Joan Walsh Anglund obituary: Her children’s books captured the innocence of youth

If you didn’t know her stories, you probably knew her distinctive drawings of children

Born: January 3rd, 1926
Died: March 9th, 2021

When her family moved to New York city from the American Midwest in the mid-1950s, Joan Walsh Anglund found herself profoundly lonely. Staring out at the Manhattan cityscape, she had the feeling that everyone was living in what she called “separate boxes of distrust.” It comforted her to imagine that behind every window was a potential friend.

She jotted down her thoughts and left them in a desk drawer. Her husband found them, suggested that she include illustrations and then showed the work to a series of publishers. The first few rejected it, but when it landed on the desk of Margaret McElderry, the children’s book editor at Harcourt Brace, she was delighted.

“I think we have a book here,” McElderry told Anglund.


And so they had.

That book, A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You (1958), sold more than four million copies and was named one of the New York Times’ 10 best illustrated books of the year. It was the first of a cavalcade of more than 120 children’s books that Anglund would produce over the next half-century. They have been translated into multiple languages and sold more than 50 million copies around the world.

Blank orbs

If you didn’t know Anglund’s stories, you probably knew her drawings of children: their faces were blank orbs with just two wide-set dots for eyes. They became ubiquitous, appearing on Hallmark cards, dolls and ceramics, as Anglund merchandise secured a prominent niche in the collectibles market.

Anglund died aged 95 on March 9th, at her home in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Her daughter, Joy Anglund Harvey, said the cause was heart failure.

Anglund expressed herself in many formats. She illustrated two anthologies of children’s poems compiled by Louis Untermeyer, The Golden Treasury of Poetry (1959) and The Golden Book of Poems for the Very Young (1971).

She also wrote poetry for adults, including A Cup of Sun (1967), A Slice of Snow (1970) and Goodbye, Yesterday (1974).

Her poetry so struck Maya Angelou, the poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, that she began quoting one of Anglund’s lines: “A bird doesn’t sing because he has an answer, he sings because he has a song.” Many mistakenly attributed the line to Angelou. The US Postal Service, for one, issued an Angelou stamp with the quotation, then had to retract it. An easy mix-up, a flattered Anglund said, bearing no grudge.

But Anglund was far better known as a prolific author and illustrator of children’s books. Most offered variations on the theme that love and friendship are essential to happiness, with titles such as Love Is a Special Way of Feeling (1960), Childhood Is a Time of Innocence (1964) and What Color Is Love? (1966).

Innocence of childhood

Anglund’s illustrations were particularly distinctive. While the adults in her drawings all displayed fully formed and expressive facial features, the children had none at all, save for those dots for eyes.

Anglund, who used her own children as models, said she had never made a conscious decision to omit her young characters’ mouths and noses. But over time, she said, she realised that unformed, untouched faces better evoked the innocence of childhood.

“I think perhaps I am trying to get down to the essence of a child,” she said, “not drawing just a particular, realistic child, but instead I think I’m trying to capture the ‘feeling’ of all children, of childhood itself, perhaps.”

Joan May Walsh was born January 3rd, 1926, in Hinsdale, Illinois, just west of Chicago. Her father, Thomas Walsh, was a commercial artist. Her mother, Mildred (Pfeifer) Walsh, was a painter.

Growing up in an artistic household brought her much pleasure, but her childhood was beset by tragedies.

Joan was six when her younger sister, Barbara Joy, died of spinal meningitis at three. She was 10 when her father was killed in a car accident. Around the same time, her grandfather was killed when his car stalled over railroad tracks and was hit by a train.

As their mother grieved, Joan’s other sister, Patricia, who was two years older, took Joan under her wing and nurtured her interests in writing and drawing.

“She helped to take what could have been a very frightening time for us and turned it into something more positive,” Anglund told the World of Hibernia.

Soon after the deaths, their mother packed up Joan and Patricia in the family car and drove with other relatives to St Petersburg, Florida. It was 1936, and although the country was still mired in the Depression, the year-long escape turned into a much-needed change for the surviving family members.

“That was the most healing and freeing experience,” Anglund’s daughter, Harvey, said. “She went to school in Florida, but she was free to walk on the beach and breathe the fresh air and be part of nature.”

Other possibilities

Joan benefited, too, from being removed from the scene of the tragedies and all the reminders of her loved ones.

“Getting away helped her to see that there are always other possibilities,” her daughter said. “You don’t have to stay enclosed in sorrow.”

After the family moved back to Illinois, Anglund studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art, also in Chicago. She then worked as a commercial artist for advertising firms.

While still a student, she met Robert Anglund, an actor who was studying at the Goodman School of Drama, now the Theatre School at DePaul University. “When he first kissed me, I just swooned, and I had to sit down,” she said in a 2015 documentary film, Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem, by Tim Jackson, a long-time family friend. She and Robert Anglund married in 1947.

They spent a brief period in Pasadena, California, hosting a talk radio show. But radio was rapidly losing ground to television, and they moved back to Illinois. With better prospects for Robert in New York, they moved to Manhattan in 1957, and shortly thereafter to suburban Westport, Connecticut.

In addition to her daughter, Anglund is survived by two grandchildren and twin great-granddaughters. Her son, Todd Anglund, died in 1992, and her husband in 2009.