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Ruth Smith, Director
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Supervisor of the Year '08-'09
President's Award Winner '05
19 years w/ Usborne Books & More

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Stephen Cartwright. The Independent

Stephen Cartwright, the children's book illustrator, died last week at the tragically young age of 56 after suffering a series of strokes over almost a year. Stephen was one of the world's most popular illustrators and his books were known and loved by children everywhere.

Stephen was born and educated in Bolton, migrating to London when he won places at St Martin's and then at the Royal College of Art to study illustration. Shortly after he graduated, a then new children's book publishing company, Usborne Publishing, put the word around that they were looking for new illustrators. A tutor at the Royal College recommended Stephen as an exceptional talent and arranged a meeting.

It was the beginning of a lifetime of remarkable collaboration. The publisher was developing a new approach to producing illustrated non fiction for children. to a tight and extensively researched visual brief. Stephen's first book produced in this way was 'The Time Traveller book of Rome and Romans', a detailed and entertaining visual account of Roman life. He demonstrated a remarkable ability draw figures, though he did at one point gently complain that he had to spend five hours drawing two men wrestling naked in a Roman bath in such a way as to avoid revealing anything indiscreet.

Everyone loved Stephen's work. He ended up working almost exclusively with Usborne for the rest of his life, illustrating over 150 books for them.

His first big international success was the next book he illustrated, 'The First Thousand Words', a title originally suggested by an Australian distributor and now available in no less than 55 languages. For this book, he was asked to adapt his style and his colours to a much younger age. This was the beginning of the Cartwright style that has become so familiar and loved. Again, the figure work was extraordinary, showing Stephen's superb powers of observation of how children really look. He never drew, as many others do, children who looked like little adults. His children were real and immediately recognisable and attractive to other children.

At a late stage in the production of this book, the publisher suggested that Stephen invent a visual 'signature tune' for himself. So he and Heather Amery, the author, came up with the idea of hiding a tiny toy-like yellow duck somewhere in every picture. Ever since then, Cartwright's Yellow Duck appeared in every book he illustrated and in almost every picture, hidden somewhere. Children adored it. For year after year, bookshops all over Britain have organised with great success 'Find the Duck' competitions for their young customers, and Duck (who never acquired a Christian name) became one the best known characters in children's publishing, even graduating to his own series.

The fruitful collaboration of artist and publisher continued harmoniously for 27 years until his death, with Stephen working with a range of different writers and on widely differing projects, from conventional illustration to lift-the-flap, touch-and-feel and pop-up styles. He had remarkable technical skill, producing work that was not only beautiful but also accurately measured and presented.

His best known illustrations are probably those in the twenty books in the enormously successful Farmyard Tales series. Heather Amery devised a series of extremely short stories with a twist in them, peopled by the Boot family (Mrs Boot, and her children Poppy and Sam) and their much loved animals Rusty, Curly and Woolly on Appletree Farm. These books were initially written for beginning readers, with two levels of text on each page-one simple sentence at the top of the page, one or more slightly harder ones at the bottom, all written under the critical eye of Betty Root , an expert in the teaching of reading. It quickly became apparent however that the books appealed through the charm of their illustrations and stories far beyond their intended readership. They became so successful that they have been reissued in new formats, and now form the basis of a complete and ever-expanding range of 'associated' Farmyard Tales books; cookbooks, jigsaw books, sticker books, ABCs and the like.

Stephen was a gentle, attractive and highly intelligent man, always carefully dressed and often almost dapper in highly polished shoes and perfectly ironed and creased jeans. He loved good wine, good food and travel and his life was punctuated from time to time by long weekends abroad with his wife. He lived with his family in a lovely old thatched farmhouse with exposed light-brown timber beams, and with a studio in a converted barn at the end of his walled garden, overlooking fields and hills surrounding the beautiful village of Goudhurst in Kent. In later life he owned an enormous Triumph Thunderbird motorbike on which he growled through the countryside from time to time to clear his cobwebs.

He was a star at the huge sales conventions to which he was invited in Britain, Canada and the USA, wildly popular with the 98% female audiences, distributing to them free of charge hundreds of signed drawings and joining without protest in their line dancing, karaoke and other rumbustious celebrations. Though he had never done anything similar before, and was terribly nervous beforehand, he discovered at these conventions a talent for witty public speaking, addressing audiences of hundreds with confidence and faultless timing, aided perhaps by the fact that a number of the women decided he was a bit of a Paul McCartney look alike. He would sit for hour after hour, being photographed and signing his books far into the small hours.

Stephen leaves behind his wife Di ,two children of his own, and millions of adoring young readers around the world.

Peter Usborne 16.2.2004

 

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  1998-2013  Ruth McLain Smith, Director and Independent Educational Consultant with Usborne Books and More, RS4books@aol.com  888-565-5828
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