Carol Carrick, the award-winning author of more than four dozen children’s books and books for young adults, many with a Vineyard setting, died unexpectedly at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on June 6. She was 78 and lived in West Tisbury. The cause was complications from a stroke.
Her books, many of them a joint venture with her late husband, the landscape artist and illustrator Donald F. Carrick, often had the couple’s sons Christopher and Paul as their principal characters. Both parents were nature and animal lovers, and the adventures of their sons were frequently in outdoor places — if not on the Vineyard, then in Greensboro, Vt., where the Carrick family escaped from the maelstrom of the Vineyard in summer. They had built a cabin there above a pond before they came to the Island.
Donald Carrick died in 1989. In a 1990 review of In the Moonlight, Waiting, their last book together, the late Ruth Mehrtens Galvin wrote of Carol’s extraordinary ability “to explore the world as a child experiences it, in all its astonishing, terrifying, marvelous variety.” The setting of the book was the Chilmark farm of Clark and Pamela Goff where children, by moonlight, are awaiting the arrival of the first spring lamb. Another Vineyard book, Two Very Little Sisters, has as its principal characters the Chilmark-born Adams Sisters, midgets who were members of the P.T. Barnum Circus. Stay Away from Simon is set in West Tisbury in the early 1800s.
Carol Hatfield was born May 20, 1935, in Plainfield, N.J., a daughter of the late Chauncey and Elsa (Schweizer) Hatfield. Later, the family moved to Queens, N.Y. where she was a graduate of Jamaica High School in 1953. In 1957, she was graduated cum laude from Hofstra University on Long Island with a major in advertising art. Although she attended on a partial scholarship, she worked part-time as a dental assistant to help pay the tuition. Her father had died during her college years and there was a younger brother for her mother to support. She was a member of Delta Chi Delta sorority.
Her first jobs after college were preparing art and type for advertisements, but she soon quit the advertising world to marry her high school sweetheart. That marriage ended in divorce two years later.
In 1958, she returned to work, accepting a job in sales promotion at Coronet magazine. It was there that she met Donald Carrick, whom the magazine frequently called upon to do freelance art work for them. In 1965, they were married and spent the next six months on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where Don had previously lived. A friend there asked him to illustrate books he was writing, and soon suggested that he write and illustrate his own books for children.
“But Don felt totally foreign to the world of young children, so I offered to help him,” Carol later wrote. “In my innocence, I thought it would be terribly simple to write books like the ones I had enjoyed as a child.”
Their first book, The Old Barn, was begun when they were offered a Vermont house to stay in for a few weeks by a friend. Don was inspired to draw pictures of a barn on the property for a children’s story. At first, Carol simply wrote captions for it, but soon was writing more and more of the story.
“We had no idea of how children’s books should be prepared,” she later recalled. “Don hand-lettered the text.” An editor liked their work, and when Carol was in the hospital having her first son, Christopher, they signed their first book contract.
“I was fortunate to have sold my first writing attempt,” she wrote in a later autobiographical essay. “If I had gotten as many manuscript rejections then as I have gotten since, I would have returned to being a dental assistant.”
The Old Barn received starred reviews and, using its Vermont setting, the Carricks produced three other books. At the time they were spending winters in Greenwich Village, and the Christopher series was under way, beginning with Sleep Out, an account of a child who went camping by himself. Son Paul also became a character in the books.
In 1965, the Carricks first came to the Vineyard to visit the late Jane Damroth and Ted Farrow, friends who had rented a house in West Tisbury. Seven years later they decided the Vineyard was the right place to settle with their growing family.
“It was the only place we felt sure of giving up our wonderful rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment for,” Carol later wrote. “Martha’s Vineyard’s beauty suited a landscape painter’s eye and it had a high density of artists and writers to make us feel at home. In fact, the first neighbors who introduced themselves were children’s book writer and illustrator Norman Bridwell and his wife, Norma.” Over the years the Bridwells became among their closest friends.
