On a hilltop in Presidio Heights, a tranquil neighborhood far removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown San Francisco, picture book artist Peggy Rathmann lives and works in a townhouse filled with skylights.

Inside, light pours down through 14-foot ceilings, illuminating a sleekly modern interior that evinces here and there the author's playful, some might say childlike, sense of humor. PW spies a policeman's cap and uniform with "Buckle" on the name tag (a reference to Rathmann's 1996 Caldecott-winning picture book) -- and a small stuffed gorilla in a red wagon (a nod to 1994's Goodnight, Gorilla!). Both books were published by Putnam.

A relative newcomer to the world of children's books (her Caldecott winner was only her fourth picture book), Rathmann has a knack for buttressing her carefully crafted visual worlds with witty detail. Her books are clearly the work of a thoughtful perfectionist.

"It's really an interesting problem, trying to earn a living, and serve art, and serve kids," says Rathmann, curling up on a sofa facing a marble fireplace. A stuffed toy dog stands guard nearby. "What I try to create are these visual layers so that readers feel the possibility exists that there might be something in the book they never saw before."

Strong visual story lines that provide a droll counterpoint to the text are one such layer -- an element that gives readers the delicious feeling of being in on the joke. In Goodnight, Gorilla!, a zookeeper's charges surreptitiously follow him home to bed at closing time; Officer Buckle depicts a canine companion who repeatedly (and hilariously) upstages a safety officer at school presentations. The books are interlaced with visual grace notes, such as Officer Buckle's 101 "safety tips" and a running sight-gag with a pair of fuzzy slippers in the latest 10 Minutes Till Bedtime (Putnam), in which a cast of frisky hamsters in numbered jerseys help a child count the remaining minutes to lights out.

Rathmann has long seen the need for luring readers into a story with such pictorial surprises. Drawing a parallel to childhood's deep yearning for adventure, she recalls how her youngest brother used to literally tear books apart as a child trying to find out what was in the gutter. "That's really at the heart of what kids want: they want to open a door in the book and go someplace."

Rathmann has a lively appreciation of the absurd that is evident in her artwork's quirky subtext. At 45, she is fresh-faced and pink-cheeked. With her tousled brown hair, khakis and sweatshirt, she could easily pass for a student. In fact, it's a role in which she's very comfortable.

"I lived at home off and on until I was 37," she admits sheepishly. "I have about a million college credits." Rathmann is only half-joking. Having spent so many years under her parents' roof, she pilfers freely from childhood memories in her work. "I'd worry about writing about anyone else because I'd be invading their privacy, but you can use your mom and dad and their dog for everything!"

Born in St. Paul, Minn., Rathmann was one of five children, and family life was close-knit and happy. The daughter of a chemist and a full-time homemaker, she was a shy, dreamy child whose early struggles at school made her sensitive to criticism. Because she was tall, Rathmann was always placed in the back of the classroom, but her nearsightedness, which was not diagnosed until years later, made reading difficult. She nevertheless recalls poring over piles of Golden Books that her mother purchased at the grocery store, as well as two library favorites, Virginia Lee Burton's Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings, two books that would prove highly influential in her own work.

Artistically, she's keenly attuned to her audience, choosing to work in what she calls the "slightly retro style" of Burton and McCloskey, with cartoon-like drawings outlined in black ink, though hers are in full color. "I know what the issues are for teachers reading aloud in the classroom, and I want to make sure the kids in the back row get to enjoy the book, too."

A self-described late bloomer, Rathmann began drawing at an early age, but a disastrous summer workshop in 1971, right after she graduated from high school, squelched any hopes she may have harbored for pursuing a career in art. "I thought I'd signed up for a painting class where we were going to learn how to paint like Rembrandt, and instead, they stuck us in a room with a bunch of black paint and no paintbrushes. It was conceptual art."

As she watched the other students rolling around in the paint, Rathmann, whose mainstream suburban upbringing hadn't prepared her for the bohemian art world, felt ridiculously out of place. "I'm sitting there in my polyester Bermuda shorts, feeling like a complete stooge," she says. When one of the teachers announced that, if they weren't prepared to starve, the students might as well forget being artists, Rathmann remembers thinking, "Well, okay, I'll get a different job."

After brief stints at Colorado College and Northwestern University and several changes in major, she graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in psychology, then enrolled in the pre-med program at St. Paul's Macalaster College. Her parents and siblings, meanwhile, were encouraging her to pursue her natural talent for art, a temptation that Rathmann at first resisted. The epiphany finally arrived one day during a lab class when Rathmann, who found herself more riveted by the medical illustrations than the subject matter, suddenly realized that someone, somewhere had been paid to create them. "I thought, 'I could do this,' " she recalls.

Soon thereafter, in the early 1980s, she went back to school, studying commercial art at the American Academy in Chicago (her parents were living in Barrington, Ill., at this point, and she moved in with them again), and later fine art at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis. Having often used drawings to entertain her nieces, Rathman began to develop an interest in picture books. In 1988, she followed her parents to Ventura, Calif., and moved in with them once again ("they were such good sports!"), adapting an unused loft space above the living room as her studio.

