Cocca-Leffler, Maryann 1958-
Cocca-Leffler, Maryann 1958-
Born July 25, 1958, in Everett, MA; daughter of Theodore F. (an engineer) and Rose (a homemaker) Cocca; married Eric M. Leffler (in equipment rental), April 5, 1981; children: Janine, Kristin. Education: Massachusetts College of Art, B.F.A., 1980.
Home—Amherst, NH. E-mail—[email protected]
Children's book illustrator and author.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
Science Writing Award, American Institute of Physics, 1987, for Splash! All about Baths; Pick of the Lists citation, American Booksellers Association (ABA), for Missing: One Stuffed Rabbit, Wanda's Roses, Mr. Tanen's Ties, and Bus Route to Boston; Parents' Choice Approved Book designation, for Bus Route to Boston; Children's Book Award, Florida Reading Association, 2001, Hoosier Young Book Award, 2003, and Pick of the Lists citation, ABA, all for Mr. Tanen's Ties; Cooperative Children's Book Center Choice selection, 2008, for Jack's Talent.
Wednesday Is Spaghetti Day, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1990.
Grandma and Me (board book), Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
Ice Cold Birthday (easy reader), Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1992.
Count the Days till Christmas, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1993.
What a Pest! (easy reader), Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1994.
Clams All Year, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 1996.
Lots of Hearts, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1996.
Silly Willy, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1996.
Mommy Hugs, Little Simon (New York, NY), 1997.
Daddy Hugs, Little Simon (New York, NY), 1997.
Missing: One Stuffed Rabbit, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1998.
Princess for a Day, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1998.
Mr. Tanen's Ties, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1999.
Jungle Halloween, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2000.
Bus Route to Boston, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 2000.
Edgar Degas: Paintings That Dance, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 2001.
Bravery Soup, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2002.
Mr. Tanen's Tie Trouble, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2003.
Calling All Cats, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 2004.
Dog Wash Day, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 2004.
Mr. Tanen's Ties Rule!, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2005.
Spotlight on Stacey, Kane Press (New York, NY), 2007.
Jack's Talent, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2007.
Princess K.I.M. and the Lie That Grew, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2009.
My Dance Recital, Random House (New York, NY), 2009.
Easter Bunny in Training, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2009.
Eileen Spinelli, Thanksgiving at the Tappletons, Addison Wesley (Reading, MA), 1982, re-illustrated edition, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
Susan Alton Schmeltz, Oh So Silly!, Parents Magazine Press (New York, NY), 1983.
Rita Goldan Gelman and Susan Kovacs Buxbaum, Splash! All about Baths, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.
Stephen Krensky, Big Time Bears, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.
Ruth Young, A Trip to Mars, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.
Wendy Cheyette Lewison, MUD, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
Marcia Leonard, Alphabet Bandits, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1990.
My ABC's at Home (board book), Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1990.
Marcia Leonard, The Kitten Twins, Troll (Mahwah, NJ), 1990.
These Are Baby's Things, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.
Hey Diddle Diddle (nursery rhymes), Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1991.
John Schindel, Something's Fishy, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.
The Elves and the Shoemaker, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1993.
Pat Brisson, Wanda's Roses, Boyd's Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 1994.
Wendy Cheyette Lewison, Hello Snow!, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 1994.
Eve Bunting, I Don't Want to Go to Camp, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 1996.
Eve Bunting, My Backpack, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 1997.
Michelle Poploff, Tea Party for Two, Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 1997.
Diane Cocca-Spofford, The Good-Bye Game, Infinity Plus One (Ridgewood, NJ), 1998.
Barbara Juster Esbensen, Jumping Day, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 1999.
Wendy Cheyette Lewison, The Big Snowball, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 2000.
Diane Cocca-Spofford, Do You Love Me?, Infinity Plus One (Ridgewood, NJ), 2001.
Judy Donnelly, The Pilgrims and Me, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 2002.
Michelle Knudsen, Carl the Complainer, Kane Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Gloria Koster, The Peanut-free Café, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 2006.
Alice Mead, Isabella's Above-ground Pool, Kane Press (New York, NY), 2006.
