Karla Kuskin (July 17, 1932 – August 20, 2009) was an award-winning author and illustrator whose many books include verse picture books written by her, illustrated by her, and those she both wrote and illustrated. She first achieved popularity with the 1956 book “Roar and More”, and went on to write titles such as “The Rose On My Cake”, “Near The Window Tree”, “The Philharmonic Gets Dressed” and “So, What’s It Like To Be A Cat?”. Additionally, Kuskin was the recipient of a National Council of Teachers of English Poetry prize for her body of work. She was well known for her witty, alliterative style and her artwork was equally whimsical. “I write for children,” Kuskin noted in Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS), “because of a close bond I have with my own childhood. There is an understanding, a way of seeing things that I have never completely out-grown, that is still a part of me.”
Kuskin’s childhood was spent largely in New York City. The only child of Mitzi and Sidney Seidman, she was, admittedly, “the focus of a lot of approving attention and scrutiny,” as she remarked in SAAS. “I preferred the attention. But my mother, a dry cleaner’s daughter, has always had the ability to spot an imperfection in the material at fifty feet. While I was often highly praised, I was also continually judged by that eye and have inherited the same sharp vision.” Kuskin’s love of words began early, and a first poem—transcribed by her mother when the fledgling author was four—describes the hydrangea bushes outside the front door of the country house where the family lived for a year. New York was and continues to be Kuskin’s backdrop, as “difficult, alarming, marvelous, and ugly” as it sometimes is. Her father was in advertising, though he had dreams of journalism, and her mother gave up a stage career for photography, then gave that up with the birth of her daughter. “I promised myself that when I grew up I would not give up a job for my family but would combine the two,” Kuskin noted in SAAS. “I was determined that my children should never feel that they had kept me from work I wanted to do.”
From an early age Kuskin most wanted to write and draw. She formed an early, “almost magical belief in the power of words on paper,” she commented in SAAS. “To write things down, preserve the moment in words, has always been a necessity.” Her education, at private schools in New York, helped foster this love of words, as did her parents. Both at home and at school, poetry-reading was a daily activity. As a child, her favorite poets included Alfred Noyes, Robert Frost, along with the humorous verses of Ogden Nash, Don Marquis, A. A. Milne, and the Mother Goose volumes. T. S. Eliot became an inspiration, as were e. e. cummings, Yeats, and Auden. “Literature was neither dry or dusty,” she recalled of her school years in SAAS. “It was a fascinating part of our lives.”
Kuskin’s first published work provided her with a career focus. Now married to a freelance oboist, she worked on a magazine, for a photographer, and in advertising during the first year of her marriage. A forced vacation due to a bout of hepatitis gave her the free time to play with ideas and a rainy stay on Cape Cod provided the inspiration for “James and the Rain”, “one of the best read-aloud stories for very young children to appear in a long, long time,” according to a critic in Publishers Weekly. The story of a young boy who sets out to discover what various animals do when it rains, James and the Rain begins with a simple description: “James pressed his nose against the pane/ And saw a million drops of rain/ The earth was wet/ The sky was grey/ It looked like it would rain all day.” The book was republished in 1995 with illustrations by Reg Cartwright.
In the early 1960s, Kuskin had two children, Nicholas and Julia. Her experiences as a parent became a source of topics for some of her books. “The Bear Who Saw the Spring”, for example, was written when Kuskin was pregnant with her first child, Nicholas, and contemplating motherhood. The story focuses on a knowledgeable, older bear who teaches a young dog about the seasons of the year; the relationship of the two characters is similar to that of a parent and child. “Sand and Snow”, about a boy who loves the winter and a girl who loves the summer, was dedicated to Kuskin’s infant daughter Julia. And “Alexander Soames, His Poems”, a book Kuskin acknowledges was partly inspired by her children, recounts a conversation between a mother and her son Alex, who will only speak in verse despite his mother’s repeated requests that he express himself in prose. Critiquing the last title, Ellen Lewis Buell noted in the New York Times Book Review that “Kuskin’s fantasy about a small boy who speaks only in rhymes is as amusing as its title’s promise.” Buell went on to remark that the verses “are good nonsense, lighthearted, swiftly paced.”
