Bill Martin Jnr

Author of 'Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You See?' and 'Chicka Chicka Boom Boom'

Sometimes described as "America's favourite children's author", Bill Martin Jnr wrote more than 300 books over a period of 50 years.

William Martin, children's writer: born Hiawatha, Kansas 20 March 1916; married 1942 Betty Jean Bachmann (one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1978); died Commerce, Texas 11 August 2004.

Sometimes described as "America's favourite children's author", Bill Martin Jnr wrote more than 300 books over a period of 50 years.

A virtual non-reader himself until an adult, he was by way of compensation particularly sensitive to the sounds and rhythms of language. He would talk all his stories through to himself before finally writing them down, and his books have long been immensely popular with millions of starter readers in infant schools all over the world.

Martin was born in Kansas, one of five brothers. There were no books at home, but he always enjoyed family stories. He also had an inspired teacher at school who introduced him early on to the joys of storytelling, never missing a day's reading aloud and leaving Martin with a permanent feeling for the voice of any particular text. Graduating as a teacher, having at last overcome his word blindness, Martin became an elementary school principal. During this time he also worked for and was eventually awarded a doctorate in Early Childhood Education from the University of Chicago.

He served as a newspaper editor in the Army Air Force during the Second World War and wrote his first book, The Little Squeegy Bug, in 1945, illustrated by his brother Bernard. Mentioned by Eleanor Roosevelt during one of her radio talks, the book did well, with the two brothers going on to produce many more titles together.

In 1961 Martin abandoned teaching in order to work for the publishers Holt, Rinehart and Winston in New York City, helping develop their literature-based reading programme "Sounds of Language". Seven years later, he left in order to become a full-time writer, following the huge success in 1967 of what is still his best-known title, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Luminously illustrated by Eric Carle, this rhythmic question-and-answer picture book is a good example of how less often means best when catering for infant readers. Each page contains just one sentence, repeating the same question as addressed to a number of different, lavishly illustrated animals. The idea came to Martin on a 33-minute train journey, where - muttering the lines to himself to get the rhythms of the language just right - the whole book was worked out by the time he left the train. Now reissued as a board book, this title is currently No 3 in the American Publisher's Weekly best-seller list. Years later, the same team produced the almost equally popular Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? (1991).

Martin collaborated with a number of other writers. He and Peggy Brogan co-authored their Sounds of Language series, from Sounds After Dark (1970) to Sounds of Our Heritage (1981). There were also many books with the poet and storyteller John Archambault, including their now famous title Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (1989), illustrated by Louis Ehlert. This alphabet book was later recorded, under Martin's direction, with Ray Charles as the narrator. Its rhythmic alphabet sequences invite audience participation at the most basic level, with both dancing and chanting encouraged all along the way.

Many of Martin's other books have also been recorded on tape or disc by himself, sometimes including his comments on the whole art of storytelling as well. This was also the subject of one of his few adult books, The Human Connection: language and literature (1967).

In 1994 Martin moved to the east Texas woods near Commerce, 60 miles east of Dallas, to be closer to his lifelong friend and collaborator Michael Sampson, with whom he co-authored 16 books. These include Swish (1997), an exciting tale about girls' baseball written as always in Martin's classic rhyme-and-rhythm style.

Nicholas Tucker



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