Susan Jeffers, a Caldecott Honor winner and New York Times bestselling illustrator, died on January 22 after a brief illness. She was 77.
Jeffers was born on October 7, 1942 in New Jersey and grew up there, noting in a 1977 interview with Bookbird that her art career had its humble beginnings in “a tiny school in Oakland, N.J., when I was chosen to paint a history mural with the usual Egyptians harvesting in muddy tempera fields.” She additionally credits her artistic and “very kind” mother with teaching her about perspective and how to mix paint, skills that encouraged her to later choose Pratt Institute for her art education.
Jeffers graduated from Pratt in 1964 and worked in the children’s art departments of three different publishing houses, including Macmillan, doing everything from repairing type and pasting up illustrations to designing books and jackets. But her work on other illustrators’ books further fueled her passion to create a book of her own. With that goal in mind, she shifted into freelance work so she could focus on her own projects. Around that same time, in 1968, Jeffers began an art studio with fellow illustrator Rosemary Wells, where they largely did book and jacket design.
Jeffers’s first book, published in 1967, “was not a success on any level,” she recalled in a 2013 interview with website Equitrekking. Next came The Buried Moon by Joseph Jacobs, published by Bradbury Press in 1969, which “did not make any money either,” she told Equitrekking. But, in the meantime, Jeffers had begun work on adapting and illustrating Three Jovial Huntsmen, based on a Mother Goose rhyme, also for Bradbury. However, once she finished the illustrations, she and her publisher made the joint decision not to go to press, as the work wasn’t strong enough. Jeffers then took a break from her own illustration and accepted a job as an art teacher.
Luckily, Bradbury phoned her about a year later, asking if she might want to take another run at Three Jovial Huntsmen. The resulting book was released in 1973 and earned her a 1974 Caldecott Honor and also won the Golden Apple Award, Biennale of Illustrations Bratislava in 1975. Jeffers went on to create more than 47 books for children, including Brother Eagle, Sister Sky! The Words of Chief Seattle by Chief Seattle, illustrated by Jeffers (Dial, 1991), and a number of collaborations with Wells. The pair teamed up for Lassie Come-Home (Holt, 1995); Rachel Field’s Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (S&S, 1999), and their series about McDuff the dog, published by Hyperion between 1997 and 2005.
Jeffers had a great love for horses, which she was able to depict frequently in her illustrations, most pointedly in the picture book My Pony (Hyperion, 2003), My Chincoteague Pony (HarperCollins, 2008) and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, adapted by Robin McKinley (Random House, 1986). She also enjoyed painting landscapes in her spare time and often took art classes, calling those pursuits her busman’s holiday.
Longtime collaborator and close friend Wells offered these words of tribute: “Susan Jeffers was a marvelous painter of wildlife, animals, and flora. She could look at something and draw it. I never could. She taught me over and over how to let something enter your eyes, then run down your arm into your fingers and your pencil. She taught me how to compose a jacket image. I tried to convey to Susan the art of telling a story in pictures. We worked together, always trying to compensate for the other’s weaknesses and to amplify the other’s strength. It worked so well. We shared many a book and 45 years of friendship. Susan’s legacy is her wonderful library from Hitty to McDuff and many more. All of them have been in the hands of thousands of children and they have benefited. What a terrific life!”
Barbara Lalicki, who retired in 2013 as senior v-p and editorial director at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and currently teaches picture book courses at the Pratt Institute, worked closely with Jeffers, and she shared this remembrance: “The way Susan strove for excellence made working with her an adventure. For instance, after going to the Lincoln Center bookshop to see what caught our eyes, she created the stunning jacket for The Nutcracker. Susan wanted her books to create a shared experience for parents and children. An excellent painter as well as an author-illustrator, she was an outstandingly generous person, always ready to help aspiring artists.”
Martha Rago, executive creative director at Random House Children’s Books, was Jeffers’s designer and art director at Henry Holt and later at HarperCollins. Rago recalled Jeffers as a “a joy to collaborate with and to know as a friend. Having been a designer herself, she was appreciative and respectful of what I could bring to the equation and I was happy to meet her high standards. Beyond our bookmaking we would chat about gardening, her love of horses, a current art exhibit, or her latest personal project. Susan approached her job, and most things, with exacting care and thoughtfulness. She created sensitive illustrations of animals and the natural world, as in Lassie Come-Home, and also nuanced portraiture, like the exquisite cover of The Nutcracker (Harper, 2007). She could draw anything, really, and her mastery of painting shows skill and a degree of control few can achieve. Yet she always raised the bar, a lifelong student, challenging herself to improve and study from people she admired. It was she who I admired."