Kuskin drew upon vivid memories of her own youth as themes for her books. Growing up in New York City, Kuskin reflected in SAAS, “there was … the sense of being a small child in big places that was very much a part of my childhood. And I was determined to remember those places and those feelings. I vowed to myself that I would never forget what it was like to be a child as I grew older. Frustration, pleasure, what I saw as injustices, all made me promise this to myself.” Kuskin has been lauded for knowing “what is worth saving and what is important to children,” according to Alvina Treut Burrows in Language Arts. “Her pictures and her verse and poetry,” the reviewer continued, “are brimming over with the experiences of children growing up in a big city.”
Kuskin’s great respect for education and her love of poetry motivated her to visit schools and try to help children in writing their own verse. She stressed a different approach in the way she writes for children and the way children should write poetry themselves. “When I write I often rhyme,” Kuskin remarked in Language Arts, “and I’m very much concerned with rhythm because children love the sound and swing of both. But when children write, I try to discourage them from rhyming because I think it’s such a hurdle. It freezes all the originality they have, and they use someone else’s rhymes. It’s too hard. And yet their images are so original.” The author encourages children to write verses by paying attention to their surroundings, concentrating on descriptions and experiences, and writing what they have imagined in short, easy lines rather than worrying about perfect sentences and paragraphs.
Kuskin has also employed an educational technique in some of her poetry collections. In “Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams”: A Collection of Poems, for example, Kuskin adds notes to each poem, explaining her inspiration for the particular verse and encouraging the reader to write his own poetry. Critics lauded the author for including her commentary; Washington Post Book World contributor Rose Styron praised Kuskin’s “variety, wit and unfailing sensitivity” in addressing children.
In addition to teaching children to read, write, and appreciate poetry, Kuskin’s self-illustrated books contain appealing pictures that serve to emphasize her themes. Her early books, such as “All Sizes of Noises”: which features an assortment of everyday sounds translated into visual representations—display Kuskin’s belief that “the best picture book is a unity, a good marriage in which pictures and words love, honor, and obey each other,” as she wrote in SAAS. Her 1994 self-illustrated “City Dog” is an example of this meticulous blending of art with text. The story of a city dog’s first trip to the country, this book “is a verbal and visual romp,” as poetry and motion take over, according to Betsy Hearne writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. Hearne went on to note that “words and pictures that at first glance appear naive accrue a rhythmic warmth that deepens with each runthrough.” Mary Lou Budd concluded in School Library Journal that “City Dog” is replete “with the imagery one has come to expect from Kuskin,” making it “a treat” for young readers.
While Kuskin’s self-illustrated books far outnumbered her stories that have been illustrated by others, she had no compunctions about working with other artists when the story requires it. “For many years,” she noted in SAAS, “I assumed that I would illustrate whatever I wrote.” In the late 1970s, however, the author asked Marc Simont to illustrate “A Space Story”, a book about the solar system that won an award from the New York Academy of Sciences. Her collaborations with Simont and then David Frampton are among her most popular and acclaimed books. After “A Space Story”, Simont illustrated the well-received “The Philharmonic Gets Dressed”, which earned Kuskin several awards, including an honor from the American Library Association and inclusion on the American Book Award short list. The book describes the pre-performance activities of one hundred and five orchestra members; their preparations include bathing, shaving, powdering, hair drying, and dressing before they finally perform in concert.
