Barbour, Karen 1956–

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Barbour, Karen 1956–


Born October 29, 1956, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Donald C. (a physician) and Nancy B. Barbour; married Hermann Lederle (an artist), 1981. Education: University of California, Davis, B.A., 1976; San Francisco Art Institute, M.F.A., 1980.


Home—Point Reyes Station, CA. Agent—c/o Author Mail, HarperCollins Children's, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.


Freelance illustrator, author, animator, and painter.

Awards, Honors

Certificate of Excellence, American Institute of Graphic Arts Book Show, and Parents' Choice Award, Parents' Choice Foundation, both 1987, both for Little Nino's Pizzeria; Parents' Choice Gold Award, 1997, for Marvelous Math: Poems, selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins.



Little Nino's Pizzeria, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1987.

Nancy, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1989.

Mr. Bow Tie, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1991.

Mr. Williams Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2005.


Helen Barolini, Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italy, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1988.

Arnold Adoff, Flamboyan, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1988.

James Berry, When I Dance: Poems, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1991.

Anna Kate Winsey, Toby Is My Best Friend, Silver Burdett (Morristown, NJ), 1992.

Arnold Adoff, Street Music: City Poems, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.

Jane Yolen, A Sip of Aesop, Blue Sky Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Eric Metaxas, Princess Scargo and the Birthday Pumpkin: The Native American Legend, Rabbit Ears (New York, NY), 1996.

Lee Bennett Hopkins, editor, Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.

Juan Felipe Herrere, Laughing out Loud, I Fly: Poems in English and Spanish, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.

Eve Bunting, I Have an Olive Tree, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1999.

Tony Johnston, The Ancestors Are Singing, Farrar Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2003.

Andrea Griffing Zimmerman and David Clemesha, Fire! Fire! Hurry! Hurry!, Greenwillow Books (New York, NY), 2003.

Lee Bennett Hopkins, selector, Wonderful Words: Poems about Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.

Julius Lester, Let's Talk about Race, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.


Princess Scargo and the Birthday Pumpkin: The Native American Legend was adapted for videocassette, 1993.


The work of artist Karen Barbour has graced the pages of a number of well-received children's books, including I Have an Olive Tree by Eve Bunting and A Sip of Aesop by Jane Yolen. In addition to working with other picture-book authors, Barbour has created several original works, including Nancy and Little Nino's Pizzeria.

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In Nancy a newcomer extends a hand of friendship as a way to break into an established clique of four best friends in her new neighborhood and finds that creativity is the key to acceptance. "Barbour has a real fix on what it is to be young," observed New York Times Book Review contributor Christina Olson in praise of Nancy. "While the story … has its appeal, it is the raucous artwork that grabs readers' attention and holds it," added Ilene Cooper in her Booklist appraisal. Cooper also noted Barbour's uninhibited use of wavy lines, polka dots, and fun, vibrant colors.

Born in San Francisco in 1956, Barbour attended both the University of California and the San Francisco Art Institute, earning her master of fine arts degree in 1980. Her first picture-book effort, Little Nino's Pizzeria, proved to be a success, winning her both a commendation from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and a Parents' Choice Foundation award. Published in 1987, Little Nino's Pizzeria sparked the interest of book publishers looking for talented artists to enhance the work of established authors. Barbour's move to New York City put her in proximity to a number of these publishers, and she was quick to gain illustration assignments. Her first illustration job—a cookbook titled Festa: Recipes and Recollections of Italy—was published in 1988; moving from there to picture books was a short step to a successful career.

When I Dance: Poems, a collection by James Berry, meshes the sounds of English with those of Berry's native Caribbean, and critics remarked that Barbour's artwork adds to the overall effect with its use of folk-style motifs. Also praised by reviewers are Barbour's bright and fanciful paintings for Lee Bennett Hopkins' Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems. School Library Journal contributor Lee Bock called them "lively illustrations [that] dance and play around the poems." In yet another poetry collection, Arnold Adoff's Street Music: City Poems, Barbour's whimsical artwork brings to life the hustle and bustle of crowded city streets. "Graceful, stylized forms fill the pages with pattern and texture against vibrant background colors," noted Horn Book reviewer Nancy Vasilakis. Similarly, a Publishers Weekly critic said that Barbour's pictures "vibrate a jazzy fluidity and rhythm."