Author and illustrator Maryann Cocca-Leffler is the creator of many self-illustrated titles, including Mr. Tanen's Ties and Jack's Talent, and the illustrator of more than twenty others, such as Gloria Koster's The Peanut-free Café. Known for the bright colors and cheerful presentation of her artwork and her simple, clear texts, which are appropriate for beginning readers, Cocca-Leffler once told SATA: "As long as I can remember, I've always wanted to be an artist. I used to draw and paint on anything; paper bags, rocks, sea-shells, and even a mural on my parent's garage door (my parents still regret the day I painted over it!)."
Born in 1958, in Everett, Massachusetts, the author grew up in an Italian family where, as she noted on her home page, "dinnertime was always a major feast. Many days you could find my mother, Rose, in the kitchen, rolling meatballs or my father, Ted, in his garden picking tomatoes." The second oldest of five children, Cocca-Leffler liked to play school, listen to the music of the Beatles, and draw and paint. She determined early on that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up. "I remember back in fourth grade, my teacher, Sister Isabel Thomas, saw promise in me as an artist and gave me my very first set of pastels," the author told SATA. "I still have them!"
Cocca-Leffler's everyday experiences also inspired her career as a children's author. For example, she learned early on that it is not good to tell a little lie, because lies grow. In second grade she told her classmates that her father owned the Coca-Cola Company. (He didn't.) That teeny tiny lie was the inspiration for her picture book Princess K.I.M. and the Lie That Grew.
"In high school, my Uncle Dan and I took sculpting classes at night," the future author also recalled to SATA. "He and my entire family were always encouraging. I always did well in school, but art class was my favorite. When it came time to decide on a college, I submitted my portfolio to Massachusetts College of Art. My parents were a bit worried; they couldn't believe anyone could make a living as an artist. I remember them saying, ‘You need something to fall back on.’ They suggested I try a liberal arts college. I wanted and needed intense art training, therefore I went on to study at Massachusetts College, majoring in illustration. During my junior year, my style began to take shape. It did not fit into the editorial role. While other illustration majors found it easy to depict ‘the Iran-hostage-crisis,’ I found it difficult. I remember a classmate saying, ‘Maryann, you can never draw anything that looks MEAN!’ Children book illustration, on the other hand, seemed to be a perfect fit for my style."
Cleaning out a corner of her parents' cellar, she turned it into a space for her first studio. She painted a bright
mural on the oil tank in the process, one of several she created as a young painter. For four years she used this dark cellar studio, all the while dreaming of becoming a children's book illustrator. "After graduation, I lined up several freelance elementary textbook jobs, one on an elementary math book for Houghton Mifflin," Cocca-Leffler further explained. "I drew a million little objects, but it was a start. Fearing that I would never make any real money as an illustrator, my father, with good intentions, got me a job, three days a week, drawing aircraft and missiles for a defense contractor. I lasted three months."
Finally Cocca-Leffler decided to freelance full-time. "I took many jobs just for the money, including drawing toilet plumbing supplies. But at the same time I continued to illustrate children's textbooks. I was determined to find work using my own style of illustration instead of styling my illustration to fit a job. I made the rounds with my portfolio to Boston-area publishers. In 1981 I got an offer to illustrate my first children's book, Thanksgiving at the Tappletons." Written by Eileen Spinelli, this picture book deals with calamity in the preparation of Thanksgiving dinner at the Tappleton house. However, despite their difficulties, the family realizes that they do indeed have something to be thankful for. Reviewing the revised 1992 edition of Thanksgiving at the Tappletons in Booklist, Ilene Cooper found that the "art captures the slapstick fun" of Spinelli's text. Cocca-Leffler's artwork for this book set her off on her new career, but at first progress was slow.
"1981 was also the year I got married," the illustrator recalled. "When we returned from our honeymoon, my husband, Eric, played our phone number in the state lottery. We won $3,500! With the money we printed eight full-color greeting cards which I designed and started our own greeting card company, Marcel & Co. I worked in the greeting card business for the next five years, accumulating 100 of my own designs and selling them through sales representatives around the country. It was tough competing with the big guys, so we sold our line to a company in Arizona. My years illustrating greeting cards helped me establish my style and aided in the development of my characters. With these skills and the use of my greeting cards as a promotional tool, I was able to re-enter the children's book field. I have been illustrating and writing children's book ever since."
