Monadnock Profiles: Lita Judge turned a passion for nature into children’s book career

  • Peterborough children's author and illustrator Lita Judge was instilled with a love of nature at a young age and it comes through in every book she writes. Courtesy photo—

  • Peterborough children’s author and illustrator Lita Judge was instilled with a love of nature at a young age and it comes through in every book she writes. Courtesy photo

  • 'The Wisdom of Trees' by Lita Judge. Courtesy photo—

  • 'The Wisdom of Trees' by Lita Judge. Courtesy photo—

  • 'The Wisdom of Trees' by Lita Judge. Courtesy photo—

  • 'The Wisdom of Trees' by Lita Judge. Courtesy photo—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/31/2021 4:41:20 PM

When Lita Judge sits down in her home studio, paintbrush in hand, she often thinks about the children who will read her books. She wonders what kind of creativity it will encourage inside of them and lifelong passions her words and illustrations will instill.

“I want to inspire a child to foster an imagination,” Judge said. “I’m thinking about that child and those building blocks to that imagination.”

It took a winding path for Judge to become a children’s book author and illustrator, but from the moment she realized that was the direction she wanted her life to take, Judge has never stopped creating. Her latest book, “The Wisdom of Trees” was released in early March and her next one, “Even the Smallest Will Grow” will be available on April 20.

But those books have been done for a while, as it takes about three years from the time she starts her illustrations until it finally hits the bookstore shelves. The past year has not been easy in the author world, but it’s picking back up as book release dates during 2020 were slowed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The thing that Judge has missed the most is seeing her young readers in person, as she typically travels to schools around the country. She loves to share her passions with others, especially young minds just waiting to be inspired.

“It’s been a long year,” Judge said. “The pandemic was quite a slowdown.”

Judge said writing about things you’re passionate about makes a story idea come together a little easier. Diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, Judge has found that illustrating first and writing the words later works the best.

“We are taught to write with words,” Judge said. “But words don’t come to me first. When I worked in my journal, I always started with pictures, so I draw for six months before I write a word. Then writing it makes sense to me.”

Since her books are educational, ranging from homes animals create in the wild to the traits baby mammals share to how animals play in nature, Judge is constantly in search of knowledge to share.

There’s a 1,500-year-old oak tree in Cotswold, England, west of London, that she has visited every fifth book, starting with her first. There’s just something about that tree that spoke to her.

“I really love that tree. I just felt the history of that tree,” Judge said.

When she would sit underneath it she felt safe and it amazed her how long it had been around.

“I realized I needed to give back and share that information with kids,” she said, and inspired “The Wisdom of Trees.” It quickly became her favorite book, although each one (she’s currently working on her 30th) holds a special place in her heart. “They all have different reasons why,” Judge said.

But having “The Wisdom of Trees” come out just before the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed almost meant to be for Judge as people sought solace in nature.

“It’s a perfect time to say thank you to the trees,” she said.

Judge uses watercolors and colored pencils for her illustrations, sketching things out beforehand, and it’s because she wants her young readers to see traditional art forms and feel a connection to the craftsmanship of it. She draws and paints every day to keep that connection herself.

Judge and her husband David have lived in Peterborough for 17 years in a home she designed herself inspired by her Scandinavian roots. They don’t have any children, although Judge said her work is a way to bring that childlike energy into her life. But their home is busy with three cats, including two Maine coons, a parrot and a mouse; “they’ve all had their own books,” she said. And where they live there is plenty of wildlife that can lead to inspiration.

Judge met her husband when they were both students at Oregon State University. It was by chance that they met one night in a geology lab and for some reason the conversation steered toward the idea of biking across the country.

“This very nice guy said ‘I’d like to do that too,’” Judge said. They picked a weekend and rode their bikes to the Oregon coast and made a plan to make the cross-country trek together. It was late in Judge’s sophomore year, so they agreed to meet in Tacoma, Washington on Aug. 1.

But having known each other for a very short amount of time, Judge wasn’t sure if it would actually happen.

“We had just met each other, but we made a pact,” she said. And during a conversation over that summer to iron out the details Judge started to wonder if Dave was more than just some guy she would take some crazy adventure with.

“When we hung up, I said I might marry this guy,” Judge said.

They in fact kept that pact and embarked on a 30-day journey, riding 10 hours a day to cover the 3,300-mile route to Buffalo, New York. Because of wildfires in Yellowstone National Park, they were forced to take a more northern route closer to Canada.

