Kovalski, Maryann 1951–
Kovalski, Maryann 1951–
PERSONAL: Born June 4, 1951, in New York, NY; daughter of Samuel (a chimney sweep) and Alice (Caputo) Kovalski; married Gregory Sheppard (a commercial film director), August 30, 1976; children: Genevieve F., Joanna E. Education: Attended New York School of Visual Arts, 1969–72.
ADDRESSES: Home—80 Belmont St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5R 1P8. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer and illustrator. Vickers & Benson Advertising, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, art director, 1974–75; freelance editorial illustrator, 1975–84; Dinsmore Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, co-owner, 1984–85.
Exhibitions: Dinsmore Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1983; Children's Bookstore, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1984; McGill Club, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1987; Vancouver Art Gallery, British Columbia, Canada, 1988; Bologna Book Fair, Bologna, Italy, 1990; and Society of Illustrators Original Art Show, New York, NY, 1990.
MEMBER: Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers, Society of Illustrators (New York).
AWARDS, HONORS: Sydney Taylor Children's Book Awards, Association of Jewish Libraries, winner in children's category, 2001, for Rivka's First Thanksgiving; Governor General's Literary Award nomination, Canadian Authors Association, for The Big Storm.
SELF-ILLUSTRATED; FOR CHILDREN
Brenda and Edward, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1984.
The Wheels on the Bus, Joy Street Books (Boston, MA), 1987.
Jingle Bells, Joy Street Books (Boston, MA), 1988.
Frank and Zelda, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990, published as Pizza for Breakfast, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1992.
Queen Nadine, Orca Books (Custer, WA), 1998.
Omar on Ice, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.
Rain, Rain, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.
Omar on Board, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2005.
Omar's Halloween, Fitzhenry & Whiteside (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2006.
ILLUSTRATOR; FOR CHILDREN
Allen Morgan, Molly and Mr. Maloney, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1981.
Ted Staunton, Puddleman, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1983.
Sharon, Lois & Bram's Mother Goose: Songs, Finger Rhymes, Tickling Verses, Games, and More, arranged by Eddie Graf, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 1985.
Frances Harber, My King Has Donkey Ears, Scholastic-TAB (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), 1986.
Tim Wynne-Jones, I'll Make You Small, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1986.
Rose Robart, The Cake That Mack Ate, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1986, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.
Paulette Bourgeois, Grandma's Secret, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.
John Green, Alice and the Birthday Giant, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1989.
John Green, Junkpile Jennifer, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1991.
Rhea Tregebov, The Big Storm, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1992.
Rita Golden Gelman, I Went to the Zoo, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1993.
Doctor Knickerbocker and Other Rhymes (poems), selected by David Booth, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1993.
Laura Krauss Melmed, The Marvelous Market on Mermaid, Lothrop, Lee and Shepherd (New York, NY), 1994.
Sherie Fitch, Mabel Murple, Doubleday Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
Margaret Atwood, Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, Workman (New York, NY), 1996.
The Seven Chairs, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Elsa Okon Rael, Rivka's First Thanksgiving, Margaret K. McElderry Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Dennis Lee, Garbage Delight: Another Helping (poems), Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Arlene Alda, Morning Glory Morning, Tundra (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2003.
Dennis Lee, So Cool, Key Porter Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2004.
Kovalski's books have been translated into French.
The author has made a sound recording, Illustrating for Picture Books, for the Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers.
SIDELIGHTS: Maryann Kovalski is an American-born Canadian illustrator and author of children's books noted for her humor and richly detailed, nostalgic drawings. Often employing popular songs or folk tales as the centerpiece of her stories, Kovalski has created a series of books around the adventures of the sisters Jenny and Joanna, and their spry grandmother. Familiar songs—"The Wheels on the Bus," "Jingle Bells," and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" are used as the thematic glue for such adventures, and the lyrics as well as musical notations are included in the illustrations. One of Canada's most popular illustrators, Kovalski has also done artwork for many of Canada's best-loved contemporary authors, including Tim Wynne-Jones and Margaret Atwood.
Born in New York, Kovalski was brought up in the Bronx at a time "when kids roamed freely and relatively safely," as she noted in an essay for Some-thing about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS). A Catholic, Kovalski experienced the ritual of the church in all its forms throughout the cycle of the year as she was growing up. There were processions through the neighborhood with her altar-boy brothers taking part, and these "ecclesiastical beauty pageants" made a strong impression on the young Kovalski.
Raised during the 1950s, Kovalski experienced the fears brought on by the Cold War, with nuclear attack drills at school, but she also experienced an America of a different epoch, the last of small town and neighborhood America before the restless onslaught and homogenization brought about by television and other mass media. It was a simpler age, when kids played in fire hydrant spray during the steaming summer months and old people leaned on pillows in their windows watching. It is a world lost in reality, but one preserved in many of Kovalski's illustrations.
