The Balkin Buddies Blog Catherine Balkin's Facebook


Writer & Illustrator


I was born in Abilene, Texas, two days after Christmas in 1943, and grew up in Texas, New York, and California.


Looking back on my childhood, I realize how fortunate I was to have such an interesting family. My mother was a writer who published her first book, a murder mystery , when I was seven years old; it was dedicated to me. I grew up surrounded by books, and the adults in my life all loved to read. My mother and grandmother, in particular, were fascinated by language. Often they would be struck by a particular word or phrase, go to the dictionary to look it up, and explain it to me. They would say, That's a good word. You should know that one. Good words were ones that beautifully expressed an important idea or quality. I savor good words to this day.


Creative and adventurous, my relatives seemed always to be making art, telling stories, or packing their bags for some exotic trip. When they came home from their travels, they brought marvelous things. It might be a Russian icon, a Balinese painting, Guatemalan textiles, or tiny embroidered Chinese shoes. They decorated their houses with these things, which in Abilene, Texas in the 1950s was more than a little eccentric. But each object had a story behind it and told me something about the people who made it. The world, I learned, was an interesting place, rich in its variety and replete with wonderful stories.


I had been writing stories and drawing pictures all my life, yet I never really thought about doing either of those things for a living. As a girl growing up in the 50s, I was not really encouraged to plan for a career of any kind. But then, my senior year in college, I took a figure drawing class, and the world shifted for me. I loved it so much, and was so generously encouraged by my teacher, that I longed to find some sort of job that allowed me to draw. Eventually I decided to be a medical illustrator, which meant going back to school. After a year studying art in Edinburgh, Scotland, I entered the John Hopkins Medical School. Two years later, in 1970, I received my master's degree.


Though I worked as a freelance medical illustrator for a number of years, I soon found a career that was more to my liking. Having by that time become a mother, I began visiting the library every week and bringing home huge stacks of books to read to my children. Before very long, I had fallen in love with children's books. In the late 70s, I began putting together a portfolio and, on the occasion of a trip to Boston , showed it to John Keller, then editor-in-chief at Little, Brown. He gave me my first book assignment; The Farmer in the Dell came out in 1978. After a few years of working solely as an illustrator, I wrote my first picture book, The Conversation Club. Since then, I have written or illustrated (or both) almost fifty books, from simple picture books like Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter and Goldie and the Three Bears to novels such as A Time Apart, The Mysterious Matter of I. M. Fine, and Bella at Midnight.


But I am probably best known for my series of illustrated biographies, beginning with Peter the Great and over the next twenty years continuing with such fascinating and lively subjects as Queen Elizabeth; Shaka, King of the Zulus; Cleopatra; Joan of Arc; Leonardo da Vinci; and Saladin. On some of these books, I have worked together with my husband, Peter Vennema. His role is helping me with the research, acting as my first editor, and traveling with me to France or Italy or Egypt or England to follow in the footsteps of my famous subjects. One of my biographies has another family connection; The Last Princess: the Story of Princess Ka'iulani of Hawai'i, was a collaborative project with my mother, Fay Stanley. She wrote it and I illustrated it. The book was published shortly after her death in 1990.


After living for many years in Houston, TX, my husband and I recently moved to Santa Fe, NM, where we live on a mountainside and never seem to tire of admiring the beautiful skies. Our three children, Cat, Tamara, and John, have grown up and gone on to lead interesting lives. When I'm not traveling, skiing, hiking, or chasing deer and rabbits out of my garden (I have a new-found sympathy for Mr. McGregor), I am in my studio writing or painting and thinking how lucky I am.