Biography - In Robert's own words
I grew up in the small rural town of Pinckney, in southeastern Michigan. Every night in our humble home by the lake, my mother would read a story to my older brother and me (later to be joined by a sister) before we went to bed. Reading was very important and promoted at every opportunity. Apparently it worked because I don’t even recall learning how to read.
With the ability to hold a crayon, came the discovery that I was an artist. I spent hours, days and weeks drawing, painting, cutting and gluing. My bedroom was a constant whirlwind of pencil shavings, drippy paint brushes and mounds of paper scraps. My mother’s pleas of “when are you going to clean up this mess?!” went unanswered.
Dad was a mason and a carpenter so I learned (or perhaps inherited) the ability to create with my hands. He had an old lathe on which he carefully shaped rough pieces of wood into graceful objects of knotty beauty. As a mason he patiently dabbed each brick with just the right amount of mortar until a towering wall or arch rose high above my head.
Mom had a local dancing school where I tap danced away my spare time and first experienced the art of visual storytelling. Each year at Miss Judy’s Dance School a recital was performed by the students. We also made the scenery and backdrops for the show. Paint and glitter was slapped onto pieces of cloth or plywood to create a magical world for the recital to take place in.
At school my teachers asked me to create their bulletin boards because they knew how much I loved art. This was the first time I discovered that paper could be used for more than just drawing and painting on. I covered the bulletin boards with cut paper collages. At home I started to fold and glue paper together to make little model houses. But the best discovery was when I folded together many pieces of paper, stapled them down the middle and created a book. I immediately began making books of all sizes filled with simple stories and happy pictures.
My passion for books took an unexpected twist after a trip to a new dentist. On a previous visit to have a cavity filled (my second passion being candy) my old dentist didn’t numb my tooth enough and I began to howl with pain. My mother came running in and with a scowl at the dentist whisked me away never to return. Arriving at the new dentist’s office I was understandably scared. Noticing a wicker basket filled with books my mother suggested I bring one over for us to share while we waited. I went to the basket and realized right away that these books were special. They were very thick and had hard covers, which to me meant they were expensive. I opened the first one and was shocked and delighted when something leapt right off the page. It was a pop-up book! I was so excited I forgot all about the dentist.
Shortly after that, my mother brought home some old, manila filing folders from Ford Motor Company where she worked as a secretary. The folders were perfect for making pop-ups. Everyone started giving me pop-up books as birthday or holiday gifts and soon I was able to make simple pop-ups by carefully examining these books.
Throughout middle school and high school I continued to improve as an artist and left Michigan after graduating to attend Pratt Institute in New York City to study art. During my junior year at Pratt I did an internship at Dial Books for Young Readers. I learned everything about how a children’s book is created, but more importantly I fetched the mail. I’m sure this may not seem very exciting but it is when the mail you’re opening is original artwork from Barbara Cooney, Thomas Locker and James Marshall! I decided then and there that I would be a children’s book illustrator.
After I graduated from Pratt I went from one children’s publishing house to another, showing my work and trying to get an illustrating project. To make money to support myself, I worked as a package designer creating the boxes for ladies underpants and bras!
Finally I began to receive very small jobs illustrating coloring books (based on popular movie characters like Rambo!). Eventually these jobs led to other book projects and slowly I discovered that I was a children’s book illustrator. I began to write my own stories and illustrate those as well. Picture books were wonderful but I always hoped that one day I could create a pop-up book, too. So I pulled out my old pop-up books and taught myself how to make even better ones as a grown up!
Robert is married to Nasdaq technologist James Talvy. They spend their time between NYC, New Paltz, NY and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.