Kovalski, Maryann 1951-

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Kovalski, Maryann 1951-


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.


Home—80 Belmont St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5R 1P8. E-mail—[email protected]


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, 1984; McGill Club, Toronto, 1987; Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1988; Bologna Book Fair, Bologna, Italy, 1990; and Society of Illustrators Original Art Show, New York, NY, 1990.


Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers, Society of Illustrators (New York).

Awards, Honors

Sydney Taylor Children's Book Award in children's category, Association of Jewish Libraries, 2001, for Rivka's First Thanksgiving; Governor General's Literary Award nomination, Canadian Authors Association, for The Big Storm.



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.


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, and Bram's Mother Goose: Songs, Finger Rhymes, Tickling Verses, Games, and More, music 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, 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.

David Booth, selector, Doctor Knickerbocker, and Other Rhymes (poems), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1993.

Laura Krauss Melmed, The Marvelous Market on Mermaid, Lothrop, Lee & 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.

Also author of sound recording Illustrating for Picture Books, for Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers.

Kovalski's books have been translated into French.


Maryann Kovalski is an American-born Canadian illustrator and author of children's books who is 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 her country's best-loved contemporary authors, including Tim Wynne-Jones and Margaret Atwood.

Born in New York, Kovalski grew up in the Bronx at a time "when kids roamed freely and relatively safely," as she noted in an essay for Something about the Author Autobiography Series (SAAS). A Roman Catholic, seh was raised around the ritual of the Church as they cycled throughout the year, in particular, the processions through the neighborhood with her altar-boy brothers taking part. These "ecclesiastical beauty pageants" made a strong impression on the young Kovalski.

As a child during the 1950s, Kovalski experienced the fears brought on by the cold war, with nuclear-attack drills held at school. She also experienced an America of a different epoch, the small-town, close-knit neighborhood America that existed before the homogenization brought about by television and other mass media. It was a simpler age, when city kids played in fire-hydrant spray during the steaming summer months as elderly people leaned from their windows, watching. This world is captured in many of Kovalski's illustrations.

Kovalski's father, a chimney sweep, played a significant role in her life. Never losing his childish glee, he would bring home all manner of strays, from kittens to a pair of chickens. If the bill collectors were overly persistent, he would go off fishing. From her mother and her mother's sisters she inherited 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," she 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, and retained the traditions of another time and place.

Another early influence on Kovalski was books. "I loved picture books even when I was too old for them," Kovalski wrote in SAAS. At age ten, Jean de Brunhoff's illustrations for Babar 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 nine years old, leaving a void in the girl's life. Shortly thereafter, her father moved the family to Florida, hoping to get rich on real-estate ventures. After a few months, things went badly awry and the family soon returned to New York City. Settling again in the Bronx, Kovalski attended public school for the first time, as the local Catholic school had a long waiting list. Picked on and bullied, she 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, did not.

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, frustrated by the current vogue for conceptual artworks over traditional watercolors and oils. Her first two years focused more on having fun and learning about herself than learning about illustration. Finally, in her third year, a trip to Canada inspired Kovalski to apply herself to her studies.

Returning to New York, Kovalski 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 3,000 paintings or cells. The film presents a cartoon cat whose tail enlarges to spell out French words that then morph into the image of what it has spelled. Though the finished film was far from successful, the discipline of drawing aided her other work. Upon graduation, Kovalski won an illustration job with Harper's for a story by John Barth. Soon thereafter, she 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, creating artwork for Allen Morgan's Molly and Mr. Maloney and Ted Staunton's Puddleman, both "enjoyable volumes," according to Anne Gilmore in Quill & Quire. By 1984, she 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 moved to that city. One day, Brenda, the female of the blissful doggy duo, tries to bring a forgotten lunch to Edward, who works as a night watchdog at a garage. Soon lost, she is hit by a car and taken away by the driver, leaving poor Edward devastated. Several years later, a car enters his garage with the scent of Brenda on it. Edward gets in and refuses to budge. Taken to the large country estate of the car's owners, the dog is reunited with his long lost Brenda and the two live happily in the country together.

"Kovalski's soft, sentimental illustrations are a perfect complement to this gentle story," Gilmore concluded in Quill & 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 introduces sisters Jenny and Joanna and their resourceful, spunky grandmother. In this story, the three take a shopping trip for new winter coats, but get so involved at the bus stop singing the song "The Wheels on the Bus," that they, in fact, miss the bus that will take them home. 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 Books in Canada contributor 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 Review of Materials, called the illustrations "lively and full of small details that children will discover as they read the story." These illustrations give a 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, Joanna, and Grandmother are featured in 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 snowflakes falling, the three burst into a refrain of "Jingle Bells," during which a runaway horse in Central Park is reined in by the indomitable granny. 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 School Library Journal, concluding that Kovalski "renders events humorously … and delightfully depicts the snowy nighttime city." In 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 reprises her winning combination of characters and song-based storyline with Take Me out to the Ball Game, 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 grandmother climbing the bleachers to catch a balloon at the last pitch?—he predicted that such inconsistencies will be ignored by kids "who'll just go on chuckling at Grandma's goofy antics." Shirley Wilton commented in School Library Journal that the book is 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 Ball Game 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 Depression-era pizza parlor hitting hard times, the book is loosely based on the story "The Fisherman's Wife." When a factory closes down next door, pizzeria owners Frank and Zelda face the loss of lunch-time customers. However, when a stranger comes and pays for his pizza in wishes, Frank wishes for a thousand cash-paying customers "every day and forever." The reader is soon reminded to be careful of what he or she wishes for; the couple are soon inundated by so many customers that they are forced to wish for a larger restaurant. Further wishes spiral out of control, until an exhausted Frank and Zelda wish that they had never started with all these wishes. Patty Lawlor, writing in Quill & Quire, noted the "droll pen" wilded by the writer-illustrator and concluded of Pizza for Breakfast that, "when it comes to pizzas, Kovalski delivers." Theo Hersh commented in Canadian Review of 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 cited for 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 illustrated Garbage Delight: Another Helping, a volume of children's poetry written by Dennis Lee, from a five-year-old's perspective. Susan Miller, writing in Resource Links, called the illustrator's approach "humorous, sweet, and touching," while Jeffrey Canton noted in Quill & Quire that "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, a critic in Publishers Weekly wrote that 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 to Laurie Bildfell for Quill & Quire. "As an illustrator, 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 the artist's "style, sophisticated yet humorous, is reminiscent of Edward Gorey's work." Reviewing the humorous fairytale Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, by well-known Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, a reviewer in Publishers Weekly called Kovalski's illustrations "droll, " while Hazel Rochman noted in Booklist that her "line-and-watercolor pictures evoke a Marie Antoinette-style palace, with wry images and slapstick action." It is this blend of wry humor and zany images that make Kovalski's work a favorite with young readers and earns her a reputation of one of the most popular contemporary Canadian illustrators and writers for children.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Children's Literature Review, Volume 34, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1995.

Kovalski, Maryann, Pizza for Breakfast, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.

Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 21, Thomson 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 Ball Game, p. 914; August, 1993, Carolyn Phelan, review of Doctor Knickerbocker, 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 Ball Game, p. 94.

Canadian Review of 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 & Quire, November, 1984, Anne Gilmore, review of Brenda and Edward, p. 12; October, 1988, Laurie Bildfell, interview with Kovalski, pp. 8, 10; September, 1990, Patty Lawlor, 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, 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 Ball Game, 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, review of Jingle Bells, p. 31.


Maryann Kovalski Home Page,http://www.maryannkovalski.net (February 7, 2007).