22 minute read

Kate Duke (1956-)


An award-winning author and illustrator, Kate Duke creates imaginative and engaging picture books for children that introduce concepts ranging from the alphabet and mathematics to spatial relationships and the howto's of creative writing. The characters in Duke's books are humorous and endearing animals of all sorts: pigs, mice, squirrels, a mole or two, and her trademark guinea pigs. "The heroes of Ms. Duke's stories are no ordinary guinea pigs," Rebecca Lazear Okrent noted in the New York Times Book Review. "They are whimsical creatures with serious ideas who always seem to be suppressing a giggle, especially in the face of disaster." Duke has used her bemused and amusing guinea pigs in several picture books that have garnered much critical praise and have drawn many fans at reading hour. Her audience includes both children and adults: "As in the best toddler books . . . there is humor here for both child and parent," Linda Wicher pointed out in a School Library Journal review of Duke's "Guinea Pig Board Books," and the same can be said for other books by Duke, with their vibrant and action-packed illustrations and frequently droll humor. Employing simple text in her own self-illustrated titles, Duke has also supplied vibrant, cartoon-like artwork for popular authors, including Raffi, Miriam Schlein, Barbara Baker, Joanna Cole, and Martha Lewis Lambert.

An early love of books spurred Duke's ambition to become a writer. "I was born in New York City and grew up there, the oldest of four children," Duke once told SATA. "Both my parents were and are great readers, and we children were always amply supplied with books. My experience of the world of literature was satisfying from the start, for my parents seemed to enjoy reading to me as much as I enjoyed being read to." An active child—often roller skating and riding bikes in the park across the street from her apartment building or in the country where she spent summers with her grandmother—Duke's favorite activity was reading. "I read in the summer and in the winter, in the city and in the country, in school and on vacation. I liked books that had adventures in them, and books with talking animals, and books that made me laugh. I still do!"

One of her favorite fictional characters was Doctor Doolittle: "I yearned passionately to be able to talk to animals as he did," Duke once told SATA. Another was Nancy Drew, and a third and most influential was Harriet the Spy, "whose exploits prompted me at age eleven to start following pedestrians around my neighborhood, taking notes on their every 'suspicious' move. I think I owe Harriet my first conscious awareness of the act of writing as important and meaningful work." Accompanying this realization about words was another, equally important discovery. "At about that same time . . . sixth grade . . . I also discovered that I could draw," Duke once recalled for SATA. "In art class one day, the picture of a dog that I was copying from a how-to-draw book came out looking pretty much like a dog. Since my artistic abilities had not previously been particularly notable, I remember being quite surprised by this new development. Pleased, of course, but definitely surprised."

After finishing high school, Duke attended college for a couple of years; then she left school and "floundered around for a long while," as Duke described it, trying to figure out what she really wanted to do. Art classes in New York reminded her of how much she had enjoyed picture books as a child. "I got the idea that I could write stories to go with my pictures and turn them into books for children. I hoped that the children who read them would love them as much as I loved the books I had read as a child." Such aspirations eventually led to her first picture book, The Guinea Pig ABC. Different from other alphabet books, Duke's work is based on adjectives rather than nouns and carefully places the animal character within the shape of each letter so as to focus the eye of the child on it. For example, with the letter "K" for "kind," a solicitous guinea pig is leaning against the downward sloping extension of the letter, while an obviously sick guinea pig lies in bed, propped for support against the perpendicular spine of the letter. A contributor in Kirkus Reviews felt that the book was "wholly pleasing—a homespun, direct alternative to lots of artifice," and Selma G. Lanes, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Duke's first book a "refreshingly different alphabet with heady possibilities." Ann A. Flowers, writing in Horn Book, noted that Duke's idea was "cleverly carried out" with "bright-colored illustrations," and that the "overall feeling is one of gaiety and happiness. . . . Destined perhaps to become a classic." Growing Point's Margery Fisher commended Duke for "opening up an unusual aspect of vocabulary for young children," adding that "this alphabet from America is comic and interesting, not only for the choice of words but also for the lighthearted but still sufficiently natural view of bustling guinea pigs. . . ." The Guinea Pig ABC won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Illustration Honor among many others awards, making it an auspicious debut for Duke. In a Horn Book retrospective conducted at the turn of the millennium, Mary M. Burns and Flowers found that Duke's debut title still worked. Dubbing it "clever and appealing," the reviewers further noted that it was "distinguished by brisk and amusing illustrations."

