- Sue Shanahan
William Joyce: Still Shining
Updated: Jan 17, 2022
Mary Katherine with her father, Bill Joyce
“It was like all fairytales. One must travel through darkness to find the light.” – Elizabeth B. Joyce, With Love and Fury
William Joyce grew up in a loving family where his artistic abilities were recognized and encouraged. As a boy, his dream was to become Superman. After being introduced to Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are in kindergarten, Bill decided he wanted to make picture books. He shifted his focus from superhero to becoming a “maker upper” when he grew up. By creating worlds that people believe in and characters that they love, Bill had figured out the way to have superpowers without a cape.
Today Bill is considered a creative genius by many. He is the author and illustrator of over 50 children’s books. He won an academy award in 2011 (which he visualized accepting when he was a child) for his short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. He has won three Emmy Awards for the animated series Rolie Polie Olie. He is one of the artists who brought the original Toy Story movie to the big screen. The DreamWorks computer animated-fantasy film, Rise of the Guardians is based on his Guardians of Childhood book series.
Looking back, Bill is amazed by the precociousness he exhibited when he was a kid.
“At age five, I was already using drawing and storytelling, although, I didn’t realize it, as a way of dealing with life. My sisters teased me mercilessly. The only real revenge I could get on them was to draw them getting eaten by dinosaurs. They were the reason I learned how to write at a young age. I had to be able to sign their drawings with, ‘Love, Bill.’”
In his mind, there was never any question of what line of work he would go into.
“I knew how much I wanted to do this. I had a hunger for it that was so intense that I was willing to swim against whatever stream there was to try to get there. I was driven, and it surprises me looking back on it. At the time, it just seemed essential, like it wasn’t a choice.”
Bill rarely compromised his creative vision. He admits to taking on a project or two when he was younger for the money, but he always ended up hating them. He’s learned that the easiest way for him to make a living is by being himself.
“The thing about artists is a lot of times they end up being successful because they aren’t trying to make money. They are just trying to be true to their vision and that touches people. I’ve never written or illustrated anything that I thought about like ‘Oh, this is going to make a million bucks.’ It just needed to come out, and if it’s good and pure people respond, and you can honestly make some money.”
The connection between who Bill is and what he puts down on paper are inseparable. Beneath the enchanting illustrations and plots of his books, flow the undercurrents of his world. “I’m often not fully aware of what the story is I’m telling until years later. There are many times I’m surprised by the themes that come out in my writing.”
On an Instagram post, Bill relates the story of his wife being hugely pregnant with their first child when he suddenly stopped the project he was working on to make the book, Bentley & Egg. Bill couldn’t figure out why he was so compelled to do a book about a frog who is in love with a duck about to lay an egg. But his wife had no problem cracking the code. “Look stupid, you’re the frog, I’m the duck and this….she pointed to her stomach…..is THE EGG!”
Bill suspects he has unwittingly used the same process to work through his emotions throughout his entire career. It’s what helped give him the strength needed to face some of life’s cruelest tragedies.
“For storytellers our illusions are our armor.” – William Joyce
In 2010, his radiant light of a daughter, Mary Katherine, died of an inoperable brain tumor. It was a crushing blow for Bill. She was only 18. Mary Katherine’s magic now lives on in his Guardians of Childhood books.
“The tragedies that I’ve been through and the losses that I’ve experienced have all shown up in the Guardians novels, and even in my picture books, in subtle ways. In my stories there is a sense that there will always be losses in life, but you power through them. If you lose something that you love, the memory of that love will sustain you and never die.”
Shortly after his daughter’s death, Bill’s wife Elizabeth was diagnosed with ALS. Liz was paralyzed and on a respirator for three years before she succumbed to the disease in 2016. Bill adored her. They had always been a team. So sure that together they could handle whatever came their way, her absence left a huge hole.
Bill’s portrait of Liz from their college days
Liz appeared as characters in almost all of his books. In his picture book and film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore she materializes as a lovely lady being pulled across the sky by a cluster of flying books. She understands all Morris needs to give his life meaning is a good story. It seems prophetic that the book she sends him is opened to a page with Humpty Dumpty on it. For so many years Bill looked to his beloved Liz to provide life’s answers. The thought of losing her must have felt like an irreparable “great fall.”
Liz in the “Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessore”
“It was tough. There were many, many days when I didn’t know if I was going to make it through. There were a couple of things that saved me. One was that I had to take care of our son, Jack. That makes you strong. I also had my artistic outlet. I got more work done during those seven years of illness and tragedy than anytime in my life. The stories were pouring out of me. I guess they were my refuge but also my salvation. I was making sense out of all of the stuff that was going wrong by writing about it without knowing I was writing about it”
Without his creativity, who knows where Bill would be today. He seems to be tapping into something from above when bringing his inner impulses to light.
“Whether you want to call it a higher source or the human spirit, I am lucky it’s a part of me. During that dark time I talked to other friends who are creative people. Maurice Sendak was the most helpful usually. He said ‘Art tortures us, but it’s also our salvation. And these are the times when it really can save us.’ And he was right.”
As with all creatives, William Joyce’s gifts are twofold. The light that pours through him is not only for his legions of fans. That light is a part of his healing, too.
“But even now, I dare to dream.” – William Joyce
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Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan