March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Caldecott Medalist Peter Spier Dies

Photo by David Osika

The world of children’s literature is mourning award-winning illustrator, Peter Spier. Spier died on April 27, 2017 in Port Jefferson, on Long Island, NY, at the age of 89. Spier was known for his detailed drawings that encouraged a closer look at illustrations, which gave a new perspective to familiar stories, places, and songs in Noah’s Ark (Doubleday, 1977), Circus! (Dragonfly Books, 1995), and The Fox Went Out On A Chilly Night (Dragonfly Books, 1961).

“Spier’s 1978 Caldecott Medal book, Noah’s Ark, was decades ahead of its time,” K.T. Horning told School Library Journal when asked for her thoughts on Spier’s contributions to the landscape of children’s literature. The director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Horning continued, “His use of wordless sequential art is just as fresh today as it was when the book was first published 40 years ago.”

Susannah Richards, associate professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, remembers Spier’s books from her own childhood. “I loved The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night,” says Richards, “I was mesmerized by the images and would curl up with the book, hoping that I would find something that I had not noticed on previous readings.” When she became a teacher in the mid-1980s, she used Spier’s books in her classroom. “People and We, The People became staples of my social studies teaching. They were the perfect way to engage students in thinking about the world around us, past, present, and future.”

Spier’s works had a resurgence in recent years with many of his titles becoming available as ebooks.

Peter Spier was born in the Netherlands on June 6, 1927. One of his most popular titles, The Cow Who Fell into the Canal (Doubleday, 1957) is set in his native country. In 2014, upon the death of the book’s author, Phyllis Krasilovsky, he told School Library Journal how the book almost wasn’t published. He described meeting with Peggy Lesser, then an editor at Doubleday, to discuss his first picture book. On Lesser’s desk was a manuscript entitled Anarina, the Dutch Cow, by Krasilovsky, which Lesser had already rejected.

Being Dutch, the title intrigued him, so Spier persuaded Lesser to let him take a look at the manuscript. He renamed the cow “Hendrika,” gave the book its current title, and set the story in his home town of Broek, Holland. He incorporated many familiar names and places from his childhood. The rest is history. After publication, the book was translated into many languages, and to this day is popular in the Netherlands.

“Peter Spier’s books will forever be part of my visual lineage having taught me how to see picture books as a place to explore the real and imaginary worlds,” says Richards.

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Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.

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