Ronni Solbert, children’s book illustrator, dies at 96

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In 1961, Ronni Solbert lived with his partner, Jean Merrill, on the north side of Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village, alongside the immigrants and bohemians who defined the idyllic small-town neighborhood within a big city. vibe.

When the city’s park department announced plans to tear down many of the park’s benches, chess tables and century-old trees to make way for a softball field, neighbors objected, writing letters, staging protests and forming the Committee for the Preservation of Tompkins Square. To park.

They won their fight, at least in part, and in doing so, they inspired Ms. Solbert, an illustrator, and Ms. Merrill, an author, to write a novel for young adults, as Ms. Solbert explained in 2014 to The Valley News, a newspaper covering parts of Vermont and New Hampshire (she had moved to Vermont by then). The two had already published several books together and would collaborate on 18 in all, but “The Pushcart War”, published in 1964, was their greatest achievement.

The story revolves around a ragtag group of handcart salesmen who wage war against the fleets of trucks that invade the narrow streets of the city, including attacking enemy vehicles with pea shooters. A modern parable of underdogs facing off against bullies, it quickly found millions of readers.

Ms Solbert, whose death on June 9, aged 96, was not widely reported, credited Ms Merrill, who died in 2012, as the main creator of the book. But Ms. Solbert’s illustrations, both urban and emotional, very much in the vein of mid-century New York cartoons, likely contributed to her rapid rise to the pantheon of children’s literature.

Her niece, Lisa Solbert Sheldon, said Ms Solbert died at her home in Randolph, Vermont, where she and Ms Merrill moved to in 1970.

Among the many fans of “The Pushcart War” was playwright Tony Kushner, who at one point hoped to adapt it as a screenplay and later wrote a blurb for an edition published by The New York Review of Books in 2014.

“The book gave me an entry point – my first, I imagine – into the world of resistance to political and economic injustice and chicanery,” Kushner wrote. “It made opposition, even nonviolent civil disobedience, fun, just, necessary and heroic, and something even someone as powerless as a child could and should undertake.”

Credit…NYRB Kids

Romaine Gustave Solbert, who bore her childhood nickname, Ronni, was born on September 7, 1925 in Washington. His family soon moved to Rochester, NY, where his father, Oscar Nathaniel Solbert, served as the first director of the George Eastman Museum of photography and film. His mother, Elizabeth (Abernathy) Solbert, was a homemaker.

Ms. Solbert graduated from Vassar College in 1946 and earned an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 1948. After a few years working in Sweden, where her father was born, she moved to New York to pursue a career in art.

She followed two paths. She painted, mostly in the vein of Abstract Expressionism, and was quite successful, with 17 of her works included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Talents” exhibition in 1959.

She also started illustrating children’s books. She met Mrs. Merrill shortly after arriving in New York, and they released their first book together, “Henry the Hand-Painted Mouse,” in 1951. They went on to collaborate on 17 more, including “The Pushcart War.”

Critics noted how Ms. Solbert’s work elevated Ms. Merrill’s texts, many of which told complex stories about outsiders struggling with bureaucratic conformity.

Reviewing their 1969 book “The Black Sheep” for The New York Times, Natalie Babbitt, a famous children’s book author and illustrator, praised how “Jean Merrill does a difficult thing very well with using Ronni Solbert’s carefully careless and wacky designs.

Ms. Solbert has also worked with other authors. She illustrated “Bronzeville Boys and Girls” (1956) by poet Gwendolyn Brooks and “The Two Runaways” (1959) by Aline Havard. She has also written three books of her own.

Mrs. Solbert and Mrs. Merrill bought a farm in Washington, Vermont in 1962. They left New York for good eight years later, after watching their beloved Tompkins Square Park fall into disrepair and crime take over the city. ‘East Village.

“You found yourself trying to spend more time trying to fix things, but the problems were too big,” Ms Solbert told The Valley News in 2014.

In 2013, a year after Ms. Merrill’s death, Ms. Solbert, who leaves no immediate survivors, donated her farm to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science and moved full-time to Randolph, a small town in central L ‘State. She had largely ceased to illustrate but continued her art, which by then included photography and sculpture.

“Art is my sanity, my joy, my frustration and my passion,” she wrote in an artist statement. “My subject is the human animal, our relationship with each other and with the world we inhabit. I want the work to invite reflection, open perspectives and challenge the emotional and intellectual responses of viewers.

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