Award-winning author-illustrator Lois Ehlert, widely known for her signature collage artwork featuring bold colors and crisply cut shapes as well as found objects, died on May 25 in Milwaukee, Wis., of natural causes. She was 86.
Ehlert was born November 9, 1934 in Beaver Dam, Wis., the oldest of Harry and Gladys Ehlert’s three children. She cited her parents’ creative bent—her mother enjoyed sewing and her father woodworking—and their steady encouragement as major influences on the development of her own passion for art and design. During school visits and appearances with children, Ehlert often recounted the childhood story of how her father fixed up an old folding table for her in a room in their home. “They made a bargain with me that if I kept working at my artwork on that table, I didn’t have to put things away every day,” she recalled in a 2016 interview with Read It Real Good book blogger Alia Jones. “I think that was very unusual because… we had a very small house and I was right in the middle of everything. I often said to them, when I grew up to be an artist, did you realize how important that was for you to allow me that?” Ehlert paid special tribute to her parents’ creativity, and to that table, in her books Hands (Harcourt, 1997) and The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life (Beach Lane, 2013).
Ehlert kept broadening her art skills throughout childhood and when she was in high school, her burgeoning talent was recognized in the form of a scholarship to the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, where she earned a degree in graphic design in 1957. Following art school, Ehlert worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer and also began illustrating children’s books by other authors, including I Like Orange by Patricia M. Zens (Watts, 1961). With a number of book titles under her belt, Ehlert decided to try both writing and illustrating a book of her own. She made her author-illustrator debut with Growing Vegetable Soup (Harcourt, 1987), which depicts how to cultivate a vegetable garden. Planting a Rainbow (Harcourt, 1988), in which a mother and child plant a flower garden, soon followed. Both titles were warmly received and garnered critical praise for the vibrant hues and the graphic design used in the illustrations. These two books were also the first of many to capture Ehlert’s great love for the natural world.
In 1989, Ehlert once again illustrated a project written by someone else: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (Simon & Schuster) by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault. The jaunty alphabet chant about rowdy letters clambering up and down a coconut tree became a long-running hit; according to S&S it has sold more than 12 million copies across all formats. That same year, Ehlert published Color Zoo (HarperCollins), a showcase of paper-engineered animal faces that was named a 1990 Caldecott Honor title.
As her publishing career gained momentum, Ehlert studied other design and bookmaking techniques, which inspired her to experiment with her style. She explored various forms of collage using cut-paper shapes (hole-punches, pinking shears), and eventually incorporated found objects from both the outdoors (leaves, acorns, feathers) and around the house (buttons, ribbon, fabric scraps). The subjects of Ehlert’s books increasingly reflected some of her other passions, too, including animals, ranging from fish to moles to dogs and leopards, and elements of Native American and Peruvian culture which she employed in several folktale retellings. In all, Ehlert created 38 books for young readers.
Allyn Johnston, v-p and publisher of Beach Lane Books and Ehlert’s longtime editor, shared a remembrance of her author and friend: “Lois and I did 29 books together over 35 years, and during that time we discussed a lot of revision suggestions. Some she welcomed, as you can tell by her response to having to redo a piece from Lots of Spots over a holiday weekend: ‘That’ll keep me outta the bars!’ Others were challenged, like when I worried that perhaps too many of the caterpillars in Ten Little Caterpillars were in jeopardy of being eaten for such a very young picture book: ‘Tweeter, kids know caterpillars live a precarious life.’ (She gave me that nickname when we did Feathers for Lunch in 1990.) And once, in the case of a book we ultimately abandoned, she said: ‘It was artwork in quest of a story. Which it never found.’
What Lois cared about most was inspiring young children to notice the beauty of our world and to encourage them in their own creativity. Last night when I was missing her a great deal, I watched interviews with her online, and this quote in particular stood out: “As I always say to children, ‘There’ll be some day when I won’t be able to do artwork anymore, and you’re the ones that are going to have to do the next books in the next generation.’ It connects perfectly to this note she sent me 20 years ago: ‘I try to do each book as if it’s the last book I’m going to be doing. That’s what I think about when I come to my drawing table every morning. That, and what I’m going to have for lunch.’ ”
Award-winning author-illustrator Kevin Henkes, an old friend and great admirer of Ehlert’s, offered these words of tribute: “Over the years, when I longed to be in New York and thought that was where all the real artists lived, my mind would turn to Lois, and I’d tell myself: If Wisconsin is good enough for Lois Ehlert, then it’s good enough for me. I loved being able to say that we were both Wisconsinites.
Everyone knows how wonderful Lois’s books are. Her sense of design and color are to envy. Her respect for nature, children, and ordinary joy is as clear and solid in her work as her Century Schoolbook type. Her books fly high—they look ready to bounce off the shelf—and, yet, are always grounded. As was Lois. Her good humor, charm, insight, and intelligence came through her work in the most lovely, humble way. Which makes perfect sense because Lois was one of the most unpretentious people I’ve ever known.”
Ginny Moore Kruse, emerita director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, honored Ehlert this way: “Midst all the honors Lois Ehlert received during her long career, she never forgot her childhood in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. She remembered her parents’ projects (gardens, stitchery, objects created from wood) made using their hands, tools, precise measurements, and their imaginations. In later years, Lois expressed gratitude at being named to her hometown’s Hall of Fame as genuinely as when she won book and lifetime legacy awards. Throughout her ‘colorful life,’ Lois wore the bright colors in her books. She generously figured out how organizations important to her could become more visually effective. Lois enjoyed theater and music performances. It was always a lot of fun to be with Lois. During one autumn, without formal permission, Lois and a friend impishly planted daffodil bulbs in various Milwaukee public spaces while delighting in the anticipation of a colorful civic spring. Lois was a champion of all that ‘creeps, leaps, wiggles, sings, blooms, and flies with wings.’ In her books she brought that world to children by means of her color-filled celebrations of the natural world and gentle invitations to create original responses.”