Award-winning children’s book author-illustrator Petra Mathers, known for her naive-flavored pencil and watercolor artwork, died by suicide on February 6 with her husband, author and photographer Michael Mathers, at their home in Astoria, Ore. She was 78.

As friends and family of the couple reached out to one another for comfort in recent weeks, a common thread emerged: Petra and Michael had always said they would go together. “Petra told us it was part of their wedding vows,” said a close friend. “And they kept their promise.”

Petra Mathers was born on March 25, 1945, in the small town of Todtmoos, Germany, located in the country’s Black Forest region. She recalled an early childhood surrounded by nature where she amused herself by making up stories and games and was always eager to make pictures. “I was always drawing for as long as I can remember, but not well,” she told Dilys Evans in the book Show & Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Illustration (Chronicle, 2008). “In fact, in school my work was always shown as inadequate, but I didn’t really care—I just kept on drawing.”

Mathers attended elementary school in Stuttgart, following her family’s move there, and after a family relocation to Wiesbaden, she began her studies at the gymnasium (secondary school from roughly ages 10–18). At age 11, Mathers received a special gift that ignited her artistic passion: an art calendar given to her by a family friend. “When my father’s friend realized how much I loved it, he gave me this little art dictionary,” Mathers said in Show & Tell. “I learned the names and the styles quickly and found them all fascinating. Now that I think about it, I discovered the world of fine art right then.”

Mathers’s parents were supportive of her creative pursuits and their art books were another source of wonder for Mathers. She loved looking through the heavy volumes, poring over works by Rubens and Dürer, and she treasured trips to the museum with her mother and father to see paintings in person.

Upon graduation, Mathers opted to forego college and entered a three-year apprentice program in the book industry that involved working at a publishing company and bookstore, and taking classes in business and literature. It was during this course of study that she met her first husband, and not long after the birth of their son in 1965, the couple immigrated to the U.S., settling in Portland, Ore. By the early 1970s Mathers and her young son had moved to Cannon Beach, Ore. She worked as a waitress while continuing to create new pieces of art. In 1973, Mathers had her first exhibition at the nearby White Bird Gallery and began to sell enough paintings to leave her restaurant job as her reputation as an artist grew.

Mathers’s entrée into the children’s book world was facilitated by friends who brought some of her work to editor Nina Ignatowicz at Harper & Row in New York in 1980—the same year she married Michael Mathers. Ignatowicz sent Petra a letter encouraging her to keep up her good work, but suggesting that she try making some black-and-white art, for a better (e.g. more cost-effective) shot at breaking into the business. “To me, painting in black-and white is like wearing polyester clothes,” Mathers told Evans. Undaunted, she eventually put together a portfolio, and a couple of years later, when she and Michael were living on Long Island, she brought it to Harper’s offices, where Ignatowicz introduced her to fellow editor Laura Geringer. It was Geringer who gave Mathers her first children’s book contract, to illustrate How Yossi Beat the Evil Urge by Miriam Chaikin (Harper & Row, 1983)—in black-and-white—and with whom Mathers would go on to publish numerous books.

With Geringer’s encouragement, Mathers wrote and illustrated a story of her own, Maria Theresa (Harper & Row, 1985), about an adventurous hen who escapes her coop on a New York City rooftop and joins a circus in the countryside; the book won the Ezra Jack Keats Award, given annually to an outstanding new writer and new illustrator. The following year, Mathers’s illustrations for 1986’s Molly’s New Washing Machine (Harper & Row), written by Geringer, earned Mathers the first of her four New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Awards.

In quick succession, her titles Theodore and Mr. Balbini (Harper & Row, 1988), Sophie and Lou (HarperCollins, 1991) and Victor and Christabel (Knopf, 1993) featured richly hued folk-art style images and a full slate of sweet, offbeat characters. Mathers then called upon her own childhood memories for Kisses from Rosa (Knopf, 1995), focusing on a difficult period where she was sent to live with an aunt in the country while her mother recovered from tuberculosis.

