An Illustrator's Menagerie

Lynn Munsinger, J74, renowned for the Tacky the Penguin series, has a knack for creating personable characters who are not people
Lynn Munsinger
“The pictures have to tell the story,” Lynn Munsinger said. “You have to be able to flip through a picture book and pretty much get the story, because that’s the child’s experience early on.” Photo: Andy Duback
February 10, 2017

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When Lynn Munsinger, J74, read a manuscript for a new children’s picture book project, she was excited. An illustrator with almost 100 picture books to her credit, she is used to having some latitude in the drawings she creates to tell the story, but mostly she’s illustrating exactly what’s in the text.

In this case, though—a story about a boy who is convinced that the dinosaurs did not go extinct millions of years ago, but instead went into hiding—the author, Stephen Krensky, left it up to Munsinger to dream up most of the visual details.

With free rein, Munsinger filled the book, Dinosaurs in Disguise, published in November 2016, with delightful surprises: the Sphinx in Egypt is a camouflaged allosaurus; a humped dino blends in with a camel caravan; a dinosaur, with shaggy hair covering his eyes and cloaked in a leopard-skin tunic, hangs out with a caveman. Then there’s the Tyrannosaurus rex dressed up as a Pilgrim disembarking from the Mayflower and the stegosaurus who’s portly enough to be a department store Santa.

"Once the dinosaurs got used to blending in, hiding soon became a habit." Illustration: Lynn Munsinger“Lots of times illustrators have to tell the story and be very literal, but this one I got to really run with it,” said Munsinger, who works mostly in pen and watercolors. “Stephen gave me free rein, and it was a blast.”

Munsinger is probably best known for her illustrations in the Tacky the Penguin books, written by Helen Lester and favorites of the tiny tyke set—and their parents. There are 10 in the series and more to come, all translated into many languages, the latest in Chinese. Munsinger’s also done several series with her New York Times bestselling partner Laura Numeroff, plus dozens of one-off picture books.

When she reads a manuscript, Munsinger begins developing the characters who will inhabit her pictures. They’re almost always animals, and that means studying the real creatures and doing sketches to get a feel for them.

“Then the next thing you know, I’ve got them in outfits, standing up and doing human gestures and whatnot,” she said. “I don’t think of them as animals; they are characters.” And if they have distinct physical characteristics, “that can really add to the humor—like a hippo ballerina. That’s inherently funny.” (You’ll find the dancing hippo, Fragility, in Hurty Feelings.)

First comes the sketch, then the final color illustration. Illustration: Lynn Munsinger“Lynn is known for the wonderful way in which her animals express The dinosaurs really did manage to outrun the comet 65 million years ago. Illustration: Lynn Munsingerthemselves,” Lester said. “She can take those penguins and make each one so different in every situation with their facial expressions and body language. She is the original animal whisperer.”

“The pictures have to tell the story,” Munsinger said. “I think you have to be able to flip through a picture book and pretty much get the story, even if you can’t read the words, because that’s the child’s experience early on.”

A Talent for Drawing

Growing up in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Munsinger loved to draw. She copied illustrations in picture books like the Eloise series, trying to nail the characters and their expressions. She was good at it. Beginning with her kindergarten doodlings, her talent got noticed. She entered drawing contests on a local kids' TV show, and usually came away with the first prize; when she was eight, she even won a bicycle.

At Tufts, she majored in art history, with a minor in what was then called applied art, so she took classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. She always wanted to be an artist, and after graduation, she enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned a BFA.

But art school was different—all those painting students seemed so talented and sure of themselves. She wasn’t sure at all. The public art critiques that took place in class were “kind of a disaster,” she said. But that all changed when she took a seminar about character development in children’s picture books with the artist Lester Abrams. “I’m forever grateful, because that was the first thing that I really loved—I could always draw funny little characters,” she said.

A world full of Tacky. Photo: Andy DubackRISD’s illustration department became her new home. After graduation, she headed to New York, where she unsuccessfully shopped her portfolio to publishers. Then, a cold call to Houghton Mifflin in Boston landed her a meeting with Walter Lorraine, the storied director of children’s books for the publishing house. He saw promise, and gave her a book manuscript to illustrate, her first real gig.

“I just did a wretched job on it, I think,” Munsinger said with a laugh, “but it was good enough. I was thrilled, and when I first saw a copy of it, I thought my name was in lights on Broadway.” It’s long out of print, she noted with relief. “It became a kind of a joke with me and Walter in later years. Whenever he was mad at me, he would threaten to bring it back out in print.”

