Bill Peet (January 29, 1915 – May 11, 2002) was an American children's book illustrator and a story writer for Disney Studios. He joined Disney in 1937 and worked on The Jungle Book, Song of the South, Cinderella, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone, Goliath II, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, Pinocchio, Fantasia, The Three Caballeros, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and other stories.
Bill Peet was born in Grandview, Indiana, just two years before the United States entry into the First World War. His father was drafted into the military when Bill was three and did not return to his family after the war, except for a couple times when his mother and father argued. As a result, the young Bill Peet grew up without a father. It was not very hard for him to live without a father because he never really knew his father very well. He began to draw as a youngster, and filled tablets full of sketches in his boyhood. Peet had a hard time in school; Instead of doing his lessons, he would illustrate his textbooks, which were very popular for their illustrations when he sold them back. Young Peet loved animals. He and his friends would go traipsing through the woods looking for frogs, tadpoles, minnows and crawfish. He would draw the little creatures from life. In addition to animals, Peet loved trains. In order to learn more about animals, Peet read voraciously, especially about animals. When he was about ten years old, Peet’s father showed up on their doorstep, and his happy boyhood was over. His father was broke and desperate and decided to rejoin his family. His mother and father fought constantly, and Peet’s father at one time even punched his son. Finally, his mother paid his father to go on another sales trip. In a week or two, he would be broke and back.
It was about this time Peet entered high school. He had nothing to do with art, and didn’t take it seriously as a career. However, after failing all his classes but physical education, he followed the advice of a friend and took some art classes. Peet did extremely well in his art classes, and experimented with a broad range of media. He also received a scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis. In the first class, Bill found himself very interested in a girl that sat in the front row. Margaret Brunst eventually became his wife. In 1987 they had been married for 50 years. Peet took quite a few painting classes that first year, and he admits his paintings were always somewhat macabre. His favorite subjects were grizzled old men, “perfected with age, like a gnarled oak tree.” Another favorite subject was the Circus, always the big tops, never the people.
Peet's first taste of success was at the Indiana State Fair. All of his painting entries were accepted, including one of a rat in a trap. After three years of art school, Peet left. Bill did not do well in school. He loved the school and learning, but he was tired of being broke and running out of paint and canvas. Now he was on his own. He set up an easel in an old warehouse and started painting. Only one painting was completed there; it won a 200 dollar prize, quite a bit of money during the Great Depression. Bill was trained in Arsenal Technical High School and in college at the John Herron Art School. Peet said that you can’t really teach someone to draw except to tell them to “draw better.” He believed that if you don’t have any talent there is no point in trying to teach. Many of his colleagues at Disney described him as a natural artist. Art also ran in the family; his brother George ended up as a commercial artist.
It was at this time Peet was asked to send in some cartoon action sketches to Disney. He did, and was asked to come to try outs. He trekked across the country to LA, and participated in a one month tryout; only three of fifteen survived the period. It was at this time Disney was working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Peet got in on the last minute effort. Of course, the film was a big success, and Disney was off. He was also married during this period. Bill was an in-betweener, making up the frames between the key drawings, but he found the work boring. To make some extra money, he sent some ideas about some crazy characters for Pinocchio to the team making the movie. Finally, Bill had enough, and went screaming out of the studio, “no more lousy ducks!” He came back the next day to pick up his jacket and found an envelope. His monsters came through in the nick of time.
He began as a sketch artist, putting the words of a story man into pictures on the film Pinocchio. Peet’s first encounter with Walt Disney was at this time. He reviewed the storyboards. Both of the sequences that Peet had worked on were cut. In all, about half the storyboards were cut from the film. Peet continued to work on the film for another year and a half. Peet also worked on Fantasia. He hated it. He was part of a large group. Peet was a loner, and working in a large group did not suit him well. The war came, and Disney was part of the war effort making propaganda films. Bill helped here as well. Finally, after the war Peet got his break. His work so impressed Walt that he made him a fully-fledged story man who also handled the sketching end of it as well. Bill handled the character designs for the mice in Cinderella, but he was quickly getting bored with Disney.
