Lester, Helen 1936-
LESTER, Helen 1936-
PERSONAL: Born June 12, 1936, in Evanston, IL; daughter of William Howard (a businessman) and Elizabeth (Sargent) Doughty; married Robin Lester (a historian, teacher, and author), August 26, 1967; children: Robin Debevoise, James Robinson. Education: Bennett Junior College, A.A.S., 1956; Wheelock College, B.S., 1959. Religion: Protestant. Hobbies and other interests: Cooking, running, drawing, hiking.
ADDRESSES: Home—P.O. Box 64, Pawling, NY 12564.
CAREER: Writer. Elementary school teacher in Lexington, MA, 1959-62; Francis W. Parker School, Chicago, IL, teacher of second grade, 1962-69; Hamlin School, San Francisco, CA, teacher of first grade, 1987-89; Francis W. Parker School, teacher, 1989-92. Full-time school visitor and lecturer at teachers' conferences.
AWARDS, HONORS: Colorado Children's Book Award, 1990, California Young Reader Medal, 1991, and Nebraska Golden Sower Award, 1992, all for Tacky the Penguin; Montana Treasure State Award, 1997, for Three Cheers for Tacky; Blue Ribbon award, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing, New York Public Library, Best Books of the Year selection, Parenting magazine, Notable Book for Children selection, Smithsonian magazine, Capitol Choices selection, and Notable Children's Book in the Language Arts, National Council of Teachers of English, all 1997, and Not Just for Children Anymore selection, Children's Book Council, 1998, all for Author: A True Story; Parents' Choice Gold Award and Best Books of the Year selection, Parenting magazine, both 1999, Notable Book for Children, American Library Association and Kentucky Bluegrass Award, both 2000, Wyoming Buckaroo and Indian Paintbrush Books Awards, Washington Children's Choice Picture Book and Sasquatch Reading Awards, Utah Beehive Award, Colorado Children's Book Award, Delaware Blue Hen Book Award, Maryland Children's Book Award, North Carolina Children's Book Award, North Dakota Flicker Tale Children's Book Award, all 2001, Arkansas Diamond Primary Book Award, California Young Reader Medal, Indiana Young Hoosier Book Award, Missouri Show Me Readers Award, Nevada Young Readers Award, South Carolina Children's Book Award, Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award, and Virginia Young Readers Program Award, all 2002, all for Hooway for Wodney Wat.
(And illustrator) Cora Copycat, Dutton (New York, NY), 1979.
The Wizard, the Fairy, and the Magic Chicken, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1983.
It Wasn't My Fault, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1985.
A Porcupine Named Fluffy, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1986.
Pookins Gets Her Way, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1987.
Tacky the Penguin, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1988.
The Revenge of the Magic Chicken, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1990.
Me First, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1992.
Pick a Pet, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, Scott Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1993.
Lin's Backpack, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Scott Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1993.
Three Cheers for Tacky, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
Katy's Pocket, illustrated by Paul Harvey, Newbridge Communications (New York, NY), 1994.
Hop to the Top, illustrated by Patrick Girouard, Newbridge Communications (New York, NY), 1994.
(With Robin Lester) Wuzzy Takes Off, illustrated by Miko Imai, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1995.
Listen, Buddy, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
The Four Getters and Arf, illustrated by Brian Karas, Addison-Wesley (New York, NY), 1995.
Help! I'm Stuck!, illustrated by Paulette Bogan, Celebration Press (Glenview, IL), 1996.
Wrong Way Reggie, illustrated by Timothy Foley, Celebration Press (Glenview, IL), 1996.
(With Robin Lester) Roy Foy's Special Name, illustrated by Diana Cain Blumenthal, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1996.
Princess Penelope's Parrot, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1996.
The Shy People's Picnic, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Wescott, Celebration Press (Glenview, IL), 1996.
(And illustrator) Author: A True Story, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
Tacky in Trouble, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
Hooway for Wodney Wat, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
Tacky and the Emperor, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.
Score One for the Sloths, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
Tackylocks and the Three Bears, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2002.
Something Might Happen, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.
Lester's books have been translated into Spanish, French, German, Hungarian, and Japanese, and many are available in the United Kingdom.
