'It's just as if I was still 6 - drawing lions in books'
Studio City, Calif. — On a winding road in the hills of Studio City, overlooking the movie lots of CBS, Technicolor, and Disney, in a studio above a garage, Bill Peet goodnaturedly frets.
The walls are crowded with drawings, newspaper clippings, and mementos of appreciation from children as far away as New Zealand.
Peet leafs through ''Randy's Dandy Lions'' - one of 27 books he has written and illustrated - to make his point for a visitor. He is still uncomfortable about the short address he made the night before, when receiving the Southern California Booksellers Award for children's books. He had talked all through dinner instead of framing his remarks, and he felt he had fudged it.
In ''Randy's Dandy Lions,'' inspired by Peet's reluctance as a public speaker , shy circus lions overcome ''cage fright'' when they encounter a more tangible fear.
In a field awash with thousands of new titles each year, Peet is among the country's most popular authors of children's books - popular with the youngsters themselves. His books have been elected favorites in several states in recent years in five children-voted award contests.
Letters from his grammar-school readership average over 100 a month. Peet answers each of them. A few are long and personal accounts of broken families. Often sad, these children are a reaching out for another parent, he says. But most of the letters are funny, and are intended to express thanks for books Peet has created.
''Which makes me feel guilty, because I don't do it for them,'' the artist says, explaining that he writes books for the joy he gets out of illustrating them. For 27 years he worked on the story board at Disney Studios, sketching scenes and writing screenplays for such animation features as ''Fantasia,'' '' 101 Dalmatians,'' ''Peter Pan,'' and ''Alice in Wonderland.'' His passion, however, has always been for illustrating books.
Even during his own grammar-school years, he recalls, he could fetch an inflated price for his used textbooks because of the illustrations he had drawn in the margins.
Peet describes his own childhood in Indiana between world wars as sordid. ''I left that out,'' he says in pointing to a brief autobiography he has written for his publisher, ''because it doesn't make good reading. . . .''
But in spite of childhood unhappiness, he manages to develop about half of his story settings from his own childhood memories. Even as a boy he loved to sketch animals and people - on farms, on circus back lots even though the shows themselves were stereotyped and dull to the young artist's eye, and in the slum sections of Indianapolis.
From between the rafters in Peet's studio stare down some of the serious paintings he did as a young man, paintings promising enough to win prizes and rate reviews in Indianapolis newspapers.
In 1937 though, there were a lot of hungry artists, and Peet couldn't make a living in serious painting. ''Disney got 'em for a dime a dozen,'' Peet recalls, himself among them. It wasn't until the late 1950s that he began to spend his weekends and vacations doing what he had wanted to do all along: illustrating books.
Peet's next book, ''The Luckiest One of All,'' due out next spring, is the first book he ever wrote. In 1956, he sent it to five publishers, all of whom rejected it. After extensive revisions and recasting his prose into verse, he recently sold it to his longtime publisher, Houghton Mifflin Company.
In planning a book altogether, especially the drawings, Peet says he actually spends some time in the imaginary worlds he creates.
However, in such real-life places as the booksellers' banquet, he occasionally feels ''like I'm the only kid there. . . . I think everyone there has got their head on but me. When a certain dignity or poise is required of me, I retreat from it. I feel inferior. Sometimes, I feel like I'm basically doing the same thing as when I was six years old: drawing lions and tigers in books.''
The best rewards for Peet's already fulfilling work - better than winning awards and recognition - are the responses he gets from his reading audience. ''Kids are a great inspiration to me,'' he says. ''They go all out'' - sending letters, pictures, drawings.
Why do they write? ''A lot of times they think I'm about their age. They ask me what grade I'm in. They ask me which school I go to, what sports I play. . . . They say, 'If you're ever in Philadelphia please come and stay'' with me. Of course, their parents don't know anything about it,'' he says with a laugh.
One writes: ''I have read some of your funny books. They are very good. Please call me and we can talk. My Dad will pay for the call.''