Mathers gained another close professional partnership when Anne Schwartz, then an editor at Knopf, approached her with a project. “I had admired Petra’s work for a while, and when I got the manuscript for I’m Flying by Alan Wade (Knopf, 1990), I thought Petra would be the perfect illustrator for it,” Schwartz said. “I sent it to her, she loved it, and that was that!” Later, Lottie’s New Beach Towel (Atheneum/Anne Schwartz, 1998), published with Schwartz, launched Mathers’s six-volume Lottie’s World series of picture books starring resourceful hen Lottie and her best pal Herbie the duck who live on the Oregon coast. “Lottie is my role model,” Mathers told interviewer Linnea Hendrickson from Rutgers University in 1998. “Even though it seems that I am inventing her, she already exists in all of us when we are at our best,” she said.

Lottie and her pals found a permanent place to roost in 2003 when they landed at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. In 1996, Mathers’s art had been featured in the exhibition “Myth, Magic and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children’s Book Illustration” at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., organized by Michael Patrick Hearn, H. Nichols B. Clark, and Trinkett Clark. Mathers reconnected with Nick Clark when he became founding director of the Carle and she and her husband visited the Carle shortly after it opened in 2002. According to the Carle’s current chief curator Ellen Keiter, “Petra contacted Nick to say that Lottie belonged at the Carle. This started an extraordinary series of gifts over the next two decades.”

Mathers donated her graphite drawings and published watercolor and gouache paintings for Lottie’s New Beach Towel to the museum in 2003, which comprised a solo exhibit in 2004. Mathers subsequently gave the Carle all her original Lottie art as well as pieces from other books—more than 570 works. “Her animal characters demonstrate both compassion and humor, their foibles and friendships serving as metaphors for human bonds,” Keiter said.

In 2019, Mathers visited the Carle to hand-letter the text of her Lottie books onto her illustrations. “She arrived with a box of well-sharpened pencils and spent two days in our vault, meticulously inscribing the words below each small square painting and double page spread,” Keiter said. “The importance that her text and images live together—not just in the book but on the art itself—was evident.”

In all, Mathers published more than 40 titles for young readers. “All of my books are about love,” she told Hendrickson. And her last one, When Aunt Mattie Got Her Wings (S&S/Beach Lane, 2014), gently and humorously addresses the topic of death. “When we read Petra’s quirky and moving dummy about Lottie losing her beloved 99-year-old aunt when she died and took off on ‘Out of This World Airlines,’ and it brought laughter and tears in equal measure, executive editor Andrea Welch and I knew Petra had made something truly special and brave for the close of the series,” said Beach Lane Books publisher Allyn Johnston.

Geringer, former publisher of Laura Geringer Books at HarperCollins, paid tribute: “It was a great joy to work with Petra on Maria Theresa, the adventurous chicken that inspired Lottie, on Mr. Balbini, on the heartwarming Sophie and Lou and many, many other beautiful picture books over the years. My home is filled with her joyful artwork, a daily inspiration, and a reminder to relish the colorful absurdities in life. Her witty stories and characters will live on. I’m happy to have been her first editor and to have welcomed her to the world of illustrating for children and proud that she illustrated my own crazy story, Molly’s New Washing Machine. She was an original.”

Schwartz, now v-p and publisher of Anne Schwartz Books at Random House Children’s Books, offered this remembrance: “Though Petra seemed quiet and quite proper, below the surface lurked gargantuan observational powers, a dry wit, and above all, a deeply romantic soul. My most vivid Petra memory is from when I visited her and her beloved husband Michael in Astoria, Oregon in the 90s. Their house was immaculate—just the way I imagined her alter ego Lottie’s house would be. She and I took a walk through the woods, down to where the Astoria River meets the Pacific Ocean. By the shore, Petra explained that every morning she came there, sat on a rock, and listened to the birds calling to one another. When she got home, she’d translate it all into the Lottie, Herbie, and Dodo stories. What Petra did not say—but that I knew to be true—was that in her ‘translations,’ which seem so utterly simple, she captured the essence of our daily lives, infusing a group of birds with profoundly human strengths and weaknesses.”

And Keiter shared, “The Carle is indebted to Petra. She gifted us—and the world—her beautiful art and stories. With minimal detail, she combined her distinctive folk-art style with jewel-like colors and a delicacy of touch. She authored sensitive stories that are equally relatable and whimsical. Petra Mathers is a gift we can all be grateful for.”