Allison's Book Bag

Supported in Everything She Wanted to Do

Posted on: October 14, 2014

Max and Ruby. Noisy Nora. Yoko. Through them, Rosemary Wells has given readers a host of unforgettable characters. As an author and illustrator, her creative career spans more than 40 years and 120 books.

This October, attendees at the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival had the privilege of hearing Wells speak. At the festival luncheon, Wells showed a video of her art studio, shared a story of her former visit to the area, and spoke of her desire to get kids back to books.


I was lucky because my parents were happy and they supported all that I wanted to do.

–Rosemary Wells, A Day in the Life of an Artist

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABorn in New York City, Rosemary Wells grew up in a house filled with books, dogs, and classical music. Her mother was a dancer in the Russian Ballet and her father was a playwright and an actor. The family understood the importance of the arts. In her Penguin bio, Wells states: “Both my parents flooded me with books and stories. My grandmother took me on trips to the theater and museums in New York.”

Wells also spent much of her time outdoors, running around the woods behind the family’s house and playing baseball with the neighbor’s kids. She spent a lot of time with animals, horses, and dogs.

When not outdoors, Wells spent her time drawing. Her Scholastic bio notes that Wells discovered as early as age two that making a picture meant having people exclaim, “Look at that!” Recognizing the career that lay ahead of their daughter, her parents encouraged Wells every day of her life.

A self-proclaimed “poor student,” Wells attended the Museum School in Boston after finishing high school, but did not fare well there. She recalls it for Penguin as being: “a bastion of abstract expressionism an art form that brought to my mind things I don’t like to eat, fabrics that itch against the skin, divorce, paper cuts, and metallic noises”.

Wells left school at 19 without a degree, got married, and began a fledgling career as a book designer with a Boston textbook publisher. Two years later, when her husband applied to the Columbia School of Architecture, the couple moved to New York City. There, Wells worked as a designer at Macmillan, where her first book was published in 1968, an illustrated edition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s A Song to Sing, O! Since then, Wells has established a writing career, which she describes to Scholastic as being a “pure delight”.


It’s a writer’s job to have ideas.

–Rosemary Wells, Penguin

Her home life, children, and pets inspired many of Wells’ books. For example, her daughters were constant inspirations, especially for the Max board book series. “Simple incidents from childhood are universal,” Wells tells Scholastic. “The dynamics between older and younger siblings are common to all families.” As for the family’s West Highland white terriers, they had the shape, body position, and expressions to become the animals Wells made up for her stories.

That’s not to say all of Wells’ ideas came from within the family circle. Sometimes an idea will come instead from something Wells reads or hears. She confesses to Penguin, “I am an accomplished eavesdropper in restaurants, trains, and gatherings of any kind. These remembrances are jumbled up and changed because fiction is always more palatable than truth. Memories become more true as they are honed and whittled into characters and stories.”

Once Wells has the story, the drawings apparently just appear. Wells explains to Scholastic that she feels the emotion she wants to show; “then I let it run down my arm from my face, and it goes out the pencil.” In reality, her drawings are first sketched in light pencil, then nearly rubbed out, then drawn again in heavier pencil. When these lines are finished, the drawing is ready for color, and only then for submission.


I’m seventy-one and I have to revise OVER and OVER again.

–Rosemary Wells, Plum Creek Literacy Festival speech

The video which Wells showed to attendees at Plum Creek revealed that there’s always artwork on her studio walls. Wells also proclaimed that she allows herself to buy anything she wants. One example is her sable brushes which are the only the best kind. Because she takes proper care of them, the brushes also last forever. At the same time, Wells mixes her own colors so that she doesn’t have to buy expensive tubes. Her favorite mix is French ultramarine.

Through her video, Wells also showed some of her more unique processes such as using tapioca to create a snowstorm. Wells joked that she is a believer in anything which allows her to be lazy. 🙂 For example, brown rice and Cheerios are a couple foods which Wells has used to make stamps. These stamps allow her to quickly repeat designs and saves her hours of work. Wells also makes use of Frisket film, which protects areas of a work from unintended change. Splatter work with a brush, where she can spill anything she wants without ruining anything, is another technique Wells enjoys.

Wells then proceeded to reveal how disciplined of an artist she really is. She informs attendees that every day she practices painting AND doing it right. If she doesn’t do a painting right, she has to redo it. This sets the day for her the way a musician’s day is set by doing scales. Wells has sometimes recreated a painting more than ten times. Wells also shows a sample dummy and explains that it’s the first thing she creates. Later, despite Wells have established herself an accomplished professional, an editor might later require her to revise it multiple times over.


I am blessed to have two jobs that I love and to get to give back to the world. My job is to get kids back to BOOKS.

–Rosemary Wells, Plum Creek Literacy Festival speech

Many adults love her work, particularly the Max and Ruby books, seeing them not only as entertaining stories but also guides on educating their children. In various interviews, Wells insists that this is not the purpose of her work. If there is one central purpose to her writing life, Wells says it is to encourage children and adults to laugh at themselves in her stories and therefore to want to read her stories again and again. This will be her own tiny way of helping to develop life-long readers.

During her speech to attendees at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival, Rosemary tells of visiting years ago at a high school, to a program for girls who were pregnant. The girls received money for daycare to stay in school. Wells asked for a show of hands from the girls of who wanted their baby to be in this same room when grown up. No one raised their hand. The girls couldn’t go out at night and were too tired to do homework. Wells agreed that they were not the most advantaged, but said that the girls could do better for their child and listed various ways: Get a car seat. Provide inoculation. Give good nutrition. And the fourth gift? Get a library card and read to their child. A child who knows that books are important, Wells asserted, will be a child who can critically think.

From this story, Wells proceeded to condemn screens, whether belonging to a television, a computer, or a cell phone. Wells further elaborated to contend that the child who sits in a reader’s lap is more privileged than the one who has sports equipment. The child who does not have a reader’s lap but attends private schools is not rich. She may even be a beauty queen but she will be empty without books. Those who live only by video games will lack an imagination. These children are at risk. Parents who read aloud are giving love to their child. Those who grow up with books will become producers in this world.

Much more information exists online about the famous Rosemary Wells. I’ll end however with five tidbits drawn from interviews about her Max and Ruby books, one of which I’ll review tomorrow. Save the date: October 14!

  • In total, there are 8 board and 7 picture Max and Ruby books.
  • The original idea for the series came from her two children when they were about 5 years old and 9 months old.
  • Her children are faintly amused. 🙂
  • In the board books, Max is 1 and Ruby is 4. In the picture books, Max is 3 and Ruby is 6.
  • Her favorite Max and Ruby story is always the last one that she wrote.

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