Despite the popularity of his books and a loyal following, though, Emberley admits that he’s surprised by his success. And he plays coy if you ask what inspired his career in illustration. “I still don’t know,” he answers, mischievously. His background, however, tells a different story.
Emberley was born in 1931 in Malden, Massachusetts and was raised in Cambridge—“a city boy,” as his wife and collaborator, Barbara Emberley, has called
him. From a young age, he was surrounded by makers: His father and grandfather were both carpenters, and his mother was a dressmaker.
The family didn’t have money for newfangled toys, but there were always pencils and paper around the house, and Emberley’s grandmother would occasionally give him a box of his grandfather’s scraps: small wooden triangles. “I had a hell of a time, could play with that for hours, lining them up, making shapes out of them,” he’s said
of the DIY blocks.
He went on to study traditional figure painting, sculpture, and etching at Massachusetts School of Art—but it was illustration that he liked best. After graduating, he made ends meet by working as a freelance direct-mail illustrator, which entailed sending illustrations to greeting card companies, children’s magazines, and religious newsletters, and receiving payment by post in return.
It wasn’t until he came across a copy of a 1950s handbook for professional artists, however, that Emberley decided to make his first book. “It said that children’s books sold, so I decided to try it,” he remembers.