Peter Sieruta was an author, book reviewer, and online blogger who also worked full time as a librarian at Wayne State University. Peter created the Collecting Children’s Books blog site, that became from its beginning, an outstanding resource for writers, readers and fans of children’s books. The personal knowledge, energy and humorous flair he put into his writing, made the site a magnet for children’s book lovers and enthusiasts. His last blog was written on May 13th, 2012; a remembrance on the legacy of Maurice Sendak. Peter’s web activity led him (along with two other children’s book bloggers) into a deal with Candlewick Press, who will publish in 2014, Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.
Peter was a long-time friend and supporter of Book Beat for over twenty years. He attended our 11th anniversary party and at our 25th bookstore anniversary, a huge thunderstorm prevented a big turnout – only a few guests arrived, Peter among them. He communicated almost daily over the telephone with Book Beat co-owner Colleen Kammer, and would stop by once a week like clockwork (usually every Friday after work) to pick up and look over new book arrivals. He had his own box and shelf where he’d store his special stash.
Colleen and Peter shared their close relationship through children’s books. They both read voraciously and were devoted fans of good writing. Nothing escaped them. Colleen encouraged Peter to begin his weblog “Collecting Children’s Books”, which became the perfect outlet for his humorous writing and thoughts about books. The weblog allowed him total freedom to pursue his ideas without the constraints and pressures of commercial writing. Colleen and Peter both spent their weeks leading up to the Newbery and Caldecott Awards deep in study, comparing notes, constantly on the phone consulting, reading and analyzing potential nominees.
At a book launch and photo exhibit on March 17th, 2012 held for Step Gently Out, Peter was able to meet author Helen Frost, photographer Rick Leider, along with other authors in attendance; Kathe Koja and Sarah Miller (author of Miss Spitfire). Peter came to many of our Young Adult and children’s author events and usually stayed in the background. At the signing for Step Gently Out, Peter was out of his element but had a great time and stayed near the end to talk and meet informally with everyone. This may have been Peter practicing public relations. His new book was now being planned for release and he knew he would soon be making public appearances.
In early May, Peter had an accidental fall in his house and broke his leg. It was also just announced that Book Beat had won the Pannell Award in 2012, a prize given for excellence in children’s books by the Women’s National Book Association. He was happy for us and upset about missing our the 30th anniversary party being planned in the summer. Colleen told him even if he needed to come in a wheel chair, there was no party without Peter, and we would pick him up to attend.
Peter began watercolor painting soon after he moved into his new house as a way to relax and enjoy his spare moments. He painted his surroundings, nature scenes and childhood memories in a straightforward, gentle primitive style. What interested Peter were the direct feelings and emotional connections he could have and communicate through his subjects. His self-taught artwork was honest and direct, reminiscent of many renowned folk artists. At the Book Beat’s 30th anniversary party in August 2012, we were lucky to be able to share his artwork (thanks to his brother John) in our backroom gallery.
Peter died suddenly following complications after his accidental fall down the stairs of his second floor bedroom. His death at the age of 53 stunned his family, friends and the online children’s book community. Publisher’s Weekly said, “He was known to many for his knowledgeable and opinionated posts about the books (and book creators) that were of passionate interest to him. Those fondly remembering him these past days all over the kidlitosphere also recalled his quick wit and great sense of humor, which he displayed to great effect in several April Fools’ Day postings on his blog.”
Peter’s colleague and co-author in the Wild Things! book project was Julie Danielson, creator of the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She wrote, “It was my pleasure to work and write with Peter over the past three years. He had a keen wit, a kind heart, and a brilliant mind. He was an avid reader; every time we turned around Betsy and I were amazed, but not surprised, by the number of children’s lit-related stories he had stored in his brain and the knowledge he held on the subject.”
The third member of the Wild Things! project was Betsy Bird of Fuse 8 who said, “The heart of the matter is that he loved kids books. Loved them more than anyone else I know. Some of us talk about dedicating our lives to them. Peter actually did it and with his death there is absolutely no one to fill his shoes. Peter didn’t just know the history of children’s literature, he made it accessible to the masses. When I discovered his blog Collecting Children’s Books all those years ago it was like stumbling on a veritable goldmine. His writing wasn’t just smart. It was funny, infinitely witty, and easily put my own to shame. Nobody knew as much as he did or was as good at conveying that info in such an engaging way.”
The Kirkus review said, “Friends and acquaintances will miss his Facebook status updates, mini-memoirs about his family, and playful stories about his pie-baking experiments and attempts to learn watercolor painting. One of my favorite recent status updates was his attempt to paint a woman’s face: “This morning’s test painting: Let’s see, the pupils of her eyes are square, her lips are about two inches left of her nose, and her chin is as big as a dinner plate. Also, she kind of looks like a man to me. (Painting can be a drag!)…”
Roger Sutton at the Horn Book (where Peter was once a book reviewer) said, “Peter always had the best historical gossip about children’s books and he would track a rumor to its source like a bloodhound. There was no one in this field like him, and he will be missed.”
Peter’s enormous library of first edition Newbery books was built up over his lifetime and was the centerpiece of his new home, he thoughtfully shared with his aging parents. It was his wish to have his collection of books donated one day to Wayne State University where they could be shared and studied by researchers and fans of children’s books in the future.
A gathering of Peter’s friends is being planned this summer and is titled; Celebrate the Life of One of Children’s Literature’s Luminaries: A Peter Sieruta Event. The event is sponsored by his co-authors Julie Danielson and Betsy Bird, and will happen at the ALA in Chicago on June 28th. More information is available at Fuse 8.
Peter was a gifted writer and kind person. He valued his privacy, family and friendships and in his unique way, taught us what he knew. It’s been only a year since Peter has passed and we all still miss him dearly. Here is a short memory about Peter his brother John wrote to us last year; “When we were kids we went to the Edison Library on Joy Road. Peter picked out 5 or 6 books which was typical – I was holding them on the handle bars and fell off. Face first onto the street. Peter’s concern wasn’t me…he said “How are the books? Are they scuffed?”
The following is an autobiographical statement written by Peter at the age of 12 for a school assignment, shared soon after his passing by his brother John;
…please, dear reader, If you find my story too sweet, sour or bitter with dramatization, Please understand. By the way if you MUST shed a tear, please use a Kleenex and not this page, for if you use this page the ink will smear.
I entered school September 4, 1963. The school I entered was Horace Mann. Miss Distin was my teacher. I had always looked forward to starting school! ?We had several activities in kindergarden. I enjoyed drawing.
I did not join many organizations in school, I only joined two. Library staff was a rewarding organization. It taught me many library skills. I am forever grateful to Miss Weil.
Once when I was in school there were some signs posted around the room announcing a Spelling Bee. I ran home and started practicing. I practiced for the whole week. That day I was very nervous. Somehow, I won! ? The winning word was appetite. The test word was argue. I won a handsome dictionary from the Detroit News.
I have no real plans for the FUTURE. But I know I will go to school and then on to college. I think that teaching might be fun. The End.