Petra Mathers, Author Whose Children’s Stories Soared, Dies at 78

Petra Mathers, a German-born children’s book illustrator and author whose kindly, often bumbling animal characters were nonetheless quietly heroic and often risked much for love, died on Feb. 6 at her home in Astoria, Ore. She was 78.

Patty Flynn, her executor, said that Ms. Mathers and her husband, Michael Mathers, a photographer, who was 79, took their own lives. There did not appear to be an obvious health concern that precipitated their act, though they had often told friends that they could not live without each other. They were a private, devoted couple, and the timing of their deaths remains a mystery.

With spare, naïve images rendered in ink, pencil and watercolor, Ms. Mathers’s stories — whose subjects included a soulful museum guard (an alligator) who falls in love with the subject in a painting (another alligator) and a warmhearted chicken named Lottie and her best friend, Herbie, a duck — were just as sparely written, but imbued with sly humor and wit, captivating both her 8-and-under audience and their parents.

The first book Ms. Mathers wrote, “Maria Theresa,” was the story of a dreamy fowl who has all sorts of adventures.Credit…HarperCollins

“Here is the story of a chicken who flees the coop,” Carol Brightman wrote in 1985 in a New York Times review of Ms. Mathers’s first book, “Maria Theresa,” the tale of a dreamy fowl who has all sorts of adventures. “You know the type. No ordinary laying hen, this one sometimes stops ‘in mid-peck as if listening to faraway voices.’”

Ms. Mathers’ prose and her “flat, old-fashioned cutout Surrealism” combined “an attention to both the commonplace and the arcane which marks the best of children’s literature,” Ms. Brightman wrote. “The book’s final tableau of circus folk (and fowl) dancing the Tango Argentine outside Miss Lola’s Airstream is a triumph of this vision. What else but a hopelessly romantic chicken, one that never forgets to lay the morning egg, could bring us such a show.”

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