"That's good. That's bad." "Striped Ice Cream." "The Trouble With Terry."
From their first printings in the 1960s to 2020 reissues, these titles and more than 50 others, all by prolific children's book author Joan Lexau, are the stuff of cherished American childhood memories,
For her Minnesota family, especially her beloved nieces and nephews, Lexau brought joy in other ways, too — sweeping into St. Paul on annual visits from New York and treating everyone.
"I remember her once marching us and all of the neighborhood kids up to the Dairy Queen on Snelling, like the Pied Piper," said her niece Catherine Lexau. "In my aunt's childhood during the Depression, her mom struggled to provide the basics. Perhaps as a result, she had such obvious pleasure in giving kids treats."
Lexau, who died in St. Paul at age 93 on Jan. 9, was born and raised in the Highland Park neighborhood. She grew up sharing a tiny apartment with her mom and brother, sleeping in a room that doubled as the kitchen. As kids, the Lexaus would play with friends in the bluffs along the Mississippi River and even climb on the arches beneath the Ford Parkway Bridge, said her niece Elizabeth Lexau.
After taking courses at St. Paul's St. Thomas and St. Catherine universities, she moved to New York City, where she began a career as an editorial secretary and then worked in production at Harper and Row in 1957. After she published her first book, "Olaf Reads," in 1961, she became a very successful and prolific children's author, garnering several awards and working with acclaimed illustrators.
Relatable, funny and filled with kids from diverse backgrounds, Lexau's books drew on her own experiences growing up with divorced parents in St. Paul, as well as life in the New York City neighborhood where she lived. In the 1960s and '70s, she was proud to be part of a push for more children's books with Black kids as main characters.
More than most adults, she seemed to understand that special mix of worry and wonder that is being a kid, her nieces said, even as she touched on topics like poverty, divorce or sibling rivalry.
Years ago, one young reader of her book "Striped Ice Cream" wrote to her to ask, "How did you think of the chapter 'Brothers and Sisters Are a Pain in the Neck?'" her niece Catherine said.
Every summer, Lexau's family in Minnesota would anticipate her August visit. She typically stayed for several weeks and never missed a trip to the State Fair, where her first stop was always for French doughnuts in the Food Building.
"It was a great highlight of the year for our family," said Elizabeth Lexau. "She understood children and knew what would interest us and bring us joy. We were so lucky to have her in our lives."
Besides the fair (some years, she would go all 12 days, her nieces recalled), there would be outings to Minnehaha Falls or Como Park Zoo, where they remember her buying them gorillas from the Mold-A-Rama plastic vending machine.
"She remembered what it was like to be a kid," said Catherine. "She was a willing and engaged audience for plays we'd put on with neighborhood kids or with our cousins."
Lexau spent many years living in Otisville, N.Y., before returning to St. Paul in 2016. She spent her final years living within blocks of her childhood home.
"She moved to New York for her career, but her heart and home were always in Minnesota," Elizabeth said. Services have been held.