Award-winning children’s author and illustrator Steve Jenkins, widely praised for his distinctive and detailed cut- and torn-paper collages depicting animals and the natural world, died on December 26 at age 69, of a splenic artery aneurysm.
Jenkins was born on March 31, 1952 in Hickory, N.C., to Alvin, a physics professor, and Margaret, a bank employee and homemaker. In an interview with Something About the Author, Jenkins recalled a childhood as a military brat, moving frequently while his father served in the military and pursued science degrees at various universities. But no matter where they lived, Jenkins said, “I maintained a small menagerie of lizards, turtles, spiders and other animals and collected rocks and fossils. I also spent a lot of time with books.” Jenkins was enthralled by science and loved to draw and paint what he saw in nature. He has said that he came to both of these passions by way of his father, who was a “frustrated artist.” The elder and younger Jenkins would perform science experiments together and collaborate on projects like animal scrapbooks and drawings of lizards and bugs they had captured in their ventures outdoors.
Though Jenkins initially planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a scientist, when he was heading to college at North Carolina State University, he decided “on a whim” to major in graphic design, as the art students on campus looked like they were having more fun. It was at NC State’s School of Design where Jenkins met his wife, fellow artist and designer Robin Page. Armed with a B.A. and M.A. from the School of Design, Jenkins moved with Page to New York City where both landed jobs in commercial design. Jenkins initially did some work in advertising and then took positions at a few design firms. In 1982, the couple formed their own graphic design firm, Jenkins & Page, headquartered first in New York City, then in Boulder, Colo., where they moved in 1994. Under their own shingle, when Jenkins and Page began working on a design project for publisher Stewart, Tabori & Chang, “I suggested to the editor that I also illustrate the books we were designing, and she agreed,” Jenkins said in an interview with Children’s Literature Website. The resulting series of books by Janet Horowitz and Kathy Faggella, including My Dad and My Town, published by STC in 1991, is how Jenkins recalled—in his Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for The Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) —“I truly stumbled into making children’s books.”
The first book Jenkins both wrote and illustrated was Duck’s Breath and Mouse Pie: A Collection of Animal Superstitions (Ticknor & Fields, 1994). He continued to hone his signature cut- and torn-paper collage artwork and received accolades for his inventive use of color, texture, scale, and perspective in his images, as well as his talent for distilling scientific facts and concepts into language accessible to young readers. Page was a frequent collaborator. Their first joint project was 2001’s Animals in Flight, a look at various types of animal wings and the mechanics of how creatures fly. Their book What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? received a 2004 Caldecott Honor.
Apart from his long creative partnership with his wife, other family ties run through Jenkins’s work, too. Some of his book ideas, including Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, grew from questions asked by one of his and Page’s three children. And Jenkins also created a children’s book with his father, Next Stop, Neptune, which takes readers on a tour of the planets and spotlights some of their unique features or characteristics. In addition to collaborations close to home, Jenkins illustrated a number of books by other authors as well, including Deborah Lee Rose (One Nighttime Sea, Scholastic, 2003), Valerie Worth (Pug and Other Animal Poems, FSG, 2013), and April Pulley Sayre (Squirrels Leap, Squirrels Sleep, Holt, 2016).
In all, Jenkins created more than 80 books for young readers. Though it’s a profession he came to by serendipity, it proved a perfect fit. “For me, making children’s books represents the happy intersection of children, science, art, my design partnership with Robin, and my lifelong love of reading,” he said in a SATA interview. Several new books are forthcoming from Jenkins and Page this year, including two additions to Jenkins’s By the Numbers series featuring infographics, and two picture books, Animal Toolkit and The Bird Book.
Margaret Raymo, executive editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, was Jenkins’s longtime editor during her tenure at HMH. Last month she announced LBYR’s acquisition of Why Do Elephants Have Big Ears? and a second nonfiction picture book by Jenkins and Page, scheduled for 2023. Raymo shared this remembrance of her author and friend: “It’s hard to imagine not being able to pick up the phone and call Steve to talk about his latest project. Over the last 25 years we worked on over 50 books together. His curiosity and passion for science and the natural world was boundless. He always had new ideas percolating—the hard thing was to decide which one to work on next. Whether talking about evolution, infographics, beetles, dinosaurs, dogs, sharks, Mount Everest, or the solar system, he wanted to get kids excited about science. Many of his books he co-created with his wife Robin Page, their collaborations as creative and as seamless as their longtime marriage. His myriad books are an amazing legacy of a truly exceptional human being.”
At Simon & Schuster, where Jenkins published a number of titles, Andrea Welch, executive editor of Beach Lane Books, offered this tribute: “I so admired his extraordinary design sensibility and the way he infused his creatures with a special spark that made them feel almost alive. He had a thoughtful and uncommonly mellow manner—always laced with a touch of humor— that made him a true pleasure to work with. He was so wonderfully mellow, in fact, that his art directors and I noted we always felt significantly calmer after speaking with him. We will miss Steve very much, but it is comforting to know that his fascinating and gorgeous books will continue captivating children for many years to come.”
This article has been updated.