Babette Cole (1949-) Biography
Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
Born 1949, in Jersey, Channel Islands, England; Education: Canterbury College of Art, B.A. (with honors), 1974. Hobbies and other interests: Breeding show horses, riding side saddle, sailing.
Author and illustrator of children's books, 1973—. Exhibitions: Work exhibited at Bologna International Children's Book Fair, 1985-89; and Salon International du Livre, Switzerland, 1988.
Nungu and the Hippopotamus selected a Children's Books of the Year, Child Study Association of America, 1980; The Wind in the Willows Pop-Up Book selected a New York Public Library Children's Books, 1983; Kate Greenaway Medal commendation, British Library Association (BLA), 1986, for Princess Smartypants; BLA Annabell Fargeon Award, 1986, for Princess Smartypants, and 1987, for Prince Cinders; Kate Greenaway Medal, 1987, for Prince Cinders; Kurt Mascher Award, British Book Trust, 1996, for Drop Dead.
Basil Brush of the Yard, Purnell, 1977.
Promise Solves the Problem, Kaye & Ward (London, England), 1977.
Nungu and the Hippopotamus, McDonald (London, England), 1978, McGraw Hill, 1979.
Nungu and the Elephant, McGraw Hill, 1980.
Promise and the Monster, Granada, 1981.
Don't Go out Tonight: A Creepy Concertina Pop Up, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1981, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1982.
Nungu and the Crocodile, McDonald (London, England), 1982.
Beware of the Vet, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1982.
The Trouble with Mum, Kaye & Ward (London, England), 1983, published as The Trouble with Mom, Putnam (New York, NY), 1984.
The Hairy Book (also see below), J. Cape (London, England), 1984, Random House (New York, NY), 1985, reprinted, Red Fox (London, England), 2003.
The Trouble with Dad, Heinemann (London, England), 1985, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
The Slimy Book (also see below), J. Cape (London, England), 1985, Random House (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted, Red Fox (London, England), 2003.
Princess Smartypants, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1986, Putnam (New York, NY), 1987.
The Trouble with Gran, Putnam (New York, NY), 1987.
Prince Cinders, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1987, Putnam (New York, NY), 1988.
The Smelly Book (also see below), J. Cape (London, England), 1987, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988, reprinted, Red Fox (London, England), 2003.
The Trouble with Grandad, Putnam (New York, NY), 1988.
King Change-a-lot, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1988, Putnam (New York, NY), 1989.
Three Cheers for Errol!, Heinemann (London, England), 1988, Putnam (New York, NY), 1989.
The Silly Book (also see below), J. Cape (London, England), 1989, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.
Cupid, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1989, Putnam (New York, NY), 1990.
(With Ron Van der Meer) Babette Cole's Beastly Birthday Book, Heinemann (London, England), 1990, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
Hurray for Ethelyn, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1991, published as Hurrah for Ethelyn!, Heinemann (London, England), 1991.
Tarzanna!, Heinemann (London, England), 1991, Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
Supermoo!, Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
The Trouble with Uncle, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
Mommy Laid an Egg!; or, Where Do Babies Come From?, Chronicle Books (New York, NY), 1993, published as Mummy Laid an Egg!; or Where Do Babies Come From?, J. Cape (London, England), 1993.
Winni Allfours, BridgeWater Books (Mahwah, NJ), 1993.
(With Ron Van der Meer) The Bible Beasties, Harper (New York, NY), 1993.
Dr. Dog, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Babette Cole's Cats, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Babette Cole's Dogs, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Babette Cole's Fish, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Babette Cole's Ponies, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1995.
The Bad Good Manners Book, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1995, Dial (New York, NY), 1996.
Drop Dead, J. Cape (London, England), 1996, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
Babette Cole's Brother (pop-up book), Heinemann (London, England), 1997.
Babette Cole's Dad (pop-up book), Heinemann (London, England), 1997.
Babette Cole's Mother (pop-up book), Heinemann (London, England), 1997.
Babette Cole's Sister (pop-up book), Heinemann (London, England), 1997.
Two of Everything, J. Cape (London, England), 1997, published as The Un-Wedding, Knopf (New York, NY), 1998.
Bad Habits!; or, The Taming of Lucretzia Crum, Dial (New York, NY), 1999.
Animals Scare Me Stiff, J. Cape (London, England), 2000.
Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette, Peachtree (Atlanta, GA), 2001.
