Tracing Success Back To WHS

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By Alison Mailloux, The Winnachronicle

Hampton Union, Tuesday, February 6, 2007

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Mary Jane Begin, WHS Class of 1981

Editor's note: The Hampton Union is publishing the Winnachronicle's Alumni All Stars series highlighting Winnacunnet High alumni. Interviews are completed by students from the school newspaper. An archive of alumni will appear on the Friends of Winnacunnet Foundation Web site,

Mary Jane Begin has always enjoyed drawing and art, and was dubbed "the artist" in seventh grade. Her first illustration job was also in seventh grade, when her teacher asked her to draw a "grammar devil." Although she was only copying a picture, it was her start.

Begin did not always dream of illustrating children's books. Her favorite things to draw are animals and children. She started by drawing things that would sit still for long periods of time, so her drawings of people would be of them reading books or watching television.

"I wanted to be (at various ages): a ballerina, an archaeologist, an inventor, a teacher, a veterinarian and finally -- an illustrator," Begin said.

Her job now is a combination of two of her past dreams, a teacher and illustrator. She has taught classes at the Rhode Island School of Design for the past 16 years.

"I know a good teacher when I see one," said Jill Berry, Begin's former high school art teacher.

Begin was a member of Berry's first art class at Winnacunnet.

"She may remember differently -- but I thought she was a goddess -- brilliant, all knowing and so together (she was in her early 20s at the time) -- a fabulous role model," Begin said.

Begin said she feels Winnacunnet is lucky to have such a fine educator as Berry.

Begin started out illustrating books, but now writes and illustrates. She says she "illustrated books that were not my stories for two reasons: I was chicken and I couldn't write."

She has moved past her fears and now writes as well as illustrates.

Many of her books feature mice, because her publishers like them. She said she wasn't interested in illustrating books about mice after doing three of them and she received some good advice from her friend and colleague David Macaulay, ""¦ don't do anything you aren't really excited about."

"It's too much of a time commitment -- if you're not in love with the idea -- just say no," he told her.

Saying no to mice turned out to be a great decision. The next book her publisher offered her turned out to be "one of the best stories" she has ever illustrated, "Wind in the Willows."

Begin's family makes appearances in her stories, like her nephew Craig who is the little boy Jeremy in the book "Jeremy's First Haircut." Her husband, Mark, is the sorcerer in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and their daughter, Gates, is the apprentice. She also illustrated a book her husband wrote called "R is for Rhode Island Red."

Begin presents talks on the process of how to draw and how she got her start. She has spoken to students in kindergarten through college. She also attends conferences and workshops, such as the Rhode Island Festival of Children's Books and Authors, National Family Literacy Conference, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, and the National Education Association Teacher's Conference.

Not only does she write and illustrate books, Begin has designed puzzles and done advertisements for companies such as Disney and Milton Bradley. Her works include greeting cards, posters, prints, games, tote bags, bookmarks, mugs, gifts, textbooks and magazines. She is to be featured in an exhibition at the Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island through February. Begin also does frequent book signings.

She received The Associated Press Best Books of the Year in 2002 for "Wind in the Willows," Steven Donahos Award from the Society of Illustrators in 1995, Communication Arts Award of Excellence in 1986, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1995 and 1996. She also received the Certificate of Excellence from the American Institute of Graphic Arts for her book show in 1988.

Begin has made one pilgrimage back to Winnacunnet to speak in one of Berry's art classes. Begin said she would like to offer this piece of wisdom about Winnacunnet:

"Winnacunnet is a good school -- but like most schools -- really depends on what you bring as a student. Your approach to your education and your life is really in your hands -- always -- even if it doesn't seem that way sometimes."

For information, visit Begin's Web site,
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