Legacies Unlimited is committed to preserving the past and present for future generations. In addition to sharing memories that might otherwise be forever lost, we document “history in the making” by celebrating contemporary lives that add strong and vibrant threads to the rich tapestry of our nation’s heritage.
The Prayer Lines Behind the Bylines
Jody Wheeler: Portrait of an illustrator
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
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.
I assumed my meeting with Jody would be of the “Once upon a time. The end”
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
Another 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.)
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
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.”
The 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.
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
Titled 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
Original Christmas card designs by Jody Wheeler
Be sure to check out Jody's
cards and novelty items, including heartwarming holiday scenes. For more information, visit