TTLG Author/Illustrator Profiles

Catherine Stock

Catherine Stock

“I was born in Sweden. My dad was a diplomat stationed in Stockholm. I don't remember very much about Sweden. I left when I was two. But later when I finished high school, I went back to stay with my godmother who took me fishing for eel.

My dad was transferred to Paris. I shared my room with my two brothers when they came home from boarding school in England. My room was lovely and sunny during the day but I remember sometimes being quite scared when I had to go to sleep there by myself. I slept with my bear and blankie. One day my Mum washed blankie and I made such a fuss when she wouldn't let me take blankie to bed that she finally had to cut off a little piece for me to hold. But even with bear and blankie I was still sometimes scared, so I mixed up magic potions and painted them all around the window to keep the witches out.

I began school when I was four and spoke fluent French, but I don't really remember this. I just remember one day in the playground the teacher asking me, "Do you speak English?" and my saying, "Yes." I also remember my first day of school. My mother left in me in a great hall with a lot of other children. I didn't know what to do so I just sat there. When the little girl next to me started crying, I started crying too. I thought that was what one was supposed to do at school.

One day, I got all dressed up in my smartest dress. I was going to meet the Queen of England with all the other children of Commonwealth diplomats in Paris. We had to wait for a long time on the steps in a very grand ballroom. My friend Simon was standing next to me and he kept pinching me and saying "The Queen is coming." A lady in a suit arrived. She smiled and we all curtseyed and bowed. But then we were ushered down the steps and out the door. "What's going on? Isn't the Queen coming?" I asked Simon. "That lady was the Queen, you clot," he said. What a disappointment. I had imagined a queen with a long gown, ermine cape, diamond crown and scepter at the very least.

Another vivid memory I have as a small child was having terrible earache. One day the doctor arrived with his nurse. She was a nun who wore one of those Flying Nun sort of hats. The doctor said that he needed to pierce my eardrum, and that it would be much kinder just do it then and there rather than take me off to hospital. They wrapped me tightly in a sheet and my Dad held me down and I screamed and screamed! I never forgave my parents for that. My mother bought me the book Madeleine, which I still have, to try and mollify me. It was a big mistake, because Madeleine got to go to the hospital where she got lots of chocolates and other goodies.

Every Sunday we used to drive to the country for picnics. We also had some lovely beach holidays in Spain and St. Tropez. My favorite game was finding the beach ball which we took turns hiding under pyramids of sand. We always ate watermelons on the beach, so for years I believed that watermelons grew in the sea.

One evening, my Dad came and sat on my bed and told me we were going to South Africa. He said that at night sometimes when it was very quiet and the wind blew the right way, you could hear the lions roar! I was terrified and started to cry. I wanted to stay in Paris.

Everyone traveled by boat when I was little. Our voyage to South Africa took about ten days. My brothers and I had a great time. When we crossed the Equator, Neptune came aboard and they caught and dunked everyone who hadn't crossed the equator in a big tub of water. I was terrified and wouldn't let my Dad take me off his shoulders the whole day. I guess I was a bit of a wussy kid.

I hated South Africa at first. The neighborhood children came to meet me, and I just glared at them. "Ne touche pas la voiture de mon papa!"(Don't touch my Daddy's car!) I remember ordering them. And when they laughed at me I shouted "Vous etes un cochon!" (You are a pig!) Which I reckoned was about the nastiest thing anyone could say to anyone else.

Then I got a puppy, made friends with the neighbors and soon forgot all my French. We had a big garden with a little stream (when it rained). There was also a cave on the neighboring property where someone had excavated for gold!

I had swanky cousins in Johannesburg who had a Cadillac with windows that rolled up and down when you pushed a button and wonderful grandparents who packed a big hamper of goodies and took me and my cousins to the drive in on Friday nights. It was especially great if the film was scary, because we had to drive over a dark wooded mountain to get to the drive in and rumour had it that the Panga Man was on the loose there. A panga is a machete, and the Panga Man would sneak up on lovers parked on the mountain and chop them into little pieces.

After four years in South Africa, we moved to New Orleans.

I had visions of living in a "ranch" with horses, and canoeing down the Mississippi to school. So I was pretty disappointed to find that my life in America was not that different from Europe or South Africa. The first day at my new school, all the kids asked me things like "What did you eat there- lion?" and "What did you wear- animal skins?" and "Did you live in a tree house?"

