deemed them "elegant illustrations" containing "a Renaissance luminosity and precision."

Thirty-three short poems are collected by Lee Bennett Hopkins in Small Talk, a celebration of simple moments in life for which Gaber contributed the illustrations. The verses deal with the seasons, growing up, the process of a day to night, the birth of a kitten, and dozens of other domestic joys from the pens of poets such as Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale, and Carl Sandburg, among others. Dot Minzer, reviewing the picture book in School Library Journal, felt "Gaber's watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations appear as little gems at the top of many of the poems and as double-page backgrounds for others." Minzer concluded that Gaber and Hopkins's collaboration results in a "stunning little book." In Horn Book Nancy Vasilakis commented that "this small, well-designed book with its lovely watercolor spots and double-page-spread illustrations has copious depths to be mined."

Based on a Yiddish folk song, Steven Sanfield's Bit by Bit tells the story of Zundel, a tailor who wears out his favorite coat and then turns the scraps into further favorite garments which he proceeds to wear out bit by bit. "Imaginative pictures embroider the story line in this suitably homespun adaptation," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Barbara Kiefer, writing in School Library Journal, commented that "Gaber's folk-like paintings, done in strong, clear colors, echo the brightly painted threads that are central to the tale." As Kiefer added, "Gaber shows us what the words don't tell us, that as Zundel's garments become smaller and smaller, his life becomes richer and fuller." Booklist critic Hazel Rochman echoed this sentiment, noting that the "pictures extend the song, showing the tailor with his loving family through the years, as each piece of clothing wears out."

The traditional Cinderella tale gets a revamping in Sil-verman's Raisel's Tale, inspired by another Yiddish tale. Finding work in the kitchen of a famed rabbi, Raisel, the orphan of a scholar, is mistreated by the cook and kept from the Purim party. However, Raisel disguises herself as Queen Esther, attends the party, and there charms the rabbi's son. Booklist contributor GraceAnne A. DeCandido commented that "the illustrations in velvety, muted colors make use of strong geometric shapes and varying perspectives," and concluded: "This universal story fits into its Jewish milieu as neatly as a key in a lock." Susan P. Bloom, reviewing the title in Horn Book, cited the work for conveying "a folkish simplicity with a sophisticated line."

A traditional jataka tale from India is the core of The Brave Little Parrot, one of several collaborations between Gaber and writer Rafe Martin. In this story, a small gray parrot takes on a raging forest fire. "Gaber's paintings are rich with lush greens and flaming oranges," remarked Judith Gloyer in School Library Journal, describing the illustrator's contribution to Martin's work. "Gaber's moving, full-page, color illustrations increase the drama of the fire," commented Booklist reviewer Karen Morgan, adding that the artwork reflect "the precious beauty of water and its relationship to continued life." Gaber has also teamed up with Martin on The Language of Birds, based on a Russian folktale about a young man able to understand the birds of the air. Describing Gaber's art for this book as including "lush, stylized scenes … rendered in a richly saturated palette whose subtle gradations recall old oriental rugs," a Horn Book contributor cited the overall effect as "dramatic and expressive." Praising in particular Gaber's border art, which features "stylized bird tracks, profiles of birds, and feathers," Denise Anton Wright noted in School Library Journal that Gaber's "pictures are often quite powerful." Citing the artist's "stunning" illustrations as "the high point of this Russian fairytale," a Publishers Weekly critic deemed The Language of Birds "a memorable presentation."

Fantasy takes over in Liz Rosenberg's Eli and Uncle Dawn in which young Eli learns that his uncle's magic is for real. Forgetting his stuffed elephant at a picnic, the boy is able to float through the night to retrieve it, thanks to Uncle Dawn. A contributor to Publishers Weekly commented that Gaber "crafts a stimulating backdrop to this imaginative tale" by using "a color-saturated blend of watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil, and setting a lively visual pace that skips from full-page illustrations to small insets." In Pierre's Dream, by Jennifer Armstrong, another night-time, dream-like pursuit results in a rescued animal—this time real—when lazy Pierre recaptures a lion from the circus. Reviewing the 1999 work, a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that "Gaber fills in any gaps in narrative logic with a soft impressionistic touch that gracefully moves between the real and imagined."

