by Sharron L. McElmeel

Nicole Rubel and Rotten Ralph entered the world of children's books over 25 years ago. Since then, Rotten Ralph has been joined by dozens of other Rubel characters, and Rubel herself has become a noted and popular writer as well as illustrator. She has created twins Sam and Violet, Cyrano the Bear, the Ghost Family, and Conga Crocodile. Soon, there will be the formidable Ernestine and another set of twins, Skelly and Bones.

Few would have suspected that Nicole Rubel would become so successful at expressing herself creatively because, during her childhood, she let her identical twin sister, Bonnie, speak for her. Nicole's birth name was Leslie Ida Rubel, but few people ever used it. "We looked alike and were compared by all who saw us. We were never addressed by our own names... most everyone in our life called us 'the twins.'" Nicole did, however, love to draw. But her teachers were not impressed with her Halloween scenes that had purple night skies and flying pumpkins. She regularly drew the colorful Chinese-style houses directly across the street from her home, and she says, "I fell in love with the bright colors and gargoyles." Her parents, Rubel says, "encouraged me to give up my artwork."

Rubel was born April 29, 1953, in Miami Beach, Florida. As a child, one of her favorite places was a room at her dad's company, which--because of the decor--was called the "monkey room." Rubel's dad imported straw handbags, and the monkey room was filled with feathers, rhinestones, and felt flowers. Rubel says, "I played for hours in the monkey room gluing fabric and rhinestones into patterns." She attended elementary through high school in Coral Gables before heading off to Beloit, Wisconsin, for college. She found that was not where she wanted to be. So after a year, she was off to the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts and Tufts University where she earned a joint undergraduate degree in 1975.

Rubel says that, during her last semester at the Boston Museum School, "Through the suggestion of a wonderful teacher, I began keeping a diary--that's when I realized I didn't even relate to my own name." She decided to change her name. At the time, she was reading Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and decided to call herself "Nicole." She sent out birth notices to her parents and friends, informing them of her new name. This teacher also asked her students to draw the same object over and over for a month. The subject of Rubel's drawing was a goldfish. At first she drew it as she saw it but "soon it was traveling through volcanoes, beds of colorful flowers... and past a large red cat with green eyes."

Rubel's art style was unique, inspired in many ways by the work of Henri Matisse and the art deco pieces of architecture in her childhood hometown--fake killer sharks, giant lobsters, and fake alligators. When the other members of her art class saw her illustrations, they suggested she consider children's books. She began to look at children's books, and "The minute I saw George and Martha by James Marshall, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life." Her art teacher told her Marshall lived in the area, so Nicole picked up the phone to talk to him. She got encouragement and more. "He invited Jack [Gantos] and myself to tea. I loved sitting in his parlor sipping tea and looking out his window at the Bunker Hill Monument. He saw my portfolio and said, 'I know you will do just fine. Call up Walter Lorraine at Houghton Mifflin but don't tell him I said so. He likes to discover his talent.'"

Rubel and Gantos made an appointment with Lorraine and "showed Walter the many stories we created together. Walter liked a series of drawings about a little girl and her cat I was going to submit to Hallmark Card Company." Lorraine asked the pair to work on a story about the little girl with black hair and her red cat--a large red cat with green eyes. "By the end of the summer Walter bought the story." Rotten Ralph (Houghton Mifflin) was published in 1976.

While still illustrating new stories featuring Rotten Ralph, Rubel has gone on to write and illustrate her own stories. Just as Rubel learned to do, expressing oneself is a common theme in her stories. Readers will also find alligators, palm trees, and many patterns reminiscent of those busy and colorful patterns created in the "monkey room" of her childhood.

Rubel's childhood has had a great influence on the illustrations for her books, as well as for the books she has written. Sometimes, even if twins are not in the storyline, readers will often spot twins in her illustrations. Rubel has an illustrative style that is wacky and wonderful. When she wrote and illustrated The Ghost Family Meets Its Match (Dial, 1992), she was able to use both text and pictures to attract readers to her ghostly yarn. There are palm trees on the wallpaper, an octopus chandelier, life-size monkey candleholders, a ceramic lion holding up the household toilet, and an excess of colors and patterns, all creating a visually interesting home. Several families attempt to live in the home but end up fleeing the haunted residence. When the Merry family shows up, Rubel cleverly uses a wolf motif in the new family's decorating scheme to provide a clue as to why they do not seem to mind the Ghost family's antics. Rubel has included 22 wolf clues from the wolf-patterned wallpaper to the wolf hiding behind the tree.

Adults reading Rubel's Cyrano the Bear (Dial, 1995) might recognize the tale as a fractured Old West version of the well-known, 17th-Century French-verse drama, Cyrano de Bergerac. Early primary readers will enjoy reading about Cyrano, the bear with a large purple nose, who is helplessly in love with the town librarian, Roxane. Fearing that he is not worthy, the shy sheriff helps Wolfie aim for her heart. As in the Cyrano de Bergerac tale, Cyrano the Bear gets the poetry-loving Roxane. Rubel's pattern-filled illustrations have been described as "spunky and colorful."