SIDELIGHTS: With her offbeat penguin protagonist Tacky, Helen Lester has created an icon of individuality and of going against the stream. Tacky is a waddling symbol of the humorous refusal to join in the sameness of things. Not that Tacky is a rebel; he displays what Horn Book's Christine M. Heppermann described as a "sweet obliviousness" to the mainstream or of how things should be done, dressed in his tacky Hawaiian shirt instead of the prim tuxedo-like outfits of most penguins. In the course of several picture books in collaboration with illustrator Lynn Munsinger, Lester has established Tacky as a modern-day Don Quixote, accidentally battling windmills of conformity. And Tacky is just one of several characters Lester has created in her many well-received picture books for the three-to-six-year-old age group, stories which the author once typified in CA as "humorous approaches to a message." Often working with illustrator Munsinger, Lester writes of wizards, porcupines, penguins, chickens, pigs, rabbits, and loveable rats, as well as little boys and girls. Her stories explore themes such as cooperation, feelings of guilt, clumsiness—things that form the center of a childhood universe. "When I was a mother of young children I felt a need for more short but satisfying bedtime stories," Lester once told CA. "That need spurred me into writing. . . . Life's pretty serious sometimes, and I feel the heavier concepts are better received if given a lighter touch."
Born "sometime between the age of electricity and the age of television," as Lester humorously noted on the Houghton Mifflin Web site, the future author was brought up in Evanston, Illinois. As she further recalled, most of her early writing attempts were "thank-you notes at birthdays and Christmas . . . not a voluntary activity." Later, she began taking more pleasure in writing and joined in the family preoccupation with sending letters both humorous and "voluminous" to other family members. She developed, as she described it, a "sense of what fun could be had with the written word." Yet her ambitions were far from those of a professional writer; as a young woman coming of age in the 1950s, her one goal was to become a bride. "Since no one wanted to turn me into a bride, I became a teacher," she recalled.
During her ten years of teaching, she did marry and had two children. Taking a leave from teaching to care for her sons, she rediscovered the joy in words by reading them bedtime tales. Every once in a while one of these books would appeal to her as much as to her two boys, and she decided that "the world needed more books that would amuse both adults and children," as she wrote on the Houghton Mifflin Web site. Initially, Lester felt she could contribute to the world of books by illustrating them. She had always enjoyed illustration, and her early efforts with children's books centered on the pictures; her text was only secondary at that time. As a busy mother with two active children and a decade of teaching experience with all sorts of second-grade antics to draw from, Lester had ideas galore.
Publication was another matter, however. After receiving numerous rejections, her first book was finally published in 1979. With her first title, Cora Copycat, Lester presents a little girl whose copycat antics drive her family wild until one day a Wild Woolly Wurgal, freshly escaped from the zoo, cures her of this habit. Lester illustrated this first book herself, and a Kirkus Reviews critic noted both the "funny, comix-style cartoons" as well as Lester's "snappy text." However, with her next book, The Wizard, the Fairy, and the Magic Chicken, Lester—at the suggestion of her editor—teamed with Munsinger for the first time in a story of three sorcerers who are trying to outdo one another. Creating monsters, however, soon turns the sorcerers' competition into a need for cooperation. "Little kids will be all agog when they discover what happens next," concluded a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "A winner for kids and the adults who'll be reading it again and again," noted Booklist's Ilene Cooper. This squabbling trio earned a reprise in Lester's Revenge of the Magic Chicken, which Cooper found "as zany as ever."
A little boy who refuses to accept blame forms the core of It Wasn't My Fault. Murdley Gurdson, while out for a walk one day, has an egg land on his head. When a round-robin of animals blames one another, Murdley is finally forced to admit that it is his fault. A Kirkus Reviews contributor found the story "deftly contrived, and comical without overstraining," while a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer commented that it was "bright, sunnily nonsensical, capably structured and told." Names are at the center of A Porcupine Named Fluffy, and it is only when Fluffy meets a rhino named Hippo that things look brighter for the misnamed porcupine. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that Munsinger and Lester "tell a sweet story with joyful exuberance."
Ideas come to Lester from many sources: from her own career as a teacher, from her children as they were growing up, from jokes and nonsense rhymes. "I am usually moved to write a book when an idea pops into my head," Lester once told CA. "And an idea pops into my head usually when I'm in the middle of an unexciting task—doing such things as standing in bank lines or washing spinach. . . . Once an idea comes into my head it usually takes one or two months of misfires and charging up blind alleys until the story is completed."
