Author and illustrator
Born c. 1956; married (divorced); married Kathy Anne Dropp (a museum curator), 2000; children: Violet, Primrose, Wisteria. Education: Cleveland Institute of Art, B.A. (painting).
Publisher—Callaway, 54 7th Ave. S., New York, NY 10014.
Founded toy production company, Hoobert Toys, 1970s; published first children's book, Miss Spider's Tea Party, 1994; published many popular children's books afterward, including: Miss Spider's Wedding, 1995; Nova's Arc, 1999; Little Miss Spider: A Christmas Wish, 2001; Little Bird, Biddle Bird, 2001; Little Bunny, Biddle Bunny, 2002; Little Miss Spider, 2003.
David Kirk is the best–selling author and illustrator of the "Miss Spider" series of books for children, as well as the "Biddle" series, and Nova's Arc. With stories in verse, and bright, colorful illustrations of animals and robots, Kirk has captured the hearts and minds of millions of children around the world, as well as many adults. His books have been spun off into a television special and a series for the Nickelodeon network as well as a line of designer clothing, accessories, and furniture produced and sold by Target Stores beginning in 2003.
Kirk grew up in Columbus, Ohio. His father was an insurance salesperson who also worked with his wife as a professional puppeteer, giving shows at conventions and birthday parties. Kirk found himself at an early age drawn toward creating toys himself, although he later denied that his parents's unusual sideline had anything to do with it. "My interest in making toys came from my liking toys," he told the Plain Dealer's Carolyn Jack. At first, Kirk took toys apart to see how they worked and put them back together again. Then he graduated to making his own toys, an activity he continued into adulthood.
After graduating from high school, Kirk attended the Cleveland Art Institute. The experience was not a positive one for him. He railed against what he considered limiting assignments—paintings inspired by the Victorian era. He was also frustrated at not being allowed to use the tools of the design department; since he was a painting student and not a design student, he was not given the freedom he needed to continue to develop his interested in designing and building objects rather than just painting them. However, Kirk did not fit in among the design students either, since the program was mostly focused on industrial design, teaching students how to design automobile bodies, and other products that did not interest Kirk.
His time at the Art Institute, Kirk later affirmed, did not help him much in his future career. Nor did he think studying in general art makes one a better artist. "Much of the stuff that I use came from my childhood or from my own effort," Kirk told the Plain Dealer's Jack. In fact, Kirk went on, being a student at the Institute taught him, more than anything else, "how not to be bullied."
Kirk graduated from the Cleveland Art Institute with a degree in painting, and went on to continue his studies in England. From there, he moved to New York City to try to find work. In New York, he lived with his brother, who was a writer. This experience also failed to inspire the budding artist. Although he and his brother worked hard, they had little money, so Kirk relocated to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York, where it was less expensive to live, and whose surroundings he found more inspiring.
In the Finger Lakes area, Kirk began to make toys and market them to area craft shops. Although the toys sold well, especially to collectors and other adults, he soon found himself frustrated by his inability to produce them fast enough, or cheaply enough to sell to children. He then decided to try to mass produce them. He founded a company called Hoobert Toys, but, unfortunately, his manufacturing ventures were not successful. However, his illustrations for the packages in which he planned to sell the toys later became the basis of the illustrations for his first books.
Although his first efforts at toy manufacturing proved ultimately unsuccessful, his prototypes did catch the eye of a publisher named Nicholas Callaway. Callaway had his own publishing company, and he thought Kirk's toys would make excellent characters for children's literature. Callaway found Kirk in the phone book and asked him if he would be interested in writing books for children; as luck would have it, Kirk had been thinking about doing such a thing. In fact, Kirk had already been approached by other publishers about creating children's books inspired by his toys. But Callaway was the only publisher willing to offer Kirk an advance—$20,000—before he sold a single copy. Callaway and Kirk hit it off, and after they made the deal, Callaway opened Kirk's first book, Miss Spider's Tea Party, to auction among 15 different major children's book publishers. Just one publisher, Scholastic, offered a deal for the book.
Callaway's company, in conjunction with Scholastic, published Miss Spider's Tea Party in 1994. Callaway, although successful as a publisher, had never published any children's literature. In fact, his company was perhaps best known up until the time of Little Miss Spider as the publisher of pop singer Madonna's book, Sex. Asked why he had never published books for kids until Miss Spider came along, Callaway said it was because he had never seen anything "special enough," as he told the Plain Dealer's Jack. Miss Spider's Tea Party landed on the best–seller lists in its first month of publication.
Kirk found the calmer, more rural aspect of the Finger Lakes area much more conducive to writing and illustrating than he did New York City. He married, and he and his wife had a daughter named Violet. He and his wife eventually divorced, but Kirk remarried, and had two more daughters named after flowers: Primrose and Wisteria. He constructed a two–story, Victorian–style treehouse on his property, which he uses as his studio. It was there that he first gained prominence as the writer and illustrator of his series of children's books featuring Miss Spider and a cast of other bugs.
Miss Spider's Tea Party features Miss Spider as a vegetarian spider who has trouble making friends among the other bugs in her neighborhood because they are afraid they will be eaten. But Miss Spider shows the others that she only eats flowers, and at last they become her friends and come to her tea party. Kirk went on to write more books with Miss Spider as the main character. In the sequels to Miss Spider's Tea Party, Kirk wrote about Miss Spider marrying (Miss Spider's Wedding), buying a new car (Miss Spider's New Car), and going to school (Little Miss Spider at Sunny Patch School).
