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The Prayer Lines Behind the Bylines

Jody Wheeler: Portrait of an illustrator
(PDF expanded version)

Jody Wheeler, Illustrator‘Twas the night before Christmas in 2007 when I donned a Santa cap before dashing through the snow bound for the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.

There I was to rendezvous with a popular children’s book illustrator who had journeyed from Manhattan to celebrate the holidays with loved ones at her girlhood home in Ballston Spa.

However before Jody Wheeler could wrap and give away her presents, she first needed to receive them. Specifically she was awaiting receipt of several copies of a Limited Edition bicentennial book about the village for which she had prepaid.

In an ideal world, the signed and numbered books would have been delivered to her art studio in The Big Apple weeks before her homecoming. But in the aftermath of a series of unfortunate events, the only way to try to make things right was to venture out while other family members put out cookies for Jolly Old St. Nick and his reindeer.

Aside from the maternal guilt I felt about leaving home for anything other than a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, a sense of wonder filled my heart as I pulled into the parking lot and began to watch others making merry over cups of hot cocoa and coffee.

I’d been worried that Jody Wheeler might be late or call at the last minute to say she wasn’t coming or that we’d somehow pass like sleighs in the night. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear but a tall brunette with twinkling eyes and a million dollar smile.

Jody Wheeler, IllustratorI assumed my meeting with Jody would be of the “Once upon a time. The end” variety.

Instead our Christmas Eve encounter in a busy donut shop became the first chapter of the story of a friendship that would never have gotten off the ground had a series of seemingly unfortunate events not caused the publication of a book to be delayed.

Had my prayers for its timely completion been answered according to MY will, I’d be sitting at my keyboard several years later with absolutely no memories of Jody to draw upon rather than recalling times spent together in Internet cafes, Victorian tearooms, museums, schools, private homes, nursing homes and even a few funeral homes.

One of those we mourned side by side was The Unsinkable Patty Rutland whose story also appears in the second edition of this title. Patty had expressed an interest in meeting Jody after reading an article I’d written that mentioned the dozens of books Jody had illustrated for young readers. The fact that Jody had created artwork for titles in the Nate The Great series especially intrigued Patty because Nate was the nickname that had been given to her daughter Rebecca’s then newborn son.

Jody was fascinated to learn that Patty’s many talents included being a licensed wildlife rehabber who had nurtured and nursed infirm squirrels back to health before releasing them back into the woods surrounding her Brookline Road property. Upon hearing that Jody was putting the finishing touches on illustrations of a character named Earl The Squirrel for Don Freeman’s One More Acorn book, Patty insisted I invite Jody to come to her home to sip tea right next to a cage where her special guest could see, hear and touch one of Earl’s distant relatives.

Jody Wheeler, IllustratorAnother time I marveled as Jody warmly welcomed children into her home to demonstrate step-by-step the process by which a picture book comes to life, patiently answering questions along the way. On another memorable occasion, Jody captivated young readers and their families inside of the National Bottle Museum in Ballston Spa by reading aloud from a copy of The Night Before Christmas she had illustrated for Ideals Publishing. Talk about a full circle moment!

More recently, I had the joy of applauding Jody as she was called to the front of the auditorium inside of Ballston Spa High School to be presented with a 2012 Distinguished Alumni Recognition Award for outstanding contributions to the arts. (See tribute from that event below.)

Jody Wheeler, IllustratorA tribute to Alumni Recognition
award winner Jody Wheeler

The following overview of Jody Wheeler’s accomplishments was shared with the community upon her selection as a distinguished Ballston Spa High School Alumni in 2012.

Jody Wheeler is a Class Act not only because she has created captivating illustrations for scores of books for young readers across the nation but also because she is quick to award credit to the Ballston Spa teachers who encouraged her earliest artistic efforts.

In publicity linked to exhibits at Brookside and the National Bottle Museum, Ms. Wheeler observed: “I had some absolutely wonderful teachers who encouraged my creativity throughout my years in the Ballston Spa Central School District. There was Mrs. Seibert at the South Street School, Mr. Eisenhauer at Malta Avenue School and Mr. Komar at Ballston Spa High School as well as others too numerous to mention. I don’t think I could have gotten a better education any place else; the teachers and principals in Ballston Spa were simply outstanding.”

One of three children born to Betty and Byrhl, Ms. Wheeler sometimes draws upon memories of her girlhood when crafting artwork to accompany stories for young readers. For example, visions of Ballston Spa were among the first to dance through her head when she was commissioned to create artwork for a special edition of The Night Before Christmas.

Cherished recollections also inspired some of the illustrations inside of An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving and The First Noel from Ideals Publishing.

If one were to fill a canvas with images of Ms. Wheeler’s life as a professional artist, it would have to include pictures of her at Elmira College where she earned her BA after studying also at Drew University. Her first job was with a book publisher in Manhattan; she subsequently launched a freelance business in 1980 where her first assignment involved a kindergarten math textbook. Before long her illustrations were gracing the covers and pages of books published by such prominent names as Scholastic, Simon and Schuster, Random House, Penquin Books, Golden Books and HarperCollins.

At last count Ms. Wheeler had more than 75 titles in her portfolio – ranging from fiction titles for young readers to nonfiction titles for middle readers as well as paper dolls, activity books, calendars, greeting cards and a diversity of other products. Included are illustrations that have breathed new life into books and products featuring Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, Don Freeman’s Corduroy the Bear, Ezra Jack Keats’ Roberto and some of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House characters – especially the early days of Laura’s husband Almanzo Wilder in Malone, NY.

Despite her success, Ms. Wheeler exudes a humility that is at once surprising and inspiring: “This isn’t a profession where one becomes complacent. There are many talented children’s book illustrators out there today – the literary world has probably never been as exciting in that respect. It’s fulfilling to be involved in a part of the arts that fosters literacy.”

Jody Wheeler, IllustratorThe prolific children’s book illustrator insists the most rewarding part of her profession is “seeing kids enjoy the books in libraries, classrooms and in the homes of friends and relatives.” Ms. Wheeler once used Milton Terrace Primary School principal Joseph Lopez as a model. To show her thanks, she gave talks to students in his charge on such topics as “How A Picture Book Is Made.” The illustrator has also given back to the community by donating books to such organizations as the Rotary Club of Ballston Spa in conjunction with the Maurice “Christopher” Morley Literacy Fund.

Jody Wheeler, Illustrator

Original Scholastic book illustration by Jody Wheeler showcased at Saratoga County Arts Council Members Show till December 31

“Whatever I’m painting, I hope to touch the heart or spark the imagination of the viewer – no matter what age. Be it a smile on the face of a child reading a picture book or the calming effect of a landscape or still life on an adult’s busy day, the visual arts have the power to inspire. It’s fulfilling to be involved in art that fosters literacy as well as being engaged in a variety of other rewarding projects.” – Jody Wheeler

Jody Wheeler, IllustratorTitled OWL MOON, this stunning 24” x 18” masterpiece by Jody Wheeler can be viewed at the Saratoga County Arts Council Members Show at Broadway & Spring Streets in Saratoga Springs, NY until December 31, 2016. Adding to the allure of the original framed watercolor is that it was first published by Scholastic Books in 1999. To learn more, visit www.saratoga-arts.org.

Original Christmas card designs by Jody Wheeler

Be sure to check out Jody's online store for cards and novelty items, including heartwarming holiday scenes. For more information, visit www.wheelerillustration.com.