The Balkin Buddies Blog Catherine Balkin's Facebook

Writer & Photographer


My work as a writer and a

photographer grew out of my love

for the farms and small towns of

America. Having spent a good

portion of my childhood in a small

town in southern Indiana, I have vivid memories of those joyous years. Later, our family moved to southern Michigan. I missed the charming atmosphere of my old hometown,

yet I loved taking care of the livestock and running through the woods, marsh, and fields around my home.


When I was thirteen, our family moved back to Illinois, and I deeply missed the farm. Years later, after attending the university and moving

to the East Coast, I realized just how much I longed for the geography of home. Vividly, I recall flying home for Christmas and walking the tree-lined streets. The snow came down so quietly, filling up the streets, glittering against the street lamps, that I was overcome with the beauty of that moment. The next day I borrowed a camera from my brother, drove the back roads and started taking pictures. My first photograph was of a barn riddled by wind and snow. What stayed with me was the memory of those two episodes -- one on a hometown street muffled with snow and the other in the country. These scenes were so remarkably lovely that I had to find some means of sharing my feelings about them with others.


I was also struck by the changes that had occurred in the region during the few years since I had left for college. Thereafter, on every visit home I took random drives through the countryside, often taking photographs. These first photographs were in color, but I quickly came to appreciate black and white images, notably the ability of the interplay of light and shadow to evoke a distinct mood through which I could both document a subject and express myself. As much as I was fascinated by the pulse of city life, I also loved to return home to wander the backroads, observing the subtleties of light, and seeking those subjects which had mattered to me so much in my youth.


During these years I also scratched out a few stories and articles, all of which were written in a lyrical, highly visual style. Only as an adult in my early twenties did I realize how strongly I felt about writing. In fact, I became overwhelmed with the need to create - both to write and to make photographs. After a short stint in graduate school, I was back home, writing and photographing regularly.


Forsaking the security of a regular job, I began earning a living through a variety of manual jobs in factories and on farms. I was to be an artist, but wasn't at all sure what that meant. As a friend of mine once observed, artists are the only people who must declare themselves 'artists' before they have a body of work to substantiate the claim.


I describe my early years at length because it had such a pervasive influence upon my work as an author and illustrator of children's books. During this period in my life I honed my skills as a photographer and made a commitment to creating works of enduring value. I carefully studied the work of master photographers, yet I also insisted upon my own unique style that combines strong documentary and creative elements.


When I set to work on my first two children's books, my editor asked me, 'Where have you been hiding yourself?' I responded that I'd enjoyed a lengthy apprenticeship as an artist making black and white photographs before I turned my attention to writing and illustrating Corn Belt Harvest and County Fair. I also explained that anyone who can make good black and white photographs understands light and can make color photographs with ease. Having acquired the necessary technical expertise, I found that I could apply to my children's books the same insight and lyrical feeling regarding light and composition that distinguished my work for adults.


I have since published over eighty books for children and adults. Many of these books, such as Amish Home, Shaker Home, Portrait of a Farm Family, A Handful of Dirt, and others reflect the constancy of my love for rural life. However, in recent years, I have broadened into other interests in American cultural and social history. In this area, I have published Frontier Home, The Underground Railroad, Mist over the Mountains: Appalachia and Its People, With Needle and Thread, Where Lincoln Walked, One-Room School, Ghost Towns of the American West, and Tenement: Immigrant Life on the Lower East Side. Moreover, a few years ago, I embarked on a signature series about Native American people entitled "Lifeways." The twenty-four books published to date in this critically-acclaimed series have now carried me far from home again. Ironically, I once came back to the heartland to make photographs, but now I travel all over the United States and Canada to visit Indian tribes and make photographs of the people in these places. In this grand undertaking, I have visited the forests of the East and South, the sweeping plains and mountains of the West. I have traveled to the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. Many times I have journeyed to Montana, but I've also been to California and Washington, as well as Alaska and the muskeg of northern Canada. In all of these varied locales, I have been honored to meet many wonderful people.


In the research, writing, and photography for all of my children's books, I have been concerned with several primary elements. Essentially, I have been devoted to a quest for excellence in writing and photography. As a serious writer and photographic artist, I have committed myself only to those projects which have mattered deeply to me. Furthermore, I have only published books for which there is a compelling need to learn more about a particular subject or better understand another culture. I have also insisted upon high production values in editing, design, and printing. Fortunately, my editors have been dedicated to the same principle: that children deserve the very best.


The most important and satisfying aspect of publishing children's books has been that they have been appreciated. In fact, although technically classified as 'children's books,' my books have been enjoyed by young and old alike. As crossover books, they may be read to young children by parents, teachers, and grandparents. Children in the middle grades can read them in groups or on their own, and adults are drawn to the books because they enjoy the photographs. They may also read the books when they want an introduction to a particular subject.


I now live in Urbana, Illinois. I have a wife, three children, and I try to plan family vacations that coincide with photography excursions. I am able to write and make photographs, enjoy my family, and lead a purposeful life. Who could ask for anything more?