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2006 Newbery Medal profile of Lynne Rae Perkins

by Virginia Duncan

“I am always surprised at what she sees looking at a view,” says Lynne Rae’s husband, Bill. “I see this and that, and Lynne starts to go on about, maybe, the power line towers, which I didn’t even register as being in the picture.” Surprised at what she sees looking at a view. That may be the essence of it. Lynne Rae Perkins has the gift of surprising — and, once she’s caught you and often delighted you, of shifting your point of view, or showing you something new, or getting you to think about something you hadn’t thought about before, at least in quite that way.

Lynne Rae Perkins was born in 1956 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she grew up in Cheswick, a small town along the Allegheny River. She received her B.F.A. degree in printmaking from Pennsylvania State University and her M.F.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Lynne Rae and her husband, Bill, have two children — Lucy, fourteen, and Frank, twelve — a cat named Goldentree, and a dog named Lucky. Lucky has a wire or two loose and an insurmountable inability to come when called, a trait celebrated in Snow Music. Bill Perkins is a furniture maker; he builds graceful rustic pieces from branches, twigs, and bark.

After a courtship that involved Bill wooing Lynne Rae back to the Midwest from Boston, where she was working as a graphic designer, the Perkinses moved to the north woods of Michigan. They planted evergreens and rented a bit of a parking lot in St. Louis, and they would drive down to Missouri with thousands of Christmas trees, sleep in a little trailer, shower in the health club next door, and make enough to live on for a good part of the year. Until recently, the Perkins family lived in a magical “Dr. Seuss” house on top of a very steep hill — initially it was a sixteen-by-twenty-foot shack built by Bill. This house inspired Janet’s house in Clouds for Dinner, and it was reachable only by climbing 104 steps. When Bill and Lynne Rae first moved in, they had no electricity or telephone service or running water; they got their water from a park down the road and carried it up the hill in five-gallon buckets. A friend carved a yoke for them, and that was a huge improvement over carrying the buckets by hand, especially when there were babies and toddlers in tow. A propane-powered refrigerator came next, and a light that was about as bright as a twenty-five-watt bulb but was a big step up over oil lamps, which, according to Bill, “left our eyes as red as maraschino cherries.” They got a phone and electricity — but only in the workshop at the bottom of the hill, at first, so they’d run down and make toast and then run back up with it, hot in their hands. Toast was the thing they missed most during those first years on the hill. It snows and snows and snows in northern Michigan, and the Perkins house and workshop were always heated by woodstoves. Bill would get up early to light the stove for Lynne Rae, who begins work in her studio before dawn. Lynne Rae and Bill added to the house over time, gradually turning it into a home.

Lynne Rae, Bill, Lucy, Frank, Goldentree, and Lucky still live in northern Michigan, but they’ve moved into town and into a brand-new house designed by Lynne Rae and mostly built by Bill. Bill and Lynne Rae did the finish carpentry on the house, and it is, like their first home, constructed mainly out of reclaimed materials.

In 1993, Lynne Rae heard through a friend that Ava Weiss — the art director for Greenwillow Books from 1974 until her retirement in 2002 — was going to be at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Pittsburgh, evaluating portfolios. Ava had agreed to look at ten portfolios, and she was just finishing up when a very tall and very upset woman came running in a bit late. “Of course it was Lynne Rae,” remembers Ava, “and she had driven six hundred miles while six months pregnant to have her work looked at, and since I am a softie at heart, I said, ‘Well, okay, let’s see what you’ve got’ …and after two or three minutes I realized there was a rather special talent in front of me.” Ava encouraged Lynne Rae to consider writing her own material, since it is often so hard to find good manuscripts that need illustrators. They talked about format and how to present an idea, and after a short period Lynne Rae sent a very good book dummy to Ava. She showed it to Susan Hirschman (Greenwillow’s founder, and its publisher until her retirement in 2001), who accepted it for publication. Greenwillow Books published Home Lovely in 1995. Lynne Rae Perkins has written four picture books in all: Home Lovely, Clouds for Dinner, Snow Music, and The Broken Cat. She has written two novels about Debbie Pelbry, All Alone in the Universe (originally, and for some of us always, known as Debbie of Insulbrick) and Criss Cross (originally, and always, Criss Cross).

Bill Perkins is famous for his fierce maintenance of what is affectionately (or not) known as “Bill’s firewall.” While she is working, Lynne Rae thrives on complete and uninterrupted quiet. From the time that Robin Roy (Lynne Rae’s first editor at Greenwillow) called with the news that Greenwillow wanted to publish Home Lovely, Bill has allowed only editors — not friends, not relatives, not anyone, no matter how small the question — to get through. Since the announcement of the Newbery Medal, publicists have also been allowed to breach Bill’s firewall, but Bill has hinted that their days are numbered, for Lynne Rae has a new picture book to finish and a new novel to begin.

Because Lynne Rae Perkins writes and illustrates picture books, and writes novels that she also illustrates and creates jacket art for, everyone at Greenwillow Books works intensively with her at one stage or another, from early drafts to finished manuscripts to thumbnails and sketches to type design and galleys to mechanicals to color proofs. Lynne Rae likes to say that she sends her manuscripts to us; we toss them out into the world for her. And we do. We toss them with love, a good deal of attention to detail, and great respect and admiration. And, of course, faith in the power and beauty of what she wants to share—faith and delight in what she sees.

Virginia Duncan is the publisher of Greenwillow Books. She has been Lynne Rae Perkins’s editor since 1997.

Lynne Rae Perkins is the winner of the 2006 Newbery Medal for Criss Cross. From the July/August 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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