Author and illustrator of the ever-popular “Blackboard Bear” series, Martha Alexander is known for her soft pencil and watercolor illustrations and her simple texts, both of which regale young readers with the magic, delights, and frustrations of childhood. Alexander has been an artist since childhood, trying her hand at ceramics, doll making, fabric and clothing design, portrait painting, children’s murals and paintings, decorative collages and mosaics, and teaching art to adults and children. Alexander says she did not find her niche in the art world until, at the age of forty-five, she was given her first children’s book to illustrate. She knew then that her long search for the right medium of expression had been more than justified. “I felt for the rust time that here it was,” Alexander said in Junior Literary Guild. “It was as though I had searched all my life to find me-or home.” As Alexander went on to produce an impressive selection of picture books, her unique ability to make pictures tell the story and her insightful outlook on children combined to win her popular and critical acclaim.
Alexander was born in Georgia, but her family moved to Ohio when she was nine. Besides being shy and insecure by nature, she was sensitive about her Southern accent and a heritage that included slave owning. Her books would later reflect her first-hand knowledge of some of childhood’s uncertainties. Alexander’s interest in art and her teachers’ encouragement about her drawing provided her with a solid foundation during her school years.
After graduating from high school, Alexander entered the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts. Despite her aspirations to be a portrait painter, she soon found herself drawn into the world of modem art and “art for art’s sake” by teachers and fellow-students. Her husband, an artist she met and married while at the academy, also influenced her. “Being married to a serious painter who, I believed, felt a certain disdain for anything other than ‘fine arts,’” Alexander once commented, “I found it hard to find my way to a world of my own.” The couple moved to Hawaii where, as they raised their two children, Alexander taught art classes and began to sell her paintings, murals, and collages to architects and decorators.
In 1960, after her marriage dissolved, Alexander moved to New York with her two teenaged children and began illustrating for magazines on a freelance basis. She once described this pivotal stage of her career: “After working for about five years freelancing for magazines and a bit in advertising, I felt extremely discouraged and frustrated and I was having a hard time making ends meet. One day I took the day off and did a whole series of drawings of children doing nonsensical things. I had such fun. I put them aside and went back to the grind until several weeks later I came across the drawings and decided ‘if I’m going to be poor, I’ll be poor doing what I want to do.’ I put them together in a little book and went to Harper and Row.” At the large publishing company, Alexander was almost immediately given a book to illustrate. With several more books closely following the first, Alexander’s career as a children’s book illustrator was established.
Alexander’s training in the fine arts was invaluable to her in her new medium. While in art school, she was influenced greatly by three artists modem Swiss painter Paul Klee, fifteenth-century Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, and twentieth-century French painter Marc Chagall. The beauty of these artists’ works impressed her, but she was particularly intrigued by the playfulness of Chagall and Klee and their ability to say so much without words. Alexander remarked in an autobiographical sketch in Books for Schools and Libraries: “By viewing their work I discovered how complete stories can be told through images . . . It was interesting to see that pictures themselves can enhance a story in ways that words cannot. Now I take great pride in telling as much of the story as I can without text, but rather through gestures and expressions.” As she illustrated books for other authors, Alexander came up with ideas for books of her own. She once commented, “As I was working on my first book at Harper, I began to get ideas for books and told them to my editors, although I had no thought of writing them. My editors suggested I write them and my response was ‘But I’m not a writer!’ She chuckled and said, ‘How do you know if you don’t try?’ My first efforts were very frustrating.”
Alexander’s first publication as author and illustrator, Out! Out! Out!, was a wordless picture book, revealing not only Alexander’s belief that pictures can tell a story without words but also her initial insecurity as a writer. Alexander once stated that after making many efforts to write her own stories, “it seemed quite hopeless . . . they sounded good in my head but not on paper.” She resolved her frustrations as a writer by developing a system of creating books that did not require her to separate the functions of writing and illustrating. Starting with a “dummy”—a book made up of thirty-two bound blank pages—she wrote her story with words and pictures simultaneously. “I found that as I worked on a dummy, words and pictures began to come together as one, and I was hardly aware of the difference between them,” she explained.
Alexander’s third self-illustrated publication, the popular Blackboard Bear, is about a little boy who, rebuffed by the big boys for being too young, goes home and draws a large bear on his blackboard. He then takes his blackboard bear by the leash and parades it in front of the older boys, who long to hold the leash or ride the bear. With his creation of the bear, the little boy has turned the tables: it is his turn to coolly rebuff the big boys. This flight of childhood fantasy is “satisfying poetic justice,” Ethel L. Heins observed in Horn Book, further summarizing that Alexander “has already shown the ingenuity of her wordless storytelling through pictures in Out! Out! Out! Now she proves just as imaginative with the same kind of eloquent drawings accompanied by a minimum of words.” A critic in Books for Keeps, reviewing a British edition of the book, found that Alexander “builds a variety of needs and coping strategies into a very private, cleverly understated, little book.”
Interaction with the children in her family has been a great source of inspiration for Alexander’s books. The idea for Blackboard Bear arose on a visit with her four year-old nephew. “I was utterly fascinated by this child,” she explained. “He lived in the country and had never had any children to play with. He had a fantasy world that was unbelievable. I watched him race around playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, elephants, lions, and other games. Whatever he was playing, he became that part. He told me wild tales of how he once fell into a huge pit and how his brave father rescued him. It was endless. Once he handed me a dozen baby kangaroos to keep for him.” Alexander believes that the imaginary worlds children create are very real and important aspects of their lives. “Adults should encourage, explore, and be interested in the fantasy world of the child,” she stated in a Publishers Weekly interview with Jill Korey.
Two picture books, Nobody Asked Me if I Wanted a Baby Sister and When the New Baby Comes, I’m Moving Out, originated when Alexander’s two-year-old granddaughter indirectly expressed feelings of sibling rivalry about her new baby sister by telling her mother that the baby wanted to live with her grandmother. After thinking about the unvoiced resentment and jealousy that might be behind the two-year-old’s statement, Alexander decided to write a story in which an older brother actually gives his baby sister away. She hoped that by reading about the basic, but often unspoken, resentments of sibling rivalry, her young readers will understand they are not alone in these feelings and will find appropriate ways to resolve them.
Critics have applauded the acute identification with children exhibited in Alexander’s expressive drawings and humorously human stories. The author and illustrator says that her understanding of the child’s world has been inspired by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and also by her own memories of child-hood. But beyond these influences, Alexander is inspired by her readers, as she stated in Books for Schools and Libraries: “I want to give something to the child reading my book. The payoff comes when I receive a letter from one of my young readers, and it’s evident that I’ve reached him or her. This affords me the deepest satisfaction of all. You see, I was once the timid, shy, and very insecure child for whom I am writing now.”
Alexander told SATA, “I owe many people a great deal of thanks along the way, especially Ursula Nordstrom, Charlotte Zolotow, Phyllis Fogelman, [and] Amy Ehrlich.”
Martha Alexander passed away on January 31, 2006 in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is surely missed.
Read a Biography of Martha Alexander.