Picture Book Bonanza! Alum Jerry Ruff's Late Harvest
When English alum Jerry Ruff neared retirement from a long career as a small press editor and writer, he grew serious about submitting his creative writing for publication. He’d always been serious about writing: getting up early to write poetry, adult and children’s stories, and blog entries. But he had four children to support, and the nurturance of their own creative growth took precedence. In his sixties, he found more time to research publishers and submit his work. Then, suddenly, success: four of Ruff’s children’s picture book stories sold, all to be published within a year, beginning with My Room Is a Zoo! (Amicus Ink) this past August.
Ruff’s debut, illustrated by picture book favorite Simona Ceccarelli, is a delight, with an entire alphabet of animal toys making a ruckus and distracting a young boy from bedtime. “Walrus flips his flippers,” Ruff imagines in the child’s voice, “and flaps across my floor / while X-ray tetra swims in circles / and Yak begins to roar!”
In March 2021, four months before his book’s debut, Jerry Ruff died of an unexpected cardiac event. He’d retired in April of 2020.
Ruff’s three other picture books are scheduled to be published this spring: Masato's Garden, Owen’s Day with Daddy, and Noah and His Wagon (all Clavis Publishing). To his family, it’s fitting his literary legacy will be books for kids: “My dad loved children!” says daughter Alice Heinrich. “He was interested in and valued a child’s perspective, which I attribute to years of teaching youth in various roles, his childhood (he was the second oldest of seven children and one foster sibling), his parenthood, and his most recent role of grandfather.
“I have many memories of him making up bedtime stories on the fly!” she goes on. “He was a great storyteller.”
Impact of studying at U
Vivian Storm remembers that her husband had worked on writing children's books while in his twenties, after he completed his undergraduate degree in Elementary Education at St. John’s University in Collegeville. His love of creative writing was what led him to the University of Minnesota and the Department of English in 1980 to earn an MA in Writing (before the MFA degree was established here).
“Jerry was greatly impacted during his time at the U,” says Storm. “He made several lifelong friends who were also in the graduate program at that time. He found that he loved teaching college students. He would have pursued a PhD in creative writing in order to teach at the college level but was not able to do so due to the needs of his family.” After a couple years teaching college writing, Ruff took a job as a newspaper editor, eventually transitioning to book and educational publishing with Capstone Press, Red Brick Learning, and St. Mary’s Press, where he worked for more than a decade as editorial and acquisitions director and then senior writer and editor.
But he didn’t set aside his love of writing, of creative expression. “Dad was always working on personal writing projects during the years he was editing,” says his son Ethan Ruff, “short stories, essays, etc. He would share those works in progress with me and also cast a critical eye over all of my work.”
“He was open in sharing his desire to write with the family, and I often found him in the mornings at the dining room table working on personal projects,” says Heinrich. When she herself discovered an interest in writing children’s books, her father shared his favorites—Maurice Sendak, Ezra Jack Keats, and Kate DiCamillo—as they studied the craft of picture book writing and imagined their own stories.
A legacy of creative expression
Jerry Ruff’s love of writing was fostered in his childhood, his family believes. His father, Gerald Ruff, Sr., was a columnist, feature writer, critic, reporter, and editor during a 31-year career for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. In addition, “Jerry was greatly influenced by his parents' love for reading,” says Storm. “They always subscribed to The New Yorker and he loved reading the short stories and cartoons published in it. Robert Louis Stevenson's poems were a family favorite.”
“Dad loved to read (as does Mom),” his son says, “and they certainly passed the bug to me!” Ruff describes his father’s reading tastes as wide-ranging, from George Saunders to Tolkien to James Welch, whose novel Winter in the Blood he re-read regularly.
Heinrich recalls living room end tables always stacked with classics and new titles. Her father’s passion for reading and writing were a gift to his children, she says, a gift of spirit: “My father was a profound mentor to me. He fully supported and encouraged me in pursuing my creative endeavors, whether it be painting the walls and furniture of our home, obtaining my BFA in Drawing, or pursuing publication as a picture book author. He appreciated and encouraged what made me, me.”
Heinrich continues: “This encouragement, validating the childhood experience of exploration and finding oneself, I think is evident in his stories.”
Jerry Ruff loved writers who opened up worlds for readers. Whether his own words live on in books or in memory, he has always been such a writer.