Above her drawing table, artist Suzie Raphael Berkson ’53 has a framed quote by Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Uri Shulevitz. “Give up the idea of the perfect flawless picture and aim for one that is alive instead,” it reads.
That was her goal in illustrating her first children’s book, "A Parakeet Named Dreidel," with text by the late award-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer. To land the job, the retired art teacher and greeting card artist presented a portfolio of her work to editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who approved of the close-knit family warmth embodied in her drawings.
Indeed, family had much to do with her illustrations. When not using his eyeglasses, the father in the book wears them on his forehead, as does Berkson’s husband, who served as the character’s model. A young boy who lives across the street from Berkson was the prototype for the main character, David. To capture the beauty and spirit of Dreidel the parakeet in her drawings, Berkson got a budgie of her own for inspiration. Also named Dreidel, the parakeet flies around the house and often perches on the artist’s finger. Unlike its fictional namesake which has a more robust vocabulary, Berkson’s Dreidel says only “Mazel tov!”
A graduate of the High School of Music and Art in New York City, Berkson chose Syracuse University because both a cousin and a family friend went to SU. “Syracuse was a wonderful place for me, even though I was disappointed that it didn’t have courses in illustration then,” she says. “But I took advantage of the painting and drawing classes, and those that taught me to capture movement and gesture.”
Her portfolio includes two illustrations published in Seventeen magazine—one while she was still in high school and another during her college years. She also drew political cartoons for the Daily Orange during the 1952 presidential race between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. “I illustrated what students were doing and saying about the campaign in the fall before the election,” she recalls.
After graduation from what is now the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Berkson freelanced in toy design and magazine illustration, then taught art for 30 years at Roycemore School in Evanston, Illinois. The opportunity to illustrate a book by an author of Singer’s stature—he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978—was a thrill for her. “It was an awesome honor to have this assignment,” she says. “All of Singer’s stories are so beautifully touching and real, and this was especially magical.” A Kirkus Review of the book praised Berkson’s line drawings, which were done in pen and ink and watercolor, noting “Berkson's illustrations give this sweet tale a new life and a new audience.”
Berkson is proud of this recent accomplishment, much like she is of her family’s connections to Syracuse University. Her son-in-law, David Edelstein ’78, is a member of the Board of Trustees, and grandson Sam Edelstein is a 2007 graduate. “How I wish I could be going to SU now—there is such an excellent illustration program!” she says. “My advice to students is that the field of book illustration is very much alive and to pursue the joy of illustrating literature. It’s a wonderful career to think about.”