Bill Peet

January 29 marks the birthday of an animator, illustrator and author whose imagination and style helped define children’s entertainment in the 20th Century. His name may not ring bells for today’s youngsters, but Bill Peet’s work deserves to be explored by a new generation.

The mice sidekicks in Walt Disney’s Cinderella? Bill Peet.  The character design of Dumbo the Elephant? Bill Peet. The character models in the animated classic 101 Dalmatians? That’s Bill Peet. He also wrote the first draft of the screenplay adaptation from the novel.

Born in Grandview, Indiana in 1915, Peet grew up fascinated by trains, which would show up again and again in his later work. After graduating from art school, he sent a few illustrations to Walt Disney, whose company snapped him up as an animator. Peet cut his teeth drawing Donald Duck and rose through the ranks until he became an artistic director in the early 1960s, despite his repeated creative clashes with Disney.

But Peet carved his own niche when he began writing and illustrating children’s books. His special combination of imagination, whimsy and longing are enough to charm adults right along with their kids.

Peet’s autobiography is a treat for young readers. He punctuates it with illustrations of pivotal moments in his own life, from his arguments with Walt Disney to his childhood expeditions through the woods.

Peet died in 2002, but his genius for storytelling lives on. Young train buffs should check out The Caboose Who Got Loose and Smokey. Budding environmentalists should give The Wump World a read. And kids having trouble finding their place in the world should pick up Chester the Worldly Pig — reportedly Peet’s favorite, it offers a big reveal at the end that will have them leafing with amazement back through every page in the book.

Parents, if your kids still aren’t convinced, just tell them that one of Peet’s cartoon shorts, Suzie the Little Blue Coupe, is the obvious predecessor to Pixar’s mega-smash Cars.