Children’s author and illustrator Kate Duke, known for her playful concept books starring an affable cast of guinea pigs, died unexpectedly at her home in New Haven, Ct., on Sunday, April 20. She was 57.
Duke was born in New York City on August 1, 1956. She had said that reading was a favorite pastime all through childhood, and in an interview for Something About the Author noted that Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was a fictional character she modeled, right down to keeping tabs on the people in her neighborhood. “I think I owe Harriet my first conscious awareness of the act of writing as important and meaningful work,” she said.
In sixth grade, Duke said, she received warm praise for her early attempts at writing and drawing and began to recognize she had a talent for both. She attended Duke University in the mid 1970s and also took art classes in New York City, which helped solidify her growing ambition to create picture books. Her first book, The Guinea Pig ABC (Dutton) was published in 1983 and received warm accolades for its humor and inventiveness. She followed up her debut with Guinea Pigs Far and Near (Dutton, 1984) and several other titles starring the popular critters. Duke went on to craft more than 20 picture books, writing and illustrating her own work, as well as providing illustrations for other authors including Joanna Cole and William Hooks. Duke married cartoonist Sidney Harris in 1985.
One of Duke’s most recent picture books, Ready for Pumpkins (Knopf, 2012), features a classroom guinea pig named Hercules who tries his hand at gardening after watching first graders plant seeds. Hercules was surely a creature after Duke’s own heart, as gardening was one of her great passions. Nancy Siscoe, senior executive editor at Knopf, recalls the “great pleasure” it was to work with Duke on Ready for Pumpkins and another book, about an archaeological dig. “Her interests and enthusiasms were both varied and infectious,” said Siscoe. “Her books were always sunny, funny, and full of joy. I will miss her terribly.”
When Duke was not in her home studio or garden, she kept a busy schedule of school visits. “These occasions are a chance to get in touch with my books’ intended audience and to recharge my memories of what it was like to be a child,” she told Something About the Author. “I don’t have children of my own, so it’s a real treat to be able to interact with them once in a while. I’m always cheered and inspired by their energy and imagination. Plus, they laugh at my jokes!”
Duke’s agent, Marietta B. Zacker, shared a remembrance of her bond with Duke and her work. “Long before meeting Kate, when I was a teacher, I used her books in my classroom,” Zacker noted. “Her books then became models of great literature once I dived into the publishing world and, after becoming an agent, it was a dream to be able to represent her work. I admired the way she made me fall in love with every one of her adorable animals and curious alongside the kids she rendered. Kate was always classy, ever gracious, and her artistry knew no bounds.”
And Lucia Monfried, Duke’s editor at Dutton, described Duke as “a classic and consummate bookmaker. Uncompromising, exacting, and always thoughtful, she brought so much joy to children through her books.” Monfried remembers fondly that she and Duke started in the industry at the same time. “I had just started at Scholastic when we bought Guinea Pig ABC for the book clubs, and then lo and behold two years later, I came to Dutton where she had been launched by Ann Durell. When Ann left, I took on Kate, just as those fabulous [guinea pig] board books came out. I worked on What Would a Guinea Pig Do? (1988) with Kate, and many books afterward. But Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One (1992) is a classic, and is my favorite book that I did with Kate. It is a huge loss – she knew how to tell a story, just as Aunt Isabel instructed her young charge in that book.”