December 3, 2001
Serendipity artist behind the Town-Gown Loop
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
When a Seattle bank wanted to produce a commercial, her name was suggested. A few years later, her name surfaced again when a children's book author needed someone to illustrate his manuscript.
And when the City of Bothell's Town-Gown Loop project called for an artist, her name came to mind.
People think of Robin James because her drawings of exquisitely detailed animals affect people in a positive way. Her name is most recognized for her bright and colorful whimsical animals in the popular Serendipity books for children.
"It's whimsy," she says describing her artwork in the books. "But it's also caricature-like. It has a Disneyland-ish quality to it."
Like most artists, James loves to draw and can't remember a time when she wasn't drawing. "Basically, I've been drawing since I could hold a pencil," she says, commenting that people took notice of her art from an early age. She recalls that one of the first persons outside of her family to appreciate her art was her kindergarten teacher. "I remember her telling my parents that I drew quite well."
James continued to draw throughout her years in school, earning her first professional job when she was only a sophomore in high school.
"I was hired to do an animated story board for a television commercial," she explains. It was 1969 and Equitable Savings in Seattle was seeking an artist for their "Budget Biter" commercial. An acquaintance of James' parents offered her name to bank officials. After meeting her, the officials hired her to draw a chomping dinosaur, which later appeared on television screens taking bites out of people's wallets.
In the meantime, author Stephen Cosgrove began to pen his children's stories set in a faraway land on the island of Serendipity.
Before submitting his first manuscript, "Tail of Three Tales," he wanted illustrations to complete it. While meeting with a businessman one day, he mentioned his hunt for an artist and the man said right away, "I know somebody." The businessman had commissioned James to design his letterhead and had been impressed with the results. He recommended her to Cosgrove.
Once Cosgrove and James met, they became a team. The two began to collaborate for future books. James said that the unusual character names that Cosgrove dreamed up, such as Wheedle or Persnickety, would give her a vision for a drawing. Says James, "His names inspired me and my drawings inspired him."
The books debuted in the early 70's. By the 80's, "Serendipity books" were as familiar in the children's world as Play Doh and Legos.
In all, the two collaborated on 67 different books, each with a moral and loaded with James' wide-eyed animals on each page.
In addition, James wrote four of the books herself, penning her own inspired titles like "Butterwings" and "Napoleon's Rainbow."
Still at most bookstores, the colorful paperbacks are also available at James' family-owned art gallery in Bothell, the Artistree in Country Village. James says that many of her customers tell her they remember the books from their childhood. They say the books helped them in some way, whether it was how to better cope with their parents' divorce or how to handle a weight issue.
James mentions that one of the books about an overweight cat named Catundra deals with weight problems.
She adds, "Customers come in and say in tears, 'I've always enjoyed the morals'."
To this date, 30 million copies have sold nation-wide, with brand new Serendipity titles scheduled for release within the next two years. According to James, a new generation has begun to enjoy the books.
Adults who remember reading the books as a child are now reading them to their own children.
Of the book's, she says, "They're like the Energizer Bunny, they just keep going."
Currently, James is working on another project drawing sketches for the City of Bothell.
Her sketches will be immortalized on bronze plaques that will mark the Town-Gown Loop, a soon-to-be designated walking trail linking the college campus with downtown. (See accompanying story on the Town-Gown Loop.)
"I'm thrilled to have been chosen as the illustrator," she says of her involvement in the project. "It's an opportunity for me to do something I love to do for the community I live in."
When not drawing for the city, she works in her art gallery or draws fine art pet portraits on commission.
She's drawn every kind of animal, from champion racehorses to an iguana named T-Rex.
She says she likes to meet the pet before doing its portrait. She wants to discover what tickles the owners about their pet.
After all, James has a menagerie of her own pets at the Snohomish farm where she lives with her husband.
She knows the delight that her four horses, three cats, thirteen chickens and one Greyhound named Mary give her.
It's the same delight she brings to her drawings and possibly the reason people remember her name.