Hair in Funny Places: A Book about Puberty, Random House (London, England), 1999, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2000.
The Silly Slimy, Smelly, Hairy Book (contains The Silly Book, The Slimy Book, The Smelly Book, and The Hairy Book), J. Cape (London, England), 2001.
Truelove, J. Cape (London, England), 2001, Dial (New York, NY), 2002.
Mummy Never Told Me, 2003.
The Sprog Owner's Manual, Random House (London, England), 2004.
Long Live Princess Smartypants, Penguin (London, England), 2004, published as Princess Smartypants Rules, Putnam (New York, NY), 2005.
Joan Tate, Your Dog, Pelham, 1975.
Annabel Farjeon, The Unicorn Drum, 1976.
Joan Aiken, Mice and Mendelson, J. Cape (London, England), 1978.
Oliver Postgate, A Flying Bird, Kaye & Ward (London, England), 1978.
Oliver Postgate, The Narrow Boat, Kaye & Ward (London, England), 1978.
Jim Slater, Grasshopper and the Unwise Owl, Granada (London, England), 1979, Holt (New York, NY), 1980.
Jim Slater, Grasshopper and the Pickle Factory, Granada (London, England), 1980.
Norman Hunter, Sneeze and Be Slain, and Other Incredible Stories, Bodley Head (London, England), 1980.
Norman Hunter, Count Bakwerdz on the Carpet, and Other Incredible Stories, Bodley Head (London, England), 1981.
Jim Slater, Grasshopper and the Poisoned River, Granada (London, England), 1982.
Willis Hall, The Last Vampire, Bodley Head (London, England), 1982.
Lesley Young, Hocus Pocus, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1983.
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows Pop-Up Book, Holt (New York, NY), 1983.
Willis Hall, The Inflatable Shop, Bodley Head (London, England), 1984.
Willis Hall, The Vampire's Holiday, Bodley Head (London, England), 1992.
Also illustrator of The Eye of Conscience, Follett (River Grove, IL), and The Bird Whistle, Kaye & Ward, 1977.
Princess Smartypants was adapted as an animated film; film rights to Dr. Dog were purchased by Animations Française.
Adjectives such as quirky, goofy, zany and anarchic are often employed when discussing the fiction and illustrations of British children's author/illustrator Babette Cole. In her numerous self-illustrated picture books, Cole manages to turn fairy tales—both contemporary and ancient—on their heads, poke fun at family dynamics, take an irreverent look at normally serious subjects like health, reproduction, and death, and generally entertain young readers with fanciful tales in which text and pictures work together in harmony. While some may quibble with books that bear titles such as Drop Dead, The Slimy Book, and The Bible Beasties, as Cole once commented to Something about the Author (SATA), these "alternative" children's books have earned her some of England's top awards, among them the 1996 Kurt Mascher Award for Drop Dead.
Cole's path to fame as a children's writer and illustrator was long and winding. Born on the Channel Islands of Jersey, she spent much of her youth exploring with her pony. Animals often took the place of absent human friends, and Cole's love of horses in particular has continued throughout her life. She also enjoyed books, such as the stories of Lewis Carroll and the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. As she recalled in SATA, "If I didn't like a book, I'd rewrite it and re-draw the pictures."
Cole attended a convent school, and there she developed her interest in art. While her original ambition was to be a veterinarian, Cole wisely gave that up after realizing her strength did not lie in the sciences. With her love of horses, she then considered becoming a professional show-horse owner, but large quantities of money were required to fulfill such a dream. Thus, she decided upon illustration as a means to support this ambition. At first denied admission to art school, she worked in an advertising agency, an experience that, while unpleasant, gave her the courage to re-apply to art school. This time she was accepted at Canterbury College of Art, and began a program in graphics and printmaking. Unfortunately, art school proved to be as unpleasant as advertising, because her teachers and fellow students did not respond positively to her idiosyncratic style. "As frustrated and unhappy as I was in art school, I got a lot out of the experience as a whole," Cole nonetheless recalled of the experience.
After leaving school, Cole made a living illustrating greeting cards and books. Her relationship with a social anthropologist also provided her with the opportunity to travel, and at one point she spent nine months in Africa. "Water had to be dug up and boiled before drinking," Cole recalled of those days in SATA, "food was in shortage, and animals lay dying of starvation." But the drawings she did during her stay later resulted in a trio of books featuring Nungu, a character based on myths she heard while in Africa. A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Nungu and the Hippopotamus an "enchanting make-believe" story illustrated with Cole's "vivid, realistic views of African landscapes" that "serve as backgrounds for funny impossibilities."
