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Ed Emberley

by Barbara Emberley

Ed’s first instruction concerning this biography was to make it just that — a biography, not an appreciation. So I will do as he requested and “stick to the facts.”

To begin, Ed’s full name is Edward Randolph Emberley. He was born in Malden, Massachusetts, on October 19, 1931. He was a city boy, raised and schooled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His maternal grandfather was a coal miner in Nova Scotia, and his paternal grandfather made his living from the sea in Newfoundland. His father left Newfoundland in his twenties and has been a carpenter most of his life. As far as Ed knows, there were no artists among his ancestors.

Ed remembers only one book from his childhood, Little Black Sambo. The rest of his library, housed in three orange crates, consisted of funny books and old Life magazines. He does not remember going into a library until he went to high school.

Ed and his two brothers were encouraged to draw, he says, “mostly by lack of discouragement and by having pencils and paper in the house at all times for us to use if we wanted to.”

Encouraged and supported by his parents and high-school teachers, he went to the Massachusetts School of Art, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting and illustration. Ed was serious about his work and was considered one of the better students.

Since I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in fashion design, I think I am qualified to say that he was less than serious about his appearance. He shaved only on weekends, and his “uniform” consisted of one pair of levis encrusted with paint (he had the habit of wiping his brushes on them) and set off by an ancient pair of moccasins and a flannel shirt, similarly decorated. In spite of his appearance we became good friends, dated, and were married a year after graduation.

Ed started working as an artist in 1958. In 1960 he wrote his first book, The Wing on a Flea, for Little, Brown. It was well received and became an ALA Notable Book and one of the New York Times’ ten best illustrated books. He bought thirty copies of The Wing on a Flea and sent them to all the publishers he could find, with a letter asking for a chance to illustrate more books. As a result he received work from Holt, Rinehart and Winston; Doubleday; and Thomas Y. Crowell; as well as from Little, Brown.

During the summer of 1962, Ed started experimenting with woodcuts and sent out a mailer to the children’s book publishers. It showed a print of Paul Bunyan and Pinocchio, with a note saying that he would like to illustrate Paul Bunyan or Pinocchio in woodcuts. The prints were mailed out at five o’clock one evening and at ten o’clock the next morning we received our first and only answer. It was from Eunice Holsaert of Prentice-Hall, who said that she was interested. Could he send some sample pages? Thus began our association with Prentice-Hall, which led to the publishing of The Story of Paul Bunyan, 1963; Yankee Doodle, 1965; and One Wide River to Cross, 1966, sole runner-up for the 1967 Caldecott Award.

The story of Drummer Hoff, 1967, and of the part played by Jean Reynolds, the present children’s book editor of Prentice-Hall, is told in Ed’s acceptance paper.

Perhaps Ed’s most outstanding quality, at this time, is his ability to work in many different styles and techniques. An excellent example of this variety can be seen by comparing his two 1967 books, London Bridge is Falling Down (Little) and Drummer Hoff. Ed illustrated these two books at the same time, yet they look like the work of two different artists.

Ed’s personality as related to his work is best explained in his own words:

When I am looking for an idea or trying to tie down a concept for a new book, I am restless, tired, fearful, superstitious, withdrawn, and just about the crabbiest person you would ever want to meet. When I settle down to an idea and get a few pages, I feel like a happy, powerful, creative genius destined for greatness! This feeling dwindles slowly, so that by the time I have the final art work ready for the printer I feel that I am a competent, clever illustrator. When I first examine the printed, bound book I am depressed and I see that it is quite obvious that my expectations were not realized and that I must try again.

Which he does.


This article, originally published in the August 1968 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, is part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Ed Emberley and Drummer Hoff.

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