Author and illustrator Bonnie Christensen, whose picture books took on subjects as varied as the Silk Road, Pompeii, and gardening, died on January 12 in Williston, VT, due to ovarian cancer. She was 63.
A gifted artist whose works earned her numerous awards and honors from the library and literary community, Christensen was known for her illustrated biographies, which included The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter (2003), Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People (2001, both Knopf), and Django: World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist (Flash Point, 2009).
Christensen’s immense talents and range could be seen in all of her works, which demonstrate a variety of style and media. “Her goal was always to serve her audience by telling the story and creating the artwork in a way that was most reflective of her subject matter,” said Christy Ottaviano, publisher of Christy Ottaviano Books, who edited several of Christensen’s titles.
Christensen’s debut, An Edible Alphabet (Dial, 1994), an alphabet book about foods, made creative use of woodcuts, while the evocative frescoes she employed when illustrating Mary Pope Osborne’s Pompeii: Lost and Found (Knopf, 2006) were ideal for bringing the ancient Roman city to life. With her whimsical Fabulous!: A Portrait of Andy Warhol (Holt, 2011), she relied upon photo collage, which she then transferred to canvas and painted with oils.
Though best known for her art, Christensen was also recognized for her writing. SLJ praised her book Plant a Little Seed (Neal Porter, 2012) for its “poetic and evocative” text and lauded the “lyrical” style of Django.
Author and co-collaborator Leda Schubert recalls the delight and enthusiasm with which Christensen approached her work. The late artist provided the illustrations for Schubert’s The Princess of Borscht (Neal Porter, 2011), the story of a young girl attempting to make borscht for her sick grandmother.
“Bonnie was an extraordinary human being, full of laughter, wit, and playfulness,” recounts Schubert. “To create one realistic illustration, she made borscht and threw it hither and yon, taking photos as she did so. Borscht stains pretty much anything it touches, so I’m sorry I didn’t get to see her kitchen afterwards.”
Christensen was born in Saranac Lake, NY, in 1951. She moved several times in her childhood and had attended nine schools by the time she graduated high school. Though her father encouraged her to devote herself to art, she initially chose a career in the theater, which took her to New York City. Over the next 13 years, she worked backstage at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and the Actor’s Studio, among others. She also wrote several plays that were produced off-off Broadway.
While living and working in New York City, Christensen continued to pursue her interest in art as well, studying wood engraving with engraver John DePol and taking classes at Parsons School of Design and the Center for Book Arts.
After leaving New York for Vermont, she married and had a child. When she wrote, illustrated, printed, and bound a book for her daughter, friends encouraged her to try to get it published. Although she had no luck with this book, in 1994, she succeeded with An Edible Alphabet, which launched an unforgettable career.
Christensen was not only a talented artist but a much beloved teacher. She was a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults program and an adjunct professor at St. Michael’s College in Vermont. She also exhibited her work, both in the United States and internationally, and continued to create picture books up until her death. Her latest book, Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King (Holt, 2015), is due out in April.
Christensen is remembered fondly by her editors.
“Working with her was a special treat,” said Neal Porter, director of Neal Porter Books. “Her intelligence, her offbeat sense of humor, her warmth and her humanity informed everything she touched, whether the subject was Django Reinhardt or the best way to make borscht. I’ll miss working with her enormously.”
Ottaviano added, “Bonnie had a wonderful spirit that captured her artistic sensibility and love of life. I found her truly inspiring and will miss her greatly.”