When Jamie Gilson came into this world there were fireworks, her website explains. She was born on the Fourth of July 1933. She died quietly at her home on February 11, 2020, with her family around her. She was known primarily as a writer of children’s books, but she also wrote for radio, magazines, and film – WFMT, WBEZ, Chicago Magazine, and Encyclopedia Britannica. She was a wife, mother, grandmother, friend to many, and — as one of those friends, Studs Terkel — would say, “human being.” And Studs didn’t throw that designation around lightly.
If you read any one of the 21 celebrated books she created over the years, including Do Bananas Chew Gum?, Stink Alley, and Thirteen Ways to Sink a Sub, it would become immediately apparent that this was an author who knew and loved her readers in an uncanny way – their interests, fears, hopes, and most importantly the things that made them laugh. The composer Robert Schumann wrote a collection of piano pieces called “Scenes from Childhood”, which sensitively recalled youthful events as enhanced or refined by the wisdom of adulthood. Jamie achieved something like that in her life’s work.
She could do this because that’s how she lived her life. My family’s most memorable time with her took place in December of 1993. We won a charity auction prize at our elementary school, a complete set of Jamie’s books. Jamie then invited us to her home, where she autographed each volume. Sarah was 8 and Joe was 3. Somehow, despite the two of them being quite literally in two very different places (in their heads, and in the house), Jamie deftly captured their attention with a combination of questions, stories, and delicious home-baked cookies. From what she wrote to our kids in each book, it was clear that she was quickly figuring out what made them tick. I suspect that the very best characteristics of every kid she ever met got woven into the tapestry of her stories, and that’s why they have the ring of truth.
As our family walked home following our brief time with Jamie, we all knew we had just experienced a remarkable afternoon. We had experienced her sensitivity, empathy, intelligence, patience, grace and great warmth. My wife, Deb, described our feeling as a “glow.” And with something like that going for you, who really needs fireworks?
A celebration of Jamie Gilson will be held at 3:00 pm on Sunday, February 23 at the Michigan Shores Club in Wilmette. Family and friends very, very welcome. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the District 39 Education Foundation to benefit Wilmette Public Schools District 39.