Berger, Barbara (Helen) 1945-
BERGER, Barbara (Helen) 1945-
Born March 1, 1945, at Edwards Air Force Base, CA; daughter of Knute E. (a physician, medical artist, and research pathologist) and Margaret (a nurse, medical editor, executive research secretary, and poet; maiden name, Haseltine) Berger. Education: Attended Yale University, 1966, and Temple University's Tyler School of Art (Rome, Italy), 1966-67; University of Washington, B.F.A. (painting; cum laude), 1968. Politics: "Non-political." Religion: "Christianity and Buddhism."
Freelance artist, author, and book illustrator. Exhibitions: Has had solo exhibits in Seattle, WA, 1972, 1977, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, and 2002; Bainbridge Island, WA, 1978, 1994, and 1998; and Port Angeles, WA, 1997. Has also participated in group shows and invitationals in Washington, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Washington, DC, Indiana, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Bratislava, Czech Republic.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Artist Trust, Phi Beta Kappa, Lambda Rho.
Parents' Choice Foundation Award, 1984, Washington State Governor's Writer's Award, 1985, and Horn Book Graphic Gallery Selection, 1986, all for Grandfather's Twilight; Golden Kite Award for picture illustration, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, 1985, for The Donkey's Dream; art from The Donkey's Dream and When the Sun Rose was selected for inclusion in the United States exhibit at the Biennale of Illustrations, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, 1987; Washington State Governor's Writer's Award, 1991, for Gwinna; Children's Book Award, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, 1998, for A Lot of Otters; Parents' Choice Recommended Award, 2002, for All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet.
(Illustrator) Jane Yolen, Brothers of the Wind, Philomel (New York, NY), 1981.
(And illustrator) Animalia, Celestial Arts (Berkeley, CA), 1982, new edition, Tricycle Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999.
(And illustrator) Grandfather Twilight, Philomel (New York, NY), 1984.
(And illustrator) The Donkey's Dream, Philomel (New York, NY), 1985.
(And illustrator) When the Sun Rose, Philomel (New York, NY), 1986.
(And illustrator) Gwinna, Philomel (New York, NY), 1990.
(And illustrator) The Jewel Heart, Philomel (New York, NY), 1994.
(And illustrator) A Lot of Otters, Philomel (New York, NY), 1997.
(And illustrator) Angels on a Pin, Philomel (New York, NY), 2000.
(Reteller and illustrator) All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet, Philomel (New York, NY), 2002.
Also contributor of essays to anthologies; contributor to periodicals, including Crone Chronicles, Exhibition, and Snowy Egret.
Barbara Berger is a highly praised children's book author and illustrator whose detailed paintings accentuate stories filled with magical elements. A professional artist before turning to children's books, Berger often gets new story ideas from paintings she has done or wishes to do.
In her first project as author and illustrator, Animalia, Berger collects and retells thirteen stories that celebrate a harmonious relationship between humans and animals. While Cheryl Lynn Gage, reviewing this work for School Library Journal, felt that its prose might be too "grandiose" and "didactic" for most children, she added that "the paintings accompanying each tale are highly detailed works of art in their own right and reflect the warmth and wisdom of the tales." Animalia received accolades from a critic for Publishers Weekly, who stated that "Berger's creation is impossible to overpraise as an inducement to contemplation on the wonders of nature."
With her first wholly original effort, Grandfather Twilight, Berger garnered praise for both her prose and the accompanying pictures. The story mystically renders the rising of the moon at twilight as the gift of a pearl from a kindly old man to the sky each night. Janice Prindle observed in New York Times Book Review that "Berger's words in this illustrated bedtime story have been selected with such devotion that they stand, like a hymn, on their own.… Her full-color paintings tell the story just as beautifully, and in greater, more original detail." While some critics felt the story lacked plot or action, a People reviewer commented in a positive light, "This is a bedtime story for dreams to be made of." In a Horn Book review, Robert D. Hale asserted that " Grandfather Twilight is a book that enriches our heritage of mythology and legends—one to call upon frequently—'whenever the world falls apart.'"
