Tana Hoban; Reshaped Children's Books

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006

Tana Hoban, 88, a photographer and author who produced dozens of illustrated books for children, died Jan. 27 at a hospice in Louveciennes, France, near Paris. She had had a series of strokes and other ailments.

Ms. Hoban, who had lived in Paris for more than 20 years, began her career as a photographer in the 1940s but did not publish her first children's book, "Shapes and Things," until 1970. She published more than 50 books, most with simple titles such as "Count and See," "Circles, Triangles, and Squares" and "What Is It?" More than 2 million copies of her books have been sold.

Ms. Hoban illustrated her books with starkly beautiful photographs of objects from everyday life that appeal to children and adults alike. Her approach was considered revolutionary.

The books typically contained little or no text and sometimes featured cutout pages that exposed only a portion of a photograph. Readers were encouraged to identify the object before turning the page to view the full image.

In 1985, Washington Post critic Michael Dirda wrote, "Hoban's photo collections always charm -- she recognizes instinctively what will appeal to very young children."

Most of her books were geared toward children 5 or younger, helping them to identify objects by sight and name. They also helped children explore the world by introducing concepts such as counting, geometry, animals, machines, colors and textures.

Ms. Hoban kept a camera with her at all times, and her pictures of everyday scenes triggered the idea for her children's books.

"A neat row of garbage cans sitting in the bright sun inspired me to do the counting book, 'Count and See,' " Ms. Hoban wrote in an autobiographical essay in 1979. "All but half of a dozen of my books come from such perceptions of daily surroundings, organized so as to give the child a sense of verbal relationships, or concepts."

Ms. Hoban was born in Philadelphia and studied art as a young girl. After graduating from Philadelphia's School of Design for Women, now Moore College of Art and Design, she received a fellowship to England and the Netherlands in 1938 to study painting.

She worked briefly as a graphics artist and illustrator before launching a career as a photographer. Her pictures appeared in Life, Look, McCall's and other magazines in the 1940s, and she opened a studio in Philadelphia in 1946 with her husband, Edward E. Gallob.

Ms. Hoban became a successful advertising photographer and cultivated a specialty in pictures of children. In one year, her photographs of children were on the covers of 16 magazines.

Her photography was included in a group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1949 along with works by such noteworthy photographers as Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange and Helen Levitt. Ms. Hoban also was featured in the landmark 1955 exhibition "The Family of Man," curated by photography pioneer Edward Steichen.

In 1959, she was named one of the country's top 10 female photographers. She wrote books about photographing children and participated in the 1960 White House Conference on Children and Youth.

She moved to New York in 1975 and, after divorcing, married John G. Morris, a former picture editor with The Washington Post, New York Times and Life magazine.

In 1983, they moved to Paris, where Ms. Hoban converted a onetime factory in the Marais district into a loft. She photographed scenes in Paris and throughout Europe and had an exhibition of her images of paving stones in European cities. She continued to produce books until 2000.

In Paris, Ms. Hoban was at the center of a lively expatriate community. With her husband, she formed a group called Americans for Peace and twice led protest marches at the U.S. Embassy.

In addition to her husband, of Paris, survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Miela Ford of Rochester, N.Y.; a brother, novelist Russell Hoban of London; a granddaughter; and a great-granddaughter.

In addition to many honors for her books, Ms. Hoban received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Media Photographers in 1998.

"I try in my books to catch a fleeting moment and an emotion in a way that touches children and makes them want to respond," she wrote in her autobiographical essay. "Through my photographs and through open eyes I try to say, 'Look!' There are shapes here and everywhere, things to count, colors to see and always, surprises."

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