Steven Kellogg

by Lisa W. Foderaro | June 2016

Due West Photography

When the children’s book
author and illustrator Steven Kellogg was a young boy living in Norwalk, Connecticut, his family used to vacation in Essex, on Lake Champlain. He remembers telling his three sisters as they drove along Lake Shore Road in the late 1940s that, one day, he would occupy the Greek Revival house known as Blockhouse Farm. The house proudly proclaims the year of its construction—1836—above its four Doric columns.

“I chose that as a place I would settle for my old age,” recalled Steven, 74, who has written and/or illustrated 120 picture books.

In 2001, after living in Newtown, Connecticut, for 35 years, Steven and his wife, Helen, claimed their prize, finally moving into the 1836 House, as he calls it. With 11 acres overlooking Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont, the property offers a landscape whose constantly changing colors and light effect are an artist’s image of nirvana.

“We came up here to slow down—to sit and stare, as we like to put it,” Steven said recently next to a fire that hissed and popped in his living room, where a picture window faces the lake. “We wanted to place two Adirondack chairs by the water, with a big pile of books, and to escape the suburban rat race that Connecticut had become.”

Steven, who is partial to V-neck sweaters and jeans, may have escaped the hectic pace of Connecticut, but he has hardly slackened his own. He has continued to churn out books, including the poignant Snowflakes Fall, an illustrated poem that he and the author Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah, Plain and Tall) created in memory of the victims of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Some of Steven’s stepchildren had attended that school years earlier.)

He still pursues a lifelong passion for children’s literacy by giving talks in libraries, bookstores and schools. To date, he has given thousands of such talks in all 50 states. And he has immersed himself in local issues. He helped lead the effort to preserve Essex’s octagonal stone schoolhouse, which he called an “American architectural icon,” and he helped found Champlain Area Trails, or CATS, a group that creates and maintains trails in the Champlain Valley.

These days, however, his chief enterprise is caring for his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and severe arthritis. Helen, 85, who still socializes with their closest friends, was diagnosed two years after the couple moved into their Essex house. “Being an Alzheimer’s caregiver is extremely time-consuming, and I want to do that,” he said. “That’s my highest priority. She took fabulous care of me for 45 years and now I want to take care of her.”

To that end, Steven recently embarked on a major change in their living arrangement. Because the layout of the 1836 house is ill-suited to Helen’s wheelchair, the couple purchased a barn dating to 1780 that had stood on North Hero Island in Lake Champlain. They are now having it restored and renovated into a wheelchair-accessible, year-round home.

Sometime this summer, the barn will be moved to their property, right on the shore of Lake Champlain, and the Kelloggs will make it their new residence. “It has to work for Helen,” Steven said simply.

If Steven’s passion for storytelling and drawing simmered throughout his childhood, his love for Helen arrived like a thunderclap. The two met when Steven was traveling in California. He fell hard, unfazed by the fact that she was 11 years his senior and had six children from a previous marriage. They became best friends and, after he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, wed when he was just 25.

They settled in Newtown, Connecticut, raising their children in a 1742 farmhouse. “They were picture-book age, so it was perfect,” he said of his stepchildren. The house, with five fireplaces, was nestled on 20 acres; there was even a waterfall on the property.

Steven may not have created a children’s book character as famous as, say, Amelia Bedelia or Clifford the Big Red Dog. But he nonetheless achieved a remarkable degree of success at a young age. He published his first book, The Wicked Kings of Bloon, when he was in his mid-20s.

With characteristic modesty, he attributes his early achievement, in part, to the surging interest in children’s books and school libraries under President Lyndon B. Johnson. “I was lucky because I was in the right place at the right time,” Steven said. “There was a huge explosion of funding that went into children’s libraries, and publishers were looking for children’s books to meet the demand.”

Of the books in Steven’s portfolio, he has written and illustrated about a third himself, the rest illustrated for other authors. Among his more notable titles are a series of books based on American folk tales, including Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Pecos Bill. Also popular was his Pinkerton series, about the Kelloggs’ beloved, if rambunctious, Great Dane.

While his output has slowed somewhat, Steven still works on books and art commissions in a studio tucked inside a cavernous barn on his property. The barn has lofty windows overlooking the lake, which was gray and choppy on a raw winter afternoon.

The barn is also filled with the couple’s first-rate collection of American folk art: early painted country furniture, tavern signs, barbershop poles, weather vanes and an antique carousel horse. At one time, Helen did extensive research on the biographies of folk painters whose work the couple have acquired, including the highly collectible husband-and-wife artists known as R. W. and S. A. Shute.

Steven’s studio is more workaday. A drawing table is surrounded by a sheaf of paper and jars of brushes, paints and pencils. “I like to mix watercolors, colored pencils, colored inks and acrylics,” he said, “because it gives a greater range of color and texture.”

Nearby, piles of his children’s books compete for space with completed illustrations—Pinkerton the Great Dane is here—as well as current projects, including a logo for a local social-service agency. Hanging on the wall is a framed illustration given to Steven on his 50th birthday by the late Maurice Sendak, best known for Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak, who had also lived in Connecticut, was Steven’s close friend and mentor.

That Steven has deep ties to Connecticut and, in particular, Newtown, made December 14, 2012, all the more horrific. That was the day a disturbed young man opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 children and six staff members. “That was my kids’ school and I was the local author who showed up for all kinds of occasions,” he said. “The fact that something so horrendous happened there, so viciously cruel and insanely catastrophic, made me want to find a way to make a healing statement.”

The writer Patricia MacLachlan and Steven had become friends through the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, a nonprofit organization where they both serve on the board of directors. At an emotional gathering, the two visited Newtown a week before the anniversary of the massacre to sign copies of Snowflakes Fall at the local library. More than a hundred residents showed up.

In a video clip released by Random House, MacLachlan explained that the book is about “loss and renewal and memory,” adding that “there’s joy in it too.” Of Steven’s artwork, which shows children frolicking in the snow and making snow angels, she said: “I think it’s very spiritual, and we believe it when we look at it. We believe the joy.”

While Snowflakes Fall may have special resonance for Steven, he says that no one book stands out from his decades-long oeuvre. “I’m fond of all of them,” he explained. “Making a book is like making a friend. You can’t compare them. They are all magical and special in their own way.”

Lisa W. Foderaro is a reporter for The New York Times. She wrote about the Adirondack rail/trail debate in the April 2014 issue of this magazine.

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