Paul Brett Johnson, beloved children's author and illustrator, dies at 64

Paul Brett Johnson, a children's book author and illustrator whose work often celebrated his Eastern Kentucky roots, died Wednesday after a brief illness. He was 64.

"A lot of the librarians around the state are just in shock, saying, 'We can't believe we don't have him anymore,'" said Alecia Marcum, librarian at William H. Natcher Elementary School in Bowling Green, where Mr. Johnson participated in several events.

A Lexington resident, Mr. Johnson parlayed a childhood love of drawing and storytelling into a celebrated career as an artist and writer and illustrator of books starting with The Cow Who Wouldn't Come Down, published by Orchard Books in 1993.

"A virtuoso debut!" School Library Journal raved about the story of Gertrude, a cow who takes to the skies even though her owner tells her she can't.

At that time, Mr. Johnson told the Herald-Leader he was interested in children's books because they offered "the freedom to be totally and outlandishly imaginative. In terms of approaching a story, the sky's the limit."

The publication followed nearly 10 years of frustration trying to crack the children's book market, during which he worked primarily selling his own paintings and illustrations. But he was never truly comfortable in fine art because there was "no yardstick to use to judge the validity of my work. With children's books, there's a clear yardstick: how successfully you have augmented the written idea."

In the ensuing years, the market told Mr. Johnson he did that very well: He wrote or illustrated more than 20 books, mostly for the Scholastic imprint.

"You felt like he did it because he loved the work," Lisa Rice, director of the Warren County Public Library in Bowling Green, said Thursday. "You could tell that this wasn't a job to him. It was a calling."

Rice said Mr. Johnson was always very generous with his time, agreeing to come to numerous library and school events.

At Natcher Elementary, he even incorporated several students into his 1997 book Farmer's Market after being taken with funny photos of the children Marcum sent as a prelude to Mr. Johnson's first visit to the school.

"That was a real special time for the students to be part of something they never thought they would be part of," Marcum said.

Urban County Councilwoman Diane Lawless of Lexington said sharing came naturally to Mr. Johnson, a longtime friend.

"He worked for hours at the Rape Crisis Center for years, and if there was a silent auction, all you had to do was ask, and he would sign books and they always sold for a lot of money," Lawless said. "Art and books meant so much to him and his life; it was something he wanted to share with other people."

He also got to share his work onstage when Lexington Children's Theatre created two productions based on his books.

"His books and his stories are so gentle and speak so well," LCT producing director Larry Snipes said Thursday. "It's such a nice voice for this area.

"His characters were all so rich and so individual, and that's what made it fun."

Snipes said LCT had coincidentally revived both of its productions by Mr. Johnson during its just-concluded season, Old Dry Frye and Cows Don't Fly and Other Known Facts, a compilation of three of his books.

Ollie Morgan met Mr. Johnson in 1962 when she was his speech and drama teacher at Hindman High School. While she didn't necessarily see children's book author in his future, she did see him succeeding in an artistic endeavor.

"He was always a very creative person," said Morgan, who remained friends with Mr. Johnson after his graduation and helped him sell some of his first prints.

"I understand there is going to be a celebration of his life, and that's appropriate," she said, "because he did love life."

Mr. Johnson is survived by his partner, Tony Huston; his mother, Harriett Johnson; a brother, John M. Johnson; and a sister, Cheryl Mickey.

A celebration of Mr. Johnson and his life will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Clark Legacy Center, 601 East Brannon Road, Nicholasville. Donations may be made to Hospice of the Bluegrass and Moveable Feast.

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