JOAN LEXAU OBITUARY
Age 93, of St. Paul, Minnesota Died peacefully on January 9, 2023. She was preceded in death by her mother, Anne M. Lexau, father, Ola Lexau Nødset, brother, Henry Lexau (Eileen), and nephew, John Lexau. She will be held in loving memory by her nieces
and nephews, Catherine Lexau (David Hest), Margaret Lexau (Joel Alter), Daniel Lexau, Elizabeth Lexau (Craig Shanks) and Benjamin Lexau (Jennifer Torinus); by her great nieces and nephews Kevin, Anne and Mary Alter; Henry, Kenna and Ruby Lexau; Robert
Hest (Emily Houser); Lucia and Laurel Shanks; by cousins from Marshall, MN, Villa Hills, KY, and Norway; and by her neighbors and friends in St. Paul, MN, and Otisville, NY. Joan was a celebrated children's author, publishing over fifty books. She was
born March 9, 1929, in St. Paul, MN, where she lived with her mother and brother, who shared her love of books. She moved to New York City as a young woman to start a career in publishing, where she worked for Harper & Row and other publishers. After her
first book, Olaf Reads, was published in 1961, she became a fulltime author, writing under her name and the pen name Joan L. Nødset. She worked with top illustrators including Syd Hoff, Tomie dePaola and Aliki. Some of her work was autobiographical,
featuring herself and the St. Paul children with whom she grew up and also her New York City neighbors. Raised during the Depression in economic deprivation herself, she intentionally wrote books representing children in poverty as well as books
featuring children of color as main characters, this at a time when few children's books did so. Many of her books remain in libraries today, and some have been reissued. Her national awards include a Children's Book Award (The Trouble With Terry), a
Charlie May Simon Award (Striped Ice Cream), an ALA Outstanding Science Book Award (The Spider Makes a Web) and others. Joan continued her writing career in Otisville, New York, where she lived for many years before returning to St. Paul. She will be
remembered for her intelligence, her wonderful sense of humor, her love of the Minnesota State Fair, and her overall ability to make life fun. Her family wishes to thank the people who helped support Joan through her last illness, including her
caregivers and nurses at New Perspective-Highland Park; Cheryl Vukmanich, CNP, Bluestone Physician Services; Dorothy Washington, RN, Ecumen Hospice; Gloria Miller, Visiting Angels, and her Otisville friends, Barbara and David Brown and Tim and Billie
"That's good. That's bad." "Striped Ice Cream." "The Trouble With Terry."
From their first printings in the 1960s to 2020 reissues, these titles and more than 50 others, all by prolific children's book author Joan Lexau, are the stuff of cherished American childhood memories,
For her Minnesota family, especially her beloved nieces and nephews, Lexau brought joy in other ways, too — sweeping into St. Paul on annual visits from New York and treating everyone.
"I remember her once marching us and all of the neighborhood kids up to the Dairy Queen on Snelling, like the Pied Piper," said her niece Catherine Lexau. "In my aunt's childhood during the Depression, her mom struggled to provide the basics. Perhaps as
a result, she had such obvious pleasure in giving kids treats."
Lexau, who died in St. Paul at age 93 on Jan. 9, was born and raised in the Highland Park neighborhood. She grew up sharing a tiny apartment with her mom and brother, sleeping in a room that doubled as the kitchen. As kids, the Lexaus would play with
friends in the bluffs along the Mississippi River and even climb on the arches beneath the Ford Parkway Bridge, said her niece Elizabeth Lexau.
After taking courses at St. Paul's St. Thomas and St. Catherine universities, she moved to New York City, where she began a career as an editorial secretary and then worked in production at Harper and Row in 1957. After she published her first book, "
Olaf Reads," in 1961, she became a very successful and prolific children's author, garnering several awards and working with acclaimed illustrators.
Relatable, funny and filled with kids from diverse backgrounds, Lexau's books drew on her own experiences growing up with divorced parents in St. Paul, as well as life in the New York City neighborhood where she lived. In the 1960s and '70s, she was
proud to be part of a push for more children's books with Black kids as main characters.
More than most adults, she seemed to understand that special mix of worry and wonder that is being a kid, her nieces said, even as she touched on topics like poverty, divorce or sibling rivalry.
Years ago, one young reader of her book "Striped Ice Cream" wrote to her to ask, "How did you think of the chapter 'Brothers and Sisters Are a Pain in the Neck?'" her niece Catherine said.
Every summer, Lexau's family in Minnesota would anticipate her August visit. She typically stayed for several weeks and never missed a trip to the State Fair, where her first stop was always for French doughnuts in the Food Building.
"It was a great highlight of the year for our family," said Elizabeth Lexau. "She understood children and knew what would interest us and bring us joy. We were so lucky to have her in our lives."...
"Becky is feeling miserable. It's almost her birthday, but this year no one seems to care. Becky knows her family is too poor to buy presents. But why do they have to be so mean to her? Whey do they keep whispering behind her back and leaving her out?"
It's amazing how "Striped Ice Cream!" doesn't date that much, after 50 years. More about that, from "St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th ed. St. James Press, 1999":
"The sweet side of harsh reality defines the sentiment and the setting of some of Joan M. Lexau's most effective endeavours. When the scene is Harlem she sketches the street gangs and the tenements, the precarious financial circumstances and the
inevitable one-adult households. But such socially erosive factors never dominate. They are the foil which sets off her most telling theme--the triumph of the human spirit.
"It is never an epic victory. Harlem must remain what it is, an all-too-often inescapable terrain, a cauldron forever seething and threatening to reduce solid humanity into a soft decomposing mass. But there are those who with sustained commitment to
decency and ordered existence achieve a succession of modest accomplishments in the ongoing struggle against the forces of uncertainty and despair."
Then again, not everyone agrees that it isn't that dated. One naysayer was in "Dictionary of American Children's Fiction, 1960-1984: Recent Books ..., Volume 2."
One thing that stood out for me, as an adult, was the scene where Becky asks permission, in a public library, to bring her OWN book in and sit down and read it.
The librarian says: "It's such a hot day out, I don't see why not."
Sounds odd, doesn't it? After all, the librarian could have said, simply, "of course you can - that's what we're here for!" But the implication was that she was doing Becky an unusual favor, since Becky wasn't helping the library by actually borrowing a
book. Somehow, I doubt that the rules were that strict against CHILD "loiterers" in libraries, in 1968. Unless there's something else going on.
About "The Christmas Secret":
"It is winter in New York City. The wind is cold. It blows through the cracked walls of the apartment where Jose and his mother and his little brother live. 'Mami must be cold with just a cotton blanket,' Jose thinks. 'It is up to me to get her a warm
one. Christmas is coming in six more days. God, please let me get Mami a blanket for Christmas.' "
About "Olaf Reads," from TIME, 1961:
" 'Olaf Reads'...after a fashion. When his mother sends this freckled little menace out to mail a letter, he puts it in a basket marked PUT LITTER HERE. 'I can read,' said Olaf, 'but they can't spell.' Not librarians, policemen, or entire fire
departments can keep Olaf from his disastrous alphabetical go-rounds. As an almost-know-it-all, Olaf is probably the funniest first reader since Mrs. Malaprop."
"Everything I do turns out wrong!" Terry wails. Poor Terry!
She makes a promise to her best friend - and forgets all about it.
She boils eggs on the stove - and they explode.
She helps her brother deliver papers - and hits her teacher in the
stomach with the Evening News!
Here's Terry in one funny mishap after another - and a wonderful
surprise at the end.