Thursday, February 17, 2011


MOST BIOS OF NANCY EKHOLM BURKERT, illustrator of John Updike's A Child's Calendar, sum up her career as follows: she is the original illustrator of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, which was her first published illustration work for children, and she received a Caldecott Honor in 1973 for Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. This is not a shabby biography. But there must be more to the career of the illustrator chosen as the second artist ever to be given an exhibition at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art after none other than Maurice Sendak.

NANCY EKHOLM BURKERT was born February 16, 1933 in Sterling, Colorado. By the time she was twelve she had lived in five states, settling in Wisconsin in 1945. "Because I felt very alone as a child," she wrote in 2007, "drawing became my companion, and my bridge to the World." She wrote and illustrated her first picture book (unpublished) in high school while also serving as editor of the year book and taking art courses at the Wustum Museum. "As a picture books provided my only source of visual art," but as she grew her influences became much broader. She majored in art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and completed a masters on a George S. Kaufman fellowship for female graduate students. During that time she studied the old masters and came to admire the Flemish masters of the 15th and 16th centuries in particular. It was her discovery of Eastern art that was most revelatory, however. "I discovered my affinity with Asian art, especially early Chinese painting. My preference is for linearity, which can express for me grace, rhythm and harmony...the Spirit I feel in everything."

Above: From Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale

When she speaks of linearity, she means actual line work, a focus on meticulous detail developed line by line. Click on the below image to examine the corduroy hat in this portrait of her daughter.

Burkert received the commission for her first illustrated children's book, James and the Giant Peach, after a picture book she had written and illustrated was accepted at Knopf. The book was in rhyme and detailed the story of an "aerial lady" and "what happens when kites break their strings and disappear; sort of a great lost-and-found in the sky." Like the book written in high school, the story of the aerial lady never saw publication.

To achieve the level of detail Burkert demands, the artist does exhaustive research both in the field "on location" and in books and museums. She often spends as much time on research as creating the pictures. Snow-White took her three years to complete, and her labor of love Valentine & Orson required seven years.

Above: Images from Meindert De Jong's The Big Goose and the Little White Duck, researched in the Wisconsin countryside.

Such rigorous and time consuming practices has resulted in a relatively small output of only ten books and a scattering of magazine illustrations.

Above: Endpapers from Edward Lear's The Scroobious Pip completed by Ogden Nash

In addition to her work as an illustrator, Burkert has curated museum exhibitions such as Drawing: The Fundamental Art at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1981 and an exhibition on representations of peace in children's books, which showed in New York as well as Milwaukee. In the 1990s, she founded a program called Bread and Books that brought books to needy children and their families in Milwaukee soup kitchens.

Above: From Acts of Light, selected poems of Emily Dickinson

Amazingly, all of Burkert's books save Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs are out of print. I have posted additional samples of her work on my Flickr account. Follow the links to see more art from Meindert De Jong's The Big Goose and the Little White Duck and from the selected poems of Emily Dickinson Acts of Light. And in case you missed it, all of the art from Updike's A Child's Calendar. I hope that Ms. Burkert would consider this renewed exposure a belated birthday gift; she turned seventy-seven yesterday.

My primary sources for Nancy Ekholm Burkert's biography were Michael Danoff's introduction to the 1977 monograph The Art of Nancy Ekholm Burkert and Burkert's own "letter" in the book Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art. I also consulted the Wisconsin Library Association's Notable Wisconsin Authors website, an honor Burkert received in 1995.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.


  1. Wow. Thank you for this! Just discovered Nancy Ekholm Burkert's work and it is beyond stunning :)

  2. Thank you for helping me see all those many years ago.

  3. Thank you. Love her art and enjoyed your article!