Highly acclaimed illustrator Wendell Minor reflected on his illustration collection that spans four decades at the Eric Carle Museum
If you walk into a children’s library, the chances of you picking up a book illustrated by Wendell Minor are extremely high, as he designed over 2,000 cover books. On Saturday, Minor spoke about his five decades in the publishing world at the Eric Carle Museum. The most famous children’s books he designed for include “If You Were a Penguin”, “How Big Could Your Pumpkin Grow” and “Reach for the Moon”. He also enhanced book covers of well-known texts such as David McCullough’s “Truman”, Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
As a teenager, Wendell was drawn to the arts by participating in newspaper and theater. His work ethic was evident then, working multiple jobs to support his artistic education. He delivered newspapers, worked in a slaughterhouse, was a stock boy at a department store, and created displays at local Sears. With this money he went to school and graduated from Ringling College of Art.
He published his first artwork at age 22 while working for Hallmark Cards. He had a brief stint in the advertising world before finding out it wasn’t for him. Soon he knew he had found his life’s work when Paul Bacon, one of the most diligent book cover designers of all time, took him under his wing.
Minor expressed his gratitude for being lucky enough to land a job as a Bacon apprentice soon after moving to New York.
“He was my hero as one of the great book cover designers,” Minor said. According to a 2015 article by Alexandra Alter published in the New York Times headlined “Paul Bacon, 91, Whose Covers Draw Readers and Admirers, Is Dead,” Bacon designed more than 6,500 covers.
“Work under Paul Bacon provided me with enough work for my portfolio and enough confidence to start my own freelance career and I’m grateful for the opportunity it gave me,” said Minor.
Minor conveyed his love of learning and exploration in his works. His writings frequently incorporate elements of history teaching and nature awareness. He brought characters from American history to life by writing biographies. His natural inclination for nature and history has helped him cultivate relationships with many authors with whom he has collaborated, such as Jean Craighead George, Mary Higgins Clark, Robert Burleigh, Buzz Aldrin and his wife Florence.
During his reflection, Minor shared the first drawing he made as a young boy: an image of a robin. Throughout his illustrious career, Minor’s love for animals shines through in his books.
He particularly likes birds, for example. One of his most memorable covers combined his love of history and nature, featuring the biography of Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist, writer, and conservationist. Carson famously informed the public about the decrease in bird population size due to synthetic pesticides in his novel “Silent Spring.” During his reflection, Minor spoke of the same unequivocal passion that Carson had for the importance of preserving nature. “We really take environments for granted and it’s unfortunate that these decades-long conversations haven’t brought about more change,” Minor said.
Minor draws inspiration for his work from the painters he studied as well as the natural landscape of his region. This is seen through the narrative and naturalistic style he employs. As an illustrator, he’s a “renaissance guy”; it can do everything from hyper-realistic detailed historical fiction to sweet and light-hearted children’s books that have a sweet and playful aesthetic.
Minor often collaborates with a variety of other writers on a project. They talk about their common hobbies and ideas, and soon an idea for a new book will come to mind.
“I usually develop close working relationships with the authors I collaborate with. We work closely from the initial concept to the final project,” said Minor.
Anita Silvey, author of “Henry Knox”, praises Minor in her book America:
Silvey writes, “Few illustrators today pay as much attention to research as Wendell Minor. In every book he works on, he makes sure to capture every detail.
One of Minor’s most productive collaborations is with fellow author, his wife Florence Minor. Together they created six picture books, including: “If You Were a Penguin Book”, “If You Were a Panda Bear”, “Smitten with Kittens” and “How to Be a Bigger Bunny and Christmas tree!“If You Were a Penguin” was well-received for its easy-to-read-aloud rhymes and bright colors that are perfect for young learners.
The miners donated their final sketches and artwork for “How to Be a Bigger Bunny” to the Eric Carle Museum. This generous donation offers the public a unique opportunity to follow the creative process of an artist. Comparing the sketches and the final paintings gives insight into this process.
Minor’s work has won countless awards from the International Reading Association Smithsonian’s Notable Books for Children and ranked among Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year. In addition to his collection on display at the Eric Carle Museum, Minor’s works are part of the permanent collections of institutions such as the Museum of American Illustration and the Library of Congress.
Samourra René can be reached at [email protected]