Ed Young, whose illustrations in some 100 children’s books, many of which he also wrote, mesmerized young and not-so-young readers with intricate depictions of fairy tales, poetry and his own life story as a Chinese immigrant, died on Sept. 29 at his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. He was 91.
His daughter Antonia Young confirmed the death.
Mr. Young trained as an architect and worked as a graphic designer; he never intended to become an illustrator of children’s books. But a chance opportunity to work on the book “The Mean Mouse and Other Stories” (1962), by Janice May Udry, led to widespread praise, a deal with an agent and a 60-year career as one of the country’s most beloved children’s artists.
He churned out books across a wide variety of subjects and media, among them collage, pencil and charcoal, and experimented with different bookmaking formats, like accordion.
Many of his favorite techniques drew on traditions from his native China, which also inspired much of his subject matter. The first book that he also wrote, “Lon Po Po” (1991), told a traditional Chinese version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” though in this case it involved three girls who settle matters with the wolf themselves, no huntsman needed.
The book was hailed as both a nuanced interpretation of a Chinese folk tale and a boldly feminist story. It won a Caldecott Medal, the highest honor for illustrated children’s books — one of three that Mr. Young received during his career.
“I feel that my job to be in this country is to learn as much about the West as I can and introduce the East as much as I can,” he said in a 2005 interview with the website Teaching Books. “So, my books are a study of cultures and of hearts from both sides, and introducing one to the other.”
Though his work was met with consistent praise, one common criticism was that his illustrations were too richly rendered for children to appreciate — a knock that the soft-spoken Mr. Young politely but firmly rejected.
“They respond with fascination,” he told The New York Times in 1992, adding, “I always find children much more sophisticated than people suppose. My feeling is that children are just as capable of understanding these ranges of emotions as adults.”
Ed Tse-chun Young was born on Nov. 28, 1931, in the northern coastal city of Tianjin to Young Quanlin, an engineer, and Tang Sai Yun. When he was 3 his family moved south to Shanghai, where they lived through the Japanese occupation of the city during World War II — an experience that Mr. Young recounted in his book “The House That Baba Built” (2011).
When he was 17 he received a student visa to the United States. He studied architecture at City College in San Francisco and the University of Illinois, and received his bachelor’s degree in art from the ArtCenter School (today the ArtCenter College of Design) in Los Angeles in 1957.
He later studied at the Pratt Institute in New York City, where he also taught.
After leaving Pratt, Mr. Young found a job with an advertising design studio in Manhattan. But he found the work unrewarding and spent his lunch hours at the Central Park Zoo, drawing animals. When the studio shut down, friends suggested that he take a turn at children’s books.
“I had nothing better to do, so I took a few of my drawings that I did in my spare time to an editor at Harper & Row,” he told Teaching Books. “I didn’t expect to get a book; I didn’t even know what children’s books were like.”
But the editor he met with, Ursula Nordstrom, was well-regarded in the industry, and she liked his work enough to assign him to illustrate “The Mean Mouse and Other Mean Stories.” An award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts immediately established him as one of the country’s foremost illustrators.
He won his first Caldecott Medal in 1968 for “The Emperor and His Kite,” written by Jane Yolen, and his third, “Seven Blind Mice,” which he also wrote, in 1993.
Mr. Young’s first two marriages, to Mary Alice and Natasha Gorky, ended in divorce. He married Filomena Tuosto in 1986. She died in 2007. Along with his daughter, he is survived by another daughter, Ananda.
While still in college, Mr. Young suffered an injury that led to chronic knee pain. Searching for relief, he took up tai chi in 1964, studying under Cheng Man-ch’ing, a renowned instructor then living in Manhattan.
Mr. Young became a respected tai chi teacher in his own right, leading hundreds of students in classes in and around his home in the New York City suburbs.
“The practice of tai chi is about discovering yourself,” he said in an interview. “Art is about the same thing — find out about yourself. How do you produce something that is satisfying? How do you state something in the simplest manner for the maximum effect? How do you use a moment? How do you wait for the opportunity?”