2018-05-04 15:02:15 UTC
Alice Provensen, Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator of children’s books, dies at 99
By Matt Schudel
May 2 at 7:35 PM
Alice Provensen, an award-winning artist who illustrated dozens of popular books for children, often in collaboration with her husband, died April 23 at her daughter’s home in San Clemente, Calif. She was 99.
Her daughter, Karen Provensen Mitchell, confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.
Mrs. Provensen, who also wrote several picture books, worked for 40 years alongside her husband, Martin Provensen, illustrating such works as “The Color Kittens” by Margaret Wise Brown, “The Fuzzy Duckling,” “Katie the Kitten” and adaptations of classic literature.
The Provensens (pronounced PROH-ven-sen) varied their style from charming images of domestic animals to motifs inspired by classical Greece in “The Iliad and the Odyssey” (1956). They evoked the world of post-Impressionist Paris in their Caldecott Medal-winning 1983 book “The Glorious Flight,” about the first airplane journey over the English Channel, by French pilot Louis Blériot in 1909.
“Some of their books sold millions of copies,” children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus said in an interview. “There was a kind of lightness and open space in their work. You could project your own imagination into their world.”
Many of their early titles were published in the low-budget but popular Golden Books series, which became popular after World War II. Many remain in print, but the Provensens often worked for a simple flat fee and did not receive royalties.
The same arrangement held true for perhaps the single most familiar image to emerge from their studio: Tony the Tiger, the perennially contented advertising symbol of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Tony first appeared in 1952, but even the Provensens’ daughter is not sure if he was created solely by her father or as a joint effort between both of her parents.
“Sometimes we’d work on the same page,” Mrs. Provensen told the Orange County Register in 2009. “I’d see something, or tell him how to fix something. We never tried to develop a style. We tried to work with the material: You couldn’t do something from the Bible in the same style you’d do an animal book.”
Working at back-to-back drawing boards in a converted barn, the Provensens turned out books based on Aesop’s Fables, Mother Goose stories, Bible tales, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and plays of Shakespeare.
In other books, they introduced children to the instruments of the orchestra and stories from classical ballet. They also produced tales about animals of every description, including several volumes set at Maple Hill Farm, their longtime home in upstate New York.
“The Provensens haven’t scrubbed everything clean for young visitors,” New York Times children’s book editor George A. Woods wrote in a review of “Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm” (1974). “The house needs paint, there are cowpies in the driveway, Max the cat leaves gifts of guts and tails and chipmunk heads on the doorstep. Another cat has a reputation for throwing up and a fox carries away one of the roosters . . . the animals are a colorful barnyard lot and have all the grace and power of a horse in mid-gallop.”
In 1983, Mrs. Provensen and her husband illustrated Nancy Willard’s “A Visit to William Blake’s Inn,” a fanciful adaptation of the poems of early 19th-century British poet William Blake. The paintings matched the whimsy of the verse: