Else Holmelund Minarik, a children’s writer whose simple yet elegant prose in the “Little Bear” picture-book series has helped generations of youngsters learn to read, died July 12 at her home in Sunset Beach, N.C. She was 91.
Her death, from congestive heart failure and complications from a heart attack, was confirmed by her sister, Anne Lester.
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.
Mrs. Minarik told the Star News of Wilmington, N.C. that “Sendak’s take on our collaboration was: ‘Minarik conceived and Sendak delivered.’ ”
Mrs. Minarik’s final book, “Little Bear and the Marco Polo,” published in 2010 with illustrations by Dorothy Doubleday, explored the cub’s relationship with his once sea-faring grandfather.
Else Holmelund was born Sept. 13, 1920, in Fredericia, Denmark. “Little Bear is me in Denmark,” she told the Star News. “I was cuddled and loved.”
She came to the United States with her family when she was 4 and grew up in New York City, where she learned English by listening to her mother translate children’s conversations on the playground. Mrs. Minarik later became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
She was a 1942 psychology graduate of Queens College in New York and later received a master’s degree in education from the State University of New York at New Paltz.
During World War II, she worked as a reporter at the Daily Sentinel of Rome, N.Y., before beginning her teaching career.
Mrs. Minarik spent much of her adult life in Nottingham, N.H., where she worked on her books writing in longhand because she never learned to type. She told the Star News that she first submitted “Little Bear” to the Random House publishing house, where an editor asked her to recast the bears as humans. She declined and took the manuscript to Nordstrom.
Two years later, a New York Times book reviewer wrote that the first “Little Bear” volume had a “seemingly unforced feeling for the imaginative life of childhood” and that it promised “to be a classic not only for readers who are just finding their way among the mysteries of type but also for their younger brothers and sisters.”
Mrs. Minarik’s first husband, Walter Minarik, died in 1963. Her second husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Homer W. Bigart, died in 1991 after 20 years of marriage. Brooke Minarik, a daughter from her first marriage and her only child, died in 2000. Survivors include a sister and a granddaughter.