In 1961, Ronni Solbert lived with her partner Jean Merrill on the north side of Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village alongside the immigrants and bohemians who defined the neighborhood’s idyllic small-town, big-city vibe.
When the city park authority announced plans to tear down many of the park’s benches, chess tables, and centennial trees to make way for a softball field, neighbors rose up, wrote letters, organized protests, and formed the Tompkins Square Park Preservation Committee.
They won their battle, at least in part, helping to inspire Ms. Solbert, an illustrator, and Ms. Merrill, an author, to write a novel for young adults, Ms. Solbert explained to The Valley News in 2014: a newspaper that Covering parts of Vermont and New Hampshire (by then she had moved to Vermont). The two had already published several books together and would collaborate on 18 altogether, but The Pushcart War, published in 1964, was their greatest achievement.
The story revolves around a ragtag group of wheelbarrow vendors who go to war against the fleets of trucks that are taking over their narrow city streets, most notably by attacking enemy vehicles with peashooters. A modern-day parable of underdogs taking on tyrants, it quickly found millions of readers.
Ms. Solbert, whose death on June 9 at the age of 96 was not widely reported, credited Ms. Merrill, who died in 2012, as the book’s lead author. But Ms. Solbert’s illustrations, at once urbane and emotional, in the vein of mid-century New York cartoons, may have contributed to her rapid ascent into the pantheon of children’s literature.
Her niece, Lisa Solbert Sheldon, said Mrs. Solbert died at her home in Randolph, Vt., where she and Mrs. Merrill moved in 1970.
Among the many fans of The Pushcart War was playwright Tony Kushner, who once hoped to adapt it as a screenplay and later wrote a blurb for an issue published by The New York Review of Books in 2014.
“The book gave me an entry point – my first, I suppose – into the world of resisting political and economic injustice and bullying,” wrote Mr. Kushner. “It made opposition, even nonviolent civil disobedience, seem fun and right and necessary and heroic, and something that even someone as powerless as a child could and should do.”
Romaine Gustave Solbert, who went by her childhood nickname, Ronni, was born on September 7, 1925 in Washington. Her family soon moved to Rochester, NY, where her father, Oscar Nathaniel Solbert, was the first director of the George Eastman Museum of Photography and Film. Her mother, Elizabeth (Abernathy) Solbert, was a homemaker.
Ms. Solbert graduated from Vassar College in 1946 and received a Masters in Fine Art from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan in 1948. After working for a few years in Sweden, where her father was born, she moved to New York City to pursue an artistic career.
She went two ways. She painted, mainly in the style of Abstract Expressionism, and was quite successful, with 17 of her works being included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1959 exhibition New Talent.
She also began illustrating children’s books. She met Mrs. Merrill shortly after arriving in New York, and they published their first book together, Henry the Hand-Painted Mouse, in 1951. They then collaborated on 17 more, including The Pushcart War.
Critics noted how much Ms. Solbert’s work enhanced Ms. Merrill’s lyrics, many of which told complex stories about outsiders struggling against bureaucratic conformity.
Reviewing her book The Black Sheep for The New York Times in 1969, Natalie Babbitt, a well-known children’s book author and illustrator, praised the way “Jean Merrill handled a difficult matter very well, with the help of Ronni Solbert’s carefully neglected, shaky drawings runs through.”
Ms. Solbert also collaborated with other authors. She illustrated Aline Havard’s “Bronzeville Boys and Girls” (1956) and “The Two Runaways” (1959) by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. She has also written three books of her own.
Ms. Solbert and Ms. Merrill bought a farm in Washington, Vt. in 1962.
“They tried to spend more time fixing things, but the problems were too big,” Ms Solbert told The Valley News in 2014.
In 2013, a year after Ms. Merrill’s death, Ms. Solbert, who has no immediate survivors, gave her farm to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science and settled full-time in Randolph, a small town in the center of the state. She had largely stopped illustrating, but continued her art, which now included photography and sculpture.
“Art is my sanity, joy, frustration and passion,” she wrote in an artist statement. “My theme is the human animal, our relationship to each other and to the world we live in. I want the work to be thought provoking, perspective opening and challenging the viewer’s emotional and intellectual responses.”