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Remembering Trina Schart Hyman

November 19, 2014 marks the ten-year anniversary of the death of illustrator Trina Schart Hyman. Author/illustrator Jim Arnosky shares his memories of the Great Lady — what she meant to him as a mentor and as a friend.

hyman_snowwhiteWe are approaching ten years since the world of children’s literature lost Trina Schart Hyman. I still find it hard to believe. Recently, I was clearing away some papers and empty paint tubes after finishing the art for a book when I paused to read again a framed letter I keep on my drawing table. It was from Trina, written in 1975 and signed with a tiny self-portrait.

The frame and glass were dusty, so I took it all apart to clean, and out fell all the letters and postcards this wonderful woman wrote to me during the years that I worked for Cricket Magazine. The letters are filled with encouraging words, praise, criticism, and friendly news from Lyme, New Hampshire. Each one, beautifully hand-lettered, is a work of art in itself…so different from the cold type of an e-mail.

Reading Trina’s letters again, I remembered sitting in her kitchen, drinking strong coffee, her cat on the table nosing the lip of my cup, when Trina told me her cancer had returned.

I first saw Trina’s work in an ad for the debut issue of Cricket and became enchanted by the lines in the drawing, all so skillfully made, depicting a great benevolent giant reading a book to a whole gang of kids. The signature was Trina’s simple “TSH.”

I had no idea that the artist was also the magazine’s art director. I sent samples of my work, mostly pieces that had been published or printed in ads or brochures. Trina sent my samples back. She wasn’t impressed. In fact, she made a point to tell me that my slick ad agency style of art was exactly the opposite of what she wanted in Cricket.

My wife Deanna and I and our little girl Michelle were living at the time in a one-room cabin in the mountains of Pennsylvania. We had no running water. No indoor toilet. We heated with logs that I sawed every day from the trees in our woods. We had no bank account. We were living on food from our garden, the fish I caught, and an occasional illustration assignment. I wrote back to Trina and told her that I didn’t accept her characterization of my work. I also told her about our life in the cabin. The more I looked at the printed samples I had sent her, though, the more I saw that she was right. None of them reflected me as a person or as an artist.

She wrote back again. Instead of writing me off as some crazy artist in the mountains, she wrote back! And what’s more, she sent me a job — a story by Farley Mowat titled “Owls in the Family.” I didn’t know who Farley Mowat was, but Trina did, and after reading about my life in the cabin she knew he and I were a perfect match. I used the opportunity to create my most natural, heartfelt drawings ever; in part to let Trina know that I knew she had been right about my samples. But mostly, I think, to please her.

That’s how it was with Trina. She’d tell you right up front what she thought, even if it was painfully critical. Then she’d help you grow and be better at what you do. She would make friendly demands, some professional (such as “I want a page of hands. You need to learn to draw hands”) and some personal (“I’m giving you this cover assignment on one condition: that you get water put in that cabin”). She knew Deanna was pregnant with our second child, and Trina didn’t like the idea of her stooping to scoop water from the stream as she had been doing for two years.

Trina sent me assignment after assignment, until the publishers of what were then called “hardcover books” in New York took notice and I was on my way. She did this for all her artists, teaching them and promoting their work, and all the while she herself turned out beautiful picture books that everyone in the field wished were theirs.

Working for Trina and Cricket Magazine broadened my world. Every year Trina and Dilys Evans hosted a picnic for the Cricket authors, illustrators, and magazine staff. It was amazing! It was a true halcyon period in all of our professional lives that would never be duplicated. I have home movies of some of the most celebrated names in children’s literature in their heyday, playing ball and badminton and having fun in Trina’s yard.

At Trina and Dilys’s Cricket picnics I met Paul Galdone, Cyndy Szekeres, Hilary Knight, Erik Blegvad, Wally Tripp, Jan Adkins, Walter Lorraine, David and Carol Carrick, Marylin Hafner, Merle Peek, Tomie de Paola, David McPhail, Garth Williams, Clement and Edith Hurd, Margot Tomes, Emily Arnold McCully, and others. All of these bright lights of the children’s book field plus newcomers like myself, along with authors, art directors, and editors from the major publishing houses! It was quite an experience. People talked about work, but mostly they relaxed and enjoyed Trina’s home and hospitality. Everyone there was unique, but we all had one great thing in common—love of children’s literature.

When Deanna and I decided to leave Pennsylvania and move to Vermont, we stayed at Trina’s while we searched for a house. The first night, a skunk let loose in the floor space under our bed and I awoke to a smell, the intensity of which I had never smelled before. I was a woodsman. I had seen and watched many skunks. Deanna and I had a pet skunk for awhile. But I never had a skunk let loose full blast directly under me. The odor was eye-burning. It made you choke. Fearing that some gas line had burst, I ran and woke Trina, who laughed and told me it was just their resident skunk. Then she chided, “Some naturalist you are, Arnosky!”

We survived the skunk, even though we smelled of it for days. And we found our home here in Vermont—all with the help of Trina, who continued to give me work and pass my name on to others who might want the kind of art I did. I don’t know what I would have done in the early part of my career without Trina’s support. And I am not alone in this, I’m sure.