The Donkey's Dream, Berger's next publication, tells the story of the birth of Jesus from the point of view of the donkey who bears Mary to Bethlehem. Berger incorporates Christian symbols into both the illustrations and the story as the donkey imagines he is carrying a city, a ship, a fountain, and then a rose upon his back—all significant Christian symbols. Jane Langton commented in New York Times Book Review that "the artist-author has brought a reverent simplicity to one of the oldest stories in the world." Again, Berger's illustrations were singled out for praise. For example, a Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked, "The paintings are glorious, reverent versions of the Nativity in which colors intensify the impact of visions and reality."
Like Grandfather Twilight, When the Sun Rose is a fantasy story illuminated by colorful, unusual paintings. In this work, a rose-covered girl arrives with the rising of the sun in a carriage pulled by a golden lion to play with the story's narrator. The two girls play with their dolls, have tea, and paint rainbows before the friend departs with the setting of the sun and a promise to return. A Publishers Weekly critic observed that "Berger's skillful blending of the metaphysical and a child's inner life make this an inspired work of art."
Berger's Gwinna is a fairy-tale story about a child with wings who is placed in the home of human parents until she is old enough to fulfill her dream of traveling to a faraway mountain, where she carves herself a harp to play. As a reviewer for Publishers Weekly summarized the book: "No brief recap of Gwinna 's plot can do justice to all its subtleties or to its profound imagery. Berger tells her long tale in simple, direct prose that illuminates its allegorical aspects with impressive clarity while keeping the action and adventure flowing smoothly.… With the publication of this story, Berger takes her place with the best talents in the field, past and present."
Continuing in her preferred fairy-tale vein, Berger tells a story of love in The Jewel Heart. Writing that the "dramatic storytelling and gossamer imagery elevate the work to the elegance of opera or ballet," a Publishers Weekly contributor recommended this book about two toys: a clown named Gemino and the ballerina Pavelle whom he loves. Gemino, whose heart is literally a jewel, tries to win Pavelle's heart by playing the violin for her, but whenever he stops playing she loses interest in him. One day, he has an accidental fall, and the distraught Pavelle fixes him by sewing him together with spider webs and replacing his heart with a seed, which grows after she waters it with her tears. A Lot of Otters is a similarly fanciful tale. Here, Mother Moon is saddened by the loss of her child at the same time that a little boy, reading a book about Mother Moon, sets out to sea in a cardboard boat. A group of otters, who also read the book, get Mother Moon's attention by rolling in the fallen stars that are her tears, thus reuniting mother and child. Describing the book as "dreamily evocative," a Publishers Weekly reviewer felt this "gentle, lulling reverie" of a tale will make a good bedtime story for youngsters.
Berger drew some negative comments for her next book, Angels on a Pin, which takes the age-old question "How many angels could dance on the head of a pin?" and turns it into a story in which actual angel cities populate various pins, and how one day the angels on two different pins rejoice in discovering each other's existence. A Publishers Weekly critic, pointing out that the story could just have well been about tiny people rather than angels, called this tale a "vacuous riff" with a plot that "is thin to the point of brittle." Booklist contributor Shelley Townsend-Hudson, however, felt that the story could be taken as a metaphor for humanity's desire to know whether there are people on other planets. Townsend-Hudson concluded that, "in so doing, [Berger] presents a memorable visual experience."
With her All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet Berger relies on an old Tibetan parable for a retelling that has parallels with the Grimm Brothers' fable of the tortoise and the hare. Two characters, a man on horseback and a boy with a yak, are on their way to the holy city of Lhasa. The horseback rider travels swiftly, but in so doing exhausts his horse; the boy, on the other hand, makes his way carefully along the long road and reaches his goal safely. Praising the gouache illustrations in the book, School Library Journal critic Grace Oliff called All the Way to Lhasa a tale "well worth the trip." Oliff, who compared the story to The Treasure by Uri Shulevitz, and other critics also appreciated the various symbols of Tibetan culture that Berger intersperses in her illustrations; Berger helpfully provides extensive notes in the book that explain the importance of these symbols for her readers. "Berger's choice of detail and color is utterly transporting," wrote Bruno Navasky in New York Times Book Review. "Her language… is direct, resonating with the clarity of a classic folk tale." A writer for Publishers Weekly observed that "Berger subtly underscores both the mysticism of the journey and the universality of its down-to-earth… moral."
