Bestselling children’s author weaves tales of wonder

Beth Saulnier, Cornellians

Michelle Knudsen, bestselling children's book author
Michelle Knudsen, bestselling children's book author

Awhile back, bestselling children’s author and longtime NYC dweller Michelle Knudsen ’95 was staying at a friend’s house upstate while she was between apartments. To her horror, she realized she had a roommate: a rather gigantic arachnid.

“I was there by myself—and I’m terrified of spiders,” she says. “I’ve been terrified of spiders my whole life.”

In fact, at one point Knudsen had tried exposure therapy to lessen her phobia. But back to our tale:

“I want to say he was a wolf spider,” she recalls. “I didn’t get close enough to really figure it out. But he was very big.”

So Knudsen did the only logical thing under the circumstances: she named the spider “Luigi,” and started talking to him.

Happily, Knudsen’s one-sided relationship with her eight-legged cohabitant had a fairy-tale ending: it inspired her latest book.

Luigi, The Spider Who Wanted to Be a Kitten spins the tale of a friendship between an elderly woman and the creepy-crawly critter who lives in her house—and desperately wants to be her beloved pet.

School Library Journal dubs the volume “a welcome addition to picture book shelves.”

Booklist says, “The silly, sweet story is packed with humor and marvelous minutiae,” lauding its “message of unconditional acceptance sure to make an arachnid ally out of any young reader.”

Luigi is just the latest from Knudsen, who has penned more than 50 books for young readers.

They include holiday-themed board books; titles for beginning readers; middle-grade fiction (her Trelian fantasy trilogy); YA novels (a trilogy based around an evil librarian); a chapter book on pioneering journalist Nellie Bly; and even a half-dozen activity books tied into the first Star Wars prequel (like Jar Jar’s Coloring Fun).

But the former English major is perhaps best known for her 2006 picture book, Library Lion—a New York Times bestseller that Time magazine called one of the 100 best children’s books of all time.

Knudsen is perhaps best known for Library Lion, which Time magazine called one of the 100 best children’s books of all time.

(Like all of Knudsen’s books, its illustrations are by an artist with whom she doesn’t directly collaborate—in this case, Kevin Hawkes, who also did the artwork for Luigi.)

The story of a maned carnivore who becomes a popular and (relatively) well behaved patron of a small-town library, it landed on School Library Journal’s best of the year list and has been translated into some two dozen languages.

“The lion wandered all around the library,” Knudsen writes.

“He sniffed the card catalog. He rubbed his head against the new book collection. Then he padded over to the story corner and went to sleep. No one was sure what to do. There weren’t any rules about lions in the library.”

A student library assistant as an undergrad, Knudsen wrote her future bestseller while working at Olin and Kroch during a five-year stint living back in Ithaca in her 20s.

“It’s still my favorite place that I ever worked; it was such a magical experience,” she says of conceiving her breakthrough project at her alma mater. “It was my 38th book—so it wasn’t my first, but it was the first one that really took off.”

Always an avid reader, Knudsen had originally planned to become a writer of fantasy fiction. Her first job out of college was an entry-level gig at the children’s books arm of Random House publishing.

She figured it would be a stepping stone to the company’s fantasy imprint—but wound up falling in love with kids’ literature and making it a career.

“When you’re writing for young children, everything is new to them,” she observes.

“Even if you’re writing about something ordinary, you can present it in a way that’s exciting to them. But you can also go anywhere, and kids will go with you, wherever the story takes them. I love that openness: being able to think of weird ideas and trust that there will be readers who say, ‘Yes, that’s weird. Tell me more.’”

This story originally appeared in Cornellians.

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