In addition to exploring the folk and fantasy tales of other lands, Gaber has also worked on books that bring to life the unique aspects of American culture and history. In her work for The Very First Thanksgiving Day, which features a rhyming text by Rhonda Gowler Greene, she contributes "pleasing acrylic paintings" that move the text from "adequate to engaging," according to School Library Journal contributor Jody McCoy. Moving to the twentieth century, her paintings for Heather Henson's Angel Coming evokes the quiet world of rural Appalachia during the 1920s. In Henson's story, a girl waits excitedly for a new sibling to be born into the world, and Gaber's "attractive, realistic acrylic paintings show the family's preparations" for the baby's coming, according to School Library Journal reviewer Maryann H. Owen. Noting the story's basis in the history of the Frontier Nursing Service, a Kirkus Reviews writer noted that Gaber's sunlit landscapes and rendering of the story's characters "seem lit from within." Another farm family is brought to life in the artist's work for Mama Outside, Mama Inside, a bedtime storybook that finds a pregnant mother awaiting her first baby inside her home while a bluebird feathers her nest and lays her eggs outside. In Booklist, Gaber's art was praised by Jennifer Mattson as "outstanding, rich in color and texture and filled with details to enhance side-by-side sharing." "Warm, expressive paintings make this picture book a joyful experience," wrote Andrea Tarr in School Library Journal, while a Kirkus Reviews writer cited Mama Outside, Mama Inside as "a gentle reminder of nature's parallels."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, June 1 &15, 1993, Ellen Mandel, review of Zeee, pp. 1830-1831; March 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Bit by Bit, p. 1336; December 1, 1996, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Jordi's Star, p. 652; February 15, 1998, Karen Morgan, review of The Brave Little Parrot, pp. 1014, 1016; May 1, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Raisel's Riddle, p. 1590; July, 2001, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Language of Birds, p. 2011; April 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of Ten Sleepy Sheep, p. 1370; July, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Antel Coming, p. 1922.

Horn Book, May-June, 1992, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, pp. 332-333; May-June, 1995, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Small Talk, pp. 338-339; March-April, 1999, Susan P. Bloom, review of Raisel's Riddle, p. 215; July, 2000, review of The Language of Birds, p. 470; May-June, 2005, Lauren Adams, review of Ten Sleepy Sheep, p. 319.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2005, review of Angel Coming, p. 590; March 1, 2006, review of Mama Outside, Mama Inside, p. 226.

Publishers Weekly, February 3, 1992, review of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, p. 80; June 22, 1992, review of The Finest Horse in Town, p. 61; February 28, 1994, review of The Princess and the Lord of Night, p. 87; March 20, 1995, review of Bit by Bit, p. 59; November 4, 1996, review of Jordi's Star, p. 75; February 3, 1997, review of Eli and Uncle Dawn, p. 105; May 25, 1998, review of Stone Soup, p. 89; May 31, 1999, review of Pierre's Dream, p. 92; June 19, 2000, review of The Language of Birds, p. 79; February 9, 2004, review of Ten Sleepy Sheep, p. 79; May 2, 2005, review of Angel Coming, p. 198.

School Library Journal, August, 1992, Kate McClelland, review of Good Times on Grandfather Mountain, p. 144; August, 1992, Charlene Strickland, review of The Finest Horse in Town, p. 144; June, 1993, Valerie F. Patterson, review of Zeee, pp. 74-75; May, 1994, Lauralyn Persson, review of The Princess and the Lord of Night, p. 89; May, 1995, Dot Minzer, review of Small Talk, p. 99; August, 1995, Barbara Kiefer, review of Bit by Bit, p. 128; May, 1998, Judith Gloyer, review of The Brave Little Parrot, p. 135; May, 1998, Kathleen Whalin, review of Stone Soup, pp. 131-132; June, 1999, Barbara Elleman, review of Pierre's Dream, p. 85; July, 2000, Denise Anton Wright, review of The Language of Birds, p. 96; October, 2002, Jody McCoy, review of The Very First Thanksgiving Day, p. 111; July, 2005, Maryann H. Owen, review of Angel Coming, p. 75; March, 2006, Andrea Tarr, review of Mama Outside, Mama Inside, p. 174.

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