Person of the Week
John Himmelman: All in Good Nature
An avid naturalist, martial arts black belt, and prolific author and illustrator, John Himmelman has written and illustrated 87 books, of which 83 are for children. His books contain any combination of animal characters, good-natured wit, engaging illustrations, and even martial arts humor. (Photo courtesy of John Himmelman )
He’s been a cook and a carpenter. He’s a naturalist, nature photographer, and lecturer.
And not to forget, he’s also a martial arts black belt and prolific children’s book author and illustrator.
That’s just a short list of John Himmelman’s work.
And that last one is quite impressive. He’s written and/or illustrated 87 books, of which 83 are for children.
“I began to appreciate children’s books working as a page in the Commack [New York] Library while I was in college,” he says. “I was often assigned to the children’s book section, where my job was to put the books back on the shelves when they were returned.”
He says his favorites are books written by Arnold Lobel (Frog and Toad fame), Mercer Mayer (Little Critter and Little Monster series), and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). These popular children’s book authors inspired him to take a course in children’s book writing and illustration in his last year at college. He earned his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
“My instructor shared one of my stories with her editor at Dial Press and it got accepted for publication,” he says. “I’ve been making children’s books ever since.”
That first book, Talester the Lizard, paved the way to a career that delights children with stories of humor and inspiration.
His latest, Albert Hopper, Science Hero: Worming to the Center of the Earth, tells of the adventures of a mad scientist-type frog with his niece and nephew, aptly named Polly and Tad.
“I thought it would be fun to have them explore the layers of the Earth and mix the geological science with a healthy measure of humor,” he says.
Indeed, John injects many of his books with a healthy dose of wit.
His love for animals and nature motivates him to create a whole menagerie of endearing characters. Aside from highly intelligent frogs, protagonists include a confused cow that meows, barn animals that try to rescue the day for their farm owners, and a dog that floats like a balloon.
And of course, his own pets have either been the inspiration behind his characters or made a cameo of sorts in his stories.
His books range from whimsical to informative with illustrations that are engaging and many times, hilarious. Some have a poignant tone; one book is even based on a true story.
Pipaluk and the Whales is based on a 1984 event in the northern part of then-Soviet Union where thousands of white beluga whales were trapped under ice floes up to 12 feet thick with only small openings in the water for the creatures to surface for breathing. In John’s book, the whales are saved when an icebreaker finally arrives and the main character, Pipaluk, helps calm the frightened creatures and guides them through the narrow canal with her singing. It’s a narrative that echoes the real event when classical music was broadcast over the ship’s speakers to lead the whales to open waters after the icebreaker carves an escape path.
Other books explore the natural world to spark the interest of children in the earth sciences.
“I tend to choose topics that I want to learn more about,” John explains. “The last natural history book I did is Cricket Radio: Tuning in the Night-singing Insects, published by Harvard Press. It’s about the songs we hear at night, and our relationship to them—and is filled with my photos of the crickets and katydids.”
For his younger audience, John has explored a cacophony of animal sounds made by bugs, birds, and frogs in an award-winning Noisy Animal Sing-a-long book series.
He’s also branched out to preteen fiction with a fantasy novel, a collaborative project with his son.
“I’m a bit of a science nerd,” he explains, “which has been reflected in a few of my recent books. My first middle-grade fantasy novel, The Giant from the Fire Sea, came out last year and is about a giant who was chased from his land for his obsession with studying the cosmos…I was thrilled that my publisher hired my son, Jeff, for the cover art and line drawings for the chapter headings.”
His various pursuits have helped him with his profession. His carpentry background has given depth to his illustrations, and his photography skills have helped him create lifelike images of critters and animals for his books.
His family not only admires his passion, but shares his love for the arts. His wife of 38 years, Betsy, is an accomplished potter, art teacher at Haddam-Killingworth High School, and a past person of the week. Together they have two children: Jeff, an illustrator and VP of Creative at Playco, and Lizzie, a portrait photographer.
For Albert Hopper, Science Hero and his other books, John will hold a free virtual presentation via Zoom, sponsored by R.J. Julia Booksellers on Saturday, Oct. 3 at 11 a.m. To register for the event, visit rjjulia.com/events.
For more information about John’s works, visit johnhimmelman.com.
An Unlikely Combo
While many of John’s books deal with his love of nature, one interesting series takes his writing in a different direction with the unlikely combination of an animal character and martial arts.
With John’s creativity, the combo worked.
The Bunjitsu Bunny series tells the exploits of a rabbit whose top-notch martial arts skills and virtues of wisdom and self-restraint give young readers food for thought.
The series draws on John’s experience as co-founder of Green Hill Martial Arts in Killingworth. He explains that the books were inspired by some of his students, including the key character, Isabel.
Founded in 2000, Green Hill Martial Arts was originally called Green Hill Combat Hapkido and run by Arthur Blair until 2011. It was then passed on to Edward Ricciuti and John, and then reincorporated as a nonprofit.
The name was also changed to include the words “martial arts” because another form, Jeet Kune Do, was taught in addition to Hapkido.
“I had dabbled a bit with martial arts for very brief periods, having been inspired, like many, by the Kung Fu TV series in the ‘70s, and of course, Bruce Lee’s movies,” John explains.
In fact, Jeet Kune Do or “way of the intercepting fist” is a martial arts philosophy that originates from Bruce Lee himself.
John became serious about learning martial arts years ago for practical reasons and enrolled in Killingworth, minutes from his home.
“A part of the impetus was a result of a lot of the natural history books I was doing, where I’d often find myself alone at night in some remote area. I thought, ‘I should probably be better prepared to look out for myself with something more than a butterfly net,’” he says with his usual good humor.
“Over the last 14 years or so, I’ve trained in Combat Hapkido and Jeet Kune Do, earning a 4th dan (degree) black belt in the former and a black sash (black belt) in the latter,” he adds.
For more than a decade, he has been donating his time as a teacher in both arts and says he feels he is “paid back by the very obvious benefits—self-confidence, personal safety, and life skills—received by the students.”
He also spends much of his time volunteering for several town committees and nonprofit organizations.
They include the Connecticut Butterfly Association, where he serves as president; the Children’s Book Writers/Illustrators Critique Group in Killingworth, which he started; the Killingworth Land Conservation Trust, where he served for 10 years in various roles; the Killingworth Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Commission, where he also served for 10 years, two of which as chairman; the Killingworth Open Space Committee; and, until recently, the Killingworth Lions Club.
“A good part of my life has been spent volunteering and serving on boards of a number of nonprofit organizations,” John says.
“While it’s satisfying to make things happen, this is how I have met nearly all of my lifelong friends,” he adds.
For John, a dedicated naturalist, those friends perhaps include both the human and animal species.
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