Polson artist illustrates popular ‘Amelia Bedelia’ books

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  • A versatile artist, Lynne Avril works with mediums ranging from canvases and paper napkins to computer monitors — Illustrations by Lynne Avril

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    Artist Lynne Avril works on the latest Amelia Bedilia children’s book at her home on the shores of Flathead Lake in Polson. (University of Montana photo; Illustration by Lynne Avril)

  • A versatile artist, Lynne Avril works with mediums ranging from canvases and paper napkins to computer monitors — Illustrations by Lynne Avril

  • 1

    Artist Lynne Avril works on the latest Amelia Bedilia children’s book at her home on the shores of Flathead Lake in Polson. (University of Montana photo; Illustration by Lynne Avril)

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from and with permission from the University of Montana’s fall 2018 Montanan magazine. For the complete article, log onto http://montanan.umt.edu/issues/fall-2018/Lynne_Avril/default.php

By Jacob Baynham

Lynne Avril is on deadline.

It’s a stuffy July afternoon, and she’s holed up in her daughter’s sunny guestroom in Kalispell. For part of every summer, this room becomes her art studio. Avril’s two teenage grandchildren filter in and out. So does her shitzu, Stetson. But Avril spends most of her time here with an unflappable, literal-minded young girl who wears a daisy in her hair. Her name is Amelia Bedelia.

Avril has been drawing Amelia Bedelia for over a decade. The original character dates back to 1963, when Peggy Parish started writing children’s books about a housekeeper who did everything exactly as she was told. When asked to dress the chicken, she put it in overalls, and she put real sponges in her sponge cake.

In 2007, HarperCollins reinvented the series, casting Amelia Bedelia as a young girl. The jokes are similarly droll – the young Amelia thinks a farmers market is where you buy a farmer, and when she tosses a salad she throws it away. Thanks to Avril, the art is funny, fresh and drenched in color. Each book sells hundreds of thousands of copies.

Today Avril is working on the latest installment, “Amelia Bedelia Under the Weather.” Avril leans toward a digital tablet on her desk. (She used to illustrate the books with paint and paper, but now she does it digitally.)

… Avril turns her eye to one of Amelia Bedelia’s stuffed animals, a monkey with a heart sewed on its chest. The real-life stuffed monkey sits next to Avril. She made it for her daughter, Chloe, in the 1970s, when Avril was a young mother living in married student housing at UM and a career in art seemed like an impossible dream.

Avril has come a long way since then. Now, in addition to being a successful children’s book illustrator, she’s a blues bassist, and a fine art painter with a whimsical style all her own.

Avril … was born Lynne Woodcock in Miles City to an arts-loving mother and a cowboy father who liked to doodle. Her father, Walter Woodcock, was president of the Billings Arts Association..

In 1969, Avril enrolled in the fine art program at UM…

Avril graduated from UM in 1975 after taking a year off to be a ski bum in Red Lodge. She married a music teacher named Jay Cravath, had a daughter named Chloe and moved to Arizona. Avril already played the flute and the fiddle, and at Cravath’s suggestion, she taught herself the bass guitar.

In the late 1980s, Avril caught a break. She was doing freelance graphic art, designing ads and laying them out for a typesetter in Phoenix. She would pack her infant son, Jeff, into the car when she delivered ads to the print shop. One day her boss got a call from Jostens, the company that makes yearbooks and class rings. Jostens was marketing a series of computer programs and needed a bevy of short kids’ books to accompany them.

“That one phone call changed my life,” Avril says.

She illustrated 18 books for the company. “I knew nothing about children’s book illustrations,” Avril says. “But I learned how to work really fast.” She also cultivated a voice as an artist, something she had struggled to do with her painting. “I saw my style develop in front of my eyes,” Avril says. “And I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

So Avril started assembling small packets of her art samples. But after a steady stream of rejections, she decided to go back to school for an elementary teaching degree at Arizona State. That’s when Simon & Schuster called to ask if she would illustrate a picture book by Debbie Driscoll called “Three Two One Day.” Avril dropped out of school.

“Was I going to get a paycheck every two weeks, or was I going to jump off a cliff and be a children’s illustrator?” she says. “I decided to jump off the cliff. And I’ve never had a spare moment since.”

Avril’s first book with Simon & Schuster led to more work for Random House and other publishers. Then in 2007, she got a call from Sylvie Le Floc’h, an art director for HarperCollins. The publisher was reimagining the Amelia Bedelia series and wondered if Avril could submit some samples. Avril quickly painted two scenes of a young, old-fashioned Amelia Bedelia in a vintage uniform and cloche hat.

Avril’s illustrations inject humor into a book and embellish the narrative. That sense of optimism and fun are a big part of Avril’s personal magnetism, too.

Herman Parish, the author of the new Amelia Bedelia books and the nephew of original author Peggy Parish, remembers seeing Avril’s depiction of the young Amelia Bedelia for the first time. “I thought it was gorgeous,” he says. “It was just right. She’s found this energetic persona that everyone would like to have as their friend. If you were in first grade, and it was a confusing day, you’d want Amelia Bedelia sitting next to you.”

Back in Kalispell, Avril is adding color to an illustration with compressed charcoal brush strokes that don’t always obey the lines. “I want to give children art that has integrity,” she says. “I don’t want it to be too cartoonish or cute.”

Suddenly, Avril looks at her watch. “Oh my gosh, it’s 4 o’clock,” she says. “Time to go.”

She sets down her stylus and drags a knee-high Fender amp out of the bedroom closet … She has an evening gig with a jam band at the Sitting Duck Bar in Woods Bay.

“When I’m playing music, I’m about as blissed out as you can get,” she says. “When I’m doing art, it’s intense and hard and time stops meaning anything. I get in the zone, but it’s not bliss.”

It takes about an hour to drive to the Sitting Duck. When Avril arrives, she unloads her amp and guitar, orders a Miller Lite and a shot of tequila, and sets up with the other musicians on the deck outside, overlooking the glittering Flathead Lake.

It’s a sun-soaked summer evening …The scene is so cheerful and awash with color that it almost looks like an illustration, perhaps with a little girl on the dock with a daisy in her hair, skipping stones into the water and trying to make sense of this big, wild world.

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