Then we moved to San Francisco which was a little tough in those days for an unhip kid in a new school. Suddenly I was the class nerd. My Dad and I used to go off hiking in the mountains on weekends to trout fish. I even learned how to tie the flies. Those are the best memories I have of my Dad. He gave me a real introduction to wide open spaces. Our favourite place was Yosemite-- we went on a ten day hike there one summer.

Finally I graduated from high school in June 1970. Because I was going to the University of Cape Town the next year, which only started in March, I got to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do in the intervening eight months. I decided to do what everyone else my age dreamed of doing: I turned my baby-sitting money into traveler's cheques, hiked on a backpack and set off for Europe with a Eurail Pass in my pocket. I started in Paris, went north to visit friends and relatives in Sweden and Norway and then slowly made my way down Europe to Italy and Greece as my money dwindled and the days got shorter and colder. Finally I ended up as a volunteer on a kibbutz in Israel. I still think of that year as the best year of my life. My parents totally freaked when they picked me up at the airport in Pretoria. Was this scruffy suntanned rough-handed kid in overalls and fur coat gleaned from the Amsterdam flea market really their darling young daughter? 'Fraid so.

I arrived at the University of Cape Town with rings on my fingers and bells on my toes- literally. I thought I was Ms Cool personified. But the situation in South Africa soon humbled me. The 70's were tough years in South Africa. The universities were about the only venue for any tolerated vocal protest against apartheid. I spent one summer in Zululand, working at a hospital in Nqutu. The experience was definitely a lot more important for me than for the people I was supposed to be helping (our project was to build a fence around the reservoir to keep out the cattle, and I believe after we left, two local guys pulled down our fence and reconstructed it in two weeks.) The hospital was run by a wonderful man, Dr Anthony Barker, who took us to the historic battle sites of Isandhlawana and Rorke's Drift. At Isandhlawana, I could feel the ground tremble as the Cetywayo's warriors surrounded the small hill where the British troops were camped, and where I was standing. It was the beginning of my love affair with Africa.

After four years at art school, I got a job on the Cape Flats, teaching art and art history at a teacher's training college. In those days, schools of course were segregated. My school was officially for "coloureds", students of mixed descent. The local schools came to the college for art classes. I loved teaching, and I think my kids loved me. All the other teachers were very strict, but my classes were fun. The kids would arrive in long straight quiet lines at the front of the college where I would collect them. After my class, the only way I could get them quietly back to the front of the school was to Pink Panther back, right past the head's room. Thank goodness the head never spotted me- he was a singularly humourless man and wouldn't have found my melodramatic slinking down the hall, followed by forty Pink Panthering students, very funny at all. A group of boys and girls always came after school-- the boys to make masks and the girls to help me sweep the room. They all begged for rides home in my car-- a little Mini. I said, no, only if it rains. Finally after about two months it rained and I had to ferry about 60 kids home-- it must have taken about two hours, but a promise is a promise.

So then I decided to get my teaching certificate in London. What a shock! I couldn't control the tough young kids in London's East End at all, and later, the older students at the Loughton College of Further Education were so bored and unmotivated, only interested in snogging with each other at the back of the class. Teaching suddenly became a matter of either discipline or entertainment. It was so different from Africa, where kids sometimes walk for hours every day to get to school.

My parents were in New York by this time, so I came over to visit them. I had absolutely no money, so my mother commissioned me to paint the family portraits. My mother was truly a wonderful and supportive woman. She was also a painter, and hoped that I would be able to devote my life to art because she hadn't been able to. Because they entertained a lot, word got around about my portraits and soon I was able to finance a post graduate degree in design at Pratt. And then, through Pratt, I got my first job in publishing. This was a wonderful serendipitous surprise- but in a way it was a culmination of everything I had studied- art, education and design. I loved working in publishing.

But Africa called and I went back. After four years in New York, adapting to Cape Town was a struggle. New York is a great place for young people with ambition and a little talent, and I felt suffocated by the terrible tension in South Africa. Everything had to be seen in terms of the struggle, and there didn't seem to be a place for children's book people. So after three years I went back to New York to focus on my own career. But I had made my break from the grind of the office- it was time for me to really stretch my wings, take a deep breath, and jump.

I have been freelancing now for about twenty years. It's not always easy and I still have to do the occasional bit of dog-walking to pay my telephone bills, but I can focus on my own work, and am free to research my work in Africa, central America, Europe, the Caribbean, and even India. I love traveling-- must be a result of so much moving around as a kid.

Website: http://www.catherinestock.com/

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