Bill Peet: An Autobiography, 190pp RL 4

First reviewed on 1/27/09. Bill Peet's picture books were a huge part of my childhood and that of my kids, thanks to my mother who made sure that we owned the complete works of Peet's long career. His picture books have detailed stories that you don't find on the shelves anymore - they are almost too long to read at story time and almost qualify as short stories in some cases. Peet's Newbery award winner is the PERFECT book for kids who have to write a book report on an autobiography for school. His life and career working at Disney studios is enthralling, as is his rocky relationship with Walt. Even more interesting if you have read Peet's picture books!

Bill Peet: An Autobiography is a rare book in the world of children's literature. But, before I write about this book I must beg you to go out and read any one (or all) of Bill Peet's books to your kids. One of my favorite childhood memories is going to the library and checking out a different book by this prolific author and illustrator each visit. My favorites remain Kermit the Hermit, How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head and The Whingdingdilly. But really, all of them are wonderful and I know them all so well, having read all of them over and over to my three children.

Like Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret which won the Caldecott Award for distinguished picture book in 2008, Bill Peet: an Autobiography is really a chapter book with illustrations that help to tell the story as much as the words do. Peet's text tells the story of his life, from his childhood to the start of his career as a children's book author and illustrator with the publication of Hubert's Hair Raising Adventure in 1959, as well as the twenty-seven years in between when he worked for Walt Disney Studios and was a key participant, usually as a story editor, in the creation of classic animated movies like Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, 101 Dalmations and Peter Pan. Once you know this about him, his illustration style definitely seems evocative of his years at the Disney Studios. And, while his descriptions of his tumultuous working relationship with Walt are interesting, what really grabs your attention are the details from his childhood that illuminate the subjects of his books. If you know Peet's work already, you know that he has three main themes that he visits: animals, trains and circuses. He is as adept at stories that feature farm animals (Cockadoodle Dudley, Chester the Worldly Pig, The Whingdingdilly) as he is with animals of the jungle (Zella, Zak and Zodiac, Hubert's Hair Raising Adventure, The Ant and the Elephant, Eli, The Spooky Tail of Prewitt the Peacock) and mythical animals, some of Peet's own invention (How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent, The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg, No Such Things, The Kweeks of Kooatumdee.) What I love Peet most for, though, is the sense of dignity and, despite the characters being mostly animals and trains, humanity that he imbues his characters with as they struggle to survive and find their place in the world. How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, Buford the Little Big Horn, The Whingdingdilly, Huge Harold and Encore for Eleanor are perfect examples of this quality. And, to top it all off, Bill Peet was sharing his concern for the environment as far back as 1966 when he published Farewell to Shady Glade, the story of woodland animals in a race to find a new home when their old one is bulldozed. Peet even dedicated this book to Rachel Carson, author of the groundbreaking book of 1962, Silent Spring, in which she called for a change in the practices of agricultural scientists, the government and the way humankind viewed the natural world. Peet's book came out a year before Dr Seuss' similarly themed book, The Lorax, and was followed by The Wump World, published in 1970. The wumps, a fictional grass eating animal (who looks a lot like the capybara that Peet's son brought home from South America in the 1960s and the subject of Peet's other autobiographical book, Capyboppy) are forced underground when a civilization of consuming, wasteful aliens invades their planet after using up the resources of their own. Once they have used up the wumps' planet they move on, leaving the wumps to roam their now asphalt and concrete covered world where they find one edible sprig of grass growing through a crack in the pavement. Sounds a little like the Pixar -Disney movie Wall-e...

Being an autobiography, this is the kind of book that kid's probably won't pick up on their own. When they have to do a book report that is a biography or they have to read an award winning book, then they may find this small treasure that, despite covering adult themes like World War II and working life, is totally engaging and appropriate. Most kids have seen the Disney movies that Peet worked on and they will be delighted by the pages of his book that depict that era of his life, including some character sketches from 1947 for the mice and the cat Lucifer from Disney's animated Cinderella. It was Peet who thought up Gus-Gus and Jacques, the comic relief of the movie. As I said earlier, it is rare to have such a copiously illustrated chapter book in the cannon of children's literature, but it is even more rare to have a book in which a children's book author and illustrator shares the story of his life and career in a book that is specifically written for children. Don't miss this rare gem!




Jenny Schwartzberg said...

I really need to dig out my copy and actually read it now! Thanks for the review. Funny, I don't remember his books from my childhood (in the late 60s and early 70s).

I also need to go see an exhibition of his illustrations for his books at the Art Institute in Chicago: http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/exhibition/peet If you get to Chicago before May 24th, you should go see it.

Tanya said...

Wow! Thanks for the link to the Art Institute of Chicago! That is amazing that they are doing a retrospective of his art. I love that museum, but sadly, don't think I'll be there before it ends. Maybe it will travel.

Strangely enough, my shabby local library has an original Peet drawing of Droofus that I have often thought about stealing, then making an anonymous cash donation to compensate... It goes totally unappreciated.

If anyone lives in or near Los Angeles, www.everypicturetellsastory.com in Santa Monica is a neat little gallery and www.storyopolis.com is near the Beverly Center. Both galleries feature original art work from picture books and sell some as well as lithographs of work. They also have lots of author/illustrator events and it's a great chance to meet the people who make these wonderful books.

aliciafinnnoack.com said...

We got this book because my 3 year old saw "Katie Caboose" on the cover. He wanted us to read it to him, and he made it through a few pages, but after he went to bed my husband and I kept reading for ourselves. It is a really interesting story and told in an interesting way. Plus, we really love Peet's illustrations.

Tanya said...

Thanks SO MUCH for this comment! I am greatly cheered to know that a)You are reading Peet to your son and he recognizes Katie Caboose and b) That you read Peet's autobiography and appreciated it as much as I do!