Kovalski's father, a chimney sweep, played a significant role in her life. Never losing a childish glee at life, he would bring home all manner of strays, from kittens to a pair of chickens. If the bill collectors were being overly persistent, he would go off fishing. From her mother and her mother's sisters grew an early love of storytelling, especially ghost stories. From her father's parents Kovalski took great comfort. "I loved going to my grandparent's apartment," Kovalski recalled in SAAS. "It was big and clean and smelled of floor wax and furniture polish. The beds were covered in thick quilts which my grandmother made and stuffed herself with the down from the live chickens she chose at the dockside market." Natives of Poland, these grandparents still spoke their old language at family gatherings, still clung to the traditions of another time and place.
Another early influence on Kovalski was books, a never-ending fascination. "I loved picture books even when I was too old for them," Kovalski wrote in SAAS. At ten, the pictures of Jean de Brunhoff for Babar still mesmerized her. She spent long hours at the library near her grandparents' apartment, and one particular spring evening she had her family searching the neighborhood for her when she lost all sense of time and returned home after dark. Along with books came a love for drawing. "I knew I wanted to be an artist as far back as I could remember," Kovalski commented in SAAS. This ambition ran neck and neck with her desire to be a nun, until the habits which nuns wore became less formal and ornate and Kovalski lost interest in that particular career path.
Kovalski's grandparents died when she was just nine years old, leaving a void in the young girl's life. Shortly thereafter, her father moved the family to Florida, hoping to get rich on real estate ventures. As so often happens with grand plans, things went badly awry. After a few months, the family was on its way back to New York in their overloaded station wagon. Once settled again in the Bronx, Kovalski attended public school for the first time, as the local Catholic school had a long waiting list. Experiencing the feelings of being an outsider, picked on and bullied, Kovalski turned to her drawing and to the library. "One day," she recalled in SAAS, "a professional artist came to our school. He wore a beret, just like in the drawings of the artists. He looked over our shoulders as we drew in the art room. I was always so happy in the art room…. He placed his hand on my head and said to my teacher, 'This girl is going to be a famous artist someday.'"
To help make ends meet, Kovalski's mother took a job as an information operator and worked nights. Since Kovalski's father drove a taxi also at night, the children were left on their own, their one companion a fluffy white puppy. Slowly, the family finances improved and a new apartment was found, one where Kovalski had a room to herself for the first time. Throughout grade school and into high school, she maintained her dream of becoming an artist. While art came easily for her, other subjects, especially math and science, were like pulling teeth.
After high school, Kovalski applied to the School of Visual Arts in New York, though family finances seemed to make attendance there little more than a dream. A summertime job at a diner, however, provided enough money for the first-term tuition, and that fall Kovalski entered the art school. At first her progress was slow, aided little by the current vogue for conceptual artworks over traditional watercolors and oils. Her first two years were spent more in having fun and learning about herself than in learning about illustration. In her third year, a trip to Canada inspired Kovalski.
Returning to New York, she formulated a plan to live in Montreal and, to that end, worked on an animated film that would teach French to children. Planned both as a school-leaving project and a passport to work in Canada, the short animated film was her first concerted effort, involving nearly 3000 paintings or cells which would present a cartoon cat whose tail enlarged to spell out French words and which would then turn into the image that it had spelled. Though the finished film was far from successful, the discipline of drawing had aided her other work, and upon graduation she won an illustration job with Harper's for a story by John Barth. Soon thereafter Kovalski moved to Montreal as planned, though life as a freelance illustrator was not the easiest. She worked in a variety of jobs: creating advertising copy, designing logos, and working on cartoon strips. In Montreal she also met her future husband and, once married, the couple moved to Toronto and began a family.
Kovalski's first excursion into children's books was as an illustrator for the work of others, creating artwork for Allen Morgan's Molly and Mr. Maloney and Ted Staunton's Puddleman, both "enjoyable volumes," according to Anne Gilmore in Quill and Quire. By 1984, Kovalski had published her own book, Brenda and Edward, about two dogs who live "a blissful, contented existence," according to Gilmore, in a cardboard box behind a French restaurant in Toronto—a book inspired by a dog that had gotten onto the Toronto subway one day shortly after Kovalski had moved to that city. One day, Brenda, the female dog of the blissful duo, tries to bring a forgotten lunch to Edward, who works as a night watchdog at a garage. Soon lost, she eventually is hit by a car and is taken away by the driver. Poor Edward is devastated by her mysterious disappearance. Several years later a car comes into his garage with the scent of Brenda on it. Edward gets in and refuses to budge. Taken to the large country estate of the owners of the car, he there finds his long lost Brenda and the two are reunited to live happily in the country together.