Another little girl figured in Pookins Gets Her Way, a cautionary tale for children who must always have their own way. Pookins has ice cream for breakfast and practices roller-skating in the living room; in fact, the threat of her tantrums gets her anything she wants until she meets her match in a gnome from whom she demands three wishes. "It's extremely satisfying to see this rotten kid get her comeuppance," noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly.
A pig, a parrot, and a rabbit are protagonists in a trio of books examining the consequences of selfishness, rudeness, and inattention. Greedy Pinkerton the pig mistakes a Sandwitch for a sandwich at a beach picnic in Me First, and is quickly up to his snout in trouble as the witch obliges him to do chores for her. "The Sandwitch is just the corny joke to amuse most children," Carolyn Jenks noted in Horn Book. Reviewing that same title, a contributor for Publishers Weekly felt it was "another successful joint effort," as well as a "funny, fetching tale." The birthday parrot in Princess Penelope's Parrot provides the comeuppance for the nasty little princess to whom it is given when the bird sputters all the rude remarks it has learned from her at a most inappropriate moment. Sally R. Dow, writing in School Library Journal, commented on the "delightfully droll humor" in the book as well as on Munsinger's "whimsical" illustrations. "Another small funny lesson in correct behavior from a well-known pair of collaborators," concluded Horn Book reviewer Ann A. Flowers. Also reviewing Princess Penelope's Parrot, a critic for Publishers Weekly felt that "Lester's storytelling calls to mind the dry wit of a Thurber," while Booklist's Stephanie Zvirin noted that "the comical overlay makes the obvious message go down easily." Janice M. Del Negro, writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, called the same book "a great read-aloud." In Listen, Buddy, the eponymous bunny has trouble concentrating on what is said to him, despite his enormous ears. An adventure with Scruffy the Varmint helps Buddy to sharpen his listening skills in this "sprightly paced tale [which] amiably nudges kids whose direction-following skills need some honing," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Similarly, Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, felt that "kids will enjoy the slapstick and the word jokes." And Virginia Opocensky, reviewing the title in School Library Journal, concluded, "Sure to bring laughs at story time."
Lester and Munsinger turned their hands to the antics of a penguin with the award-winning Tacky the Penguin and its sequels, including Three Cheers for Tacky. Tacky is not your standard penguin; in fact, dressed in Hawaiian shirts and a purple bow tie, he hardly fits in with his other black-tie cousins. Though he does not blend well, it is Tacky who saves his friends from hunters in Tacky the Penguin, which Phillis Wilson, writing in Booklist, called a "perceptive text about being different." In Three Cheers for Tacky, the rumpled penguin is reprised in another title that "reinforces the message that there is nothing wrong—and quite a bit right—with being different," according to a contributor for Publishers Weekly. The same reviewer praised the "pithy" text and "winsome" illustrations in the "entertaining" title, which finds Tacky once again the nonconformist among his penguin pals, all attired in black-bow-tie penguin finery. Engaged in a cheering contest, Tacky once again finds himself hopelessly out of step and no competition for the other teams who are color coordinated and all cheer right on cue. But on the day of the competition, Tacky's bungling endears itself to the judges, who, completely bored by the sameness of the others, award Tacky and his team first prize, a new bow tie. Reviewing Three Cheers for Tacky, Ann A. Flowers concluded in Horn Book that the story is "a great comfort . . . to nonconformists." Booklist's Kathryn Broderick also had praise for the book, noting that "Lester's clever writing and the slapstick humor of the story make this a funny, funny, picture book."
Tacky makes repeat performances in other titles from the collaborating duo of Lester and Munsinger. With Tacky in Trouble, Lester presents "Tacky's goofiest escapade yet," according to Booklist's Stephanie Zvirin. Tacky's unerring sense for making mistakes once again comes to his rescue when he is blown off course while surfing as his Hawaiian shirt catches the wind and takes him far away from the iceberg his friends refuse to leave. He ends up on a tropical island where he mistakes an elephant for a big rock. In an effort to prove that he is a bird and not a big bouquet for the elephant (with his flowered shirt), Tacky engages in what should be typical penguin behavior, such as diving, and manages to destroy the elephant's tablecloth. However, he is saved at the last minute, because the elephant likes the mess Tacky has made. "The story will appeal to children who know that making a mess can cause trouble," commented Marty Abbott Goodman in School Library Journal. Pat Matthews, reviewing the third "Tacky" installment in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, thought that "Tacky is one nonconformist everyone will want to be like."
