Bill Martin Jr has written more than 300 children’s books since 1945. His rhythmic, singsong texts have struck a chord with parents and small children across the country. “I don’t write books, I talk them,” Martin explains. “I write to a melody.” Martin’s most recognized book remains his 1967 classic, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Its familiar words sound more like song lyrics than book text. In addition to a successful career as a children’s author, Martin has worked as a schoolteacher, principal, and textbook editor — all in spite of the fact that he didn’t learn to read until college.
A late start, but a long career
Bill Martin Jr remembers growing up in Kansas in a house without any books. Throughout elementary school and high school, he kept a big secret from all of his teachers: he didn’t know how to read. Martin’s fifth grade teacher, Miss Davis, read stories aloud to his class every day. Martin knew that he loved stories — he just couldn’t read them. It wasn’t until college that a professor challenged Bill Martin Jr to read his first book.
Martin finished college and then earned a master’s degree and doctoral degree in early childhood education. After working as a schoolteacher and principal, he moved to New York City in 1961, where he developed literature-based reading programs for a publishing house. Martin’s big breakthrough as a writer happened on a commuter train early one morning. In a flash of inspiration, the text and rhythm for Brown Bear, Brown Bear came to him. By the time his train arrived at Grand Central Station, Martin had scribbled the book’s full text in the margins of his newspaper. He soon selected a young illustrator named Eric Carle to complete the picture book.
The 1967 publication of Brown Bear, Brown Bear distinguished Martin as a leading children’s author and launched Eric Carle’s successful career as an illustrator. Twenty five years later, Martin and Carle collaborated a second time to produce Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? in 1992. In 2003, Martin and Carle published their third “bear book,” Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?. The beloved writer passed away in 2004.