I think I had my first face-to-face encounter with a Living Legend of children’s literature when I staffed the registration table at the New England Library Association conference in the fall of 2001. A spry gentleman bounded up and, in a slight French accent, told me his name: Marc Simont. I leapt to my feet. “The Marc Simont?” I asked, idiotically. Honestly, I’d known he was coming—he was accepting the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for his sublime new picture book, The Stray Dog, that weekend, and how many other Marc Simonts did I imagine might be showing up in Burlington, Vt., for a librarians’ conference? But logic fled, and I was reduced to sheer inanity by the sudden proximity of a Real, Live Caldecott Medalist.
He was graciousness itself. He looked at my name tag and asked if I was “The Vicky Smith” and accepted my probably unintelligible gushing in stride. He also wasn’t in much of a hurry, so he just stayed there at the registration table to make conversation for a few minutes. Where was I from? Oh, Maine? I might have heard of a friend of his who settled in Maine….He told me stories of sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village with Robert McCloskey while the latter was working on Make Way for Ducklings, describing the antics of the ducklings McCloskey used for his studies.
His registration (finally) complete, he moved on, and my partner at the registration table (an academic librarian) turned to me and said, “So who was that?”
For his ignorance, he was punished by a recitation of Simont’s achievements, from winning the 1957 Caldecott for A Tree Is Nice to his most recent honor, which was the reason he was there in Burlington in the first place—and which presaged his second Caldecott Honor, which he accepted for The Stray Dog in summer of 2002. (His first was in 1950 for The Happy Day, by Ruth Krauss.)
Simont illustrated countless books, many of which he wrote himself, and he adapted his quick, humorous style to just about anything. He invested the sartorial preparations of Karla Kuskin’s symphony orchestra with sly and ever-so-slightly-wicked looniness in The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. His interpretation of Marjorie Weinman Sheinmat’s kid detective Nate the Great became so thoroughly linked to the character that even after he stopped illustrating the books some 20 volumes into the series, the subsequent ones have been published with illustrations “in the style of Marc Simont.” And I will never forget the pleasure I got out of Franklyn Branley’s ostensibly just-the-facts-ma’am informational picture book Volcanoes; even while hewing to scientific accuracy at all times, Simont knew how to capture children’s wandering attention, depicting earnest volcanologists snoozing while waiting for something to happen.
Marc Simont died at the age of 97 on July 13, 2013, leaving behind an astonishing legacy of illustration—the world is a slightly smaller place today without him.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.