Duke stuck with her guinea pigs, or "sprightly company of entertainers," as a Publishers Weekly reviewer described them, for her next picture book. Guinea Pigs Far and Near illustrates words of both physical and personal relationship, such as "apart," "far," "near," "beside," and "between." Each picture is a complete story that involves adventure, suspense, and humor. In the initial illustration, a female guinea pig gets on a railroad car with her brother in the car behind her. The two are separated when the coupling breaks, and their ensuing chase illustrates spatial relationships of far and near. Diane S. Rogoff, writing in School Library Journal, described Guinea Pigs Far and Near as "charming, entertaining and full of fun," but added that it could also be "very confusing to young people." Rogoff faulted the lack of a central character in the book, contending that children would have difficulty determining which character the featured word describes. Other commentators focused on Duke's humor and the quality of her illustrations; a critic in Kirkus Reviews called the book "sunny and good-humored, and quirky," while the reviewer in Publishers Weekly lauded Duke's "brightly colored, action-packed pictures."

Duke's third picture book took frogs as an inspiration, telling the rhyming story of school-bound amphibians in Seven Froggies Went to School. Duke adapted an old poem for her text, sending her frogs to a rush-filled pond where "Master Bullfrog, grave and stern / called the classes in their turn. / From his seat upon a log, / he taught the wisdom of the bog." Duke employed shades of green in her illustrations, and "zippy little amphibians in waistcoated dress," according to Denise M. Wilms in Booklist. "The sense of fun is strong," Wilms concluded. A contributor in Childhood Education commented that "action abounds" in this text relating the "amusing antics" of the seven frogs who are learning about survival from Master Bullfrog. A critic in Kirkus Reviews found the illustrations "entertaining," but maintained that Seven Froggies Went to School "hasn't the conceptual eclat, or the masterly characterization, of [Duke's] previous entries."

Duke returned to her frisky and endearing guinea pigs with a set of four story board books, Bedtime, Clean-up Day, At the Playground, and What Bounces? "The irrepressible family of guinea pigs . . . star in the sunniest board books of the season," asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who added: "This is the series for which Duke's pigs were born." The characters here represent a patient mother or a very active child with very simple, caption-like text. Daily activities are dealt with—cleaning up, going to bed, playing—as well as concepts, as in What Bounces? Here the young guinea pig climbs on a stool to explore the insides of the refrigerator, soon discovering that while balls bounce, eggs, milk, and butter most decidedly do not. They break, splash, and squish. A Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor called the four-book set "funny" and "clever," and Booklist's Ellen Mandel noted that the instructive nature of the books was "embellished by [Duke's] critters' perky personalities and by her own sense of humor," adding: "These four titles are especially engaging." Linda Wicher, in a School Library Journal review, concluded that the books were "very nicely done," while in Publishers Weekly Diane Roback picked Duke's board book set for the magazine's 1986 Top Prizes list, noting that "this sunny, delightfully childlike set . . . stands out in a crowded field."

Duke stayed with her anthropomorphic rodents in What Would a Guinea Pig Do?, providing further adventures in domesticity. "What if a guinea pig wanted to clean up his house? . . . What if some guinea pigs wanted to bake a cake? . . . What if a guinea pig wanted to be like somebody else?" These three questions spawn interesting and often humorous results. "The irrepressible cast romps through each situation in merry mayhem," commented Starr LaTronica in a School Library Journal review of the book. "A delightful addition to the series," LaTronica concluded. "Duke's pigs make disasters The principles of subtraction are hilariously depicted in Twenty Is Too Many, Duke's self-illustrated tale of twenty guinea pigs on a seafaring adventure. alook like terrific fun," noted a critic in Publishers Weekly. "The entire book is a joyful offering." And Rebecca Lazear Okrent, in the New York Times Book Review, pointed out the subtle lessons to be learned in each of the situations: Once the guinea pigs clean their house, for instance, they have a party and then have to start cleaning all over again, a lesson in celebrating success. Okrent concluded: "The text is minimal and easy to read. The brightly colored illustrations . . . are cheerful and captivating. As in all the best books, the rules for living are discreet. You have to be looking for them."