Eventually relocating to Wales, Cole began her popular "The Trouble With" series, which takes a humorous look at various members of the average family. In the first book in the series, The Trouble with Mom, Cole presents an exaggerated case of the school-child's fear that his or her parents might be different from his friend's parents. In this case such fears might be well-founded; the mother is actually a witch who brings her child to school via broomstick. In The Trouble with Dad the father in question decides to seek relief from his boring job by inventing robots. The only trouble is that these robots do not operate as Dad intends. In The Trouble with Gran an extraterrestrial grandmother livens up a trip to the seashore, while The Trouble with Grandad follows grandfather after his enormous vegetables get him into a spot of trouble with the local police.
More distant relatives are not safe from Cole's pen. The Trouble with Uncle focuses on an uncle who is actually a pirate and who eventually marries a mermaid. Reviewing The Trouble with Mom, Rebecca Jennings noted in School Library Journal that Cole's "detailed water-color and pen-and-ink illustrations fill the page with humor and originality." According to a Publishers Weekly critic, in The Trouble with Dad "Cole plays fast and loose with her suitably droll text and comic pictures," while a contributor to Kirkus Reviews dubbed the author's pairing of pictures and text "hilarious." Ann A. Flowers concluded in a Horn Book review of The Trouble with Gran that the book is "Zany," with "very British illustrations … and a mad, cheerful story line."
Among Cole's books are a number of fractured fairy tales and myths featuring characters such as Princess Smartypants, Prince Cinders, King Change-a-Lot, and Cupid. In Princess Smartypants, a princess acts in contravention of the usual roles: she goes about in dungarees and never wants to be married. In Kirkus Reviews a critic called it a "modern fairy tale with a feminist theme," and a reviewer in Publishers Weekly noted that "Cole's characteristic wacky humor sparks this fable." Cole herself has admitted that Princess Smartypants is in actuality Cole's alter-ego, and the character makes a triumphant return in the 2004 book Princess Smartypants Rules.
Prince Cinders is Cole's reworking of the Cinderella fable, with a young, skinny male taking the role of drudge persecuted by three husky older brothers. A contributor to Publishers Weekly dubbed it a "jaunty, contemporary version" of the old tale. Another fairy tale is spoofed in the picture book King Change-a-Lot, in which the regent only needs to rub his potty to bring forth the magic genie that will help put his kingdom to rights. Lori A. Janick noted in School Library Journal that "Cole's illustrations have spontaneous humor."
Health and the workings of the body are common sources of humor for Cole. Her most well-known book, Mommy Laid an Egg!; or, Where Do Babies Come From? focuses on human reproduction, while Hair in Funny Places: A Book about Puberty deals with a related topic. In the first book, a group of uncomfortable parents attempt to educate their children about sex in metaphors, until the kids—better informed—create a series of drawings that they hope will educate their obviously clueless parents. In a Publishers Weekly review of Mommy Laid an Egg!, a critic commented that Cole "unleashes her endearingly loony sense of humor on the
subject of the birds and the bees, and the result is, as expected, hilarious." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews labeled the book a "fresh, matter-of-fact approach."
Hair in Funny Places finds a young girl curious about why children change when they become teenagers. Her questions are answered by her clever teddy bear Ted, who tells the girl the story of Mr. and Mrs. Hormone, who, from a place inside the human body, "mix the potions that turn children into adults." Everything from pimples and menstruation to wet dreams and body odor are covered, in a book that not surprisingly received a mixed reaction. Praising Cole's "outrageously sly sense of humor," a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that "the gleeful depictions of naked bodies may raise adults' eyebrows but children will laugh out loud." While noting the book's humor and praising its lighthearted and "positive" approach, Booklist writer Catherine Andronik noted that younger readers would perhaps "find the monstrous Hormone family more frightening and confusing than amusing." "As in so many of her books, Cole tackles this subject with lightearted humor," Martha Topol wrote in her review of Hair in Funny Places for School Library Journal, adding that the book's "breezy, irreverent style" would make it an effective supplement to discussions of the birds and the bees.
