William Joyce was born in 1957 in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he lives today with his wife and two children. Much of his work is autobiographical. He admits that the Rolie Polies are really a caricature of the Joyces, including the family dog. The things Olie and Zowie do on the television show are “a thinly disguised daily record” of his own children’s lives. This self-avowed “first generation TV brat” grew up in a household of eccentrics. “A congenial horde of southern screwballs” he has called them, “an odd and independent lot.” He immortalized them in his “thickly disguised account” A Day with Wilbur Robinson. “With a household like that, writing and illustrating came easily to me,” he admits. He always loved to draw. His father said he was born with a pencil in his hand. The boy had a vivid imagination from the start and drew spaceships and ugly sisters and dinosaurs. He had wonderful art teachers who encouraged him to experiment in all sorts of media. He learned most about illustration from studying the best—Robert Lawson, Maxfield Parrish, Beatrix Potter, Maurice Sendak, and N. C. Wyeth. His early influences ran from the sublime—Stuart Little, The Borrowers, and Winnie-the-Pooh—to the ridiculous—Bugs Bunny, Little Orphan Annie, and Mad Magazine.
Joyce really wanted to do children’s books and already had a well-defined style of his own when he headed for college. Unfortunately, his teachers wanted him to paint another way so he dropped out of art school. He really wanted to tell stories and left for Southern Methodist University in Dallas to study filmmaking. Animation proved to be a great training ground for a picture book artist. The animator’s storyboard taught him how to tell a story visually. Even before he graduated, Joyce was already showing his work to publishers.
Joyce seems to master any medium he attempts. Watercolor, oil, acrylic, pen and ink, colored pencils, computer graphics—he works with them all. He is a superb painter and draughtsman and worthy of comparison with Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg. He understands the art of the picture book as well as, if not better than, any of his contemporaries. He may spend as much as two years on a project, drawing and redrawing and aiming for perfection. He does not hesitate to drop it if it does not click, if the work gets bogged down in “tedium, effort, and uncertainty.” And he will pick it up later if the mood strikes him.
He never knows what might spark an idea—a movie, a song, a photograph, a child’s remark, something spotted on a walk in the street. But he is always open for something new, something fresh. However eclectic or esoteric may seem his sources or sophisticated his technique, Joyce has retained his unique innocent vision that he has been fortunate enough to express through various media. There is enormous ingenuity in his work, and it is refreshingly free of adult cynicism that contaminates so much modern technology. “But grown-ups tend to like my books as much as kids do,” he proudly reports. “Today’s families seem so hazed by MTV, Nintendo, and other techno-cherry bombs that maybe my books are a soothing alternative.” His infectious enthusiasm affects everything he attempts. “I try to make television that actually stimulates that animation gland and drive [young viewers] almost into an imaginative conniption fit,” he explains. “I want them so jazzed after watching one of my shows that they can hardly stand it. That they have to go out and tell somebody or do something or reenact what they have seen by using imaginative play.” They get so jazzed up looking at his original work, too. These drawings and paintings demonstrate what an exceptional artist William Joyce truly is and what a master of the picture book he has become.
© Michael Patrick Hearn
Children’s Literature Critic, New York, New York