A similar topic is addressed in Kuskin and Simont’s third collaboration, “The Dallas Titans Get Ready for Bed”. After a difficult game, forty-five members of a victorious football team retreat to the locker room until the coach tells them they must go home and rest for practice the next morning. As reluctantly as a child who wishes to avoid an early bedtime, each player removes layers of football gear, takes a shower, dresses in street clothes, and leaves for home. Though Molly Ivins commented in the New York Times Book Review that “The Dallas Titans Get Ready for Bed” is “a much better book for boys than for girls,” she described it as “neat” and “funny.” And Horn Book contributor Hanna B. Zeiger found the story “a totally original and very funny behind-the-scenes look at a large organization.”
For “Jerusalem, Shining Still”, a book she wrote after an official invitation in 1982 to that holy city, Kuskin selected woodcut artist David Frampton to provide illustrations. Recounting 3,000 years of the history of Jerusalem, was a challenging task for the author. She spent a considerable amount of time thinking about her visit there and deciding what elements of the city and its past she would include in her book. “I wrote and cut and cut and wrote and condensed that long history into seven and a half pages,” she related in SAAS. Kuskin eventually chose Jerusalem’s survival and growth despite frequent attacks by foreigners as the theme of “Jerusalem, Shining Still”, and she was praised for making the city’s complex history more accessible to children.
Chanukah is the topic of “A Great Miracle Happened There”, featuring illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker. With a prose text, the book tells the story of a young Christian boy who spends his first Chanukah with a Jewish family and the questions the children ask about the tradition. A reviewer for School Library Journal described the work as worthy of “sharing for many seasons to come,” while a Kirkus Reviews contributor called it an “unusually thoughtful account of the events celebrated during Chanukah.” The picture book Paul is the result of an unusual collaboration. For this book, Kuskin wrote a text for illustrations created by noted American painter Milton Avery, completed in 1946 for a book that was never published. The manuscript had been lost, and Kuskin’s job was to weave a story from the series of fantastical double-spread illustrations. She constructed a tale about a young boy’s search for his magical grandmother.
Patchwork Island, illustrated by Petra Mathers, is a story-poem about a mother who stitches a quilt for her toddler that is decorated with images from her Canadian island home. Heide Piehler commented in School Library Journal that the “sense of warmth and security that the patchwork symbolizes is evident in both illustrations and narrative.” Somewhat similar to Roar and More, Kuskin’s City Noise is an “exuberant explosion of colors and shapes” accompanying a “rhyming, energetic poem,” according to Mary Rinato Berman in School Library Journal. A tin can held to a little girl’s ear becomes a magical conch shell, relating all the strange sounds of the city. A critic writing in Publishers Weekly felt that illustrator Renee Flower and Kuskin “seize on urban cacophony and turn it into a celebration of life itself in this dynamic picture book.” Kuskin recreates a veritable ocean of city sounds: “Squalling / Calling/ Crashing/ Rushing/ … Cars and garbage/ Reds and greens/ Girls and women/ Men/ Machines.” A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book an “exuberant poem that captures the hubbub of urban life.”
Kuskin tells the tale of two fighting cats in verse in The Upstairs Cat, illustrated by Howard Fine, and presents a boy and his cat conversing in So, What’s It Like to Be a Cat? which a Kirkus Reviews contributor felt “illustrates Kuskin’s perfect apprehension of the feline psyche.” In The Sky Is Always in the Sky, illustrated by Isabelle Dervaux, she collects thirty-six of her poems previously published in other books. Reviewing the poetry collection, Booklist critic Hazel Rochman noted that there “is a wonderful physical immediacy to this selection of poems,” and concluded that it serves as a “great collection for reading aloud at home, in the library, and in the classroom.” Riverbank Review listed So, What’s It Like to Be a Cat? among its 1999 Children’s Books of Distinction awards, noting the “funny and intelligent” nature of the poems that act as a representative sampling of Kuskin’s body of work.
