Nearly 20 years ago, The Bear Who Loved Puccini launched Dr. Dominic Catalano’s career as an illustrator of children’s picture books.
Twenty-eight books later, the art education faculty member is still drawing bears, which may have landed him an ongoing spot in a different, but just as familiar, forum.
Catalano has tentatively been tabbed to take over illustration of “The Bear Family,” a bimonthly feature in Highlights, the children’s magazine that’s been a staple of doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms for some 60 years. Although a final decision about the feature’s future in the magazine is still pending, he would likely also provide the words for the characters, who reinforce positive, moral behavior in relationships with others.
Catalano’s book publisher, Boyds Mills Press, is the trade arm of the magazine, which he described as the “cash cow of the organization.” Having illustrated two covers for Highlights several years ago, he had worked with its art director, Cindy Faber-Smith, but she hadn’t seen his renderings of bears until last November, he said.
She was invited to speak at a workshop he was conducting for the Highlights Foundation and, looking at the portfolio he had on hand for students to see, came across bears he had drawn for four books in the “Basil Bear” series. With the magazine knowing that the writer and illustrator of “The Bear Family” were stepping down, and wanting a new look, Smith asked Catalano if he could provide a sample, which he did in December.
Word balloons are planned as part of the new look, said Catalano, who would work with the same cast of characters—two boy bears and one girl, plus parents and grandparents—and traditional media, probably pen and ink. He would also do the painting and, just recently, has been asked to submit several scripts for review as well.
The father of two sons, ages 5 and 3, he called his house “a good place for inspiration” for the cartoon family, whose children are 10, 6 and 2.
“This is a great opportunity for me because it’s a feature that runs six times a year,” and in an internationally distributed magazine that’s among the most popular for children, Catalano said. “It has such a history, such a legacy,” he added about Highlights, which is still run by its founding family but, as part of a recent update, is also now online, too.
The magazine is “founded in educational theory,” with editors who hold Ph.D.s in education, said Catalano, who shares a similar background. He is a former teacher in New York state, where he taught at every level from kindergarten through high school, and earned a doctorate in art education from Ohio State University in 2005. That same year, he joined the BGSU art faculty.
Catalano’s interest in illustration for children goes back to third grade, when he received Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 book, Where the Wild Things Are, as a Christmas present. He decided then, he recalled, that “this is what I want to do”—a notion reinforced when, in high school, the teacher of a children’s literature class that he was taking stressed the importance of Sendak and his Caldecott Medal-winning book. Catalano put together a picture book as his final project for that class, then took another on illustrating for children’s picture books as an art education major at Buffalo State College, where he also drew cartoons to help build his portfolio.
When he was teaching, he took the portfolio to a New York City conference where editors and art directors saw it. A phone call from one of those editors afterward led to The Bear Who Loved Puccini and the professional career he has pursued ever since.