Ann Grifalconi, who drew on different cultures to write and illustrate dozens of well-regarded children’s books, notably the award-winning “The Village of Round and Square Houses,” set in Central Africa, died on Feb. 19 in Manhattan. She was 90.
Her niece, Mia Grifalconi, said the cause was complications of advanced dementia.
Ms. Grifalconi, who was white, often based her books on the traditions and experiences of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, especially Africans and African-Americans.
She said a trip to a remote hamlet in Cameroon had inspired her to write and illustrate “The Village of Round and Square Houses” (1986), which recounts a local folk tale describing how women there came to live in round houses and men in square ones after a volcanic eruption.
“It was not until I was almost full-grown and left my village that I found our village was like no other,” the book begins, gently leading her young readers to examine their own perspectives on the world.
Critics lauded the way that Ms. Grifalconi’s writing, packed with telling details of life in the village, made a faraway place relatable to her readers.
“It takes a very gifted writer to surmount cultural and geographical barriers for young readers — but author/artist Ann Grifalconi has that special talent,” Arielle North wrote in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “In her stunning new picture book about a real village in Central Africa, she manages to hold her readers close while telling them a tale totally beyond their ken.”
Reviewers also praised her luminous illustrations, which, Susan Stark wrote in a review in The Detroit News, “feature soft-edged, warmly literal drawings of figures in dramatically composed and colored landscapes.”
“Her palette,” Ms. Stark added, “which makes liberal use of brilliant colors like violet and orange, underscores the powerful spiritual undercurrent of the narrative.”
“Village” won a coveted Caldecott Honor in 1987.
Ms. Grifalconi set two more books in the same African village: “Darkness and the Butterfly” (1987) and “Osa’s Pride” (1990). She also wrote and illustrated other books based on African history and folklore, like “Flyaway Girl” (1992) and “The Village That Vanished” (2002, with illustrations by Kadir Nelson), and still others based on African-American experiences, like “Kinda Blue” (1993) and “Tiny’s Hat” (1999).
Ms. Grifalconi told interviewers that she felt compelled to tell the stories she wrote and illustrated, regardless of her race.
“I’m an artist,” she told her friend Francie Wong in a videotaped interview. “My subjects pick me, they choose me, and I have to listen.”
Ms. Grifalconi was born on Sept. 22, 1929, in Manhattan to Giuseppe Grifalconi, an Italian immigrant who worked for Fiat and the Connecticut-based company now called Sikorsky Aircraft, and Mary Hays Weik, a writer, journalist and activist and the daughter of Jesse W. Weik, a biographer of Abraham Lincoln. Her parents divorced during the Depression.
Ms. Grifalconi, who became fascinated with drawing while bedridden with a childhood illness, studied art at the Cooper Union in Manhattan, completing her education there in 1950. She lived in Greenwich Village for many years.
She illustrated award-winning books by other prominent authors as well. She made delicate charcoal sketches of a grieving family for Lucille Clifton’s “Everett Anderson’s Goodbye” (1983), which won a Coretta Scott King Award; and disorienting mixed-media collages for “Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam” (2002), an antiwar children’s book by Walter Dean Myers that earned an award from the Jane Addams Peace Association.
Decades before those books were published, Ms. Grifalconi used black-and-white wood block prints for “The Jazz Man” (1966), a Newbery Honor book, written by her mother, about a boy growing up in a Harlem tenement.
In addition to her niece, she is survived by a nephew, Carl Grifalconi. Her brother, John Weik Grifalconi, died in 1988.
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