A decade passed before Duke returned to her favorite piggies in the 1998 title One Guinea Pig Is Not Enough, "not a counting book, but an adding book," according to a critic for Kirkus Reviews. Here, Duke employs events that are propelled by numbers to introduce the concept of addition: "One lonely guinea pig plus one other lonely guinea pig make two smiling guinea pigs," Duke writes. The numbers increase, and the guinea pigs grow to crowd size, frolicking and having a picnic in a volume "warm and playful from beginning to end," as the Kirkus Reviews contributor noted. A writer for Publishers Weekly felt that Duke "adds another feather to her cap" with this "exuberant and clever introduction to math," and April Judge, writing in Booklist, called it a "painless and fun-filled way to learn how to add."

Subtraction is at the heart of another guinea pig book, the year 2000 title Twenty Is Too Many. Crowded in a tiny boat about to sink are a score of the "irrepressible and mathematically driven guinea pigs," as a contributor for Publishers Weekly wrote. Ten of them abandon ship and others set off on their own unique adventures. One group arrives at a desert island and discovers a buried treasure in between bouts of surfing. With each reduction, the correct formula is presented in the corner of the page to represent the mathematical result. Adele Greenlee, writing in School Library Journal, commended "the lively watercolors [that] offer humorous detail and foreshadow the action," while Booklist's Marta Segal noted that the book "effortlessly and amusingly teaches simple math concepts." And for Patricia Hohensee, reviewing the title in Teaching Children Mathematics, Duke's subtraction book was "absolutely delightful."

Other books by Duke feature different animals: mice in Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One and Aunt Isabel Makes Trouble, an adventurous pig in Roseberry's Great Escape, and a menagerie of rabbits, lizards, mice, squirrels, and owls in If You Walk down This Road. In the first title, a mouse child, Penelope, is staying overnight with her slightly bohemian Aunt Isabel. Duke's storytelling talents come to the fore in a story-within-a-story format in this work, in which the reader experiences not only the relationship between aunt and niece but also the adventures of the tale Aunt Isabel creates with the child's assistance. Isabel's story involves a romance between Lady Penelope and Prince Augustus that is broken up by the mouse king and queen, who believe the girl is too common for their royal son. However, Lady Penelope, in this interior tale, proves herself when she rescues Augustus from kidnappers, and a further feminist note is struck when any possible marriage is postponed until after careers are established.

"The framing story has an appealing warmth and is deftly interwoven with Aunt Isabel's tale so that both narratives move briskly," noted a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who added that the book "should be invaluable to creative-writing programs for young children." Writing in Booklist, Sheilamae O'Hara noted that Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One is "a fine book to enjoy on its own merits, but it will also be useful for teachers instructing primary students in the elements of creative writing." O'Hara also commented on Duke's "droll, neatly executed watercolor illustrations," describing them as "an integral part of the story." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly called Duke a "gifted artist," and favorably noted the "winsome borders, adorned with tiny, appropriate decorative touches." Of this work, Duke once told SATA: "I've been enormously pleased to find that teachers like to use Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One to help their students learn about writing. One reason the book works well in the classroom must be because the way Aunt Isabel and her niece make up the story is honestly the way I made up the story: by asking questions. I wrote the first draft of Aunt Isabel as if I were talking to another person. This other person kept asking (or sometimes telling) me what we should put in the story next, and I wrote down both the questions and the answers. Later, I imagined the two 'voices' as mice, and named them Aunt Isabel and Penelope."

