Bill Martin, Jr. is a beloved native of Kansas. Born in 1916, Bill grew up in Hiawatha and struggled learning to read. He could read words but could not construct meaning. Coming from a family with rich oral storytelling skills, Bill learned to love stories and understood the importance of language in conveying meaning.
One of the first positive experiences Bill had with reading and books was in fifth grade when his teacher read aloud twice a day. Bill felt that she was reading through the voice of the book, making the characters come alive. Because of this experience, as well as his own struggles, Bill became an advocate for creating books that have a strong voice. His books are full of rhyme, rhythm, and musical language. Each book is unique with dynamic word choice and image-building language. Descriptive adjectives and adverbs keep his books a rocking, prancing, and wriggling across the pages. Bill has written or co-written over 300 books. Bill says, “I don’t write books, I talk them. I need to hear what I have to say.”
Bill started his professional career as an educator. After graduating from Emporia State University, Bill taught high school journalism, drama, and English in both Newton and St. John, Kansas. Following this, Bill served in World War II as a newspaper editor. During his service, Bill wrote his first book, The Little Squeegy Bug (1945). The book is written under his given name, William Ivan Martin. This book was illustrated by his brother Bernard Martin. Bill then became a principal at Crown Island Elementary School in Illinois and continued to write more children’s books. He worked for the Holt-Rinehart, and Winston publishing companying for several years after being a principal. Later Bill became a free-lance writer and began speaking to other educators about the importance of loving to read and loving to teach. Bill considered himself a teacher before a writer. He believes we learn “just by exposure to things that are worthwhile, worth reading.” He stated, “I had no books at home as a child, I thrived on being read to by my teachers. This is something all teachers should remember.”
Bill Martin, Jr., the man who did not read his first entire book until he was a freshman in college, wrote books out of his home in the East Texas Woods near Commerce, Texas. Bill firmly believed that, “on the first day of first grade, the child should have some sort of whole book success’ – the feeling of exhilaration that comes with the completion of an entire little book, even if it has the smallest vocabulary and be able to say, ‘I did it! It was fun! Can I have another?’” He gave us such favorite titles as Brown Bear, Brown Bear; Chicka Chicka Boom Boom; and Knots on a Counting Rope. As a tribute to Bill Martin, Jr., the Kansas Reading Association established a picture book award in his honor in 1996. One picture book is honored each year with this distinguished title, the winner of the Bill Martin Jr. Picture Book Award.