In Tacky and the Emperor, the penguins are busy getting things ready for the auspicious visit of the penguin emperor. Tacky's job is preparing the balloons, but of course he gets carried away—literally. He soars off with one of the balloons only to land near the emperor's palace. Tacky is unaware of his location; meanwhile, the emperor disrobes to take a dip in his pool. When Tacky stumbles onto the emperor's fancy clothes, he puts them on and returns home only to be amazed when all his friends greet him as the emperor. "Lester hits the mark again," commented Martha Link in School Library Journal, "tapping right into the humor of the primary set, and proving once more that it's cool to be tacky." Tim Arnold, writing in Booklist, had similar praise, concluding that the author and artist once again manufactured "a delightful Antarctic-ofthe-imagination, where comfy conformity is the rule but a very funny misfit saves the day."
A school play forms the backdrop for the 2002 addition to the "Tacky" books, Tackylocks and the Three Bears. A critic for Kirkus Reviews observed that "pomposity gets one on the snoot" in this title. When the other "perfect" penguins decide to stage a school play, Tacky—an unwanted member—is cast as Goldilocks. After numerous rehearsals, the cast think they have the play ready and perform it in front of a class of younger penguins. When Tacky forgets his lines and eats all the porridge and then goes off to sleep in baby bear's bed, the others try to cover for him. But Tacky needs no such help; a pillow fight leads to unexpected audience participation and all the little penguins think this is the best play ever. A KirkusReview critic called this offering "another victory for oddfellows everywhere," while Marlene Gawron, writing in School Library Journal, thought that "this silliness will delight Tacky's loyal fans and win a lot of new devotees."
Lester and Munsinger turn to another character in their "celebrations of differences," as a reviewer for Horn Book wrote, in Hooway for Wodney Wat. Rodney Rat has a speech impediment and has trouble pronouncing his own name. Teased by his classmates, Rodney is so embarrassed that he hides inside his jacket. Rodney's status changes, however, when he is able to undo a new school bully with a game of Simon Says; his "w" for "r" substitution suddenly becomes his strength as he sends the bully to "wake the leaves" and "go west." A critic for Publishers Weekly felt that "Wodney's transformation from forlorn to triumphant will have children cheering." Likewise, Booklist's Stephanie Zvirin noted that this "comical story . . . will not only make kids laugh but also hearten those who feel they'll be outsiders forever."
Another nonconformist takes center stage in Score One for Sloths, in which Sparky tries to put some oomph in her fellow students at Sleepy Valley Sloth School, with little effect. But, when a representative from the Society for Organizing Sameness visits, complaining of the low test scores and threatening to close the school, Sparky suddenly comes into her own. "Score one against rigid school standards," declared Booklist's Hazel Rochman. A contributor for Publishers Weekly had further praise for the title, calling it a "comic caper with a subtly delivered moral."
Lester has also written a book about the writing life in her 1997 work Author: A True Story. "In the . . . years since I left teaching," Lester once told CA, "I've visited over two hundred schools, encouraging children to write. Author: A True Story is based on what I tell them during these visits. The enthusiasm for writing I encounter on these visits is most encouraging—both students and teachers are so much more involved than I was years ago." The book documents Lester's own difficulties as a child with learning disabilities as well as her persistence in getting published, overcoming multiple rejections. Self-illustrated, the book is at once "wry [and] funny," according to Hazel Rochman in Booklist. A contributor for Publishers Weekly found the autobiography a "lighthearted look at how [Lester] came to write children's books," and one that "will give aspiring authors of any age a lift." Similarly, Horn Book's Ann A. Flowers found the title "disarming and very funny." Lester concluded on the Houghton Mifflin Web site, "How fortunate I am to have backed into this wonderful field."