Written and illustrated by Barbour, Mr. Bow Tie deals with the grave issue of homelessness. The main character of the title is a homeless man who is constantly seen wearing a bow tie and wandering the streets of New York. The homeless man is later befriended by a shopkeeper and his family. As the story progresses it is revealed to young readers that "Mr. Bow Tie" is actually an aristocrat who strayed from his elderly parents and he is eventually reunited with them. Some reviewers commented on Barbour's unrealistic approach, Dinitia Smith writing in the New York Times that the story presents "little information and provide[s] no understanding" of the human plight of the homeless. However, School Library Journal contributor Kate McClelland described the book's storyline as "a gentle, humane introduction to homelessness."

Barbour's artwork for I Have an Olive Tree, a picture book by Eve Bunting, has been praised for both its historical accuracy and its overall technique. Noting that the illustrations "have the flavor of Greek folk art," a Horn Book reviewer commended in particular Barbour's use of a "multi-hued palette and curving lines." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book "visually arresting," while Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman explained that the artist's flat, bright paintings, with their heavy, black lines, "combine folk art and magic realism to show the circles of connection that sweep across time and place."

Barbour has also contributed illustrations to Fire! Fire! Hurry! Hurry!, written by Andrea Griffing Zimmerman and David Clemesha. Created for pre-schoolers, Fire! Fire! Hurry! Hurry! spotlights the daily commotion going on in a firehouse station and stars a firefighting crew that includes a blue bear, a lime-green elephant, a yellow lion, and a pink mouse. The story is enlivened by Barbour's colorful folkloric illustrations, which a Kirkus Reviews critic commended for its "eye-popping color." Leslie Barban, in School Library Journal, also commented on Barbour's use of bold color, noting that the artist's gouache illustrations are "awash with color that can be seen from a distance."

With The Ancestors Are Singing Barbour illustrates in black-and-white drawings, giving life to Tony Johnston's collection of children's poems celebrating the history of Mexico. The poems in The Ancestors Are Singing present a variety of perspectives on Mexico's traditions and mythologies. Sharon Korbeck, writing in School Library Journal, noted that Barbour's "bold, swirling black-and-white illustrations convey a vivid sense of place," through their depiction of the Mexican people. A Kirkus Reviews critic also applauded the book's folkloric drawings for their "childlike energy" and for their ability to meld the past with the present.

Mr. Williams presents the oral history of J.W. Williams, a family friend of the author's mother. Mr. Williams offers a personal depiction of growing up on a Louisiana farmstead during the 1930s and 1940s as an African American. The story tells of the man's many hardships in the face of the racism present in the rural South during the early twentieth century; with personally elicited details, "readers gain a wealth of information about the era" remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. In addition, a Kirkus Reviews critic noted that Barbour's ink-and-gouache illustrations add depth to the narrative and are full of "lovely colors] that [perfectly match the simplicity of the text."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, October 1, 1989, Ilene Cooper, review of Nancy, p. 343; February 1, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of Street Music: City Poems, p. 1005; May 15, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of I Have an Olive Tree, p. 1702; March 15, 2000, review of Laughing out Loud, I Fly, p. 1342.

Horn Book, July-August, 1991, Mary M. Burns, review of When I Dance, p. 469; May-June, 1995, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Street Music, p. 337; July, 1999, review of I Have an Olive Tree, p. 452.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1991, review of Mr. Bow Tie, p. 1086; March 15, 2003, review of The Ancestors Are Singing, p. 468; March 15, 2003, review of Fire! Fire! Hurry! Hurry!, p. 482; August 1, 2005, review of Mr. Williams, p. 844.

New York Times Book Review, November 26, 1989, Christina Olson, review of Nancy, p. 23; November 10, 1991, Dinitia Smith, review of Mr. Bow Tie, p. 52.

Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1991, review of Mr. Bow Tie, p. 103; December 19, 1994, review of Street Music, p. 54; August 7, 1995, review of A Sip of Aesop, p. 460; May 24, 1999, review of I Have an Olive Tree, p. 78; October 10, 2005, review of Mr. Williams, p. 61.

School Library Journal, November, 1989, Karen Litton, review of Nancy, p. 74; December, 1991, Kate McClelland, review of Mr. Bow Tie, p. 78; September, 1995, JoAnn Rees, review of A Sip of Aesop, p. 198; October, 1997, Lee Bock, review of Marvelous Math: A Book of Poems, p. 118; April, 2003, Leslie Barban, review of Fire! Fire! Hurry! Hurry!, p. 144; April, 2003, review of The Ancestors Are Singing, p. 183.