Peet started to paint again at this time, but soon found he had lost touch with the brush. When his young son Bill accidentally destroyed the painting, Peet was actually happy. Fine art had changed dramatically in the years Peet had been at Disney; everything was abstract and his realistic paintings were not in vogue. He also tried editorial cartoons, but failed there as well, so continued to work at Disney, where he developed a few short cartoons and worked on the feature films of the period as well. He was now working very closely with Walt Disney, and found him to be a sometimes difficult man, but it is evident that Peet respected him deeply. A large part of his autobiography is dedicated to his dealing with Walt. After successes developing short stories for Disney, Peet had his first book published, Hubert’s Hair Raising Adventure.
After an argument with Walt on The Jungle Book, Peet left the Disney company on his birthday. Bill initially wanted to go out with a bang, but was glad he didn’t when Disney died a year later because of smoking. Bill was crushed. He went on to illustrate many more children’s books, including Chester the Worldly Pig.
More than anyone, Peet was affected by Walt Disney himself. Although Disney was not an artist, he was the final gatekeeper on the artistic side. He reviewed all the work and gave it the final go ahead. He was rather temperamental; if he saw something too much he might give it the boot just because he was tired of it. Peet and Walt quarreled frequently, and from several anecdotes it seems that Bill was very temperamental himself. It is said the two were very similar and it is because of this that they quarreled. Before Disney, Peet had never done any cartooning, so it is because of the Disney company that Peet has his zany, interesting cartooning style. Bill discovered his story telling ability by telling bedtime stories to his children and working at Disney. Quite a few of his bedtime stories metamorphasized into full-fledged story books.
Peet is known mostly for his cartoon illustrations for his children's books, but he has dabbled in a wide variety of mediums. At John Herron he was also taught commercial art. He enjoyed some success out of college as a fine artist, but turned to commercial art, such as greeting cards. After tiring of that, he moved to Los Angeles to work for Disney.
Peet's favorite subjects are animals, trains and the circus, seen over and over again both in his books and his autobiography. His beginnings with art began when he went to the zoo, took some photographs and then when the development failed, took up sketching. Most of his adventures as a boy to catch animals were in the hope that he could capture them and sketch them. The young Peet would also sneak onto greeting parties at the train station as a boy just to see the train's mechanical workings. In addition, as a teen, he would try to sketch the circus big top, but he was always in the way of the set up crew. He memorized the scene and would reconstruct it from memory. If Peet's autobiography is any indication of his favorite medium, it is the pencil. Almost all of the illustrations in his books are pencil drawings.
Peet left a legacy at Disney. In fact, Disney once tried to buy the rights to his books. Peet's stories were upheld as great examples of story writing. Bill Peet died May 2002 at the age of 87. He was known as a member of the children's story book triumvirate, including himself, Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. Bill Peet's books for children are all beautifully illustrated, and many are poetry, although they read like prose. The stories have themes very suitable for children, such as trying when there's not much obvious hope, not allowing taunting of others from preventing you from succeeding, finding compromise solutions that make everyone happy and other uplifiting themes. Frequently, the stories have surprise endings. Unlike most other children's authors, Peet did not dumb down the vocabulary of his stories, but somehow managed to include enough context to make the meaning of difficult words obvious. Both the illustrations and the stories themselves easily capture the attention of almost all children. These features make these books excellent for both reluctant readers, and those needing to build their vocabulary.
- The Ant and the Elephant
- Big Bad Bruce
- Bill Peet: An Autobiography (book), (ISBN 0395509327), 1989; a Caldecott Honor Book for 1990.
- Buford the Little Bighorn
- The Caboose Who Got Loose
- Chester the Worldly Pig
- Cock-a-doodle Dudley
- Countdown to Christmas
- Cowardly Clyde
- Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent
- Eleanor the Elephant
- Farewell to Shady Glade
- Fly Homer Fly
- The Gnats of Knotty Pine
- Goliath II
- How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head
- Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure
- Huge Harold
- Jennifer and Josephine
- Jethro and Joel Were a Troll
- Kermit the Hermit
- The Kweeks of Kookatumdee
- The Luckiest One of All
- Merle the High Flying Squirrel
- No Such Things
- Pamela Camel
- The Pinkish, Purplish, Bluish Egg
- Randy's Dandy Lions
- The Spooky Tail of Prewitt Peacock
- The Whingdingdilly
- The Wump World
- Zella, Zack, and Zodiac