While creating artwork for other authors, Cocca-Leffler also turned her hand to her own self-illustrated title. "Wednesday Is Spaghetti Day was the first book I both wrote and illustrated. I got the idea when I was cat-sitting my cousin Laura's two cats. One day, after coming home to a mess, I said, ‘I wonder what these cats do when you leave them home alone?’ That's when the idea was born. Six years and seven publishers later, Wednesday Is Spaghetti Day was finally published." In Cocca-Leffler's debut picture book, Catrina the cat cannot wait until the Tremonte family leaves, for she has invited all her feline friends over for an Italian feast. When the guests arrive, Catrina tosses her cat food out and proceeds to put together a real Italian banquet. "I grew up in a close Italian family where there was always plenty of love, togetherness, and FOOD!" the author told SATA. "The recipe the cats use in Wednesday Is Spaghetti Day is my Mom's."
For Grandma and Me, Cocca-Leffler took inspiration not from her own childhood, but from that of her children. "Grandma and Me is based on my daughter Janine, who spent every Tuesday with her Nana Rose, so I could spend time in my studio. Ever since they were babies, I have enjoyed sharing books with my daughters." Cocca-Leffler's family has also inspired other original picture books "The two sisters in Ice Cold Birthday and its sequel What a Pest! are sometimes my two daughters and sometimes my sister and I. The idea for the ice cream-cookie cake in Ice Cold Birthday came from a hastily made cake we made for my sister when we forgot her birthday. And like in What a Pest!, I actually did get the chicken pox right before I was to perform on stage."
Clams All Year is based on one summer a young Cocca-Leffler and her family spent in Hull, Massachusetts. One night a big storm brought in lots of clams: so many, in fact, that the family was able to eat clams all year. Kathy Piehl, writing in School Library Journal, commended the book's artwork, which, she said, captures "the love and exuberance of an extended family." A contributor for Publishers Weekly similarly concluded that Cocca-Leffler's "simply told tale of a close-knit family has a timeless, understated warmth."
As her children grew, they provided ideas for more self-illustrated titles, including Missing: One Stuffed Rabbit and Jungle Halloween. An experience her daughter Janine had in the first grade brought about Missing. In her class, one of the students got to take the prized Coco home each night and write about the events in a diary. In the fictional Janine's case, this visit is cut short when the rabbit is lost in a mall, and when she later learns that the toy has been given as part of a toy distribution to a hospital, the students agree that the wheelchair-bound girl who gets Coco should keep the stuffed animal. "There is plenty to look at here—and sharp eyes will spot where and when Coco gets lost," wrote Cooper. DeAnn Tabuchi also lauded the "bold, colorful" artwork in a School Library Journal review of Missing, calling it "appealing, as is the totally satisfying conclusion."
Cocca-Leffler's daughter Kristin's fourth birthday party is depicted in Princess for a Day, while a jungle mural the author painted on her bedroom wall prompted Jungle Halloween. In the latter picture book, rhyming verses relate the tale of jungle animals who get all dressed up for a Halloween party. In School Library Journal Linda M. Kenton commented that Cocca-Leffler's book stays
away from traditional Halloween motifs which "can easily frighten preschoolers," and went on to call Jungle Halloween a "surefire showstopper for storytimes."
Mr. Tanen's Ties "is based on the REAL Mr. Tanen, who is the principal of my daughters' former elementary school," Cocca-Leffler noted on her home page. In the book, the beloved principal of Lynnhurst School is very well known for wearing brightly colored and unusual ties to announce various events. However, Mr. Tanen's boss, Mr. Apple, is not so approving; He orders Tanen to get rid of this neckwear and don a more-sensible, plain blue tie. When Mr. Tanen takes some time off, Mr. Apple substitutes for him, and the students manage to give the dour man some zany neckwear of his own, with miraculous results. This award-winning title was praised by a critic in Kirkus Reviews for making the world of adults "a lot less formidable, and a lot more eccentric." In Booklist Cooper lauded Cocca-Leffler's "fresh and upbeat" book, calling its artwork "just as bright as Mr. Tanen's ties."
