TTLG Author/Illustrator Profiles

Jan Wahl

Jan Wahl

Jan Wahl was born on April 1, 1933 in Columbus, Ohio to Russell Rothenberger and Nina Marie (Boyer) Wahl. Wahl's father was a physician.

Wahl was never one to allow himself to be bored as he was growing up in Ohio. He played piano on a weekly radio program, had a traveling puppet show and shadow-play theater, and performed his own magic act. With a background like this, can there be any wonder how he ended up with a career in the entertainment industry?

He made his first attempt at writing literature when he was in the fourth grade at DeVeaux School in Toledo, Ohio. Wahl sat at his worn desk trying to work on the story that he already enjoyed a great deal. The project was an attempt to take the classic tale of "Jack and the Beanstalk" and improve it. It was with this venture that Wahl fell in love with writing.

It was at this time that Wahl began collecting films, which has become a lifelong interest. His collection now includes everything from hand-colored films dating from 1893 to post World War II, both those in black and white movies and those in Technicolor.

Upon graduating from high school in 1950, Wahl attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1953. Wahl was an author of a play called Paradiso! Paradiso! while he was a student at Cornell. The play was produced by the school in 1954.

Wahl enrolled in a creative writing class while he was at Cornell University. The professor of the course was very encouraging. He started writing original stories that he submitted to a number of magazines.

When he graduated from Cornell University, Wahl learned that he had been awarded the honor of being a Fulbright fellow in the area of Folklore and Folk Literature. His new found scholastic status brought him to the University of Copenhagan in Denmark.

After completing his graduate studies at the University of Copenhagan, Wahl worked with Danish film director Carl T. Dreyer during the making of Dreyer's prize-winning film Ordet. He worked with Dreyer from 1954 to 1955.

In 1957, Wahl returned to Denmark to take a position with the mystery writer Isak Dinesen, who was ill. Dinesen dictated her novel Last Tales and Wahl recorded it for her. Upon finishing his work with Ms. Dinesen, Wahl returned to the United States. He attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to complete his Master's Degree in arts in 1958.

Even with all this experience, Wahl struggled in his early attempts to publish his children's stories. They were repeatedly rejected by editors until children's editor Ursula Nordstrom encouraged him. ".... It was 1960 and I was fresh from school, having received a Master's degree from Michigan. Warily I ventured rather decrepit, very literary Macmillan Company offices in New York near the foot of Fifth [Avenue] ... [Ms. Nordstrom] rattled a bit of [manuscript] in her bloodless hand and I felt I was floating on a cake of ice far out in the Arctic Sea. About to sink! Or to be saved! While waiting for her pronouncement, I recalled the very first instant I felt the itch to be a writer."

That first manuscript turned out to be Pleasant Fieldmouse, which was illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Wahl submitted the book sixteen times over three years. It was this editor that suggested Maurice Sendak as the illustrator for the book. In fact, she liked the book so much that she also purchased a second title by Wahl, called Push Kitty, and suggested that Garth Williams be the illustrator for that piece.

Throughout Wahl's writing career, he has continued to concentrate the scope of his work on children. He addresses themes like family relationships, physical handicaps, self-reliance, tolerance, and peace.

Besides collecting old films, Wahl enjoys collecting old toys like those relating to Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, and Betty Boop.

Wahl, who still lives in Toledo, Ohio, has published more than 100 books, many of which have been translated into seven foreign languages. He has worked with a many well-known illustrators such as Maurice Sendak, Garth Williams, Erik Blegvad, and Mercer Mayer.

Still a prolific children's author, Wahl likes to share his writings and experiences with teachers and children through class visits, conferences, and writing workshops.


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