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The Art of a Master Daydreamer : For Bill Peet, Work Is a Flight of Fancy

December 23, 1990|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Peet, author of 35 illustrated storybooks, is talking about his fans, the children who have written him thousands of letters and delighted in his visits to Southern California classrooms.

"Their No. 1 question is 'Where do you get your ideas?' and 'How old are you?' is probably No. 2," Peet says with a chuckle.

"I tell them if I knew where I got the ideas, I would get 'em faster," he says. "I just say I get them out of thin air or I just daydream them up."

That's sort of true. He elaborates, recalling how he invented "Kermit the Hermit," a greedy, grabby crab who learns generosity, after staring at crabs on ice in the supermarket and deciding they had grumpy faces, and how a gossipy old former neighbor became a hornbill bird who gossips about Hubert the lion's lost mane in "Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure." Children suggest themes, he says, but rarely usable ones.

"They say things like 'Why don't you write about a gorilla at the South Pole at Easter.' It just won't work."

Although he sometimes goes to the zoo to watch how animals move, Peet has rarely patterned his animal characters after specific animals--with one notable exception. When his son Bill Peet Jr., a biology teacher at the Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, ordered a special pet from an animal importer, a capybarra--a tailless, partially web-footed South American rodent that grows to about four feet in length--it became the title character of Peet's book "Capyboppy." In the story, as in real life, the creature grew so large and spoiled it had to be sent to the zoo.

"That thing grew at an alarming rate," he says. "The three cats in that book were ours, too. They didn't know quite what to make of it."

Another of his book ideas grew out of his classroom chats with young readers. Typically, he would begin to sketch an animal with the children gathered around him, challenging them to guess what it was. But even with a brief sketch of a foot, he found, the sharp youngsters would start whispering "elephant," an animal Peet admits "might be up there pretty high" as his favorite creature to draw.

"Being a poor loser," he wrote in his autobiography, "I resorted to trickery, and after starting a drawing of an animal they were sure to recognize, I'd switch to a different one. I might start with a rhino's head with a horned snout and have them shouting 'rhino! rhino!' then quickly add moose horns, a shaggy lion's mane, a giraffe's neck, or whatever came to mind."

Such a combination of rhino, giraffe, elephant, camel, zebra, reindeer and dog turned into a creature and book that Peet called "Whingdingdilly." Peet usually ignores the children's question about age, not because he is sensitive about his 75 years, but because he would rather get on to more interesting topics.

"A lot of them think I'm about 20," he says. "Kids are so age-conscious, and they think anyone over 40 couldn't be interested in lions, tigers and trains, or couldn't draw pictures."

Peet, whose 35th book was published last September and whose sketches are central to a dozen classic Walt Disney films, is at home and at work in a gray light-filled aerie high up in the Hollywood Hills where he has conjured and sketched his animals with the human personalities for 33 years.

In the pleasant family room adjoining the kitchen are the drop-leaf table and easy chair before the fireplace where he wrote and drew the most recent book, "Cock-a-Doodle Dudley," and his 1989 "Bill Peet: An Autobiography." The illustrated autobiography was named one of four Caldecott Honor Books this year by the American Library Assn. and also won him the Southern California Children's Book Writer's medal. It has been his best seller. But all of his books remain in print in several languages.

Peet created his first book, "Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure," the tale of a lion with mane-growing problems, while his house was being framed around him. When "Hubert," published in 1959, and four subsequent books proved successful, he quit as a Disney animator and story man in his mid-'40s and moved full time into his second career as an author.

"Sitting here on this hilltop," he says, "I felt I was really starting over."

Peet reluctantly displayed his studio over the garage, where he worked until about four years ago when the clutter forced him to move to the family room.

"I file everything under miscellaneous, " he says, eyes twinkling with the humor that carries children through his books and makes them eager to read more.

The small room with sweeping views of the Hollywood Hills on one side and the San Fernando Valley on the other is lined with sketches of Peet's lions, elephants, pigs and trains and drawings by his child fans. The floor is littered with boxes of scrolled story boards from the Disney days, and a couple of battered filing cabinets are stuffed with letters from young readers.

Margaret, his wife of 53 years, quickly suggests a move from the "miscellaneous" jumble into the airy living room.

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