In a sequel, Mr. Tanen's Tie Trouble, the principal helps rescue his school from financial difficulties by offering to sell his collection of almost 1,000 wacky neckties. The townspeople show up in force at the auction, which earns enough money to pay for a new playground, and Mr. Tanen receives a wonderful surprise at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. A contributor in Kirkus Reviews praised Cocca-Leffler's "snappy and smiling watercolor-and-chalk illustrations," and School Library Journal critic Kristin de Lacoste similarly noted that the "bright and vivid watercolor illustrations perfectly portray the details of the cheerful neckwear in this upbeat story." Students and teachers at Lynnhurst School switch roles for a day, just as a federal official pays a surprise visit, in Mr. Tanen's Ties Rule! "Gaily colored neckties flutter through a set of splashy watercolor school scenes," noted a contributor in Kirkus Reviews.
A young girl is the fictional author of a school report on a French impressionist painter in Edgar Degas: Paintings That Dance, part of the "Smart about Art" series. The book, like others in the series, uses the school report format to tell the events of the artist's life, and it also employs reproductions as well as child-like cartoons to illustrate the "report." In Booklist Gillian Engberg wrote of Edgar Degas that the book serves up a "successful blend of fact and humor that makes sophisticated concepts completely accessible and even entertaining," while a Publishers Weekly critic cited the "clear, accessible format" of the series.
Cocca-Leffler reverts once again to her early childhood experiences for Bus Route to Boston. "I grew up on a bus route," she noted on her home page. "As a young girl, I remember frequent Saturday bus trips, which traveled down our street, through crowded neighborhoods, over the bridge, then all the way to Boston. My mother, sister, and I went bargain hunting in Filene's Basement, enjoyed ice cream at Bailey's, shopped for vegetables at Haymarket, and ventured into the North End for pizza and cannoli. Through my story and paintings I have shared these warm childhood memories." In the book, a day on the bus extends from the first meeting with Bill the driver to stops at all of the special places from Cocca-Leffler's memory, ending with a homecoming in late afternoon. Cooper praised the book as a "warm, loving memoir [that] will have plenty of resonance for today's children," and further commented that the "oversize, nicely crowded acrylic artwork … is lots of fun." Marianne Saccardi, reviewing the title for School Library Journal, similarly called attention to the "simple and unadorned" language and humorous art, dubbing Bus Route to Boston a "charming slice of life in a time past."
In Bravery Soup a young raccoon named Carlin is frightened by everything, even his own shadow. Carlin wants to sip some of Big Bear's Bravery Soup and become like this fearless animal. First, however, the raccoon must make a dangerous journey through the Forbidden Forest and up Skulk Mountain to the lair of a terrible monster in order to acquire a vital ingredient for the soup. Along the way, Carlin discovers that he already possesses bravery inside himself. Calling the work "a satisfying example of how facing fears helps to conquer them," Booklist critic Connie Fletcher noted that Cocca-Leffler's use of "bright acrylics and humorous details" keep children from being too frightened by scary elements in the story. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly also felt that the illustrations "convey suspense as well as the warm friendship between the animal friends."
Cocca-Leffler developed the idea for Jack's Talent after visiting a local elementary school. In the work, a youngster finds it difficult to identify his special skill while introducing himself to his new classmates, until his teacher notices his gift for memorization. "Cocca-Leffler's joyful paintings show the children engaged in their favorite activities," Susan Dove Lempke commented in Horn Book. "The artwork is cheerful," wrote Susan E. Murray in School Library Journal, "and the brief, repetitive text reads aloud smoothly."
In addition to her own books, Cocca-Leffler has also illustrated numerous titles by other authors. Koster's The Peanut-free Café centers on young Simon, who enjoys the same treat every day for lunch: a bagel smeared with peanut butter. When Grant, a new student with se-
vere food allergies, arrives at Simon's school, the principal opens a "peanut-free" zone in the cafeteria. When Simon notices how often Grant sits alone, he comes up with some clever ideas to make Grant's table a gathering place for other children. According to School Library Journal, reviewer Debbie Stewart Hoskins, "Cocca-Leffler's humorous and exuberant illustrations make the book fun." In Isabella's Above-ground Pool, a chapter book by Alice Mead, third-grader Isabella Speedwalker-Juarez faces a difficult adjustment to a new living situation, including the loss of her cherished swimming pool. A critic in Kirkus Reviews applauded the "lively cartoon-style drawings" by Cocca-Leffler.
