Artist, poet, and children’s book creator Joan Walsh Anglund, widely known for her instantly recognizable delicate images of sweet-faced, dot-eyed children, died on March 9 at her home in Connecticut of natural causes. She was 95.
Anglund was born January 3, 1926 in Hinsdale, Ill., to Thomas and Mildred Walsh, both artists. “In our family we illustrated everything,” she said in a 2001 interview for World of Hibernia magazine. “In the kitchen we had a large porcelain table where we would write notes to each other accompanied by little drawings and then wipe them off later. I didn’t realize it then, but it was really a work of art.” She remembered spending long hours squirreled away in the family’s attic when she was a girl, reading favorite books over and over again, and lightly drawing pictures and writing stories in the margins, erasing her work before dinner each day so she could start anew.
Her parents and her beloved paternal Irish grandmother Cookie—“a wonderful storyteller,” Anglund recalled—filled her early childhood with books and stories. “Your family stories become a part of you; they’re a precious treasure to pass on,” Walsh told World of Hibernia.
By 1944, Anglund had begun her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. She continued her art education at the American Academy of Art in 1945 and became an apprentice to Chicago commercial artist Adele Roth. Then, in 1946, Joan’s brother-in-law introduced her to actor and playwright Bob Anglund, a student at the Goodman Theater. “It was love at first sight,” she said. The pair were married in 1947 and soon moved to Pasadena, Calif., where they hosted a popular radio variety show.
The Anglunds welcomed daughter Joy while in Pasadena, then relocated to Evanston, Ill., where their son Todd was born. By 1956 the family had settled in New York City, a move that proved difficult initially. Anglund was “profoundly lonely” in New York and her husband traveled frequently for work. Missing their life in the Midwest, she began putting words and drawings in a notebook. “The small-town feel of Illinois inspired by writing,” she said. “I would look at the huge buildings around me and imagine that behind every window was someone who had the potential to be a friend.” Her illustrations were inspired by her own two children as well as her observations of kids on the playground. The result was the seed of what became her first children’s book, A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You (Harcourt, 1958), which was selected as one of the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books that year.
That debut title’s journey to publication is a story in itself. Bob Anglund came across his wife’s notebook in a desk drawer, and without telling her, showed the work to several publishers. After a few rejections, the manuscript landed on editor Margaret McElderry’s desk at Harcourt Brace. She called Joan and delivered the news, “I think we have a book here.” A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You, Brave Cowboy (Harcourt Brace, 1959), and Love Is a Special Feeling (Harcourt Brace, 1960) were among the earliest of her more than 120 books, many of which became international successes. In total her books have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.
Over her career, Anglund’s artwork has been featured on Hallmark greeting cards and licensed for figurines and dolls, among other items. Collectors of her work and merchandise have formed fan clubs, and some of her notable admirers have included Queen Elizabeth II and Eleanor Roosevelt. Filmmaker and musician Tim Jackson, a longtime family friend of the Anglunds, produced the feature documentary Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem in 2015.
Family has always been a strong inspiration for and a theme within Anglund’s art and writing. Her granddaughter, Emily Anglund-Nellen, remembered Joan as “such a big part of our everyday lives. We’ve always been a very connected and close family and she was always in the mix keeping up with all of us. My grandfather died in 2009 and my twin daughters were born in 2011. I was living in New York City at the time, and she and my mother were such a big help with the newborns. For the past 10 years, Joan’s been able to spend a lot of time with the girls and was devoted to them. And she passed on her love of poetry to the girls. Joan would recite Emily Dickinson poems for any appropriate occasion—a sunrise, or a cloudy day—and my daughters would then memorize and recite them, too. She continued to write poems and always had her journal by her side.
She loved time outside and being in nature. One of her favorite things was going for long rides in the country; it was very important for her to get outside every day. She would say ‘I need to see the beauty.’ My brother Thaddeus was able to spend a lot of time with her in Connecticut this past year, playing music, taking her on rides, and just being together. She was so appreciative of even the simplest things.”
Brein Lopez, manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, offered these words of tribute to his friend: “I met Joan 20 years ago when I curated a retrospective of her illustrations at Every Picture Tells A Story Gallery in Los Angeles. We became friends instantly, sharing memories, meals, and conversation over a shared love of art, music, words, and nature. She taught me the importance of always observing life around me with empathy and humanity and to appreciate and enjoy moments alone or with loved ones. I will miss her mischievous laugh and her innate sense of wonder at the world we live in.”