Alice Provensen, 1918 - 2018
The illustrator who brought kids’ books to life
Alice Provensen delighted generations of children. Over half a century, she illustrated and wrote dozens of picture books on a dizzying array of topics, from ancient myths to poets, presidents, and barnyard animals. For most of her career, she worked at back-to-back drawing boards with her husband and collaborator, Martin. Their work followed no set style. For 1956’s The Iliad and the Odyssey, they took inspiration from the heroic paintings found on ancient Greek pottery. For 1983’s The Glorious Flight, about the French aviator who made the first airplane journey across the English Channel, they dabbled in post-impressionism. That book won them a Caldecott Medal, the highest U.S. honor for a children’s picture book. “We tried to work with the material,” said Provensen. “You couldn’t do something from the Bible in the same style you’d do an animal book.”
She was born Alice Twitchell in Chicago, where her father was a stockbroker and her mother an interior decorator, said The New York Times. In the early 1940s, she went to work as an animator at Walter Lantz Productions in Los Angeles, the home of Woody Woodpecker. “The job would have usually been filled by a man, but she landed it, she said, because so many men were in the military.” There she met Martin, who was working for nearby Walt Disney Studios. “Many of their early titles were published in the low-budget but popular Golden Books series,” including The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown, said The Washington Post. The Provensens often worked for a flat fee and didn’t receive royalties. That was also the arrangement for their most famous creation: Tony the Tiger, the mascot for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal.
When Martin died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 70, Provensen was “unsure whether she would continue an illustration career on her own,” said Publisher’s Weekly. But encouraged by her longtime editor, she embarked on a series of well-received solo projects, including The Buck Stops Here, a rhyming survey of U.S. presidents. “Garfield, Twenty, in a station,” she wrote, “departed by assassination.” “Working on books, I’m not ever really alone,” she said in 2005. “I always feel as though Martin is looking over my shoulder, telling me what I should do over—and letting me know what work is good.”