"Kovalski's soft, sentimental illustrations are a perfect complement to this gentle story," Gilmore concluded in the Quill and Quire. Bernard Schwartz, writing in Canadian Children's Literature, echoed this sentiment, calling Brenda and Edward "a tender anthropomorphic story about love, caring, responsibility and faithfulness," and noted that the illustrations "effectively carry the storyline and depict a wide range of events in city scenes and interior views."
With The Wheels on the Bus, Kovalski introduced the sisters Jenny and Joanna and their resourceful, spunky grandmother. In this story, the three are off on a shopping trip for new winter coats, but get so involved at the bus stop singing the lyrics of the song, "The Wheels of the Bus," that they in fact miss their bus home when it comes. Never mind; Granny takes matters in hand and hails a taxi. Susan Nemeth McCarthy noted in the School Library Journal that "Kovalski builds a humorous original story around the traditional verse," while a contributor to Books in Canada, Mary Ainslie Smith, commented on the "wonderful double-decker bus filled with pompous snobs, crying babies, [and] harried parents." Schwartz, writing in Canadian Children's Literature, noted Kovalski's "whimsical" illustrations, done mainly in colored pencils and some wash, while Andre Gagnon in Canadian Materials called the illustrations "lively and full of small details that children will discover as they read the story." These illustrations give a rather nostalgic air to the story, depicting a cityscape of an earlier time, and there is a remarkable similarity between the grandmother of the story and Kovalski's Polish grandmother with whom she spent so many memorable hours as a child.
Further adventures of Jenny and Joanna with their grandmother came with Jingle Bells, another story employing a popular song at its center. This time the trio is off to New York City for a winter visit and an evening ride in a horse-drawn carriage. With snow-flakes falling, the three burst into song, the "Jingle Bells" of the title. At the same time, a runaway horse in Central Park is ultimately stopped by the indomitable grandmother. Peter Carver, reviewing Jingle Bells for Books for Young People, noted that Kovalski's "magnificently detailed images are rich with colour." Susan Hepler dubbed the artwork "eyecatching" in the School Library Journal, concluding that Kovalski "renders events humorously, breaks the black-line borders just as children like to behave outside the boundaries once in a while, and delightfully depicts the snowy nighttime city." A contributor to Booklist, Denise M. Wilms, also noted the cityscapes filled with "snowy good cheer," and added that the "story's effervescence makes it a sure pleaser as an upbeat Christmas tale," while Charles Causley called the book "a lovely, lively tale" in the Times Educational Supplement.
Kovalski returned to this winning combination of characters and song-based storyline with Take Me Out to the Ballgame, in which the sisters are taken to a ball game by their "wacky, fun-loving grandmother," according to Booklist reviewer Bill Ott. While Ott noted what he thought was a "problem with the plot"—just who won the game and why was grand-mother climbing the bleachers to catch a balloon at the last pitch?—he concluded that such inconsistencies would be ignored by kids "who'll just go on chuckling at Grandma's goofy antics." Shirley Wilton commented in the School Library Journal that the book was not so much about baseball as it was about a "grandmother who, despite her girth, her high heels, and red polka-dot dress, is a great sport and good companion at the ball park." Kovalski's illustrations, as usual, are richly detailed in this book, and Sandy Odegard, writing in Canadian Children's Literature, noted that Take Me Out to the Ballgame is "the sort of picture book you can spend time on pointing out details to your listener."
A picture book for older readers that does not include Jenny and Joanna is Frank and Zelda, titled Pizza for Breakfast in its U.S. edition. The story of a Depressionera pizza parlor hitting hard times, the book is loosely based on the story "The Fisherman's Wife." When the factory closes down next door, the pizzeria owned by Frank and Zelda takes it on the chin. However, when a customer comes and pays them in wishes, Frank wishes for a thousand cash-paying customers "every day and forever." The reader is reminded to be careful of what he or she wishes for, as the couple are soon inundated by customers, so many that they wish for a larger place. Wishes soon spiral out of control and finally Frank and Zelda wish only that they had never started with all these wishes. Presto: instant quiet in the old pizzeria. Patty Lawlor, writing in the Quill and Quire, noted the "droll pen" of this writer-illustrator and concluded punningly that "when it comes to pizzas, Kovalski delivers." Theo Hersh commented in Canadian Materials on the "soft, overflowing illustrations [that] emphasize the story's humor," and decided that this "happy story" would be "enjoyed by young children."