Aunt Isabel is reprised in Aunt Isabel Makes Trouble. Again, young Penelope is visiting her aunt, and after a day of playing in the park, the niece wants a story from her aunt at naptime. Isabel accommodates with another tale about the mouse named Lady Penelope who has no money and is attempting to reach the prince's castle for his birthday. En route, she manages to foil a gang of cockroaches. Constant interruptions at the most exciting moments of the story by Penelope allow the niece to interact and to take the tale in new directions, ultimately telling the story her own way. Amy Quigley, reviewing the tale in Horn Book Guide, praised Duke's "whimsical" illustrations, which were filled with "movement and amusing details." A critic for Kirkus Reviews had further warm words for this title, commenting on the "chatty" and "lighthearted" narrative, as well as the "good-humored twists and turns" of the plot. "Children," the same reviewer concluded, "will anticipate the satisfying outcome and surely applaud the mouse heroine." For Beth Tegart, writing in School Library Journal, Duke's story-within-a-story is both "clever and appealing," while her "charming" illustrations "complement the fast-paced, well-written text." A contributor for Publishers Weekly thought that this title "continues to celebrate the joys of storytelling while providing a splendid showcase for Duke's sunny, winningly detailed watercolors." Booklist's Stephanie Zvirin declared that Duke is "in great form" with this "clever, funny, and inviting" tale.

With If You Walk down This Road, Duke created a picture book of the anthropomorphic forest folk in Shady Green who are curious about and welcome some newcomers. "Soft watercolor illustrations burst with humorous detail and activity totally appropriate to the homes and residents" of each creature featured, noted Virginia Opocensky in School Library Journal. Opocensky adds that Duke's illustrations will "demand multiple readings."

Duke turned her hand to human protagonists with Archaeologists Dig for Clues, a "lively, informative title," according to Booklist's Hazel Rochman. This title, part of a science series, presents a group of youngsters who go on an archaeological dig in a cornfield with the professional, Sophie, in charge. Together, they use painstaking techniques to sift through the materials dug up. No buried graves or treasures are discovered; instead the volunteers unearth rocks and dirt, the importance of which Sophie explains to them. As James E. Ayres pointed out in a Science Books & Films review, the dig is at "a 6,000-year-old prehistoric Archaic-period site," and the on-goings are "fairly and accurately depicted" in Duke's illustrated text. Scientific methods are introduced and explained, from the digging to the processing of artifacts. "Duke's book stresses the seriousness of the subject, while emphasizing the fun," continued Ayres. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews thought that "readers will feel as if they're taking an active part in an archaeological dig in this informative entry," and praised Duke's "inviting approach to a complex process." Rochman also observed that readers will become "totally involved" both in the process and the story, while Jackie Hechtkopf, writing in School Library Journal, found the same book a "delightful cornucopia of information that students will return to again and again."

Duke has also illustrated several books by other authors, and her work on these has won praise similar to that for her own picture books. Her first collaborative effort was with Raffi in the 1989 Tingalayo, a tale of the Caribbean about a rather mischievous donkey. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews applauded Duke's "vigorous black line and colors that evoke the Caribbean setting," while Debby Jeffery, reviewing the same title in School Library Journal, observed that Duke's "colorful and humorous pictures expand the simple song." Working with Joanna Cole on It's Too Noisy!, a retelling of a Yiddish folktale, Duke contributed "numerous watercolor illustrations [that] evoke a world where much more is happening than words can depict," according to Patricia Maclachlan in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Cole and Duke paired together again for the 1990 Don't Tell the Whole World!, another retelling of a comic folktale about a woman who has trouble keeping a secret. A contributor for Publishers Weekly thought that "Duke's pastel palette and affable characters lend snappy support to Cole's amusing text." Booklist's Hazel Rochman also had praise for Duke's "ebullient, cartoon-style pictures," and School Library Journal's Judith Gloyer noted that her "watercolors reflect the gentle humor of the tale."

In Booklist, Denia Hester, reviewing Let's Go Dinosaur Tracking! by Miriam Schlein, concluded that "Duke's bright, playful pen-and-watercolor illustrations are perfect for this not-so-serious science book." One Saturday Morning, Barbara Baker's popular story of the busy Saturday activities of the Bear family, has also been illustrated by Duke. Chris Sherman, reviewing the work in Booklist, asserted that "Duke's bright colors, which grace every page, enhance the warmth and bustle of the story." Gale W. Sherman, writing in School Library Journal, described One Saturday Morning as "a winner," noting that "Duke's watercolor-and-pen illustrations are filled with humor and will delight children."

