Dutch-born author and illustrator Peter Spier, who launched his children’s book career six decades ago, has created dozens of picture books, including Caldecott Honor Book The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night (1961) and Caldecott Medal winner Noah’s Ark (1977). To introduce these and three other Spier classics to a new generation of readers, Doubleday last year began reissuing select titles from the Spier oeuvre (some long out of print), with refreshed art, two new covers by the artist, and a uniform title typeface. The reissue program, which involves hardcover and e-book editions, began in May 2014 with We the People and The Star-Spangled Banner and continued last September with The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night. And on January 27, Doubleday will release new editions of Noah’s Ark and The Book of Jonah.
Now 87 and living on Long Island’s North Shore, Spier moved to New York in the early 1950s after studying history at the University of Amsterdam, serving in the Royal Netherlands Navy, and working at Amsterdam’s Elsevier Weekly magazine. Not long after his arrival on these shores in the U.S., the artist followed some fortuitous advice. “Someone mentioned I should go to Doubleday, since they may have work for me,” recalled Spier. “So I went to their offices with my portfolio, and ended up getting assignments for many book covers and some book illustrations.”
A turning point for Spier’s career was another visit to Doubleday’s office, to meet with his editor,“the great Peggy Lesser.” Noticing a manuscript on her desk, he asked if I could take a look at it.” Written by Phyllis Krasilovsky (who died in 2014), the story immediately piqued Spier’s interest. “It was about a cow that lived in Holland, in fact in the exact location where I grew up,” he explained. “I asked if I could take the manuscript home and make some drawings for it.” He did, and his illustrations were to the publisher’s liking; Doubleday released the book, The Cow Who Fell into the Canal, in 1957. According to Spier, it remains one of Holland’s longest-running picture books in print.
Illustrating that story was a formative experience for the artist. “It really hooked me, and from that moment on, I virtually did only picture books,” he noted. Though he illustrated subsequent stories written by others, Spier preferred solo projects. “Not only, of course, is it financially more interesting to both write and illustrate a story,” he said, “but it’s more gratifying because there is basically no difference between the text and the pictures – they belong together.” Known for his authentically detailed illustrations, Spier routinely traveled to the location spotlighted in a book – be it a zoo or France – to make preliminary sketches, a practice he described as “always half the fun of the work.”
New Life for Spier Masterworks
For Frances Gilbert, associate publishing director of Random House Books for Young Readers/Golden Books, re-polishing Spier’s backlist gems has been a rewarding endeavor, and one that suits her well. “I’m also committed to building a strong frontlist,” she said, “but I do love reviving backlist books and think it is a very underrated part of publishing. It’s so wonderful to go through decades and decades of amazing books, roll up your sleeves, and see what you can do to make them fresh again, to give them a second chance.”
Gilbert, who after moving to Random House from Sterling in 2012, spearheaded a project (in conjunction with the Morgan Library) to create a cloth-bound gift edition of The Velveteen Rabbit using the original 1922 art, was “thrilled by all of the classic Peter Spier titles we had to work with.” That wealth of material dovetailed neatly with the editor’s fondness for mining and reviving backlist books.
The first of the reissues Gilbert and her colleagues tackled was The Fox Went Out on a Cold Night. “When I arrived at Random House, the art department was already considering publishing this book as an e-book,” she said. “After so many decades of reprinting, the art’s color had been degraded to the point that, though the story takes place in the middle of the night, it looked as though it was noon! And the black-and-white line drawings were so faded you couldn’t make out the detail, which is one of Peter’s hallmarks.”
Gilbert felt strongly that this Caldecott Honor Book, which at the time was only in print in paperback, should also be available as a hardcover, in “as nice an edition as we could make.” To that end, Spier returned to his original art to add color to the black-and-white portions. “It was extraordinary that Peter could do that half a century later, but that is a part of his genius – his talent is timeless,” said Gilbert. “We also found an original edition of the book, and scanned the color art to make sure it was just right when we printed the new edition.”
The quantity and quality of Spier’s backlist encouraged Doubleday to launch what Gilbert called a more full-fledged reissue program in print and e-book. “Peter’s youthfulness, humor, and warmth come through in all of his work, and you can look at his pictures over and over again and find new details and sly undertones each time,” she said. “And his themes are universal – we still constantly get inquiries about foreign rights. His books have amazing longevity.”
Spier, who praised the Doubleday team for doing “a very, very good job” rejuvenating his books, responds to the description of his work as “timeless” with genuine humility. “‘Timeless?’ I’m not sure,” he said. “I do know if I had to do it all again, I’d do the books the very same way. I wouldn’t know how to do them any other way! I am a very lucky man to have earned a living by doing my hobby.”
The Star-Spangled Banner by Peter Spier. Doubleday, $17.99 May 2014 ISBN 978-0-385-37618-1
We the People by Peter Spier. Doubleday, $17.99 May 2014 ISBN 978-0-385-37617-4
The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night by Peter Spier. Doubleday, $17.99 Sept. 2014 ISBN 978-0-385-37616-7
Noah's Ark by Peter Spier. Doubleday, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-385-09473-3
The Book of Jonah by Peter Spier. Doubleday, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-385-37909-0