2019-02-09 15:36:19 UTC
Jan Wahl (1931-2019)
Children’s writer, with a ‘gentleness,’ just finished book
Blade Staff Writer
Jan Wahl, whose award-winning books for children were read and read again, silently and aloud, starting with his first in 1964, Pleasant Fieldmouse, died Tuesday in Heartland at ProMedica Flower Hospital. He was 87.
Mr. Wahl, most recently of Sylvania Township, had prostate cancer, his brother Michael Wahl said.
That first published work featured illustrations by Maurice Sendak, already acclaimed for the 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are.
“I began at the top. It didn’t stay that way,” Mr. Wahl told The Blade in 2006. “But I did have a lovely, lovely beginning with a very fine artist.”
More than 100 of Mr. Wahl’s books were published, most of them written for young readers. Other illustrators included Norman Rockwell, Edward Gorey, Lee Lorenz, and Toledo’s Wil Clay.
“For me, when reading his work, his words also painted an illustration of the book itself,” said Benjamin Sapp, director of the Mazza Museum at the University of Findlay, which features art from children’s picture books. Mr. Wahl made presentations through the years at the Mazza museum about his own books. He also could speak with affection about other authors of children’s literature.
“The idea that he was in our own state of Ohio — just a wealth of knowledge and information,” Mr. Sapp said. “I just love his body of work and the creation he shared with those who love children’s literature.”
Mr. Wahl, who grew up in the Westmoreland neighborhood of central Toledo, continued to write. Scheduled for release Tuesday is Hedy and Her Amazing Invention, illustrated by Morgana Wallace, about Hollywood film star Hedy Lamarr and her off-screen technological innovations.
Mr. Wahl was supposed to read from the book at 2 p.m. March 2 in the Toledo Museum of Art, preceded at noon by a children’s collage and instrument-making event.
The program will continue, but “will become a celebration of his writing, and especially his new book,” said Scott Boberg, the museum’s manager of programs. “His books are amazing, and there are people around the world who have really enjoyed and loved his writing and enjoyed the work of artists who illustrated his books.
“While it’s sad news he is no longer with us,” Mr. Boberg said, “we want to celebrate what he has given to the world.”
Mr. Wahl was recipient of the Redbook Award, Parents’ Choice Literary Award, an Ohioana Book Award, among other honors.
He wrote, though, that his proudest moment was on the steps of the Field Natural History Museum when President Clinton read to him pages from The Fieldmouse and the Dinosaur Named Sue on the day the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen Sue was unveiled at that Chicago venue.
He was working toward a republication of his 1969 book, How the Children Stopped the Wars, his friend, Mary Dawson said.
“He felt that if you could send a message out, perhaps it made a difference. He had a message of gentleness as much as anything,” Ms. Dawson said.
His brother said: “He wanted to remain in his childhood, in his way.”
Mr. Wahl was known for writing and rewriting, using an old typewriter. He avoided anything computer-related. His latest book took three years to write, Ms. Dawson said.
“He thought every word was important,” she said.
Most books began with a title.
“That’s the seed from which the thing sprouts,” Mr. Wahl told The Blade. “Sometimes I have to live with a title for a while.”
His favorites included Humphrey’s Bear and Furious Flycycle, his brother said.
He was born April 1, 1931, in Columbus to Nina Marie Boyer Wahl and Russell Wahl, who was a physician. He was the oldest of what would be six Wahl boys. He was a 1949 graduate of DeVilbiss High School. He played piano well enough to share a radio program with a local singer later prominent on the pop charts, Teresa Brewer.
He was a 1953 graduate of Cornell University, after which he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, and had a master’s degree from the University of Michigan. He worked with director Carl Theodor Dreyer on the film Ordet. The author Isak Dinesen, best known for Out of Africa, hired him as a secretary, “but fired me one day for misspelling two words,” he told The Blade in 1968.
He formerly lived in New York, where Norman Mailer was a neighbor, and in Mexico.
He was known as a film historian and in recent years gave presentations at Bowling Green State University’s Gish Film Theater. He was 18 years old when his collection of silent, foreign, and rare films caught the attention of Toledo Times critic Ruth Elgutter.
For his contributions to children’s literature, he received an honorary doctorate from BGSU in 1996.
Surviving are his brothers, Michael, Douglas, and Robert.
The March 2 event at the Toledo Museum of Art will serve as a celebration of his life, his brother Michael said.
The family suggests tributes to the Toledo Museum of Art.
First Published February 1, 2019, 12:00am