Duke and Baker teamed up again for the 1999 title One Saturday Afternoon, detailing the after lunch activities of Mama and Papa bear, as well as Lily, Rose, Daisy, and baby Jack. Lori Haas Weaver, writing in School Library Journal, felt that Duke's watercolor and pastel artwork contributed "a lively sense of animation to the story," while Susan Dove Lempke, reviewing the same title in Booklist, also commented on Duke's "tender, mischievous" illustrations. And working with Martha Lewis Lambert on the 2003 I Won't Get Lost, Duke serves up "charming illustrations in pastel colors and with humorous details," according to Kristin de Lacoste in School Library Journal. Featuring Horatio Horn-dragon, a green and pink dragon, the story "may well A large family of bears who discover the joys and frustrations of having many members are fittingly portrayed in Duke's energetic pictures of their weekend activities. (From One Saturday Afternoon, written by Barbara Baker.) help adults prove to youngsters the importance of memorizing their addresses and telephone number," as a contributor to Publishers Weekly explained. This same reviewer further commented that the illustrator adds "some fun details into the proceedings."

Duke, who lives in Connecticut, maintains a busy schedule to allow her to manage so many projects. "I work every day, from early morning to early afternoon," Duke once told SATA. "My studio is in the upstairs of my house, and it's there that I spend most of my time. My typewriter is there, and all my paints and paper, and a comfortable chair for me to sit in while I try to think of new ideas for books." But when time permits, Duke is out in her garden or off lecturing at schools. "Since writing and drawing are both solitary pursuits, I try to make a point of getting out into the real world. A little human contact is important to keeping one's equilibrium. Indeed, one of the great pleasures I have these days is in going out to visit schools and talk to children about what I do. These occasions are a chance to get in touch with my books' intended audience and to recharge my memories of what it was like to be a child. I don't have children of my own, so it's a real treat to be able to interact with them once in a while. I'm always cheered and inspired by their energy and imagination. Plus, they laugh at my jokes!" Duke also noted for PBS Online that her frequent visits to schools helps her in creating books for young readers: "'I find out what makes children laugh, what doesn't make them laugh, what their current interests are.'"

Biographical and Critical Sources


Authors of Books for Young People, third edition, Scarecrow (Metuchen, NJ), 1999.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 51, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Duke, Kate, The Guinea Pig ABC, Dutton (New York, NY), 1983.

Duke, Kate, Seven Froggies Went to School, Dutton (New York, NY), 1985.

Duke, Kate, What Would a Guinea Pig Do?, Dutton (New York, NY), 1988.

Duke, Kate, One Guinea Pig Is Not Enough, Dutton (New York, NY), 1998.


Booklist, March 15, 1985, Denise M. Wilms, review of Seven Froggies Went to School, p. 1058; June 1, 1986, Ellen Mandel, review of "Guinea Pig Board Books," p. 1459; November 1, 1990, Hazel Rochman, review of Don't Tell the Whole World!, p. 525; January 1, 1992, Denia Hester, review of Let's Go Dinosaur Tracking!, p. 832; January 15, 1992, Sheilamae O'Hara, review of Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One, p. 950; January 1, 1995, Chris Sherman, review of One Saturday Morning, p. 827; October 15, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Aunt Isabel Makes Trouble, pp. 432, 434; December 1, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of Archaeologists Dig for Clues, p. 662; February 1, 1998, April Judge, review of One Guinea Pig Is Not Enough, pp. 920-921; May 15, 1999, Susan Dove Lempke, review of One Saturday Afternoon, p. 1704; February 15, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Mr. Big Brother, p. 1124; July, 2000, Marta Segal, review of Twenty Is Too Many, p. 2038.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, July-August, 1986, review of "Guinea Pig Board Books," p. 206.

Catholic Library World, March, 1998, Rosanne Steitz, review of Archaeologists Dig for Clues, p. 67.

Childhood Education, May, 1984, p. 361; January-February, 1986, review of Seven Froggies Went to School, p. 216; fall, 1992, p. 45.