Another book focusing on the humorous side of human health, Dr. Dog features a family dog who explains the risks of smoking and discusses how body lice and worms are transmitted. The humor here is broader than in many of Cole's titles, though a few reviewers found some of the doggie explanations—"Never scratch your bum and suck your thumb"—to be a bit beyond good taste. However, a reviewer for Junior Bookshelf noted that the "illustrations, and the text, are very amusing and, at first, children will probably not realise how much information they have been given." Similarly, the award-winning Drop Dead irreverently explores the cycle of life, as an older couple recall to their grandchildren the mischief they shared through the years. Still full of adventure and good-humor, the pair fully intend to continue living life to the fullest until they "drop dead." While admitting that the book might not "suit all tastes," a contributor to Publishers Weekly applauded Cole's "comical imagery and matter-of-fact voice" in talking about such a sensitive topic.
While Cole's earthy humor comes into play in all of her books, it is perhaps most acute in The Bad Good Manners Book. Here Cole does not bother with the subtleties of please and thank you, but with the bad form of clogging a toilet with too much toilet paper or of calling your mom fat. To balance out her advice, the author/illustrator also deals with more conventional behavior in Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette, which finds a well-mannered Scottish deerhound attempting to teach her pups manners. Never bark with your mouth full, cautions Lady Lupin, appropriately attired in a sparkling tiara, and never fight over bones. While Laurie von Mehren maintained in her School Library Journal review of Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette that children will likely absorb the advice in the book due to Cole's "lighthearted, whimsical illustrations of big, hairy dogs behaving badly," a Publishers Weekly critic felt that the book "effectively satirize[s] good behavior." Reviewing The Bad Good Manners Book in Booklist, Stephanie Zvirin noted that "Goofy is probably not a potent enough adjective" to fully describe Cole's body of work.
As in Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette and Dr. Dog, many of Cole's books feature anthropomorphized animals in off-beat and even amazing situations. In Three Cheers for Errol! she presents a likeable and determined rodent athlete who, although lacking in the brain department, is chosen to represent his school in the International Ratathlon. A Junior Bookshelf reviewer praised the book's illustrations as "lively and full of action," while in the sequel, Hurray for Ethelyn, School Library Journal reviewer Denise Krell described the story of a brainy ratlet as a "light, action-packed adventure with clever dialogue, humorous illustrations, and brains winning out in the end."
In Supermoo! Cole introduces a bovine Superman spinoff in the form of a heifer who works to protect Mother Earth from eco-disasters. A contributor to Junior Bookshelf commented that Cole's "lively illustrations add further details to the brief text which would be suitable for beginner readers and for reading aloud to younger children." Truelove, in contrast, features a protagonist of a more gentle frame of mind. In this 2002 picture book, a loving dog attempts to show his family that he loves them despite the fact that the attention formerly devoted to him is now focused upon a new baby. Finally, feeling totally ignored, Truelove leaves home to join a pack of stray dogs, but is ultimately rescued by his loyal family when he winds up in the slammer—the local dog pound. Noting that Cole characteristically "turns greeting-card sentimentality inside out," a Publishers Weekly reviewer added that "displaced older sibling will relate to Cole's generous, and not at all misnamed, hero." Gillian Engberg agreed in her Booklist review of Truelove, noting that "Cole's trademark subversive humor and her scribbly cartoon drawings will keep kids giggling."
Just as Supermoo! parodied Superman, another super hero is made the target of laughter in Tarzanna! Here a female Tarzan commandeers a male Jane in the form of one Gregory. When Gregory takes Tarzanna to London, she promptly sets free all the animals in the zoo. Cassie Whetstone, writing in School Library Journal, called Cole's story "an imaginative yarn bound to please." And in her book Winni Allfours Cole presents a new twist on the classic story about a young girl who desperately wants a horse. In Cole's rendering, the girl herself turns into a horse after eating loads of vegetables, and as a horse she wins the Grand National race. In Junior Bookshelf a reviewer felt that Winni Allfours is "an ideal book for any child obsessed by horses," while Deborah Stevenson concluded in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Cole's "fantasy [is] taken to a degree that [young readers] may not have dared and will deeply appreciate."
Cole researches her books thoroughly, and travels whenever story or illustrations call for it. "I do most of my illustrations with dyes," she once explained to SATA, "the same things that most people use with airbrushes. I, however, paint with them. It's extremely demanding, because you cannot make a mistake." In addition to dyes, she uses pastels and concentrated water color. Each of Cole's books have taken her as long as three months to write and illustrate.
