Peter Spier, Illustrator of Children’s Books, Dies at 89

Spread the love

“Noah’s Ark” brought Mr. Spier the Caldecott Medal, the highest honor for illustrators of picture books.

He said that he created children’s books “for the kids and the child within myself.”

One of his earliest books was inspired by a trip to Vermont with his wife, Kathryn. They were singing the old English folk song that begins, “The fox went out on a chilly night,” when Mr. Spier suddenly told her that the song — about a fox who steals a duck and a goose from a farmer to feed his and his wife’s 10 cubs — would be the ideal source for a children’s book.

“When we reached home a week later, I grabbed a few sketchbooks and drove back to New England,” he recalled. He filled the pages with notes about colors, weather and locations, and later added drawings of the covered bridges, cemeteries and farms of Newfane, Vt. Back home, he fleshed out his vision for the book with three full-size paintings.

“My editors at Doubleday took one look at them and said, ‘Great, go ahead,’” he wrote in 2012, the year “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” (1961) was released as an e-book. For that reissue, he colored the pages that had originally been printed in black and white to save money.

“He went back to his original line drawings,” said Frances Gilbert, editorial director of Doubleday Books for Young Readers. “He took the old drawings, scanned them and used them as the starting point for the colorizations.”


Peter Spier in the mid-1960s with one of his model ships.

Peter Edward Spier was born on June 6, 1927, in Amsterdam and grew up in the small town of Broek in Waterland. His father, Jo, was a newspaper illustrator and cartoonist, and his mother, the former Albertine van Raalte, was a homemaker. His formal education ended in his early teens, about a year after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940.

The elder Mr. Spier was imprisoned by the Nazis for an illustration of Hitler that speculated about what would have happened had he stayed a painter. A Jew, he was subsequently deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, as were his wife, his sons and his daughter, Celine. They were liberated by the Soviet Red Army in May 1945.

Mr. Spier’s younger brother, Thomas, recalled in a telephone interview on Friday that the first children’s stories Peter wrote were about a zebra named Tommy who took pills to travel to the past and the future — an evocation of the freedom the brothers no longer had. “They were in pencil with a little color,” he said. “I’d say it was a precursor to what he did in the future.”

Mr. Spier returned to his homeland after the war and served in the Royal Netherlands Navy for four years before immigrating to the United States in 1951. He worked in advertising before he began to write and illustrate children’s books. At a visit to Doubleday’s office in the 1950s, he spotted a manuscript on his editor’s desk that immediately interested him.

“It was about a cow that lived in Holland, in fact in the exact location where I grew up,” Mr. Spier told Publishers Weekly in 2015. “I asked if I could take the manuscript home and make some drawings for it.”

The finished book, “The Cow Who Fell in the Canal,” by Phyllis Krasilovsky, about a bored cow named Hendrika, was published in 1957.

This was not the only time Mr. Spier evoked the Netherlands in his work. “Of Dikes and Windmills” (1969) was a full-length book with diagrams, maps, street scenes and landscapes. In a review in The New York Times, Ormonde de Kay Jr. wrote that Mr. Spier’s epic themes — “puny man against mighty nature, little Holland against large and expanding Spain and England” — were rendered with a “light, informal style as he recounts, with humor and affection, the astonishing deeds (and, on occasion, misdeeds) of his redoubtable countrymen.”

In addition to his son and brother, Mr. Spier is survived by his wife, the former Kathryn Pallister; his daughter, Kathryn; and two grandsons.

By the mid-1990s, Mr. Spier had largely stopped writing children’s books and turned his fuller attention to building model sailing ships and steamships, a longtime craft that evoked his time sailing in the canals in the Netherlands and his stint with the Dutch Navy. Out of fallen trees or scrap wood, he carved hulls and built planks. He used miniature lathes to make cannons and little saws to make anchors.

“These were real ships,” his son said. “With each one, he’d say, ‘I’m making heirlooms for you.’”

Continue reading the main story

Spread the love

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *