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Alice Provensen, Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator of children’s books, dies at 99

Alice Provensen with husband Martin Provensen. The two illustrated dozens of children’s books together. (Hilary Masters/Penguin Random House)

Alice Provensen, an award-winning artist who illustrated dozens of popular books for children, often in collaboration with her husband, died April 23 at her daughter’s home in San Clemente, Calif. She was 99.

Her daughter, Karen Provensen Mitchell, confirmed the death but did not cite a specific cause.

Mrs. Provensen, who also wrote several picture books, worked for 40 years alongside her husband, Martin Provensen, illustrating such works as “The Color Kittens” by Margaret Wise Brown, “The Fuzzy Duckling,” “Katie the Kitten” and adaptations of classic literature.

The Provensens (pronounced PROH-ven-sen) varied their style from charming images of domestic animals to motifs inspired by classical Greece in “The Iliad and the Odyssey” (1956). They evoked the world of post-Impressionist Paris in their Caldecott Medal-winning 1983 book “The Glorious Flight,” about the first airplane journey over the English Channel, by French pilot Louis Blériot in 1909.

“Some of their books sold millions of copies,” children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus said in an interview. “There was a kind of lightness and open space in their work. You could project your own imagination into their world.”

Many of their early titles were published in the low-budget but popular Golden Books series, which became popular after World War II. Many remain in print, but the Provensens often worked for a simple flat fee and did not receive royalties.

The same arrangement held true for perhaps the single most familiar image to emerge from their studio: Tony the Tiger, the perennially contented advertising symbol of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Tony first appeared in 1952, but even the Provensens’ daughter is not sure if he was created solely by her father or as a joint effort between both of her parents.

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“Sometimes we’d work on the same page,” Mrs. Provensen told the Orange County Register in 2009. “I’d see something, or tell him how to fix something. We never tried to develop a style. We tried to work with the material: You couldn’t do something from the Bible in the same style you’d do an animal book.”

Working at back-to-back drawing boards in a converted barn, the Provensens turned out books based on Aesop’s Fables, Mother Goose stories, Bible tales, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and plays of Shakespeare.

In other books, they introduced children to the instruments of the orchestra and stories from classical ballet. They also produced tales about animals of every description, including several volumes set at Maple Hill Farm, their longtime home in upstate New York.

“The Provensens haven’t scrubbed everything clean for young visitors,” New York Times children’s book editor George A. Woods wrote in a review of “Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm” (1974). “The house needs paint, there are cowpies in the driveway, Max the cat leaves gifts of guts and tails and chipmunk heads on the doorstep. Another cat has a reputation for throwing up and a fox carries away one of the roosters . . . the animals are a colorful barnyard lot and have all the grace and power of a horse in mid-gallop.”

In 1983, Mrs. Provensen and her husband illustrated Nancy Willard’s “A Visit to William Blake’s Inn,” a fanciful adaptation of the poems of early 19th-century British poet William Blake. The paintings matched the whimsy of the verse:

When the rabbit showed me my room,

I looked all around for the bed.

I saw nothing there

but a shaggy old bear

who offered to pillow my head.

In 1984, their book about Blériot’s flight across the English Channel — which they also wrote — received the Caldecott Medal, the top prize for children’s picture books. Zena Sutherland, an authority on children’s literature, wrote in a review of “The Glorious Flight,” “What more can one ask of a book than it be visually stunning, entertainingly written, and informative, and true?”

Alice Rose Twitchell was born Aug. 14, 1918, in Chicago. Her father was a stockbroker, her mother an interior decorator.

She took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the University of California at Los Angeles before finding a job at the animation studio of Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker.

Her husband, who was also born in Chicago, followed a similar path and made his way to California in the studios of Walt Disney. They met in 1943, when he was working on a Navy training film during World War II, and married the next year.

They later lived in Washington, where she worked as a graphic artist for the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s wartime precursor. After the war, they moved to New York and later settled on the farm near Staatsburg, N.Y.

Martin Provensen died in 1987. Unsure whether she would continue on her own, Mrs. Provensen embarked on her first solo project, an illustrated history of the presidents, “The Buck Stops Here,” first published in 1990. (The final revision came out in 2011, including President Barack Obama.)

Her other books included “Punch in New York” (1991), about the puppet character finding his way in New York City, and “A Day in the Life of Murphy” (2003), about a lovable but messy dog: “Murphy-Stop-That is my name. I am a terrier. I bark. I bark at anything and everything and all the time.”

Mrs. Provensen moved from the farm to California when she was 90. In addition to her daughter, of San Clemente, survivors include two grandsons.

“We were a true collaboration,” Mrs. Provensen told Publishers Weekly, describing her work with her husband. “Martin and I really were one artist.”

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