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Barbara Knutson, 45; Wrote Children's Books Highlighting Different Cultures

May 12, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Barbara Knutson, an award-winning author and illustrator of children's books who strove to keep the art of storytelling alive in a digital age, has died. She was 45.

Knutson, a St. Paul resident, died Saturday of a rare autoimmune deficiency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Born in South Africa to American missionary parents, Knutson came to the United States when she was 12. Her early years and later travels to South America and Europe sparked a lifelong curiosity about the world and its people, reflected in her subject matter and batik-influenced art.

She won the Minnesota Book Award in 1991 for "How the Guinea Fowl Got Its Spots: A Swahili Tale of Friendship" and in 1994 for "Sungura and Leopard: A Swahili Trickster Tale." Her fourth picture book, "Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale From the Andes Mountains," drawn from her travels with her husband in Peru and Bolivia, was named a notable book for 2005 by the American Library Assn.

"She was really a storyteller who loved the idea of bringing different bits of culture to American children and children around the world. She had a special gift for making different cultures and stories familiar to children," Ellen Stein, an editor at Minneapolis-based Lerner Publishing who worked on "Love and Roast Chicken," told The Times on Wednesday.

The tale was an interpretation of the many versions of a folk tale Knutson heard while living in the Andes, and her bold woodblock and watercolor art accompanies the yarn. In her stories, kindness counts and the little guy always wins, and here it was no different: A clever guinea pig is the underdog who thrice outwits a fox.

Knutson earned a bachelor's degree in art education and French from the University of Minnesota and taught in Nigeria for two years. After marrying Chris Jensen, a biology teacher, in 1994, she moved to Lima, Peru, where he taught for two years.

Her first book, "Why the Crab Has No Head," was published in 1988 and translated into Afrikaans, a language spoken in South Africa, and Norwegian. Most recently, a rubber-cut print and watercolor illustration by Knutson was featured on the May cover of Cricket magazine, aimed at readers ages 9 to 14.

A scratchboard and watercolor illustration for an Indian folk tale for Highlights children's magazine was singled out for a Best of Issue award by the magazine in 2002. The publication, with about 2.5 million subscribers, is carried in many waiting rooms that cater to children from 2 to 12.

"A lot of people have seen my art in doctors' offices," Knutson once said.

In addition to her husband, Knutson is survived by her parents, Jim and Arlene Knutson, and two brothers.

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