In Memory: Nancy Willard

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk

Nancy Willard, Prolific Children’s Book Author, Dies at 80 by Sam Roberts from the New York Times. Peek: “‘Nancy Willard’s imagination — in verse or prose, for children or adults — builds castles stranger than any mad King of Bavaria ever built,’ the poet Donald Hall wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1981. ‘She imagines with a wonderful concreteness. But also, she takes real language and by literal-mindedness turns it into the structure of dream.'”

Her picture book, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, illustrated by Alice Provensen and Martin Provensen (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) became the first poetry book to receive the Newbery Medal and was also named a Caldecott Honor book. She published 40 other children’s books and several works for adults including novels and essays on writing. Her complete bibliography is available at the Poetry Foundation

Several members of the children’s literature community shared their thoughts about Nancy online:

Megan Whalen Turner posted: “She built William Blake an Inn and invited all of us Inside.”
Jan Godown Annino at Bookseedstudio met Nancy at a creative writing seminar. Peek:”When she learned my thesis for Hollins University included serious poems about bears in history, she suggested I look up the work of her poet friend, Galway Kinnel….I feel fortunate to have been touched by Nancy Willard’s magical presence that summer.” 

Katie Fitzgerald at Read-At-Home Mom took a class, “The Writing of Children’s Books” from Nancy at Vassar in 2000. Peek: “This was a class where the weird and magical things that happened to us as kids were not just appreciated, but enjoyed and used as inspiration.”

Professor Ronald A Sharp worked alongside Nancy during part of the time she taught creative writing and children’s literature at Vassar. He remembered her creative spirit in an article for the Kenyon Review. Peek: “Nancy would often construct physical models of objects and characters in her work from a wide range of materials—from chewing gum to plaster of Paris, paper clips to ornamental buttons of a hundred varieties and colors.” Her poem, A Hardware Store As Proof of the Existence of God is available from the Kenyon Review.

Illustrator Richard Jesse Watson gave permission to share his condolence comments: “Nancy Dearest. Thank you for introducing me to your angels. For visiting me in my dreams when storms raged. Thank you for sending me all those letters and cards when I was trying to get those angels to hold still.

You brought the lightest of feathers to this heavy world.

AND, before our very eyes showed us how to make fire out of words, and stories out of pain.

You the rider of burning tigers in the forests of the night,

‘What immortal hand or eye 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?'”