Joseph Slate (BA, 1951): Journalist, artist, maverick

Joseph Slate By Amanda Weber –

“I’m kind of a maverick,” said Joseph Slate (BA, 1951), “so I was amazed when I began to hear inklings that I may have been nominated.”

Slate has had a rich career spanning the fields of journalism, art, and fictional writing. He began as the UW editor of The Daily while he was a student in the Communication Department. During that time he also worked as a stringer for The Seattle Times where he was soon hired on as a reporter.

He then worked for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service as an editor, which was a “very exciting” time for him. “We listened to various programs to see what people were saying about our behavior. And then what we did was write up a daily report. We had listening posts all over the world.”

While working for the FBIS in Tokyo, Slate collided with his love for art. He sent his portfolio to Yale and, to his surprise, was accepted as a student. At Yale, Slate was happy to be working on his artistic talents, although the pressure in the program was great. “Here I was thrown up against students who had graduated in the undergrad program in art, or were from art schools and getting their master’s. At night I would pour my heart into my writing and, lo and behold, I wrote a short story about the death of my sister Rose.”

Rose was a source of much inspiration in Slate’s writing. When she contracted nephritis as an infant, his sister would spend her time in bed making children’s books using their mother’s wallpaper collection. “She would draw on the back of the wallpaper and bind her stories into picture books with ribbon. Her stories were very romantically drawn. The Flash Gordon type, with women in beautiful dresses.” Rose died at 17. Slate was 13. “Any death in the family to a young child makes them a writer,” said Slate. In 1962, Slate’s story was published by The New Yorker, encouraging him to continue with his writing.

After art school, Slate taught at Kenyon College for 25 years, heading up courses in painting. He also found that he could combine his talents for writing and art and set his sights on children’s books, a subject on which he introduced a course. Slate’s first collection of children’s books is the series Who Is Coming to Our House?, a Christmas story that is being set to music. His big hit, selling over a million copies, has been the Miss Bindergarten series; seven books about a border-collie who teaches kindergarten.

“Joseph is a person who thinks about the world through a compassionate, empathetic framework, where connecting with people through written word, painting, and through music is important,” said David Domke, Chair of the Department of Communication. “Too often in our society the arts get left behind but he has dedicated his life to this, and particularly to reaching young children.” Slate has many plans for the future, which include writing six more books for the Miss Bindergarten series, and working on setting music to his book, I Want to be Free, with composer Glen Roven. He continues to paint, completing two pieces this year.