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“They say if you can make a
living doing what you love then you never have to work.
I haven’t worked in years.” –James Rice
James Rice died in his home Sunday, May
30, 2004 of a heart attack. Mr. Rice was widely acclaimed as the South’s leading
illustrator of juvenile books, with more than one-and-a-half million books in
print--a record that ranks him with top children’s authors and illustrators
James Rice was born February 10, 1934 on a farm in Coleman
County, Texas. Of his early interest in art, Mr. Rice said “I was raised in a
rural background with no radio or television, so I had to rely on books and
imagination for my entertainment. My heroes were the great pen and ink artists
of the nineteenth century: Abby, Frost, Kemble, N.C. Wyeth, of course, Norman
Rockwell, Remington, and Nicolades.”
Last year, Pelican celebrated the thirtieth
anniversary of James Rice’s classic Cajun Night Before Christmas. Beloved
throughout the country, Cajun Night Before Christmas was a true
collaboration between publisher Milburn Calhoun and Mr. Rice, who was then a
professor of art at a local college. Mr. Rice visited the fledgling company on
his motorcycle with a portfolio and Dr. Calhoun shared his idea for the book.
One week later Mr. Rice returned with drawings of hundreds of alligators in all
kinds of poses. Cajun Night Before Christmas was the beginning of the
children’s book division and launched a close publishing relationship that
endured for more than thirty years. At the time of his death, Mr. Rice was
working on illustrations for a book he wrote, titled Santa’s Revenge
in which Santa gets back at him for getting him into all kinds of situations.
Several years ago, when the Children’s Book
Council asked Mr. Rice his thoughts on illustrating a classic – how he brought
new life to an old tale: “The author (and illustrator) have to strike a chord in
harmony with many ordinary people across time. Most successful
authors/illustrators must become actors as they assume the roles of various
characters in their stories. As for myself, I look at each project as a new
Cajun Night Before Christmas was also
the beginning of what would become a staple of Mr. Rice’s work: The Night
Before Christmas Series, which now numbers sixteen titles, with two new
ones, Ozark Night Before Christmas and The Principal’s Night Before
Christmas, this fall.
Mr. Rice moved to Hico, Texas in 1980. Over
the years, he wrote and illustrated a number of regional children’s picture
books on subjects related to the states he considered home: Texas and Louisiana.
He also wrote historical fiction for young
readers, and was a favorite at schools, nursing homes, and community centers in
both states and across the country. He was scheduled to tour in support of his
newest book, Too Tall Thomas Rides the Grubline, later this week.
Last spring, Mr. Rice delivered two paintings
commissioned by the Institute of Texas Cultures depicting René-Robert Cavalier,
Sieur de la Salle landing in Texas. One painting contains thirty-three
historical errors that children visiting the museum can find, while the other is
James Rice graduated with a bachelor of fine art from the
University of Texas, a master of fine arts degree from Stephen F. Austin
University and a master of arts in education from Howard Payne College. He
taught art and music at both the high school and college levels, including
eleven years at Southeastern Louisiana State University in Hammond, and
positions at Louisiana State University and Dallas Baptist College.
An avid musician, Mr. Rice often brought his clarinet to
school appearances, and enjoyed sitting in with local bands when he was on tour.
As a young man, Rice traveled with the Jack Schultz Orchestra, which played big
band music across the mid-west.
Though he enjoyed his annual Christmas tour to
promote the sixteen Night Before Christmas Series titles he
illustrated, family was of great importance to him. He was always excited to
hear of a new grandchild or great-grandchild and remained an active figure in
their lives. He is survived by Martha, his wife of fifty years (the couple
celebrated their fiftieth anniversary last week), five children, nine
grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
James Rice’s work has earned several awards over the years,
Gaston® Goes to Texas, Certificate of
Award from Printer Industries of America, 1979 The Night Before Christmas, Certificate of Merit, Printer Industries of
America 1990 Why Cowboys Sleep with Their Boots On, Certificate of Merit, Printer
Industries of America 1996 Cajun Night Before Christmas, Not Just for Children Anymore Classics, CBC
2002 The Teachers’ Night Before Christmas, Children’s Choices, CBC/IRA 2002 Why Cowboys Need A Pardner, Children’s Books Mean Business, CBC 2002
“Forget Dancer, Prancer, Comet,
and Vixen. . . . Good Clement,
wherever he is, will not be gnashing his teeth.”
--New York Times Book Review
in a Louisiana bayou and told in Cajun dialect—e chirren been nezzle/Good snug
on de flo’
—the poem has lively illustrations that perfectly suit the unique text.”
“Rice is a master at making a
story come alive with colorful detailed drawings.”
--(Beaumont, TX) SouthEast Texas Examiner
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