Living only a half hour from Lyme, I used to drop in on Trina unexpectedly, with a creel full of freshly caught trout for her freezer. Sometimes I would just stop by to give her a hug. And whenever I called, she always took the time to talk. From time to time, she’d send me a book to help me see who and where I was in my journey—“King Solomon’s Ring” by Konrad Lorenz, a wonderful book about animal observation. Or “Out of the Mainstream,” a book of fishing memories by Philip Kingsland Crowe, a retired U.S. ambassador. I’m going to reread all the books Trina sent me, because I miss her sending them.

Trina Schart Hyman left the world so much more than her beautifully illustrated picture books. She left a part of herself with everyone who knew her. She left something of her boundless generosity in every line she drew, and in every piece of art created by the many artists that she mentored. While she was alive, I thanked her again and again for the most thoughtful friendly criticism, advice, and encouragement I’ve ever had another artist give me. I thanked her so often, I think I sometimes embarrassed her with my gratitude. I loved knowing Trina. I wish she were here to thank again.

About Jim Arnosky

Jim Arnosky’s latest book is "Tooth & Claw: The Wild World of Big Predators" (Sterling). If you would like to read more about the Arnoskys' cabin, the early days of Cricket Magazine, and children’s publishing in an earlier time, go to www.jimarnosky.com and click on the memoir "Born In A Tree."

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Comments

  1. Rebecca Hachmyer says:

    This is lovely. Thank you for sharing these wonderful memories.

  2. Such a beautiful, heartfelt remembrance of one of the most towering artists in children’s literature. Yes she left us way too soon, and her passing was no less than a tragedy for her family, friends and legions of fans. Her art was in a class by itself. Of course ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, with its classical art and trademark framing is one of the all-time masterpieces, but so are her fairy tale adaptations, one whose cover who offer up at the opening – and her art for Bruce Kimmel’s magnificent HERSCHEL AND THE HANNUKAH GOBLINS, which did win a Caldecott Honor, but in 1989 should have triumphed over the fine book by Ed Young that did win. In any case, I was very moved by your personal anecdotes, and your last paragraph really had me tearing up Jim. Trina Schart Hyman was a true icon.

  3. Kristen Oberhauser Bishop says:

    As a librarian in a small, rural school school in Maine, I work with children’s illustrators everyday, in a sense. I am not a library science major – I am an artist and English major. During story time I have the children tell me what stories they seen in the illustrations while I tell them the story of the words. I make outline drawings of Caldecott books that they can color and later use to find that book on the shelf. I have St George and the Dragon on my desk right now for my next project. It was so serendipitous to see your article today. I wanted to be a writer illustrator for years and I used to mimic Trina’s style when I was a kid. She will always be one of my favorite artists, It was so wonderful to hear about the person.Now I am fostering readers so that wonderful illustrators and writers like you and Trina can be appreciated by a widening circle of admirers . So thank you Tim Arnold for this wonderful tribute and for the many wonderful stories you have given my students with your drawings.

  4. Thanks for such a beautiful remembrance. I grew up reading Cricket magazine and loving Trina’s work. When my kids started reading, I gave my collection to them. It’s still in my 14-year-old daughter’s bedroom and she has her own collection of Crickets that she still gets every month. A print of Trina’s dragon from St. George and the Dragon is on the wall in my office. I met her once at a book signing at Powell’s in Portland, and she graciously signed my collection. She was kind and funny, and even her signature is a work of art. I wish I had known her, and I feel in some sense that I do through her beautiful and expressive art. She is one of those rare souls that I can say a light went out in the universe when she died.

    It’s Christmas at my house, which means it’s time to unpack the Christmas books. Herschel and the Hannukah Goblins and A Child’s Christmas in Wales are about to make their yearly appearance. Thank you, Trina, for being part of my family’s life.

  5. katrin tchana says:

    Hi Jim–Judith Lerner sent me the link to this article and it made me teary, but it’s really lovely. It’s hard to explain what my mother was like to people who didn’t know her–she was a woman who had more life in her than most people have, and it’s hard to imagine how she could possibly be not alive for ten whole years….You were very dear to her as well, you know.

  6. Penny K says:

    Every third grader in the classrooms in which I volunteer knows the name Trina Schart Hyman. They almost sing it. Each year a new class meets her beautiful illustrations in A Child’s Calendar, Peter Pan, and often, Caddie Woodlawn. The children recognize her style, and they love the little details in her illustrations, just waiting to be discovered by observant, eager 8-year-olds.

  7. Jo-Anne Farley says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I love Trina Schart Hyman’s drawings. One of the earliest memories of discovering her work was in novels like Caddie Woodlawn, Irma’s Big Lie, and then later Eleanor Cameron’s A Room Made of Windows. I fell instantly in love with her style. Recently I discovered her autobiography Self-Portrait and was delighted to learn more about my favourite children’s book illustrator. Of course I am saddened that she is gone, but I seem to be discovering more and more about her and her work, via the Internet and even Pinterest. She was a painter as well! Having a BFA in Art and Design, and a BA in English, I feel a kinship toward TSH, especially as a young girl as I too wanted to be an illustrator.

    Your recollections of your friend and your life in the cabin paint a wonderful picture of life back in the 70s, a time before electronics and emails. I look forward to discovering more books and drawings by Trina. You are blessed to have known her so well.

  8. Thank you for this lovely insight into Trina’s life. Her illustrated books were some of the first ones I connected to as a child, and to this day she remains my favorite illustrator.

  9. We all miss her,still.

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