Caldecott Award-winning children’s author and illustrator Peter Spier died on April 27 of congestive heart failure in Port Jefferson, N.Y. He was 89.
Spier was born June 6, 1927 in Amsterdam, and grew up in the village of Broek-in-Waterland, which readers in the U.S. may know as home to the fictional protagonist in Mary Mapes Dodge’s novel, Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates. In his autobiographical notes in Something About the Author, Spier recalled growing up in a house that was on the water where boats passed close to the windows. His father was a political cartoonist and illustrator, and Spier has noted that the family home was filled with books and intellectual discussion. As a boy, he enjoyed carving figures out of clay, and by the age of 18, Spier had decided to pursue an art career and began studies at the Royal Academy of Art in Amsterdam.
After art school, Spier served three and a half years in his country’s navy, but still felt the creative pull of publishing and illustration. In 1949, he began work as a junior editor at Elsevier’s Weekblad, then the largest Dutch newspaper, and was stationed in Paris. The following year, a work transfer landed him in Houston, Tex., but by 1952 he had moved to New York City and embarked on the life of a freelance writer and illustrator. Soon after, he brought his portfolio to the offices at Doubleday, where he made the connection with the house that would become his longtime publisher.
Spier became a U.S. citizen in 1958, the same year that he married Kathryn Pallister. The couple had two children; Spier is survived by them, along with two grandchildren.
His early work in children’s books was as an illustrator for other writers’ picture book texts. Spier estimated that he illustrated close to 50 of those books before trying his hand at writing his own words. Bible stories, animals, American history, and Mother Goose rhymes were among the subjects he focused on in his books. The first title he both wrote and illustrated was The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night: An Old Song (Doubleday, 1961), which won a Caldecott Honor. Spier’s wordless adaptation of Noah’s Ark (Doubleday, 1977) was awarded the 1978 Caldecott Medal. Reviews of Spier’s work often lauded the accurate detail and intricate line drawing in his illustrations, which reflected the careful research he did for each project, and also praised the sense of humor and whimsy in many of his images.
In 2014, Spier’s publisher Doubleday launched a reissue program to bring back a selection of favorite titles in both hardcover and e-book formats. Spier was very involved in the effort, providing two new covers and refreshing some of his illustrations by adding color, or defining elements that had faded after years of reprinting. The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night and The Star-Spangled Banner were among the first titles to be reissued. In a PW article about the program, Spier reflected on his career. “I do know if I had to do it all again, I’d do the books the very same way,” he said. “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.”