Died February 5, 1993 in Nice, France
William Pene du Bois was an American author/illustrator who led a quiet, productive life writing and illustrating wonderful children's books (see William Pene du Bois booklist.) By all accounts, he was a pleasant and happy man living a pleasant and happy life, doing what he loved best.
Du Bois was born into an artistic family with art antecedents stretching back to the 1700s. His father, Guy du Bois, was a painter and art critic, his mother a designer of children's clothes. His sister also became a painter. It was from his father that du Bois learned to draw.
The family moved to Europe in 1924 when du Bois was eight years old and sojourned in France for six years. It was at this formative period that he developed three passions that were to run through his life: a love of France, a love of the books of Jules Verne, and a love of circuses.
While in France, du Bois attended a boarding school, Lycee Hoche. While he credited the school with forming life long habits of precision and order, his description brings to mind Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline.
"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines."
From an interview in Horn Book:
Everything was done smartly to the sound of bells and whistles . . . In the morning when the bell rang six o'clock we all got up together and dressed, up to the point of having put on underwear, socks, shoes, and shirt without collar (we wore separate starched collars). Then the master, who slept modestly in a bed on a raised dais surrounded with pink curtains, would blow a whistle and we all washed together. (There were forty boys in each dormitory.) Then at another whistle, we all dumped the water together out of the great line of sinks in one fell swush. Then we finished dressing and lined up in a column of two's and marched to breakfast, a breakfast consisting of a large bowl of coffee and a big piece of dry bread. Of course we all sat down together to the tune of a whistle toot. . .
On his arithmetic teacher, who taught him quality control:
Every morning he would stack out homework papers in a neat pile in the middle of his desk and then proceed to look at them one by one, not as correct or incorrect papers, but as neat or sloppy examples of orderly procedure. He would hold them up as if he were studying etchings, look at the name of the student, and express his critical opinion of the work. He would either say, "Ah, c'est beau!" and stack it in a pile to his right, or make a sad, dejected grimace, and tear it in four equal parts which he stacked to his left. I remember doing a magnificent page of arithmetic, my favorite subject, in which I neglected to rule one short line under a subtraction of two one-digit figures. "What have we here?" he said, "An artist? Monsieur du Bois is drawing free hand." He neatly tore my work in four pieces.
In his later life, du Bois followed exactly the same procedure. He would work a drawing and, on completion, either set it aside if he were satisfied with it, or tear the work in four and start again if not.
The family returned to the US when du Bois was fourteen. He announced his intention to attend Carnegie Technical School of Architecture. He later related that "I was awarded a scholarship to that institution, but to my amazement, I sold a children's book I wrote and illustrated as a divertissement during vacation." It was Elizabeth, the Cow Ghost. With family funds short and an initial clear success in publishing, du Bois produced three more books that year, Giant Otto, and Otto at Sea, the first two in a series of popular Otto books that continued through the 1970's. College was left in the wake of success in publishing and then the war years.
As World War II approached, and having written, illustrated and published five children's books, du Bois joined the Army in 1941 and served through 1945 in Bermuda as part of the coast artillery. He also served as a correspondent for Yank magazine, wrote for the camp newspaper and illustrated maps. He married the girl next door, Jane Bouche in 1943 while in service but the marriage did not last.
After his discharge in 1945, du Bois continued as a correspondent for Yank magazine for a year in Paris and then worked for the Paris Review. It was during this period that he met his future wife, Willa Kim, a theatrical set designer. They later married in 1955.
In 1947, du Bois published what was to become his most famous book, The Twenty-One Balloons which received the Newberry Medal in 1948. Other awards followed including Caldecott Honor awards for Bear Party in 1952 and Lion in 1957. In addition to his own twenty five books, du Bois also illustrated some forty one books by other authors including such noted writers as Charlotte Zolotow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Peter Matthiessen, Roald Dahl, A.C. Doyle, John Steinbeck, Claire Huchet Bishop, and Jules Verne. In all he illustrated or wrote and illustrated some sixty-six books.
Du Bois was a meticulous craftsman, sitting down every day to a very organized desk with all his artistic tools in their proper places and working steadily to produce at least one illustration a day. He would normally draw the pictures first and then once he had gotten everything just the way he liked it, would then go back over the illustration in ink.
Du Bois was noted for the fine detail of his drawings and the lavish attention paid to the mechanics and operations of the devices described in his books. In his writing style, he had a flair for inventions and eccentric characters, gentle humor and straight-forward narrative that managed to capture the imagination of the reader. There are villains in his stories as well as heroes, but the villains are almost always misguided rather than evil.
The Twenty-One Balloons is one of those stories of which most people have not heard, but those that do know it love it. It was certainly one of Sally's favorites as a child. It tells the story of Professor William Waterman Sherman who becomes bored with teaching and whose solution is to take to the sky in a balloon to sail across the Pacific. His journey is foreshortened when, owing to an unfortunate encounter with a sharp billed seagull, his balloon crashes on a remote island, Krakatoa.
On Krakatoa, Professor Sherman discovers a somewhat utopian community of twenty families sustained by an incredible mine of diamonds but also threatened by the continuing rumbles and tremors of the very active volcano. The community was assembled by the original discoverer of the diamond mine and with the intention to create a magnificent new utopia. Each family lives in its own large home of distinctive architecture and each family is responsible for preparing meals of a particular style (Chinese food, Dutch food, etc.) for all the rest of the community. More than that, all the families were originally selected based on their inventive flair and the story is replete with lovingly described and illustrated labor saving devices of the most intriguing sort. The volcano eventually does erupt sending Professor Sherman and all the families fleeing in a massive escape vehicle of twenty-one balloons.
Only four of du Bois's books are in print today but they all warrant attention. Of course The Twenty-One Balloons remains popular among an underground of fans. In addition to his own work, three titles by others for which he was the illustrator are also still in print, each a great story - Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop, a wonderful Christmas story by Rebecca Caudill, called A Certain Small Shepherd, and Charlotte Zolotow's William's Doll.
William Pene du Bois died of a stroke in Nice, France on February 5, 1993. Enjoy the books of this talented author and illustrator.
A Certain Small Shepherd written by Rebecca Caudill and illustrated by William Pene Du Bois Highly Recommended