Miss Spider's Tea Party and the other books in the series sold more than four and a half million copies by early 2003, including editions in seven languages. This was all the more remarkable considering that Kirk had never written anything before these books. The book are written in verse, and, according the Kirk, appeal to children because of their bright colors, feel–good stories, and characters that readers identify with. Calloway further related the books' appeal to their life–affirming themes.
But Miss Spider's appeal is not limited to children. In 1995, pop star Madonna read Miss Spider's Tea Party on a show that was broadcast on MTV. From then on, it was cool to be friends with Miss Spider, and her books have found fans among college students and many others besides her original audience. The book got an additional boost in 1997 when first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton selected the book to promote a national children's literacy program.
Following his success with the Miss Spider books, Kirk went on to write and illustrate other successful children's books, such as his "Biddle" series, which features baby animals. Kirk also followed the Miss Spider books with a series of Little Miss Spider books, which feature Miss Spider as a youngster. In 1999, Kirk published Nova's Arc, about a robot who looks like a little boy and crash–lands on a lifeless planet and builds other, animal–inspired robots to keep loneliness at bay. Instead of drawing the illustrations himself for this book, he worked closely with a computer graphics company to produce them.
Late in 1996, Kirk met the woman who was to become his second wife. Kathy Anne Dropp approached Kirk at a book signing for an autograph, and the two got to know each other the following year when Dropp, who was a museum curator, presented an exhibition of drawings and paintings, including Kirk's, at the Roberson Museum and Science Center in Binghamton, NY, where she worked. The two discovered in each other a mutual love of animals, and after Dropp accompanied Kirk on one of his regular trips to rescue toads from country roads, they fell in love. The two were married in 2000 in a ceremony that included only 22 guests. The wedding featured a mole theme, with bride and bridegroom mole characters on top of the wedding cake. Kirk explained that the moles were inspired by a story he was writing about a mole who finds fulfillment in the company of another mole.
In 2003, Kirk branched out from illustrating and writing books to creating merchandise for Target stores. Beginning in 2003, Target featured a line of Miss Spider children's clothing, furniture, and gardening tools—all of which Kirk designed. The line of Miss Spider merchandise is called "Sunny Patch," and it is unusual in that, unlike other children's merchandise based on fictional characters, it was offered in stores before a link was established between it and a television program. But it was not the first time that the retailer had worked with Kirk's creations: in 1996, Target featured Miss Spider in an advertising campaign. The Sunny Patch line is Target's first designer brand for children.
Speaking to the Plain Dealer's Jack, Callaway called the idea of selling Miss Spider products through Target his own brainstorm. The products feature the bright colors of Kirk's illustrations, and include caterpillar brooms, ladybug rockers, and spider watering cans—more than 100 items in all. More products were planned for later in the year, including Halloween costumes and furniture for children's bedrooms.
Also in 2003, the Nickelodeon television network produced a cartoon special based on Kirk's work called Miss Spider's Sunny Patch Kids. Rendered in computer–generated 3–D graphics, the show aired in March of 2003. Future plans for Kirk's work on TV included a series based on the Nickelodeon special to be aired on a daily basis on Nick Jr. starting in 2004. A book titled Miss Spider's Babies was scheduled to be published in April of 2004.
Kirk has said that part of his secret to success with creating products and books for children is that his own outlook on life has changed little from the time he was seven years old. He sees the world, he has said, through the eyes of a child, and that keeps him young at heart. Kirk has also said that he would not let success go to his head. Preferring a quiet lifestyle, Kirk works with a single assistant, engaging in negotiations and delivering his designs and writings by mail, phone, and email.
Kirk enjoys spending time with his family more than spending time in the limelight, and he intends to change little about his life and work, no matter how popular his work becomes. "David likes to live in a hole and not be disturbed," his brother, Dan, told Lois Smith Brady in the New York Times, "He doesn't like the phone to ring. He doesn't like to travel. He likes to be quiet." Kirk has cited as his biggest reward writing books that people enjoy reading.
Miss Spider's Tea Party, Scholastic (New York), 1994.
Miss Spider's Wedding, Scholastic, 1995.
Miss Spider's Tea Party: The Counting Book, Scholastic, 1997.
Miss Spider's New Car, Scholastic, 1997.
Nova's Arc, Scholastic, 1999.
Little Miss Spider at Sunny Patch School, Scholastic, 2000.
Miss Spider's ABC, Scholastic, 2000.
Little Miss Spider: A Christmas Wish, Scholastic, 2001.
Little Bird, Biddle Bird, Scholastic, 2001.
Little Pig, Biddle Pig, Scholastic, 2001.
Little Mouse, Biddle Mouse, Scholastic, 2002.
Little Bunny, Biddle Bunny, Scholastic, 2002.
Little Miss Spider, Scholastic, 2003.
Biddle, Scholastic, 2003.
Little Miss Spider at Sunny Patch, Scholastic, 2003.
Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1999, p. 46.
New York Times, February 20, 2000, p. 9.
Plain Dealer, February 22, 2003, p. E1.
Time, January 20, 2003, pp. 131–32.
"About Callaway: Who We Are," Callaway, http://www.callaway.com/About_Callaway/AC–whoweare.html (August 25, 2003).
"Author David Kirk," Scholastic, http://www.scholastic.com/titles/missspider/author.htm (July 11, 2003).