In Memory: Author-Illustrators Lynne Barasch, Laurent de Brunhoff & Mike Thaler

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By Gayleen Rabakukk

Author-illustrator Lynne Barasch

“Picture book author-illustrator Lynne Barasch, who created lively biographies and stories inspired by her family life, died on March 7. She was 84,” reported Publishers Weekly.

In a 2007 Cynsations interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Barasch talked about what drew her to children’s literature. “All my life I have painted and done drawings. I went to art classes as a child and to the Art Students League on Saturdays when I was in high school. I went on to Rhode Island School of Design but left to get married after one year. Years later, I returned to Parsons School of Design and graduated in 1976.”

After years of working on stories, Barash “met the wonderful writer-illustrator and teacher Brooke Goffstein. Through a series of phone conversations that lasted hours each, I somehow learned what and why I was writing. I was, as Brooke said, shot out of a cannon. I wrote four books, complete with illustrations, in a matter of months.”

One of those manuscripts was published as Old Friends (FSG, 1993) and another evolved into Knockin’ On Wood (Lee & Low, 2004).

Barash told Cynthia her 2007 picture book, Hiromi’s Hands (Lee & Low) was inspired by one of her daughter’s classmates, Hiromi Suzuki who became a sushi chef, like her father.

Her most recent title, First Come the Zebra (Lee & Low, 2009) appeared on several state lists and was named to the Bank Street Best Books list for 2010. The story features characters who are Maasai and Kikuyu, two groups with long-standing conflicts, yet the characters work together to save a toddler threatened by warthogs. Kirkus Reviews called the book, “Thought-provoking . . . serves as an accessible exploration of the concept of tribal disputes and more general themes of friendship and conflict resolution.

In all, Barash wrote and illustrated 10 picture books, and provided illustrations for two more, Common Sense And Fowls by Jane Cutler (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2005) and Owney: the Mail-Pouch Pooch by Mona Kerby (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008/ 2019).

Author-illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff

From Publishers Weekly, “French author-illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff, acclaimed for carrying on the legacy of beloved character Babar the elephant, first illustrated by his father Jean, died on March 22 at his home in Key West, Fla., following complications from a stroke. He was 98.”

According to the New York Times, de Brunhoff was five years old when his mother, Cécile, first told him and his younger brother, Mathieu, a story about an orphan baby elephant who leaves the jungle for Paris. Their artist father, Jean de Brunhoff, sketched and fleshed out the elephant’s adventures. The Story of Babar, written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff,  was first published in 1931. Jean published five additional Babar books before his death in 1937.

Cécile turned down requests from publishers for other creators to continue Babar’s adventures, but was delighted when Laurent decided to pursue that avenue. “…Babar’s Cousin: That Rascal Arthur, was published in France in 1946 and then by Random House in the U.S. in 1948 to great success,” Shannon Maughan wrote for Publishers Weekly.

In 1987, Laurent wrote that he didn’t become an author-illustrator “because I had in mind to create children’s books; I wanted Babar to live on (or, as some will say, my father to live on). I wanted to stay in his country, the elephant world, which is both a utopia and a gentle satire on the society of men.”

“In all, de Brunhoff wrote and illustrated more than 45 books starring Babar—which have been translated into more than 18 languages and have sold millions of copies around the world—as well as several other titles including a trio of books in the 1960s featuring Serafina the Giraffe,” Publishers Weekly reported. Media adaptations included animated television specials, video games and licensed products.

Laurent de Brunhoff’s last book was published by Abrams in 2017.

Author-illustrator Mike Thaler

“Prolific author-illustrator Mike Thaler, best known for his many riddle books and his humorous Black Lagoon Adventures series, died on March 23 in Yakima, Wash. He was 87,” from Publishers Weekly.

According to his website, Thaler majored in English and art at the University of California at Los Angeles and the Art Center College of Design. In 1956 – 1957, his cartoons were published in the campus newspaper. After moving to New York City, his cartoons appeared in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and The Saturday Evening Post.

Editor Ursula Nordstrom took notice of his work and contacted him about writing a children’s book. The result was Magic Boy (Harper & Brothers, 1961). Thaler wrote and illustrated three more books for Nordstrom over the next two years, then published an anthology of classic cartoons.

At the suggestion of a friend, Thaler successfully pitched an idea for a word-oriented superhero to a director at PBS’ The Electric Company.

From Thaler’s website, “The first Letterman segment features a flying superhero in a varsity sweater and a football helmet, repeatedly foiled by the Spell Binder, an evil magician who made mischief by changing or removing letters to make new words.”

Those animated segments originally aired about the time I learned to read and I became a devoted fan. Joan Rivers narrated the introduction for each short segment, “Faster than a rolling O, Stronger than silent E, Able to leap capital T in a single bound! It’s a word, it’s a plan …it’s Letterman!”

In each story, a character named “Spell Binder” changed a letter in a word to alter its meaning, and create funny chaos. The animated segments appealed to my visual learning style and helped spark a love for revision that continues to this day.

Around the same time, Thaler started writing riddle books. His first was, How Far Will a Rubber Band Stretch? illustrated by Jerry Joyner (Parents’ Magazine Press, 1974/ Simon & Schuster, 1990). Thaler went on to write more than 40 additional riddle books, illustrating many of them.

In the 1980s, Jean Feiwel, then at Avon Books became Thaler’s editor and paired him with illustrator Jared Lee for A Hippopotamus Ate The Teacher (Avon, 1981/ Scholastic, 2011). Thaler and Lee went on to publish more than 95 books together.

In 1989, The Teacher From the Black Lagoon was published as a picture book for Scholastic with Thaler writing and Lee illustrating. Nineteen picture book sequels followed. In 2002, Thaler and Lee moved into the chapter book category with The Class Trip from the Black Lagoon, and went on to publish 37 more chapter books in that particular series. Their last book was The Magic Show from the Black Lagoon (Scholastic, 2020). In all, Thaler published more than 220 children’s books.

Thaler visited lots of schools, both in person and virtually encouraging his audiences to pursue their dreams.

In a video on his website, Thaler described the Black Lagoon series as being about “fear of the unknown… I think we all go through that. Imagination is a great thing, but sometimes our imagination can work against us.” Taming anxiety may be even more relevant to today’s young readers than when the series debuted 35 years ago.

Cynsational Notes

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults.

She serves as board member for Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and also leads a book club for young readers at the library. She’s active in Austin SCBWI and has taught creative writing workshops for the Austin Public Library Foundation. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.