I Am Me, illustrated by Dyanna Wolcott, follows a child as she lists the way her many body parts resemble those of her relatives: she has her mother’s eyes and her father’s coloring. Once she finishes talking about how she is like her relatives, she declares that she is still entirely herself. Hazel Rochman, writing for Booklist, found that the pictures and words “celebrate the unique child in a loving universe.” Kuskin’s “Rhyming text ably captures the forebearing tone of a heroine who is clearly the apple of everyone’s eye,” commented a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Maryann H. Owen, writing in School Library Journal considered I Am Me “A reassuring lesson of belonging and being unique.”
In 2002, one of Kuskin’s early self-illustrated picture books, The Animals and the Ark, was rereleased with new illustrations by Michael Grejniec. This update on the story of Noah and the Ark integrates Kuskin’s original text into Grejniec’s new pictures. A Kirkus Reviews contributor predicted that the book “should make a big splash.” Gillian Engberg, writing in Booklist, wrote that while the new illustrations are sometimes chaotic, “it’s the energetic words and appealing rhymes that will hook children.” Kathy Piehl, writing in School Library Journal, also commented on Kuskin’s original rhymes, noting: “Kuskin’s verse doesn’t falter until the story screeches to a halt once the sun appears.” Despite the quick pace, Kuskin does find space for humor; wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer, adding: “The poet’s rhythm and rhyme unfold with deceptive ease, yet she varies the schemes to create a sense of urgency or to pause for a laugh.”
Moon, Have You Met My Mother? collects poetry published over forty years of Kuskin’s career, both previously published and brand new. Grouped into thematic units, the poems are accompanied by illustrations created by Sergio Ruzzier. The collection includes so many poems that a Kirkus Reviews contributor recommended taking it in small portions, noting: “Kuskin’s verse is best when presented intimately, to specific audiences.” Margaret Bush, writing in School Library Journal, noted that the collection is full of “good read-aloud fare” while Gillian Engberg maintained in her Booklist review that the collection is “long overdue,” and added that the book “will invite new generations of children to delight in the simplest words.”
One of Kuskin’s individual poems, originally published in 1964, made its appearance as a picture book in Under My Hood I Have a Hat. A little girl narrates the story of bundling up for a cold afternoon of playing in the snow with her dog. After successfully building a snowman, the girl comes inside and talks about each article of clothing as she removes it in preparation for having a snack; she then resumes describing the clothing as she puts eat item back on in order to continue playing. “The text is short and simple,” complimented a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who felt that beginning readers would enjoy the book’s “the rhyme, rhythm, and attractive illustrations.” Commenting on the collaboration between Kuskin and illustrator Fumi Kosaka, Linda Staskus noted in School Library Journal that “The simplicity of the art reflects the simplicity of the poem,” while Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan wrote that the work’s “simplicity and child-like voice make it easy to enjoy again and again.” A critic for Publishers Weekly commented that “A funny cautionary note at the tale’s close should bring smiles to readers’ faces,” while Kitty Flynn, writing in Horn Book, praised Kuskin’s use of language, stating, “The poem almost doesn’t need pictures.”
In addition to possessing a strong work ethic, Kuskin also possesses a unique gift. As Judson Knight and Margaret F. Maxwell concluded in a critical study of the poet and artist’s work in the St. James Guide to Children’s Writers, “Kuskin’s most successful poems are those which capture the essence of childish experience; her ability to think herself into a child’s skin … is due to the fact that she draws for her inspiration on memories of her own childhood. That she has been able to distill these memories into simple yet lighthearted verses, which at their best are exquisite in their evocation of her small themes, is Kuskin’s lasting talent.”
On the Scholastic’s Writing with Writers Web site, Kuskin wrote, “I think that I write books because I loved reading them so much as a child. I loved drawing, too. Many of my feelings and ideas come from my childhood.” She concluded by encouraging young writers: “Trying to get a story of poem just the way you want it is hard work. I spend a great deal of time rewriting. But I am very happy, working in my room at my desk, in Brooklyn or Virginia, making pictures and pushing words around. So I just keep at it.”