Mr. McCarthy as pictured in Henry's Valentine Surprise.
Retired Edina art teacher Lowell McCarthy is a character -- a real picture book character, that is. He is the lovable teacher named -- what else? -- Mr. McCarthy in five picture books written and illustrated by former student Nancy Carlson: First Grade Here I Come, I Don't Like to Read, Henry's Valentine Surprise, Henry's Amazing Imagination and Henry and the Bully.
Mr. McCarthy's character is a bear with a penchant for bow ties, something McCarthy doesn't recall being part of his teaching clothing but "it's possible," he said, noting that over 30-plus years of teaching, his fashions changed with the times. "I might have even worn the big belt buckles in the 70s," he joked with me when we talked about his picture book role.
It's quite clear that McCarthy is a character off the page as well. This may be why I heard great things about him, from neighbors and former students, long before I ever met him.
McCarthy is one of many Edina people and places featured in Carlson's books, as I found out when I featured Nancy in a 2007 newsletter article. (See below)
"Wooddale School, the Edina pool, Braemar ice arena and the Edina library come to life on the pages on Nancy Carlson’s picture books.
“You should write about what you know,” Carlson said, “and so my books, especially the early ones, are based on my childhood in Edina.”
Described by Kirkus Reviews as a “prolific author/illustrator of some of the most beloved characters in picture books, Carlson has published more than 50 picture books for children. While none describe the setting as Edina, a careful reader will notice people and places from Edina’s history on the pages.
As one example, “every school I draw in my books is Wooddale School,” said Carlson, who attended the now demolished school for most of her elementary grades. She loves to draw the old-fashioned image of the 1920s school, with its tall ceilings, wood floors and big windows.
Carlson, a 1972 Edina High School graduate, fondly remembers an idyllic childhood spent playing in her neighborhood with friends, riding her bike to the Edina pool, and reading books checked out from the Edina library.
Her Edina memories have influenced both her stories and illustrations. “My characters like to swim a bit, which I think comes from the Edina pool being my home away from home during the summers,” Carlson said. During the 1950s and 1960s, Edina still had wide open spaces and little traffic, so Carlson safely could bike to the pool nearly every day since she was seven years old.
In addition, the cast of characters in her books – such as Arnie the cat, Harriet the dog and Louanne the pig – may appear in animal form, but they are loosely based on childhood school friends and neighbors from her 60th and France neighborhood near Southdale Mall. Arnie, for example, was her next door neighbor “but the bully (from Harriet and the Sixth Grade Bully) shall remain unnamed,” she added with a laugh.
When you live in a small town, Carlson explained, the same people show up every place you go – in fiction and in real life. “It’s a very comforting feeling when you know everyone and everyone knows you.”
Reviewers describe Carlson’s books as positive and upbeat without being preachy. Her child characters face challenges, but nothing dark and disturbing. The children aren’t perfect and have to figure out the right thing to do.
Some of the moral dilemmas come from Carlson’s own life. Carlson turned her childhood transgression of ruining a neighbor’s garden into the book Harriet and the Garden, in which Harriet accidentally trods on Mrs. Hoozit’s prize dahlia and wonders if she should confess. Another book Harriet and the Witch Lady, describes a lady who the neighborhood children fear, as it turns out, with very little basis.
A shoplifting incident in Arnie and the Stolen Markers is set at a little candy store in South Minneapolis, where Carlson and her friends biked to on Saturdays to spend their allowance.
Carlson’s career path was set early on. “I decided I wanted to be an artist in kindergarten. It’s the only job I have ever wanted to do.”
None of her classmates would be shocked to learn Carlson is a published writer and illustrator, she said. “I spent all of high school drawing and didn’t pay attention to much of anything else.”
She continues to stay in touch with her art teacher Mr. McCarthy, who encouraged her to pursue art at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and who has attended her shows and events through the years.
Even though she raised her three children in nearby Bloomington, she continued close ties with Edina. Her daughter took ice skating lessons for many years at Braemar and consequently, an ice arena in Carlson’s book Get Up and Go sports the same name. Her daughter’s coach shows up as well, in the character of a little poodle.
Her mother lived in Edina until recently, but Carlson’s brother and wife, and their four children, bought the family home that inspired so many of Carlson’s stories and where her parents read to her every night.
Carlson dedicates one of her upcoming books to the Edina Library system, which gave her a start in being a lifelong reader. The character in the book is a reluctant reader, but Carlson “loved books from day one.” Reading books progressed into writing them and Carlson credits the Edina library, in part, for her successful career.
In the competitive world of children’s publishing, Carlson has written and/or illustrated 56 books. In addition, six of her books have been staged as plays at Stages Theatre in Hopkins, MN. In addition, her book Harriet’s Halloween Candy is now being performed at Seattle Children’s Theatre in Washington. Harriet and Walt is at Stages from Jan. 19 through Feb. 19."
Note: Carlson most recently wrote an essay about her love for the Edina Library for the book Libraries of Minnesota published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. She will be featured in the upcoming Edina Historical Society exhibit Growing Up in Edina: A Show and Tell Exhibit.
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