Under the North Light
The Life and Times of Maud and Miska Petersham
written by Lawrence Webster
foreword by Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead
Woodstock Arts, 2012
My husband, Steve, and I have worked together for the last 25 years. We have been married for 32 years, so it took us seven years to discover that we would enjoy creating and maintaining a business, developing it as our interests and skills grew. During those years, we have been interviewed for magazines and books that feature the “odd phenomenon” of married couples who work side-by-side. We work on our separate projects, but we often ask each other for critique and assistance.
When author Lawrence Webster sent me a copy of Under the North Light, I was thrilled. I remember the illustrations of Maud and Miska Petersham from my childhood. Brightly colored, active scenes from childhood and folktales, imagination-stirring. Winners of several major book awards, the books they wrote and illustrated and crafted are standouts. This is the story of how they met, married, and worked together for 40 years.
As Philip C. Stead and Erin E. Stead share about themselves in their introduction to this book:
“We are each other’s first and most important critic. We react to each other’s work in real time, a luxury most authors and illustrators do not have. We save one another from bad ideas when they come. As you read Under the North Light, you will find that Maud and Miska credit one another with the same kind of mutual critique and encouragement.”
The Steads comment on the remarkable number of married couples in the world of children’s literature. (I will let you have the pleasure of listing those couples.)
Maud and Miska Petersham were two people raised in dissimilar backgrounds, yet they worked together harmoniously. Maud Fuller graduated from Vassar in 1912 and headed to the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. Michael Petersham, born in Hungary to the name Petrezselyem Mihály, arrived at Ellis Island the same year, with a degree from the Royal National School for Applied Art in Budapest. After meeting at a commercial art studio, they began collaborating and worked with legendary editors May Massee, Louise Seaman Bechtel, and Doris Patee. They were given a Caldecott Honor in 1942 for An American ABC (the year Make Way for Ducklings took the Medal) and a Caldecott Medal in 1946 for The Rooster Crows: a Book of American Rhymes and Jingles.
The couple worked in illustration, ceramics, fine art, furniture, and embroidery. Together Maud and Miska Petersham were a vital part of their community as well as loving parents and grandparents. There are fine examples of their work, photos from family archives, all clearly captioned, making them an integral part of this biography.
Lawrence Webster, a librarian and nonprofit consultant, knew the Petershams when she was a child in Woodstock, New York, during the 1950s and 1960s. This quote is telling as her inspiration for writing the artists’ story: “They lived with a kind of radical integrity in the sense that the multiple parts of their lives fit together into an integrated whole, informed, always, by a sense of humor and a sense of perspective.”
Ms. Webster shares with us Maud’s and Miska’s individual stories, their lives together, and presents many illustrations of their work in this beautifully designed, printed, and bound book. It’s a treasure to hold and to read for anyone who has a love of children’s literature and book illustration. For the people on your gift-giving list who would enjoy this type of book, don’t even hesitate. It’s the right gift.