Lois Ehlert, the children’s book author and illustrator who won a Caldecott Honor for “Color Zoo” (1997) and whose 1989 book, “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” sold more than 12 million copies across various formats, died on Tuesday in Milwaukee. She was 86.
The death was confirmed by Lisa Moraleda, a publicity director at Ms. Ehlert’s publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Ms. Ehlert created 38 books for young readers — some for infants and toddlers, others for children as old as 10. Publishers Weekly, in its obituary, paid tribute to her “signature collage artwork featuring bold colors and crisply cut shapes as well as found objects.”
In “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” whose text is by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, a complete alphabet of brightly colored lowercase letters compete to climb a coconut tree and get to the top first. Chaos, minor injuries and undampened enthusiasm ensue. At the 2013 White House Easter Egg Roll, President Barack Obama read the book — and showed off Ms. Ehlert’s illustrations — to young visitors.
In “Color Zoo” (1997) — one of the numerous board books she wrote and illustrated — squares, circles and triangles become mice, tigers, foxes and more. The American Library Association committee that awarded the Caldecott that year (there were only three other Honors Books), one of the most prestigious awards in children’s book publishing, called it “a masterpiece of graphic design.”
Ms. Ehlert’s other book subjects included gardens (“Planting a Rainbow,” 2003), snowmen (“Snowballs,” 1999), trees and their accessories (“Leaf Man,” 2005), animals interested in space-travel (“Moon Rope/Un Lazo a la Luna,” 2003, based on a Peruvian folk tale), a dog that seems to talk (“Rrralph,” 2011) and a cat whose backyard bird-watching has an ulterior motive (“Feathers for Lunch,” 1996).
In a 2014 interview with the trade magazine The Horn Book, Ms. Ehlert said her work space at home was distinguished by “a very full and overflowing wastebasket” (because “I make lots of mistakes”) as well as “leftover color Xeroxes,” “worm-shaped pieces of paper all over the floor” (she was working on her book “Holey Moley” at the time) and six pairs of scissors. And her workday, she said, was a never-ending series of paper cuts.
“I’m dealing with one on my right thumb now,” she said. The night before, she had found a paper worm stuck to one of her shoes.
Lois Jane Ehlert was born on Nov. 9, 1934, in Beaver Dam, Wis., a small lakeside city. She was the eldest of three children of Harry Ehlert and Gladys (Grace) Ehlert. Mr. Ehlert was identified as a trucker in the 1940 census, but his family liked to call him a blue-collar worker whose jobs included dairy worker, maintenance man and gas-station attendant.
She began creating artwork as a child, and her parents set up a folding table at home exclusively for her projects. Then they made a deal: As long as she kept working on her art, she didn’t have to clean up her papers, tools and materials at the end of each day. For decades, Ms. Ehlert publicly expressed her appreciation to them for that one luxury. “We had a very small house,” she recalled.
Ms. Ehlert received a scholarship to the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, where she earned a certificate in advertising design in 1957. Some family reports indicate that she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Layton and others that she had a B.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin.
She worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer, and by her mid-20s she was illustrating the children’s books of other authors. Her first was “I Like Orange” (1961), by Patricia Martin Zens. The first book she both wrote and illustrated was “Growing Vegetable Soup” (1987), a sort of garden-to-table guide from planting seeds to boiling water in the kitchen.
Ms. Ehlert married the artist and designer John J. Reiss in 1967; they divorced in the 1970s. Her survivors include a brother, Dick, and a sister, Shirley Dinsch.
People who worked with Ms. Ehlert often mentioned her love of nature. One longtime editor, Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books (part of Simon & Schuster), also admired her cleareyed acceptance of nature’s dark side.
Ms. Johnston remembered that when she was working on “Ten Little Caterpillars,” Ms. Ehlert’s 2011 collaboration with Bill Martin Jr., she expressed concern that so many of the title characters’ lives, especially in a book for such young readers, were in serious peril.
Ms. Ehlert responded calmly, addressing her by her private nickname: “Tweeter,” she said, “kids know caterpillars live a precarious life.”