“It’s either you make it or you don’t,” Judge said. As poor college students, they didn’t have a lot of money, only $10 a day for food. At the end, “we literally had seven cents,” she said. And when they arrived back in Oregon, it was the day before classes started.

Since they knew very little about each other, the ride was almost a courtship and by the end “we were engaged,” she said. “And we’ve been together ever since.”

In college, Judge was studying geology in the hopes of becoming a paleontologist. But one Christmas, she and Dave took a trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it completely changed the course of her life.

“I realized I wanted to be an artist,” Judge said.

She had always drawn pictures, crediting her grandmother Fran with inadvertently teaching her how to become an artist from an early age. She was asked to take field notes during her time at the family homestead in Wisconsin, but because of her dyslexia, she drew pictures instead.

“Writing was very difficult for me as a child,” she said.

A career in science that kept her in the great outdoors just always seemed like the natural path to take. She was very close to her grandparents, Frederick and Fran Hamerstrom. They lived in one of the oldest standing homes in Wisconsin and were immersed in the world of conservation research. Judge said her grandparents were credited with the protection of the prairie chickens in Wisconsin.

They were influential in the early fight to ban DDT and were great protectors of nature. They even had birds of prey – eagles, owls, hawks – living all over their Wisconsin property.

“There were owls living in the house, on the porches and in the barn,” Judge said. “It was kind of an amazing place to be growing up.”

And she learned a valuable lesson from her grandparents.

“It taught me a lot about having a passion for nature,” she said.

She went into geology to become a paleontologist because she was fascinated by dinosaurs. She began volunteering on dinosaur digs at the age of 15 years old with the The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Alberta, Canada. It was an amazing experience that brought her back each summer until college and saw the discovery of countless fossils.

Judge was always in search of a forever home. She was born on a little island in Alaska and spent much of her childhood traveling due to her father’s work as a soil scientist. The family was never in one place for very long, living in Utah and Oregon, but for the most part her formidable years were spent in the backwoods of Alaska.

“Nature has kind of raised me and taught me, and turned me on to my passion,” she said. “It wasn’t art school that taught me, it was nature.”

They lived in tents, the family car and a single-wide trailer, whatever was the easiest during that leg of her father’s research. They would fly to other remote Alaskan islands with bears and other critters for neighbors.

“We were living a very nomadic life,” she said. “Whenever people would ask where are you from, I never know how to answer that. I’d just say I’m from the Northwest. It was an interesting way to grow up.”

She learned at so many different schools it’s hard to remember them all, as they would spend six months here and three months there. By high school things settled down a bit, allowing her to go to the same school for all four years.

So when she and Dave moved to Peterborough, setting down some roots was so important.

“It was always a dream to have a place to call home,” Judge said.

While she always dreamed about stability in terms of where she lived, the life of a paleontologist was anything but that. Yet that was her passion, until that faithful trip to New York City when the dream changed. She was working for the Forest Service in Oregon at the time, but that pull toward art was hard to ignore.

“You can’t decide you’re going to be an artist and immediately make a living,” Judge said. So instead of trying to go the traditional route of an artist, she started a notecard and bookmark business based on nature and wildlife, two areas she was quite familiar with. The business took off, with customers in all 50 states and more than 100 designs of notecards and 200 bookmarks. It was great, but not exactly what she wanted to do and decided to step away from the business to focus on her painting.

She eventually got her work in galleries in South Dakota, South Carolina, Oregon and Montana. She would go to galleries and examine art, learning how to paint by seeing what others had done. Judge took many trips abroad to paint and visit museums, going to Russia, Sweden, France and Italy.

Being an artist was the dream, but there was that next step she wanted to take: creating children’s books.

Her first foray was “One Thousand Tracings” based on her grandparents’ involvement in connecting Americans with European families in desperate need of help following World War II. She found all these tracings in her grandparents’ things and had to know more about them. It started out as a nonfiction tale for adults, but quickly morphed into a children’s book written from her mother’s perspective.

“If I had known more about children’s books, I might have started with a different story,” Judge joked.

And from there, Judge has maintained that passion for educating others through her books. It doesn’t feel like work because it is what Judge now believes she was always meant to do.

It’s been an incredible journey from nomadic life on tiny islands in Alaska to biking across the country with some guy to the studio of her Peterborough home. But one thing has remained constant throughout Judge’s life: her love of nature. And to anyone who reads her books, that passion is apparent with the turn of every page.


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