Readers will be charmed by Rubel's newest titles. A western tale, A Cowboy Named Ernestine (Dial, 2001), features a formidable red-haired woman who dresses as a rowdy cowhand to join a cattle drive. Rubel's illustrations have complemented several riddle books by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg and will accompany a forthcoming title, Dino Riddles (Dial, 2002). Meanwhile, Rotten Ralph is getting more attention. The earliest Rotten Ralph titles were published by Houghton Mifflin, and later, the books about the mischievous and naughty cat have been published by HarperCollins. Soon, in addition to the television series, some easy-to-read titles featuring Rotten Ralph will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Peaceable Kingdom Press will release a Christmas card featuring the cover of The Christmas Spirit Strikes Rotten Ralph. The feline hero will also have his own interactive CD-ROM from the BBC.

Rubel has illustrated more than a dozen Rotten Ralph titles and more than thirty other books, many of which she also authored. She has created magazine illustrations and greeting cards. Her illustrations have been included in shows of children's book illustrations from Boston and New York to Key Biscayne and have spawned a plush Rotten Ralph doll and rubber stamps. Nicole also does some designing for an import company in Miami, Florida, owned by her family. Nicole's sister, Bonnie, is the president of the company, and according to Nicole, she is an "amazing person." Nicole sometimes accompanies her sister on buying trips in Asia.

Nicole regularly works in her home office. She says, "Every day I'm at my drafting table from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM, Monday through Friday. When I'm writing, I do work on a computer." Her art is created using ad markers and a technical pen.

After decades of living in New York City, Nicole and her husband Richard Langsen, a family therapist, left their loft-apartment and migrated west to Aurora, Oregon, where they now live on the Red Cat Farm. The farm is an eight-and-one-half acre refuge for a few sheep, a cat, a toucan or two, and one or two horses. Touches of whimsy fill their home. One particularly spectacular feature is the hand-rolled and decorated clay tile surrounding the fireplace. The tiles are among Nicole's many artistic touches. Since December 1999, visitors to their home have been welcomed by a large image of Rotten Ralph, created by a local artisan who used a chain saw to carve the image from a tree trunk. It was a gift from Richard to Nicole.

Those who wish to write to Rubel or invite her to visit their school will find an e-mail link at <>. Visitors to her virtual home will be greeted, just as visitors to the author's Oregon home, by a large image of Rotten Ralph.

In 1999, Rotten Ralph and the black-haired little girl, Sarah, who loves him despite his bad behavior (and sometimes because of it), became stars of a TV series produced for the British Broadcast Company by IntalToons Corporation. The stow puppets are staged on sets similar to a giant pop-up book. In the United States, the series is aired on the Fox Network. Plans to promote the series include installing a 15-foot-high replica of Rotten Ralph at the BBC Headquarters on one of the busiest thoroughfares in London, Wood Lane. Rotten Ralph will hang from one corner of the building while holding a slingshot in the other paw.

Edmond Rostand's verse drama Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) is the tale of Cyrano, a nobleman famous for Pis large nose and swordsmanship. Cyrano desperately loves the beautiful Roxanne, but agrees to help his rival, Christian, win her heart. Jose Ferrer gave an Oscar-winning performance as the tragic title character in the first film adaptation of the classic French play, and Steve Martin displayed his comic talents in a 1987 movie version, Roxanne.

Selected List of Books Illustrated by Nicole Rubel

Back to School for Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos (HarperCollins, 1998)
Batty Riddles by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg (Dial, 1993)
Bunny Riddles by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg (Dial, 1996)
The Christmas Spirit Strikes Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos (HarperFestival, 1998)
Conga Crocodile by Nicole Rubel (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
A Cowboy Called Ernestine by Nicole Rubel (Dial, 2001)
Cyrano the Bear by Nicole Rubel (Dial, 1995)
Dino Riddles by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg (Dial, 2002
The Ghost Family Meets Its Match by Nicole Rubel (Dial, 1992)
Grizzly Riddles by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg (Dial, 1989)
It Came from the Swamp by Nicole Rubel (Dial, 1988)
Not So Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos (Houghton Mifflin, 1994)
Pete Apatosaurus by Nicole Rubel (Bantam, 1991) [originally titled Bruno] Brontosaurus (Avon, 1983)
Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos (Houghton Mifflin, 1975)
Rotten Ralph's Thanksgiving Wish (HarperFestival, 1999)
Rotten Ralph's Rotten Birthday by Jack Gantos (Houghton Mifflin, 1990)
Rotten Ralph's Rotten Christmas by Jack Gantos (Houghton Mifflin, 1984)
Rotten Ralph's Show & Tell by Jack Gantos (Houghton Mifflin, 1989)
Wedding Bells for Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos (HarperCollins, 1999)
Worse than Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos (Houghton Mifflin, 1979)
Sharron L. McElmeel is director of McBookwords (a literacy organization) and an instructor of children's literature and young adult literature at the University of Wisconsin Stout's online education programs. She often writes and speaks about authors/illustrators and their books.

This article first appeared in  Library Talk (first publication rights only). Copyright for all other uses copyright by Sharron L. McElmeel.  The contents of this article may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder`s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use. First appeared:  Library Talk, Nov/Dec2000, Vol. 13 Issue 5, p20, 3p    Current Source:

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