In Something Might Happen, which came out in 2003, the wide-eyed lemur Twitchly Fidget is afraid of everything, including his sneakers (what if he gets them on the wrong feet and has to walk cross-legged for the rest of his life?). Ultimately he gets a "fixin" from his Aunt Bridget Fidget (who drops in for a "vidgit") and sets out with confidence to see the wonderful world. Lester told CA: "I wrote Something Might Happen in response to the events of 9/11 and dedicated it to our son Robin 'who chose to be there when something happened'—he volunteered on the site of Ground Zero for several days. His brother Jamie, to whom Hooway for Wodney Wat was dedicated, suggests that since Wodney has won so many awards perhaps all my future books be dedicated to him!"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Lester, Helen, Hooway for Wodney Wat, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
Booklist, March 1, 1983, Ilene Cooper, review of The Wizard, the Fairy, and the Magic Chicken, p. 907; March 1, 1985, p. 985; April 15, 1986, p. 1223; April 15, 1987, p. 1290; April 1, 1988, Phillis Wilson, review of Tacky the Penguin, p. 1351; March 1, 1990, Ilene Cooper, review of The Revenge of the Magic Chicken, p. 1344; October 1, 1992, p. 336; February 15, 1994, Kathryn Broderick, review of Three Cheers for Tacky, p. 1092; October 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Listen, Buddy, p. 412; September 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Princess Penelope'sParrot, p. 143; March 15, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of Author: A True Story, p. 1246; April, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Tacky in Trouble, pp. 1331-1332; May 1, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Hooway for Wodney Wat, p. 1600; August, 2000, Tim Arnold, review of Tacky and the Emperor, p. 2148; August, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Score One for the Sloths, p. 2131; October 1, 2002, Kathy Broderick, review of Tackylocks and the Three Bears, p. 337.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1985, review of It Wasn't My Fault, p. 188; April, 1988, p. 159; March, 1990, pp. 168-169; January, 1997, Janice M. Del Negro, review of Princess Penelope's Parrot, p. 179; May, 1998, Pat Matthews, review of Tacky in Trouble, p. 327.
Horn Book, September-October, 1986, p. 582; November-December, 1992, Carolyn K. Jenks, review of Me First, p. 717; October, 1994, Ann A. Flowers, review of Three Cheers for Tacky, p. 578; November-December, 1996, Ann A. Flowers, review of Princess Penelope's Parrot, p. 727; May-June, 1997, Ann A. Flowers, review of Author, p. 341; July-August, 1999, review of Hooway for Wodney Wat, p. 457; November-December, 2000, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Tacky and the Emperor, p. 748; September-October, 2001, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Score One for the Sloths, p. 576.
Junior Bookshelf, October, 1987, p. 218.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1979, review of Cora Copycat, p. 1142; January 1, 1983, p. 4; March 1, 1985, review of It Wasn't My Fault, p. 8; July 15, 2002, review of Tackylocks and the Three Bears, p. 1037.
New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1986, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly, May 27, 1983, review of The Wizard, the Fairy, and the Magic Chicken, p. 68; April 25, 1986, review of A Porcupine Named Fluffy, p. 73; February 27, 1987, review of Pookins Gets Her Way, p. 163; August 3, 1992, review of Me First, p. 71; December 20, 1993, review of Three Cheers for Tacky, p. 71; July 24, 1995, review of Listen, Buddy, p. 64; October 7, 1996, review of Princess Penelope's Parrot, p. 74; February 3, 1997, review of Author, p. 105; April 19, 1999, review of Hooway for Wodney Wat, p. 72; July 30, 2001, review of Score One for the Sloths, p. 84.
School Librarian, August, 1993, p. 103.
School Library Journal, October, 1979, p. 142; August, 1983, p. 54; May, 1985, p. 78; August, 1986, p. 84; August, 1987, p. 70; April, 1988, p. 82; May, 1990, p. 88; February, 1992, p. 66; October, 1992, p. 91; May, 1994, p. 98; November, 1995, Virginia Opocensky, review of Listen, Buddy, p. 76; October, 1996, Sally R. Dow, review of Princess Penelope's Parrot, p. 101; May, 1998, Marty Abbott Goodman, review of Tacky in Trouble, pp. 119-120; November, 2000, Martha Link, Tacky and the Emperor, p. 126; October, 2001, Robin L. Gibson, review of Score One for the Sloths, pp. 123-124; September, 2002, Marlene Gawron, review of Tackylocks and the Three Bears, pp. 197-198; September, 2003, Be Astengo, review of Something Might Happen, p. 183.
Times Educational Supplement, April 2, 1993, p. 16.
Houghton Mifflin Home Page,http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/ (June 11, 2002), "Helen Lester."*