Her first effort was a 150-page, 25-pound picture book in verse about the adventures of two sisters. "I thought it was so wonderful, I just never wanted it to end. It never occurred to me that they'd have to charge $5000 a copy." When she finished it, Rathmann took her manuscript to New York City and shopped it around to several editors.

"It got shot down," she says. "So I hauled it back to my parents' house and lay down on the sofa and prepared to die."

Hearing of his sister's rejection, Rathmann's brother, who was working as a lawyer in Los Angeles, intervened. One of his colleagues was married to children's author Barney Saltzberg (This Is a Great Place for a Hot Dog Stand), who offered to talk with Rathmann. Saltzberg recommended she take a class at Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'I don't want to go back to school! recalls Rathmann. "I'd been going to school for 30 years."

As it turned out, the class launched her career. Her instructor, children's author Barbara Bottner, had worked as a comic actress with the improv group La MaMa in New York, and her humorous approach to teaching clicked instantly with Rathmann. Rathmann's first book, Ruby the Copycat, the story of a lonely girl with a penchant for mimicry, sprang to life from an assignment in which students were asked to write down the most embarrassing thing they knew about themselves -- in Rathmann's case, that she'd been "plagiarizing" her fellow students. Bottner liked Ruby so much she pitched it to her own editor, Grace Maccarone at Scholastic, who published it in 1991. The book was well-received (winning Rathmann one of PW's Cuffies Award from booksellers for "Most Promising New Author"), and the following year, she illustrated Bootsie Barker Bites for Bottner, who had moved to Putnam.

It was an auspicious beginning, and Peggy Kelly at the Jonathan Lazear Agency, then her agent, put up her next three books for auction. Putnam won, and Rathmann has remained there since, though she subsequently switched agents and is now represented by Marcia Wernick of the Sheldon Fogelman Agency.

Rathmann recalls her surprise when Arthur Levine, her former editor at Putnam, predicted that Officer Buckle would win. The day the award was announced, she was holed up in Colorado at her parents' home with her husband, John Wick. "I'd stayed up the whole night before working, and the phone rings at 7 a.m.," she remembers. "My mom decided it was a crank call, so she hung up on them -- twice. Finally, Julie Cummins, the committee chair, told her, 'This is important, and trust me, you will be glad you woke up your daughter!' "

The yearly choice for the Caldecott Medal often stirs up controversy, and the grousing that ensued hit Rathmann hard. In retrospect, she says, the experience helped her break through the shyness that had plagued her since childhood. "Opening myself to criticism was a big door to go through. You can be afraid about something your whole life, about being out in public where people know your name but not you, and it can cripple your ability to try new things." In fact, she adds, it wasn't until it became clear that children were embracing the book that "I got over myself and went back to work. The truth is, this award has been quite liberating, allowing me to take some risks with my next book that I wouldn't have prior to winning it."

In the Studio

Rathmann's studio is a soaring two-story space at the end of a long hallway lined with such eye-catching mementos as a framed pair of bright woolen socks knit by Nanette Stevenson, her former art director, and a boisterously illustrated thank-you note from a kindergarten class. Designed by her husband, a former construction manager whom she met while he was remodeling her home, the studio features floor-to-ceiling windows and a flight of stairs that leads to a loft library and a roof deck with sweeping views of Twin Peaks and the bay.

A morning person, Rathmann rises early and tries to hit the studio first thing. She says she is notorious for blowing deadlines (the facetious working title of her forthcoming book was 10 Minutes Till Deadline), and she worries constantly about being "too slow." "It's a lot of work to make something that only takes about seven minutes to read," Rathmann says. "It takes me years and years. Fortunately, my editor, Margaret Frith, and my art director, Cecilia Yung, are extremely patient -- and sharp-eyed, too."

When Rathmann finished 10 Minutes ("I was just about blind from drawing all those hamsters"), Frith made a matrix of all the subplots and numbered jerseys in her illustrations, which was cross-checked by Yung and designer Donna Mark. "You do so many versions of every picture that stuff falls through the cracks," notes Rathmann. "And you know kids are going to find it -- they have eyes like eagles!"

Since Office Buckle has sold more than 220,000 copies to date, thanks in large part to the prize, Rathmann's husband was able to quit his job to assist her. He now produces the slide shows she takes to public appearances and created the Web site (www.hamstertours.com) that is touted on the frontispiece of 10 Minutes Till Bedtime.At the moment, Rathmann, who has been cutting back on speaking engagements in order to focus on her work, has begun her next project, which she hints will probably involve her husband's '47 Dodge pickup. Meanwhile, she's again pursuing her favorite pastime -- going back to school. She is taking an animation class sponsored by Warner Bros. and is on the waiting list for a popular writing workshop with Bay Area author Anne Lamott. "When you get a good teacher, it's just magic. You feel like a kid again, as though a door flew open and a whole new world of possibilities has opened up."