In the art studio. Photo: Andy DubackHer next project, a little book of poetry called An Arkful of Animals, was populated with cute, personable animals; it paved the way for everything that followed. “I don’t draw people very well to this day, but I love drawing anthropomorphic animals—that’s my little niche,” she said.

On her next visit to Lorraine’s office, she found him laughing over a stack of book manuscripts. The author—it was Helen Lester—also fashioned herself an illustrator and had sent along her own cartoony drawings. But Lorraine knew a professional artist was needed, and Munsinger got the nod. The first manuscript turned into The Wizard, the Fairy and the Magic Chicken, the beginning of a beautiful partnership: wacky stories by Lester illustrated with Munsinger’s wonderfully personable animals.

The Artist-Writer Yin and Yang

The Lester-Munsinger collaboration is pretty unusual. In the children’s book business, the way it usually works is this: author sends manuscript to editor at publishing house; editor picks illustrator; and editor and art director act as go-betweens. But Lorraine at Houghton knew a good thing when he saw it, and whenever Lester sent in a manuscript, it went to Munsinger.

After their first book, they collaborated on It Wasn’t My Fault, about a little boy, Murdley Gurdson, who has an array of animals—anteater, hippo, rabbit, bird—who help him realize it was, indeed, his fault. What makes the storyline work is that each animal is a unique “person”—and young readers pick up on that immediately.

“I can pitch any line to Lynn, and she’ll come back with a home run,” Lester said. “She keeps adding these wonderful details. In our third book, A Porcupine Named Fluffy, I had Fluffy stuck to a door; Lynn not only had him stuck to a door but being used as a hat rack by his father—brilliant things like that.”

King Tacky. Photo: Andy DubackTheir fifth book was the one that took off. Tacky the Penguin, published in 1990, is still in print, a steady seller to this day and the first in what’s become a very popular series. With his friends Angel, Goodly, Lovely, Neatly and Perfect, Tacky can’t help but be the noncomformist. Munsinger draws him with an assortment of loud Hawaiian shirts, and readers know instantly that he is mischievous—but has a good heart. Tacky all but winks at us as we flip the pages; that’s just who he is.

Tacky has attracted the notice of more than kids. The penguin is also popular at the Mazza Museum of International Art from Picture Books, in Findlay, Ohio, one of the few museums in the country to focus on picture book art. “We have one piece of art from Lynn in our collection, from Tacky the Penguin,” said Ben Sapp, the museum director. “The expression and feel that you get from her illustrations are just fabulous. The piece we have of hers has been a favorite of museum-goers for years.”

Hit After Hit

In a blog post, Laura Numeroff wrote about Munsinger, “I love her work so much; I call her my Steven Spielberg.”Munsinger has illustrated more than 25 books written by Lester—and she’s done nearly 75 with other authors. In her early days in the business, Munsinger took whatever commissions came her way—the hunger of the freelancer—to the punishing pace of four or five books a year.

Now she illustrates a couple a year, alternating between Helen Lester books and those of other authors. She’s worked with well-known authors, such as David Greenberg (a series including Bugs!, Crocs! and Snakes!) and Laura Malone Elliott (A String of Hearts, Thanksgiving Day Thanks), but her other most successful run is with Laura Numeroff. They first collaborated on What Mommies Do Best, back in the late ’90s. That led to many in that series—from daddies to aunts, sisters to grandpas—and later the popular Jellybeans series.

She and Numeroff recently managed to squeeze in a book for the Canine Companions for Independence organization, about a boy raising a puppy as a service dog. Raising a Hero, released in July 2016, Lynn Munsinger looking at page proofs for “Dinosaurs in Disguise” along with her cairn terrier, Baxter. Photo: Andy Dubackis a project Numeroff had wanted to do for years; she was happy she could enlist Munsinger to do the illustrations. In a blog post, Numeroff wrote about Munsinger, “I love her work so much; I call her my Steven Spielberg.”

Munsinger has two studios—in Killington, Vermont, for when the skiing is good, and in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the warmer months. The artist’s life, she said, can be isolating, but she’s got a loyal companion, Baxter, her cairn terrier. He’s a happy dog—and looks just like, well, a Lynn Munsinger character.

Baxter is the latest in a long line of cairn terriers Munsinger has had, so it’s no wonder that they pop up frequently in her books. “Whenever I could sort of use one, I’d squeeze one in,” she said. “When it’s your own animal, though, you have to be careful you’re not doing a portrait.” Reflecting about what makes her art so appealing, she said, “In the books, it’s not a cairn terrier—or elephant or whatever—it’s a character.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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