"I haven't changed much since I was a kid … except I got older!" Cocca-Leffler noted on her home page. "I still think like an eight year old, which really helps when you write for kids." The author/illustrator concluded to SATA: "To be able to express these ideas and images through my books and at the same time experience the shared joy of illustrating is the best job in the world."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 1, 1992, Ilene Cooper, review of Thanksgiving at the Tappletons, p. 338; June 1, 1996, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Clams All Year, p. 1730; March 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Missing: One Stuffed Rabbit, p. 1246; May 15, 1999, Ilene Cooper, review of Mr. Tanen's Ties, p. 1702; February 1, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Bus Route to Boston, p. 1028; September 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Jungle Halloween, p. 131; November 15, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of Edgar Degas: Paintings That Dance, p. 572; April 15, 2002, Connie Fletcher, review of Bravery Soup, p. 1406; June 1, 2003, Kathy Broderick, review of Mr. Tanen's Tie Trouble, p. 1783; February 1, 2006, Ilene Cooper, review of The Peanut-free Café, p. 55; April 1, 2006, Kay Weisman, review of Isabella's Above-ground Pool, p. 49.
Horn Book, September-October, 2007, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Jack's Talent, p. 558.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1999, review of Mr. Tanen's Ties, p. 449; February 15, 2002, review of Bravery Soup, p. 252; February 1, 2003, review of Mr. Tanen's Ties Rules!, p. 227; February 15, 2005, review of Mr. Tanen's Tie Trouble, p. 226; February 15, 2006, review of The Peanut-free Café, p. 185; April 1, 2006, review of Isabella's Above-ground Pool, p. 352; July 1, 2007, review of Jack's Talent.
Publishers Weekly, November 5, 1982, review of Thanksgiving at the Tappletons; May 27, 1996, review of Clams All Year, p. 78; May 12, 1997, review of My Backpack, p. 76; February 21, 2000, review of Bus Route to Boston, p. 87; September 25, 2000, review of Jungle Halloween, p. 62; November 19, 2001, review of Edgar Degas, p. 70; March 1, 2002, review of Bravery Soup, p. 70; August 13, 2007, review of Jack's Talent, p. 66.
School Library Journal, March, 1990, Laura Culberg, review of Wednesday Is Spaghetti Day, p. 189; July, 1996, Kathy Piehl, review of Clams All Year, pp. 57-58; February, 1998, Jan Shepherd Ross, review of Tea Party for Two, p. 90; May, 1998, DeAnn Tabuchi, review of Missing, p. 113; March, 1999, Shelley Woods, review of Mr. Tanen's Ties, pp. 171-172; April, 1999, Linda Ludke, review of Jumping Day, pp. 92-93; April, 2000, Marianne Saccardi, review of Bus Route to Boston, p. 94; September, 2000, Linda M. Kenton, review of Jungle Halloween, p. 186; November, 2001, Susan Lissim, review of Edgar Degas, p. 143; March, 2002, Maryann H. Owen, review of Bravery Soup, p. 173; May, 2003, Kristin de Lacoste, review of Mr. Tanen's Tie Trouble, p. 110; May, 2005, Mary Hazelton, review of Mr. Tanen's Ties Rule!, p. 79; May, 2006, Jennifer Cogan, review of Isabella's Above-ground Pool, p. 95; September, 2006, Debbie Stewart Hoskins, review of The Peanut-free Café, p. 176; June, 2007, Gina Powell, review of Spotlight on Stacey, p. 94; November, 2007, Susan E. Murray, review of Jack's Talent, p. 87.
Boyds Mills Press Web site,http://www.boydsmillspress.com/ (April 9, 2002), "Maryann Cocca-Leffler."
Maryann Cocca-Leffler Web log,http://www.marethings.blogspot.com/ (September 30, 2008).
Maryann Cocca-Leffler Home Page,http://www.maryanncoccaleffler.com (September 30, 2008).