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Hey There, Brown Bear!
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Hey There, Brown Bear!

Children's author Bill Martin Jr. (GSESP56, G61) has captivated millions of young readers with his blend of simple stories and catchy rhymes.

Courtesy of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers

Eleanor Roosevelt catapulted his career. Publishers Weekly named him a giant in the children's literature division. And perhaps most notably, when Bill Martin Jr. (GSESP56, G61) enters a classroom to speak, kids chant, "Brown Bear, Brown Bear!" — an affectionate homage to his extraordinary career.

With more than 12 million books sold, Martin, 88, is one of the most popular people in kindergarten. The author of children's books has completed more than 300 titles, including Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? which has sold more than 2 million copies alone.

Martin says the poetry of Robert Frost and Walt Whitman inspired him to become a reader and, in time, a writer energized by the "simple poetry that children know in their hearts."

After graduating from college, Martin taught high school and entered the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. During his final months in the service, Martin received a call from his brother Bernard, an artist, who asked Bill to write a story he could illustrate while he recovered from war injuries. On a quiet Sunday morning, Bill began writing The Little Squeegy Bug. He finished what would be his first book that night, mailing it to his brother the next morning. Within weeks the book was completed and later published, but the profits were hardly rolling in — until the first lady got involved.

In her nationally syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," Eleanor Roosevelt mentioned how much her grandchildren enjoyed "a delightful story about a little squeegy bug that was written by two Air Force sergeants." She added, "Your kids will love this story, too!" Sales soared, placing Martin at the forefront of the children's market.

For the next 10 years, he wrote. Martin's own early reliance on the rhyme and rhythm of language is recognizable throughout his work. Brown Bear, for example, is based on a rhyming pattern that's easy to internalize.

With a few books to his credit, Martin decided to get his doctorate in early childhood education at Northwestern. Today he credits an initial interview with the late professor Paul Witty with convincing him to attend Northwestern over Columbia University.

After graduate school Martin moved to New York City, where he created the Sounds of Language and The Instant Readers reading series for the Holt, Rinehart and Winston publishing house. Along the way, he wrote more books of his own.

At 77, Martin left New York for 26 acres in northeast Texas. He lives along the banks of the South Sulphur River, close to frequent co-author Michael Sampson.

Even though he's left behind the hustle of Manhattan, Martin refuses to slow down. Six mornings each week, without fail, he and Sampson work on manuscripts.

"These times, playing with sentences and languages, are the highlight of my day," he says.

Martin just finished a time travel story for older readers. Chicka Chicka 1-2-3, a spin off of the original hit, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, was co-written with Sampson and will be released later this year. Manuscripts about the armadillo with a fondness for Martin's backyard and the relationship between a girl and her snowman round out his recent work.

"Books are better today than ever before," Martin says. "My advice for anyone who wants to become a writer is to become a reader. When you read, you see how others exercise their craft."

- Molly Browne (J04)

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