Rodgers Forge artist's latest book is about the deaths of famous people

'How They Croaked' examines the ends of Einstein, Garfield and others

March 26, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

The turbo-charged guy with a head full of swirling salt-and-pepper hair sitting at the lower end of Grand Cru busily sketching most Saturday afternoons, dressed in faded blue jeans, bumpy tweed sport coat, Irish country farmers vest, shirt and tie, is the loquacious Kevin O'Malley.

The Belvedere Square bar is O'Malley's home away from home, living room or branch office-studio. He comes here to think, draw, laugh, pick up a few ideas while quaffing a few cold ones with his usual cadre of boon companions.

O'Malley, a 50-something Rodgers Forge resident, manages seemingly all at once to maintain several conversations and sketch while wrapping his unused hand around a waiting vodka with lime juice or a dark beer.

This former bartender and dishwasher, who spent a decade working at the old McGinn's Irish Pub on Charles Street, is something of an anomaly. He's a self-employed professional artist, illustrator and author of children's books. He also travels and lectures widely throughout the country on his work.

A 1983 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, O'Malley has spent the past two decades creating books for children and has written and illustrated 70 of them.

"Most of them are out of print or as I like to call them, 'Third World fuel,'" he said with a laugh during a recent interview.

His latest book, "How They Croaked," published by Walker & Co., was a collaboration with Georgia Bragg. She did the writing; he did the elaborate illustrations.

He is co-author and illustrator of the popular "Miss Malarkey" series, and his book "Gimme Cracked Corn and I Will Share," which he wrote and illustrated, landed him in 2007 on The New York Times' best-seller list.

O'Malley's usual stock characters in his stories are animals who speak like humans and have human traits such as the chicken in "Gimme Cracked Corn," whose dream of buried treasure happens to be a corn crib laden with luscious, field-ripened corn.

His prose style is riddled with jokes and numerous puns that even his juvenile audience gets. When the chicken tells his friend George about his dream and quest for the corn crib, George replies, "You must be yolking."

Raised in Lansdale, Pa., 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, O'Malley was born into a raucous Irish family, where storytelling and humor were as common as corned beef and cabbage, confession on Saturday afternoon at the local Catholic church, and glasses of Guinness stout and shots of Paddy Irish whiskey.

"My father is a doctor. When I was a kid, he would come home and regale us with stories of medical emergencies. Bones, blood and things that oozed. Oh, so gross, but oh, so compelling," O'Malley said.

"When I got the manuscript for 'How They Croaked' I thought it was fantastic, plus, I had already heard about most of the stuff Georgia Bragg had written," he said. "And then I thought, 'Who better to illustrate the book?'"

O'Malley explained the book's initial targeted audience was fourth-grade boys and what better way to get them interested in reading than through telling them stories of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of famous people.

"Everyone is interested in that," said O'Malley, who envisions a whole series of possible future "croak books."

"You could do the deaths of Hollywood stars, athletes and politicians. The possibilities are endless," he said.

As one of The Baltimore Sun's obituary writers, I had more than a passing professional interest in the book. It appealed to me because who isn't interested in how someone famous or infamous exited this mortal coil?

So, the book naturally caught my eye, especially its opening words under a beautifully rendered O'Malley skull and bones: "WARNING: IF YOU DON'T HAVE THE GUTS FOR GORE, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK."

Now, if that doesn't get your attention — fourth-grader, middle-aged or senior citizen — what might?

"Remember when you watched 'Bambi' for the first time and you got to the part where Bambi's mom dies? And the sweet movie about a family of deer turns into a horror flick," writes Bragg. "'What the heck was that?' you thought. And in a second you realized that if Bambi's mom can die, so can everybody else."

Bragg writes that "How They Croaked" is like reliving Bambi's mom's death over and over again. "Except it's worse because it's the blood, sweat and guts of real people. In this book are the true stories of how some of the most important people who ever lived — died."

Bragg and O'Malley's dramatis personae — 19 thumbnail sketches in all —include King Tut, Christopher Columbus, Pocahontas, Mozart, Charles Darwin and President James Garfield, to name a few.

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