Growing Point, July, 1987, Margery Fisher, review of The Guinea Pig ABC, p. 4838.

Horn Book, February, 1984, Ann A. Flowers, review of The Guinea Pig ABC, pp. 42-43; September, 1986, p. 577; May, 1990, p. 322; September, 1999, Mary M. Burns and Ann A. Flowers, "Whatever Happened to ?," review of The Guinea Pig ABC, p. 574.

Horn Book Guide, spring, 1997, Amy Quigley, review of Aunt Isabel Makes Trouble, p. 25.

Instructor, September, 1997, Judy Freeman, review of Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One, p. 24.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, May, 1997, review of Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One, p. 669.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1983, review of The Guinea Pig ABC, p. 369; November 1, 1984, review of Guinea Pigs Far and Near, p. 88; March 1, 1985, review of Seven Froggies Went to School, p. J4; April 15, 1989, review of Tingalayo, p. 629; December 15, 1991, review of Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One, p. 1589; September 15, 1996, review of Aunt Isabel Makes Trouble, p. 1398; December 15, 1996, review of Archaeologists Dig for Clues, p. 662; December 15, 1997, review of One Guinea Pig Is Not Enough, p. 1833.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 30, 1983, p. 9; December 17, 1989, Patricia Maclachlan, review of It's Too Noisy!, p. 7.

New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1983, Selma G. Lanes, review of The Guinea Pig ABC, p. 38; June 5, 1988, Rebecca Lazear Okrent, review of What Would a Guinea Pig Do?, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1984, review of Guinea Pigs Far and Near, p. 80; May 30, 1986, review of "Guinea Pig Board Books," p. 60; January 9, 1987, Diane Roback, "The Year's Top Prizes—Children's Books," p. 52; January 29, 1988, review of What Would a Guinea Pig Do?, p. 429; October 12, 1990, review of Don't Tell the Whole World!, p. 63; November 29, 1991, review of Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One, p. 591; October 14, 1996, review of Aunt Isabel Makes Trouble, p. 83; June 12, 2000, review of Twenty Is Too Many, p. 71; February 26, 2001, review of One Guinea Pig Is Not Enough, p. 88; July 7, 2003, review of I Won't Get Lost, p. 71.

School Library Journal, December, 1984, Diane S. Rogoff, review of Guinea Pigs Far and Near, pp. 69-70; October, 1986, Linda Wicher, review of "Guinea Pig Board Books," p. 159; June-July, 1988, Starr LaTronica, review of What Would a Guinea Pig Do?, p. 90; August, 1989, Debby Jeffery, review of Tingalayo, pp. 137-138; December, 1989, Karen James, review of It's Too Noisy!, pp. 93-94; December, 1990, Judith Gloyer, review of Don't Tell the Whole World!, p. 74; June, 1993, Virginia Opocensky, review of If You Walk down This Road, p. 72; November, 1994, Gale W. Sherman, review of One Saturday Morning, p. 72; October, 1996, Beth Tegart, review of Aunt Isabel Makes Trouble, pp. 91-92; February, 1997, Jackie Hechtkopf, review of Archaeologists Dig for Clues, p. 89; March, 1998, Jane Marino, review of One Guinea Pig Is Not Enough, p. 88; August, 1999, Lori Haas Weaver, review of One Saturday Afternoon, p. 124; September, 1999, Jane Claes, review of Mr. Big Brother, p. 184; August, 2000, Adele Greenlee, review of Twenty Is Too Many, p. 153; August, 2003, Kristin de Lacoste, review of I Won't Get Lost, p. 136.

Science Books & Films, June, 1997, James E. Ayres, review of Archaeologists Dig for Clues, p. 146.

Teaching Children Mathematics, April, 2001, Patricia Hohensee, review of Twenty Is Too Many, pp. 489-490.

Times Educational Supplement, August 8, 1986, p. 20.


PBS Online, http://www.pbs.org/ (January 10, 2004), "Writing & Spelling: Read Together with Kate Duke."*

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Craig David Biography - Became Teenage MC to Herman Edwards BiographyKate Duke (1956-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Writings