Illustrator, printer, and publisher Michael McCurdy, whose intricate wood engravings and scratchboard drawings have been published in more than 200 books for children and adults, died on May 28 at his home in Springfield, Mass. He was 74.
McCurdy was born February 17, 1942 in New York City and grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. and Marblehead, Mass. His early years were filled with art, as his grandparents and father were artists, and McCurdy began to develop his passion for hand-printing around the age of 12, when he received a toy printing press as a gift. “I wanted above all to print things,” he said in a biographical essay for one of his publishers. “I wanted to set type, smell printers’ ink, hear the clank of presses, and produce little newspapers. I wanted to put words together in a way that would please the eye.”
McCurdy pursued art in his formal education, studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston between 1960 and 1966. Within that time frame, he received his B.F.A. from Tufts University in 1964 and continued at Tufts earning an M.F.A. in 1971. While at the Museum School, McCurdy roomed with children’s book author and illustrator David McPhail, and met friend and collaborator Robert Hauser.
In the late 1960s, McCurdy was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and alternately served as an orderly at Children’s Hospital in Boston. When his hospital service was completed, McCurdy and his wife Deborah, whom he wed in 1968, toured for several months through Europe and the then-Soviet Union, supported by a traveling scholarship McCurdy had received from the Museum School. Upon returning to the U.S. McCurdy taught drawing and printmaking at Concord Academy and Wellesley College respectively, and founded Penmaen Press (1968–1985) which allowed him to focus more effort on printing, engraving, and bookmaking.
Outside of his work at Penmaen, McCurdy illustrated (and occasionally wrote) numerous books for other publishers. His first illustrated children’s book, Please Explain by Isaac Asimov (Houghton Mifflin) was published in 1973. Among his best known titles for young readers are The Owl-Scatterer by Howard Norman (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986) and The Seasons Sewn: A Year in Patchwork by Ann Whitford Paul (Harcourt, 1996), both named New York Times Best Illustrated books; An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louisa May Alcott (Holiday House, 1989), American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne (Knopf, 1991), and The Sailor’s Alphabet (Houghton, 1998).
McCurdy’s longtime literary agent, Susan Cohen of Writers House, remembered him this way: “I was so proud to represent Michael,” she said. “His art has a true sense of grandeur. I worked with him for about 25 years and with my colleagues even came up with a few ideas for him to adapt and illustrate. Michael had a quiet charisma: very handsome and soft-spoken. A true Old School gentleman. An artist and craftsman who did seem to answer to a higher calling.”
And Margaret Raymo, senior executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, offered this tribute: “Michael McCurdy was one of the grand old gentlemen of publishing. As a young editor I felt incredibly lucky for the opportunity to work with him on several books, including Giants in the Land and his illustrated version of The Gettysburg Address. His dramatic scratchboard illustrations are unparalleled in the field.”
In recent years, McCurdy had retired from bookmaking and lived in Springfield with his wife, who survives him. Also surviving McCurdy are their two grown children and two grandchildren.