Mrs. Minarik wrote more than 40 children’s books during her five-decade career, none of them more widely read than her debut volume “Little Bear.” That book, released in 1957 with illustrations by Maurice Sendak
, became the first in a line of her celebrated ursine tales.
It was also the first book in the “I Can Read!” series launched by Ursula Nordstrom, the influential Harper & Row children’s editor who cultivated Sendak as well as writers including E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” (1952), and Shel Silverstein, who penned the zany poems of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1974).
“Little Bear” book sales today exceed 12 million copies, according to the publishing house HarperCollins. Mrs. Minarik’s youngest fans have followed the adventures of Little Bear in animated Nickelodeon TV programs and home videos as well as on the printed page.
Mrs. Minarik began her professional writing career after teaching first grade for several years on Long Island. Precious few books, she discovered, were both accessible and engaging for readers who barely managed to sound their way through syllables. “Dick and Jane” books helped children learn phonics, but the dry story lines did little to instill a love of literature.
“I considered one day, while setting out the spring garden, that plants and children are alike in this respect,” Mrs. Minarik once wrote, according to a blog by Atlanta-based bookseller Charles Bayless. “They flower beautifully if placed in the right setting, and subjected to no gaps of neglect, either by us, or by nature.”
Mrs. Minarik first wrote and illustrated stories for her daughter and later mimeographed them for her students, hoping that the books would sustain the children’s interest in reading during the summer vacation before second grade.
Her achievement, critics have noted over the years, was the creation of beginner books with heart.
In “Little Bear’s Visit” (1961), also illustrated by Sendak, Little Bear asks his grandfather to tell him a goblin story.
“Yes,” Grandfather tells the cub, “if you will hold my paw.”
“I will not be scared,” Little Bear replies.
“No,” Grandfather says. “But I may be scared.”
Mrs. Minarik’s books over the years included “The Little Giant Girl and the Elf Boy” (1963), with illustrations by Garth Williams; “The Winds That Come From Far Away” (1964), a collection of poems with illustrations by Joan Phyllis Berg; and “Percy and the Five Houses”(1989), with illustrations by James Stevenson.
Her collaboration with Sendak included “No Fighting, No Biting!” (1958), “Father Bear Comes Home” (1959), “Little Bear’s Friend” (1960) and “A Kiss for Little Bear” (1968). Sendak died in May at 83.