Renee Graef at Hoover

Illustrator Renee Graef came to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa to speak on October 23rd and 24th, 2008. It took me awhile to post about it, but I wanted to get it right and I had to do some fact checking before I posted.

How to Pronounce Her Last Name

First, I have to apologize for saying her name wrong for some time now. Even though this was the second time I met her, this time she made a big deal about pronouncing her name correctly (or rather Mary Evans did, but I think it must have come from her). You pronounce it like Gray-F not Graph.

Ma’s Father Never Came Back

Second, the most interesting thing Graef said was that one day Ma’s father left to go to work like any other day and never came back. She suggested that the knowledge of that had to effect Ma every time Pa left her to go hunting or walk to a job or whatever that must have eaten away at her. I knew about her father going down with his ship, but I had never thought about it in those terms or how it would effect her reaction to how Pa led his life. I think Graef was right though, it must have.

Hoover Presidential Library Program

Renee Graef
Renee Graef

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library sponsored Graef to come and talk to school children. She had delivered programs to them the day before and Hoover very kindly sent out a mailing, inviting people to come and watch with the last group of students and then attend a private lunch with Renee.

Grant Wood Was Influence

She localized her student program by starting out with an image of Grant Wood’s Stone City. You can see the image here and read more about it:
Graef said she had loved the image as a child and that Wood’s rounded Regionalist style effected some of her later work particularly on the “Little House” picture book adaptions. This was especially apparent in one image she showed later in the presentation which was an overview of her layout of Ingalls farm in Pepin. I wouldn’t have said I saw Wood reflected in her work before, but if you ignore the people in the foreground of her images, which are far from Wood-like, I can see it now in the background, especially how she did her trees.

How An Illustrator Works

The rest of her student program was divided into two parts. The first was a pretty typical published illustrator program. It generally runs through, “here are my steps to finished work” structured with some personal stuff (photos of her studio, etc.) and comparisons of the final work with each step and any drawing aids she might use. For example, Graef has a bucket of plastic animals, like you see for sale in most farm supply stores, that she uses as animal models. She took photos of people and made a sort of collage to help her arrange some of the characters properly. Also as is typical in this kind of presentation, she ran through the list of the books she’s done.

American Girl

She was working as a freelance illustrator (ads, logos, anything requested) when the lady who started the “American Girl” series who lives nearby contacted her about doing some illustration for a presentation she was putting together to try to get the series up and running. Graef did and as a result of that connection was also put in charge of the Kristin book illustrations. (She recently returned to working with the company and did the illustrations for Julie the doll set in 1974.)

My First Picture Books

With the Kristin books as part of her portfolio and some work on the part of her agents, she did an audition piece for the “Little House” picture books and had given up on hearing back from them when they called her and said they finally got all the rights straightened out and the project was a go. She signed a contract and did the first 8 books herself. For the rest of the series she served as an artistic director farming out parts of them to different people (including Jody Wheeler who was a guest last year at the Wilder Farm near Malone), working on the faces herself, and having a specialized air brush artist do some work. She is given back the artwork after they use it for the books, but has only sold one piece from the Laura books and is so far keeping the rest as a collection. She brought several actual pieces with her besides her PowerPoint showing different stages of the process. She has also displayed some of this work previously at a showing in Wisconsin.

Pioneer Life and Cabin Design Questions

The second part of the program she had just added was about pioneer life. She had done several illustrations especially for this part of the program and they were really great, although I’m not 100 percent sure on some of her facts were right. She also showed the floorplan she made for the Big Woods cabin. She questioned where the 3 room cabin design as shown in the World of Little House and in the replica cabin at Pepin came from. I hadn’t questioned it before, but in Little House in the Big Woods, it says this about the downstairs lay out: “Downstairs was the small bedroom and the big room….The big room had two windows with glass in the panes, and it had two doors, a front door and a back door.” (p. 4 of the 75th anniversary edition). What I’ve learned at Pepin is the current lack of a back door in the modern replica cabin is because motorcyclists where driving up the handicap accessible ramp in the front and out the back door of the original replica which is always open and unguarded. So when they had to rebuild it anyway they left out the back door. Garth Williams presumably interpreted the description to mean there was a bump out for the bedroom. This is the thing that has the animal skin stretched on the outside of it in his opening illustration of the book. At least that’s how Graef saw it. I looked at the rest of his illustrations in Big Woods and am suddenly struck by how few backgrounds he puts in for the interior of the Ingalls home. Drawings set outside or in another building have backgrounds, but those set inside only show the people or objects that are the focus with nothing behind them unless they are literally right up against the wall.  Graef says she used William’s drawings to create a floor plan that she followed. That must have required quite a lot of imagination as very few images show things in relation to each other. From her layout, she interprets the bedroom as a kind of alcove totally open to the big room. I have never seen that on a 19th century or on a replica of a 19th century log cabin. I really don’t know if an opening that big would actually work in this type of building, as opposed to modern log construction or lodge construction. What’s supporting the weight of the room and the attic there? The room divider wall within the outside rectangle of walls is much more common and I would assume that’s probably how the Ingalls cabin was set up, although that’s a generalization. So who knows maybe there was a bump out? Graef is definitely correct though that it only mentions 2 rooms downstairs. Am I missing something? Where DID the third room come from? I guess I better read the book again. 😉

Pay the Fiddler

Hoover also had a fiddle player come and play fiddle music. He seemed like a nice guy and a pretty good player, but I wasn’t exactly dazzled by his knowledge for what he said about the songs before he played them. He’s supposed to be writing a book on 19th century fiddle music. In the image below they’ve projected Renee drawing live onto the screen behind him. She drew Almanzo standing in front of the Hoover Library.

To learn more about Renee Graef, visit her website:
Don’t miss the Little House picture book images in her portfolio.


It was a truly enjoyable day and I’m very glad I got to go and to see this sign that the Hoover Library is interested in more Laura programming, a trend I hope continues.

UPDATE 2015: I wanted to link to this post and before I did I corrected a couple of typos and edited a few lines for clarity. I added my current signature block below, made the photos display bigger, and added the headings. I also fixed a broken link. I don’t have anything really informational to add except that Graef is still speaking and displaying her work. She is interested in possibly selling some of her “Little House” artwork, as is Jody Wheeler. Look them up online if you are interested.

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on  FacebookTwitter,  Google+,  LinkedIn, and She is currently President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.


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Sarah Uthoff - Trundlebed Tales

Sarah S. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many times at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. She is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic, and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. How can you help? Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, look at her photos, and find her on Facebook , Twitter , Google+, LinkedIn , SlideShare, and . Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and former director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

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