Author and illustrator Anne Rockwell, celebrated for her many informational picture books for very young children, died of natural causes on April 10 in Stamford, Conn., during a brief hospital stay. She was 85.
Anne Rockwell was born on February 8, 1934 in Memphis, Tenn., to Francis Howard and Hazel Edmunds Howard. She was later adopted by Emerson and Sabina Foote. In her autobiographical essay for Something About the Author, Rockwell recalled very early memories of her birth parents’ encouragement of her development as an artist and her passion for classic works of early Italian Renaissance and Egyptian art. After winning an art contest at age five with a painting of Cleopatra floating down the Nile River, Rockwell wrote, “This early success convinced me that I would be a professional artist one day.”
She enjoyed school and said that she doesn’t remember when she learned to read, but “it seems as though I have always known how.” She adored the children’s books handed down to her by her birth mother, fairy tale collections, and the various volumes shared in her elementary school classrooms. And when there were no children’s books available, she voraciously read reference books—including the dictionary and encyclopedia—as well as works by Shakespeare and Louisa May Alcott. During these formative years, Rockwell said she also enjoyed making up stories and experimenting with oil paints she had received as a gift from her father.
As a girl, Rockwell lived in various parts of the country including New Orleans, Santa Fe, Tucson, and Cincinnati. At the age of 18, she settled in New York City, where she found a job doing typing work for a textbook publisher, an experience, she wrote, that helped inform her thinking about the importance of good books for children. Rockwell studied at Pratt Graphic Arts Center and at the Sculpture Center, and began writing poetry. In her free time, she took advantage of the opportunity to “learn from the many and varied works of art a great city like New York could offer.”
In 1955, she married Harlow Rockwell, with whom she raised three children—Hannah, Lizzy, and Oliver—while living in Old Greenwich, Conn. Rockwell’s first children’s book, Paul and Arthur Search for the Egg, was published by Doubleday in 1964. She collaborated on a number of books with her husband, also an author and illustrator (Sally’s Caterpillar, Parents Magazine Press, 1966; The Toolbox, Macmillan, 1971), and frequently used her children as inspiration, and sometimes as character models, “writing and illustrating picture books in whatever time I had to myself while they were in school or otherwise occupied,” she wrote.
Rockwell referred to herself as largely a self-taught illustrator, noting that a lack of more formal training “has meant that many things are more difficult for me than for those with more technical tricks of the trade, [but] it has also kept my vision closer to that of a child.” Her signature style features simple, direct text, and crisp images of familiar objects in a child’s world set against ample white space. Among her best-known works are a series of books about vehicles including Boats (Dutton, 1982), Fire Engines (Dutton, 1986), and Things That Go (Dutton, 1986) and titles about science and the natural world, including Our Earth (Harcourt, 1998). She wrote picture book biographies of such figures as Sojourner Truth (Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth, Knopf, 2000) and retold and illustrated folktales and myths from around the world. Rockwell illustrated books by other authors as well.
Following her husband’s death in 1988, Rockwell began a 30-year collaboration with her daughter Lizzy Rockwell. Among their joint works are Career Day (HarperCollins, 2000) and Zoo Day (Aladdin, 2017). In total, Rockwell created nearly 200 books for children over the span of her career.
Christy Ottaviano, publisher of her eponymous imprint at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, worked with Rockwell on four books, including Here Comes the Night (2006) and My Preschool (2008). She offered these words to Rockwell’s family, describing her as “one of a kind—such a visionary in her ability to reach young children through her thoughtful, clever, and wide-reaching books. She had such a keen understanding of the picture book form and how it could open up a child’s world.”
Additionally, Ottaviano paid tribute to her author-illustrator on her imprint’s Facebook page: “I learned a lot from Anne about creating books for very young children during the time I was her editor and publisher and am grateful for that experience. There are few children’s book creators who have had careers that span five decades—this is testament to the lasting power of Anne’s books as well as her relevance in an industry that can often be fickle. She will be sorely missed, but she has left a trunk full of thought-provoking books for new generations of young minds to discover and read over and over and over.”
Susan Hirschman, the retired founder and former publisher of Greenwillow Books, was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Children’s Books when several of Rockwell’s early titles were published there. Hirschman shared this reflection: “Anne Rockwell knew what she wanted. And that was to write and illustrate what she considered important for young children. She and Harlow were not interested in who was doing what at the time, or what was considered ‘in.’ She had three children, she had been a child, she was smart—and she knew. I remember the fuss at Macmillan when My Nursery School was in the works. Surely, it was felt by people in management, no one read in nursery school. There would be no market for such a book. Ha! And her French and Spanish songbooks—glorious books but like no others at the time. And her Games book [Games and How to Play Them, Crowell, 1973]. And all this is to say nothing of the many easy readers that were fresh and fun and wonderfully illustrated with Anne’s unique art. She was not easy to work with, but it was worth it. And the books are the proof.”
Details for a memorial service will be announced; Rockwell’s family has suggested that any memorial contributions may be made to Reading Is Fundamental.