Innovative Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky, widely praised for his use of diverse art styles and his eye for book design, died on September 11 in Rome, Italy, of leukemia. He was 64.
Radunsky was born in the Ural Mountains in 1954 and grew up in Moscow, where he attended the Moscow School of Architecture and also studied art and design. In 1982 he emigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York City. “He left everything behind when he was in his 20s to come to the U.S. and he carved out a life with nothing, really, and managed it beautifully,” said author-illustrator Chris Raschka, his frequent collaborator. During his early years in New York some of Radunsky’s first jobs included delivering packages as a messenger. He eventually found work as a book designer before pursuing his own illustration career in children’s books.
After co-illustrating a picture book by Adele Vernon entitled The Riddle (Dodd, Mead, 1987), Radunsky published his first solo-illustrated book for children, The Pup Grew Up! by Samuel Marshak with Henry Holt in 1989. He quickly became a sought-after illustrator, creating books with a roster of authors that included his wife Eugenia. Radunsky’s 1994 title The Maestro Plays (Holt, 1994) by Bill Martin, Jr. inspired a series of animated shorts used on Sesame Street. He illustrated several picture book adaptations of songs by Woody Guthrie, including Howdi Do (Candlewick, 2000), and in 2007 partnered with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov for the comic ballet-inspired fairy tale Because… (Atheneum, 2007). One of Radunsky’s best-known works is The Mighty Asparagus (Harcourt, 2004), his own interpretation of a favorite Russian folktale, featuring artwork inspired by Italian Renaissance paintings. The book was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 2004.
Among Radunsky’s most fruitful collaborations are those with Raschka, with whom Radunsky shared a close bond. “I can tie my own wanting to enter the world of illustrating children’s books exactly to the moment I picked up Vladimir’s first book called The Pup Grew Up!, almost 30 years ago,” said Raschka. “The beauty of the design, the intelligence of the work, and the amazing wittiness that is in those drawings are the kinds of things that the very best children’s books have.” In further describing Radunsky’s art, Raschka added, “He had a fantastic lightness of touch even though he worked extremely hard and was beyond perfectionistic. In terms of art and children’s books, he never put up with any kind of presumptuousness or grandiosity. His books were always made with a child reader in mind, I think, even though some people found his art to be sophisticated. He thought first and foremost of creating something that was fun and kind of broke the self-importance that illustration can have.”
Raschka recalled how he and Radunsky first became collaborators. “He said to me, ‘We have to do a book together,’ and I couldn’t quite imagine how this would be. And one of those first evenings we spent together, we wound up in Riverside Park late at night and we came across two baseballs lying in the grass. He picked them up and said, ‘These are our contracts,’ and we each signed a baseball and we each took our baseball home and that was the contract we signed with each other for the book. I still have my baseball.” Shortly after that evening, Raschka said the work began in earnest and the pair signed a real contract for what would become the picture book Table Manners (Candlewick, 2001). “We met every week at a long-since-gone café in Soho,” said Raschka. “He would tell me stories for hours and he would always say ‘Write some of this down.’ That’s how it started.”
In 2001, Radunsky and his family left New York and moved to Rome. Around that time, Raschka noted that his friend told him: “He didn’t know how many more years he would have in this life, but he thought he might as well spend whatever years he had surrounded by the greatest beauty he could find, which was Rome.” Raschka was able to visit with Radunsky in his last days. “He was himself to the very end,” said Raschka. “He said he considered himself now a full-blooded Italian because he had had so many blood transfusions that he literally had all Italian blood running through him.” Radunsky was also grateful to be surrounded by the beauty that he craved while in a hospital near St. Peter’s, with buildings and courtyards dating back to the Renaissance.
Radunsky’s longtime editor Brenda Bowen shared an anecdote as she remembered her friend: “Vladimir was a Russian genius. How do I know that? He told me so. Often. And he was right. Before he became a full-time artist, Vladimir worked briefly as a designer at Macmillan Children’s Books. He was unshakably confident in his taste. A first-edition copy of every Macmillan children’s book was shelved in the company library: some of them displayed Caldecott medals. Vladimir spent a great deal of time poring over those books. He had his own ideas about what art was most distinguished, ideas that did not necessarily align with those of the Caldecott committees. So he purloined a roll of Caldecott stickers from the marketing department and stickered every first edition that he thought ought to have been awarded a Caldecott Medal. When the powers-that-be discovered what he had done, he was quickly ushered out of his job. He was not meant for the corporate world, and children’s books are the richer for it.”
Radunsky is survived by his wife, Eugenia, and their two daughters, Anna and Sasha.
A memorial service will be held on Sunday, September 16 at 11:30 a.m., at the Orthodox Church of Christ the Savior, 340 East 71st St., New York City.