Garth Montgomery Williams, the illustrator of an extraordinary array of 20th-century American children’s literature’s enduring classics, was born in New York City on April 16, 1912. Both his parents were British, and because both were artists, Williams concluded early on that making pictures of one kind or another was what all people did when they grew up. He never strayed far from that idea.
After Monty and Dé Williams separated when their son was five, young Garth and his mother, a landscape painter, moved to London, where he later received rigorous training at the Westminster School of Art and the Royal Academy. Williams excelled at life drawing, portraiture, and sculpture, and in 1936 won the prestigious Prix de Rome, an honor that came with two expense-free years of study in the Italian capital. His long-term goal was for a London-based, fine art career, but the Second World War changed everything. Injured in the Blitz, Williams returned to New York in October of 1941. When his drawings attracted the attention of senior New Yorker staff writer E.B. White, he jumped to the top of the list of artists being considered for the plum assignment of illustrating White’s first children’s book. The resounding success of Stuart Little permanently secured Williams’ reputation in a field he had not given much thought to entering until then.
In New York, Williams was befriended by the charismatic picture-book author Margaret Wise Brown, and went on to draw some of his most exuberant work for their collaborations: Little Fur Family, Mister Dog, The Sailor Dog, and others. Together, Brown and Williams became mainstays of the hugely popular Golden Books list. During the 1950s, he further burnished his reputation as the illustrator of E.B. White’s second children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, and--although he was less obviously well suited to period fiction—as the creator of scores of absorbing and historically accurate drawings for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer saga, the “Little House” books. The Who’s Who list of Williams’ other collaborators would include George Selden, Russell Hoban, Natalie Savage Carlson, Margery Sharp, Miriam Norton, Charlotte Zolotow, Randall Jarrell, and Jack Prelutsky, among others. He illustrated seven books of his own as well.
A vagabond spirit who rarely put down roots in one place for long, Williams was known for a sporty, devil-may-care manner that sometimes left others wondering just how seriously he took his vocation. The answer was: very seriously indeed. As he once told an interviewer, a children’s book, “can have a profound influence.” An illustration can “awaken something” of life-long value: “humor, responsibility, respect for others, interest in the world at large.”
*Contributed by Leonard Marcus, children's book historian, author, and critic