The Carricks bought a modest house on High street in Edgartown. A few months after their arrival, Paul was born at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. For the Next 24 years, High street continued to be their home, with Don building a studio behind the house and Carol tending the garden in front and behind. Hordes of Edgartown children were warmly welcomed there. But after Don died and the boys left to go on with their adult lives, Carol decided she was “a West Tisbury person, ”and bought a house at Island Farms. There were plenty of fields and woods to explore on foot, as she loved to do, and there were artists and writers whose company she enjoyed. She soon was a regular at the Howes House Tuesday morning conversation group. She taught a course in writing children’s books at Featherstone Center for the Arts. She went on speaking tours to promote the books she continued to write. Two later books, Mothers Are Like That, and The Polar Bears Are Hungry, were illustrated by Paul, by then a Rhode Island School of Design graduate working in Boston as an illustrator. Christopher, after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College where he had developed an interest in acting, had gone west to Los Angeles.
Reminiscing about what his mother was like, Paul recalled his childhood dislike of squash and his adamant refusal to eat it one day. Carol quietly carried his plate away and returned with a piece of tempting-looking layer cake with peanut butter frosting. He promptly gobbled it up, only to find that his mother had spread the uneaten squash between the layers as filling, to assure that he got his vitamins. She made treats with wheat germ in them for her sons to take to school and she baked six loaves of whole wheat bread a week to feed her family. She learned to knit, buying yarn from Island sheep farmers. And because money was often scarce in the home of an artist and writer, she also learned how to make clothes for Don and the boys and slipcovers for furniture.
Her life experiences were all fodder for her books. “She always seemed to think she had to have something real to write about,” Norman Bridwell recalled. After his wife Norma dressed up as a witch one Halloween, Carol wrote Old Mother Witch.
She took obvious delight in her natural surroundings, and Christopher recalled her immense curiosity about everything. She loved animals and wrote many books about them, including Ben and the Porcupine, The Empty Squirrel and Two Coyotes. Denizens of the sea became stories in Octopus, The Sand Tiger Shark The Blue Lobster. “She loved doing the research,” Christopher said.
A short time before her move to West Tisbury, a new chapter in her life began when she attended a contra-dance at the West Tisbury Grange at the invitation of her friends Robert and Marjorie Potts. There she became reacquainted with Jack Burton of Edgartown whom she had known when his children and hers were schoolmates in Edgartown. Both were devotees of ballroom dancing.
Her favorite waltz was Could I Have This Dance, by Anne Murray. “Carol’s dance was always the waltz, because she felt as if she were floating across the floor when she danced it,” Jack Burton said. In winter, they would go to Gulfport, Fla., where they bought a house largely because of the community’s fondness for dancing. This past winter, they happily danced five times a week there. During the Florida winters, Carol would regale Vineyard friends with tales of the trials and tribulations of being a long-distance home owner. Once she and Jack returned to find their house infested with bees. With hilarity, Carol e-mailed an account of their adventures in ridding the house of its insect tenants. “She had such a wonderful dry sense of humor, “ Norman Bridwell said. On other vacations together, she and Jack backpacked in Eastern Europe, Italy, the Greek islands and Turkey. They wintered in Mexico and camped across the United States and Canada. In summer, they would go to the Vermont cabin.
In addition to dancing, Carol’s favorite pastime was working jigsaw puzzles, especially puzzles of paintings with what she called juicy colors.
Of her writing, she said in her autobiographical sketch: “I have always wanted to write things that would make people laugh, or cry, or keep them in suspense. But thinking up plots has been a difficulty . . . For some, writing is an outpouring. Others often squeeze it out drop by drop. I write and rewrite, laboring over my work, but when it goes well, I’m ecstatic.”
She is survived by her longtime companion, Jack Burton of Edgartown; her sons, Christopher of Conway, Ark., and Paul of Boston; and her brother Andrew of Haverhill.
A memorial service will be held during the summer. Contributions in her memory may be made to the West Tisbury Free Public Library, 1042 State Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.