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Roz Chast

Roz Chast feels a great deal of anxiety about—among other things—balloons, elevators, quicksand, and alien abductions (What I Hate: From A to Z, Bloomsbury, 2011). She loves birds, including her pet African grey parrot named Eli, a misnamed female, whose vocabulary of words and phrases includes “Look, dammit!” and “You’re fired!” (New York Times) She likes supermarket cans that advertise unusual contents, like squid, which she collects and displays on a shelf in her writing/drawing studio in her Connecticut home. Fond of crafts, she has painted pysanky (Ukrainian decorated eggs), dabbled in the art of origami, designed dishes, and embroidered rugs depicting portraits of her late parents. She’s not a fan of Halloween, particularly since her husband, the humor writer Bill Franzen, created an elaborate and creepy spectacle in their front yard for many years that attracted so many visitors the police had to close down the street. It was like “watching an asteroid slowly head toward your planet,” said Chast (Wall Street Journal). She also really doesn’t like carnivals.

Many of Chast’s strong opinions and phobias can be traced back to her childhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. Instead of Victorian mansions, she said, her neighborhood had “gas stations, junk stores” and women sitting on beach chairs “making faces at you as you walked by” (Boston Globe). She was an only child who, in elementary school, “would make up math tests and give them out to kids in class for fun,” and was a self-described shy, awkward, and paranoid teenager (Comics Journal). "The formative book of my youth was the Merck Manual. I knew that ‘sore throat’ was not mere ‘sore throat’ but leprosy…. I was terrified of lockjaw. Every week I would learn a new disease to be afraid of" (CBS News).

She loved to draw and found solace and inspiration in MAD magazine, which made fun of popular culture in a way that no one else was doing at the time; the macabre, yet deeply hilarious cartoons of Charles Addams; and underground comics like Zap! that featured the work of R. Crumb. While in high school, she took drawing classes at the Art Students League in New York City and drew all the time until she left home for college at the age of 16, beginning as an art major at Kirkland College in upstate New York and ending up at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She graduated with a BFA in painting from RISD in 1977. “The mid-1970s was not a great time to be a cartoonist if you were at RISD. Trying to get people to laugh was considered sort of terrible—almost tacky,” said Chast. “The quintessential work of that era would be a video monitor with static on it being watched by another video monitor, which would then also get static. Doing stories or anything ‘jokey’ made me feel like I was speaking an entirely different language” (Comics Journal).

She never thought she’d be able to make a career of drawing cartoons, but in 1978 she sold her first cartoon to the New Yorker and has continued to contribute cartoons to its pages and covers, as well as other magazines, ever since. "She was one of the few cartoonists who immediately seemed important to us,” Lee Lorenz, the magazine's cartoon editor at the time, told the Boston Globe. She caused a big uproar, he added. “They didn’t get it.” Added Chast, “Lee told me that when my cartoons first started running, one of the older cartoonists asked him if he owed my family money” (Comics Journal). "Roz invented her own language, which is what geniuses do,” said David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. “James Joyce comes along and the novel changes forever; Schoenberg comes along and music is never the same; Bob Dylan comes along, the popular song is never the same. Roz Chast has her own language and her own look" (CBS News).

In 1990, Chast moved to the Connecticut suburbs, where she raised her son and daughter and continues to work at home on her weekly cartoons and various art projects. She has authored several books, including Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006 (Bloomsbury, 2006); the children’s books Too Busy Marco (Atheneum, 2010) and, in collaboration with the comedian Steve Martin, The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! (Flying Dolphin, 2007); Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York (Bloomsbury, 2017); and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014), a National Book Award finalist and winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, Kirkus Prize, Reuben Award, and Books for a Better Life Award. A recipient of the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities and the New York City Literary Award for Humor, Chast holds honorary doctorates from Pratt Institute, Lesley University, and Dartmouth College.

“The wonderful thing about the cartoon form is that it’s a combination of words and pictures,” Chast told the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, one of several galleries around the country that has exhibited her work. “You don’t have to choose, and the two are often greater than the sum of their parts.” Take, for example, one of her much-loved cartoons published in the New Yorker in 1997 showing a man on an urban sidewalk holding a sign that says, “The End is Near.” Next to him is a woman who appears to be his wife. Her sign says, “You Wish.”

Adapted from the NEA Big Read website