Berger once commented on her artistic inclinations as a child: "My sister and I both loved to draw, from the first time we could hold a crayon. Every year before Christmas, Dad would take us to his office in 'secret.' He gave us paints and brushes, and we made paintings for Mom for Christmas. He framed them, and she hung them up on the kitchen walls until there was no more room.
"One year, instead of a painting for Christmas, I wanted to make her a book. I wrote my own poems in pencil, and made pictures for each one. She loved it, but still the book wasn't all I hoped it would be. I thought, 'When I grow up, I'm going to learn how to do this. I'm going to make my own books, with words and pictures together.'
"After college I kept on painting. Sometimes a painting seemed to have a story in it somewhere, even if I didn't quite know what it was. Or the painting might be one moment in a bigger story. Every couple of years, I had a show in a gallery. When I hung the paintings on the walls, they seemed to be all connected. Something invisible held them together. It might be a story you would 'read' by going from one painting to another, around the gallery. But the story had no words, only the title of each painting, and it might be a different story to every person.
"Finally I began to do my own books. Grandfather Twilight came from a painting I had done of an old man made of sky. In his hand he held a pearl, or the moon, and his beard turned into clouds. I asked, 'What is the story? Where did he come from and where is he going?' I daydreamed about it, went for long walks in the woods with my dog, imagined and sketched, and wrote it all down, and that is how it grew into a book. When the Sun Rose grew the same way, from a different painting of a big yellow rose coming in through an open door. This was the best way for me to start writing stories because I think in pictures. I love words too, but an image comes to my mind first, almost always.
"My Dad used to say that colors can sing. It is true, yet for me it isn't easy. The paintings in my books take a long time. First I do piles and piles of drawings. I work all the pictures out in a dummy. When everything feels right at last, then I start with the paint. It's always like coming home again to mix the colors on my big white china plates. Each book has its own 'flavor' and as I paint, the colors often surprise me.
"New ideas can come any time, you never know when. I jot them down and put them in folders so I can find them later. An idea might come with a word or two, like 'Unicorn Ship.' Then I wonder what the story is. I love to play with the ideas. So I keep the folders in the toy box my Dad painted for me when I was a baby, with blue inside and 'Barbara's Toys' on the lid. Now it's my idea box. There are more ideas in it than I can ever make into finished books. But I hope to do at least ten more, and there's plenty more room in the box."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 1, 2000, Shelley Townsend-Hudson, review of Angels on a Pin, p. 1028; October 1, 2002, Gillian Engberg, "Pilgrimages to Tibet," p. 346.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1985.
Horn Book, March, 1985, Robert D. Hale, review of Grandfather Twilight, pp. 215, 218-219.
Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1986, p. 1287.
New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1985, p. 30; December 15, 1985, p. 24; January 19, 2003, Bruno Navasky, review of All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet, p.16.
People, December 17, 1984.
Publishers Weekly, December 24, 1982, p. 64; September 13, 1985, p. 132; September 26, 1986, p. 79; August 10, 1990, p. 445; August 22, 1994, review of The Jewel Heart, p. 55; July 14, 1997, review of A Lot of Otters, p. 82; September 27, 1999, review of The Donkey's Dream, p. 64; October 25, 1999, review of Animalia, p. 83; January 10, 2000, review of Angels on a Pin, p. 67; August 14, 2000, review of A Lot of Otters, p. 357; August 19, 2002, review of All the Way to Lhasa, p. 88.
School Library Journal, April, 1983, Cheryl Lynn Gage, review of Animalia, p. 109; February, 2000, Rosalyn Pierini, review of Angels on a Pin, p. 91; September, 2002, Grace Oliff, review of All the Way to Lhasa, p. 209.
Barbara Berger Web site,http://www.bhberger.com (September 25, 2003).*