Through her hard work, Cole was ultimately able to achieve her goal of owning a horse farm; she breeds show hunters and is one of the top side-saddle riders in England. Although book illustration was originally intended only as a means to fund Cole's horse farm, the author/illustrator continues to find the time to add to her long list of picture books. "Sometimes I wish I could spend all my time with my horses," she concluded in SATA. "Just to keep my hand in, I'd do one book a year. But I keep getting ideas and wake up in the middle of the night to jot things down and make drawings. I've got a drawer so thick with files I could do books forever. And I must admit, it's not such a bad feeling."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Cole, Babette, Dr. Dog, Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 4th edition, edited by Laura Standley Berger, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1995, pp. 231-232.
Booklist, June 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Bad Good Manners Book, p. 1725; February 1, 1997, Sue-Ellen Beauregard, review of Prince Cinders, p. 954; June 1, 1998, April Judge, review of The Un-Wedding, p. 1777; July, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Bad Habits! (or, The Taming of Lucretzia Crum), p. 1950; July, 2002, Catherine Andronik, review of Hair in Funny Places, p. 2019; December 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Truelove, p. 647.
Books for Keeps, July, 1997, pp. 6-7.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1987, p. 185; April, 1988, p. 152; May, 1989, p. 219; March, 1990, p. 155; May, 1994, Deborah Stevenson, review of Winni Allfours, p. 283.
Horn Book, August, 1984, p. 455; July, 1987, p. 493; January-February, 1988, Ann A. Flowers, review of The Trouble with Gran, p. 51; July, 1993, p. 490.
Junior Bookshelf, October, 1982, p. 179; April, 1986, p. 59; June, 1988, p. 129; October, 1988, p. 229; August, 1989, review of Three Cheers for Errol!, p. 159; April, 1993, review of Supermoo!, p. 57; June, 1993, p. 91; June, 1994, review of Winni Allfours, p. 93; August, 1994, review of Dr. Dog, pp. 127-128.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1986, review of The Trouble with Dad, p. 468; February 15, 1987, review of Princess Smartypants, p. 296; June 15, 1993, review of Mommy Laid an Egg!, p. 783; March 1, 1997, review of Drop Dead, p. 378; November 15, 2001, review of Truelove, p. 1611.
Publishers Weekly, February 26, 1979, review of Nungu the Hippopotamus, p. 183; May 30, 1986, review of The Trouble with Dad, p. 64; August 28, 1987, review of The Trouble with Gran, p. 78; May 13, 1991, review of Princess Smartypants, p. 77; March 2, 1992, review of Prince Cinders, p. 66; July 27, 1992, review of The Trouble with Uncle, p. 62; June 7, 1993, review of Mommy Laid an Egg!, p. 68; June 10, 1996, p. 99; March 17, 1997, review of Drop Dead, p. 83; April 13, 1998, review of The Un-Wedding, p. 75; May 31, 1999, review of Bad Habits!, p. 92; May 22, 2000, review of Hair in Funny Places, p. 93; December 3, 2001, review of Truelove, p. 59; February 18, 2002, review of Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette, p. 96.
School Librarian, February, 1997, p. 18.
School Library Journal, May, 1984, Rebecca Jennings, review of The Trouble with Mom, p. 63; April, 1989, Lauralyn Persson, review of The Trouble with Grandad, p. 78; August, 1989, Lori A. Janick, review of King Change-a-Lot, p. 118; March, 1992, Denise Krell, review of Hurray for Ethelyn, p. 212; June, 1992, Cassie Whetstone, review of Tarzanna!, p. 90; August, 1994, p. 127; November, 1994, p. 95; August, 1995, p. 166; July, 1996, p. 77; July, 2000, Martha Topol, review of Hair in Funny Places, p. 93; January, 2002, Linda M. Kenton, review of Truelove, p. 96; July, 2002, Laurie von Mehren, review Lady Lupin's Book of Etiquette, p. 86.
Times Educational Supplement, April 8, 1988, p. 21; July 29, 1988, p. 21; November 8, 1991, p. 42; February 2, 1996, p. 12; July 12, 1996, p. 6.
Ackuka Web site, http://www.achuka.co.uk/ (February, 2001), interview with Cole.
Babette Cole Web site, http://www.babette-cole.com/ (October 21, 2004).*
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