Obituary: Robert M. Quackenbush

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Prolific children’s book author-illustrator and fine artist Robert M. Quackenbush died on May 17, 2021. He was 91.

Quackenbush was born on July 23, 1929 in Hollywood, Calif., and grew up in Phoenix, Ariz. In his autobiography, Quackenbush recalled a childhood love of drawing, painting, and listening to stories and noted that his was a family of storytellers and readers. He continued with his art and enjoyed copying the paintings of famous artists like Diego Rivera and some of the WWII art that ran in Life magazine at the time. He also found creative outlet in his early teens by building furniture for his bedroom as well as painting and decorating the space.

Following his high school graduation in 1947, Quackenbush used money he had saved from a part-time job and went to New York City to study art for the summer at Parsons School of Design. Back home after the Parsons program, Quackenbush enrolled in Phoenix College, but soon knew it wasn’t a good fit and decided to find a way to pursue a career in art. He headed to Oregon the following summer where he earned enough money working in the lumber mills to enroll in the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles by the fall of 1948. But after completing two years of art school, Quackenbush was drafted into the army, during the Korean War. He never stopped working on his art, however, and even earned some extra money by painting watercolor portraits of soldiers and officers when he was stationed in South Carolina and Indiana. He also served as a Troop Information and Education lecturer.

In 1953 Quackenbush received an honorable discharge and headed back to the Art Center where the G.I. Bill helped him complete his studies and earn a bachelor of professional arts degree in 1956. With that, he was off to New York, eager to begin an art career. Quackenbush’s early work was in advertising where one of his main accounts was the Scandinavian Airlines System. During a summer assignment working at the SAS offices in Stockholm, Quackenbush discovered the graphic arts of woodcuts, etchings, and lithography. He especially enjoyed crafting woodcuts and once back in New York quit his corporate job and worked solely as a printmaker, exhibiting his prints in such venues as the Whitney Museum of Art and landing major commissions from the New York Hilton and the National Parks Division and the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian.

Some magazine illustration came next, and then, in 1962 Quackenbush brought his portfolio to art director Robert Craven at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. He was soon hired to illustrate Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Holt, 1962). More book illustration contracts followed from a variety of publishing houses, and after completing 62 books by other authors, Quackenbush wanted to write and illustrate his own work. First out of the gate was Old MacDonald Had a Farm (Lippincott, 1972). It was during this project that Quackenbush met Margery Clouser, a fashion designer, who walked into his storefront art gallery/studio. The couple married in 1971.

Quackenbush wrote and illustrated more than 200 books in all, creating such popular early reader series as those starring Detective Mole, Henry the Duck, Miss Mallard, and Pete Pack Rat, as well as an extensive series of biographies, whose subjects were often inspired by the interests of Quackenbush’s son, Piet. Quackenbush received several citations from the Society of Illustrators and an Edgar Allan Poe Special Award in 1982 for best juvenile mystery, which was given to Detective Mole and the Halloween Mystery. The A Miss Mallard Mystery animated TV series was produced by Cinar and released in 2000.

Though he was most widely known for his children’s book work, Quackenbush was also a psychotherapist. Shortly after their marriage, both Robert and Margery Quackenbush enrolled at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies in New York, and in 1991 they graduated as certified analysts. Quackenbush went on to earn a master’s degree in social work and a Ph.D. in childhood development and children’s education. He founded the Gradiva Awards in 1994 to honor “the best published, produced, or publicly exhibited work that advances psychoanalysis.” In addition, he taught illustration and writing classes for children and adults at his New York City studio for more than 40 years. And in the wake of 9/11, Quackenbush drew from his combined areas of expertise to form the Liberty Avenue Program, which helps children overcome emotional stress in their life by expressing their feelings through art.

Karen Nagel, executive editor of Aladdin Books and Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, and Quackenbush’s editor, offered these words of tribute. “Having first met Robert Quackenbush when he was well into his 80s, nothing could have prepared me—or anyone else on our team—for the exuberant force of nature that was Robert. His passion for books was utterly infectious, and his creativity, insight, and grace made him a one-of-a-kind creator and collaborator. Robert was particularly thrilled that his iconic Miss Mallard, Henry the Duck, and Sherlock Chick books—many published more than 30 years ago!—were embraced by a new generation of eager readers.”

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