Kovalski's illustrations for the work of other writers has been equally rewarding for both her and her audience, adding extra dimensions to the text. As School Library Journal contributor Kathy Piehl noted in a review of Rita Golden Gelman's I Went to the Zoo: "The text makes this a natural for group sharing, but listeners will want to look at the pictures on their own to fully appreciate the antics." Of that same title, a reviewer in Publishers Weekly concluded that "Kovalski's funny and friendly soft pencil drawings will entertain presiding adults as well."
Kovalski also provided illustrations for a volume of children's poetry written by Dennis Lee from a five-year-old's perspective, Garbage Delight: Another Helping. Susan Miller in Resource Links called the author's illustrations "humorous, sweet, and touching," while Jeffrey Canton in Quill & Quire noted: "Her playful illustrations are especially important in mirroring the whimsical tone at the heart of Another Helping." For Arlene Alda's Morning Glory Monday, a story for children set in New York City in the 1930s, the critic in Publishers Weekly wrote: "Kovalski's … openhearted watercolor and charcoal renderings make an ideal match for this urban fairy tale, while her characterizations possess poignant emotional depth."
Kovalski spoke about the role of illustrator in an article by Laurie Bildfell in Quill and Quire. "As an illustrator," Kovalski said, "I sometimes feel like I'm directing little movies—I'm totally interpreting the story. If you've got a lousy story, an illustrator can't save it, but if it's a good story, the illustration can really make it sing." Sometimes Kovalski's role goes far beyond that of mere decorator of text. As she once noted, with the manuscript of Rose Robart's The Cake That Mack Ate, she actually changed the character of Mack from a little boy to a dog because "it just seemed to make sense."
Reviewers have noted various influences in Kovalski's work. Reviewing her illustrations for David Booth's Doctor Knickerbocker and Other Rhymes, Carolyn Phelan commented in Booklist that "Kovalski's style, sophisticated yet humorous, is reminiscent of Edward Gorey's work," and reviewing that same book for the School Library Journal, Barbara Chatton noted the same comparison. Reviewing the humorous and rather feminist fairytale, Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, by the well-known Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, a reviewer in Publishers Weekly called Kovalski's illustrations "droll," while Hazel Rochman in Booklist noted that her "line-and-watercolor pictures evoke a Marie Antoinette-style palace, with wry images and slapstick action." It is exactly this blend of wry humor and zany images—with both text and illustrations—that make Kovalski's work a favorite with young readers, and that has earned her the reputation of one of the most popular of contemporary Canadian illustrators and writers.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Children's Literature Review, Volume 34, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.
Kovalski, Maryann, Pizza for Breakfast, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 21, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, October, 1988, Denise M. Wilms, review of Jingle Bells, pp. 410-411; January 15, 1993, Bill Ott, "Rooting for the Home Team," review of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, p. 914; August, 1993, Carolyn Phelan, review of Doctor Knicker-bocker and Other Rhymes, p. 2052; December 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, p. 703.
Books for Young People, October, 1988, Peter Carver, review of Jingle Bells, pp. 13-14.
Books in Canada, December, 1987, Mary Ainslie Smith, review of The Wheels on the Bus, p. 13.
Canadian Children's Literature, Number 60, 1990, Bernard Schwartz, "Reprise: A Select Group," pp. 135-137; Number 70, 1993, Sandy Odegard, "Play Ball," review of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, p. 94.
Canadian Materials, March, 1988, Andre Gagnon, review of The Wheels on the Bus, p. 57; January, 1991, Theo Hersh, review of Frank and Zelda, pp. 27-28.
Publishers Weekly, July 12, 1993, review of I Went to the Zoo, p. 77; January 1, 1996, review of Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, pp. 70-71; September 22, 2003, review of Morning Glory Monday, p. 104.
Quill and Quire, November, 1984, Anne Gilmore, review of Brenda and Edward, p. 12; October, 1988, Laurie Bildfell, "Maryann Kovalski," interview with Maryann Kovalski, pp. 8, 10; September, 1990, Patty Lawlor, "In Search of Picture-Book Perfect," review of Frank and Zelda, p. 19; December, 2002, Jeffrey Canton, review of Garbage Delight: Another Helping, p. 26.
Resource Links, February, 2003, Susan Miller, review of Garbage Delight: Another Helping, p. 12.
School Library Journal, November, 1987, Susan Nemeth McCarthy, review of The Wheels on the Bus, p. 94; October, 1988, Susan Hepler, review of Jingle Bells, p. 35; April, 1993, Shirley Wilton, review of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, p. 112; September, 1993, Barbara Chatton, review of Doctor Knickerbocker and Other Rhymes, p. 238; Kathy Piehl, review of I Went to the Zoo, p. 79.
Times Educational Supplement, December 1, 1989, Charles Causley, "Ringing in the New," review of Jingle Bells, p. 31.
Maryann Kovalski Home Page, http://www.maryannkovalski.net (November 7, 2005).