Born in Grandview, Indiana, on January 29, 1915, Peet grew up primarily raised by his mother. Drafted into World War I, his father left and then didn't return home often, only showing up on the doorstep when he needed money. Peet's mother eventually gave her husband money, encouraging him to leave the family again and resume being a traveling salesman. When he decided to come home to stay, Peet's father was argumentative, bordering on violent.
As a child, Peet drew pictures of almost anything, but especially of animals. Bored in his classes in high school, and perhaps unsure of family life at home, Peet failed every subject except physical education. During class time, Peet sketched in his textbooks. Later, these books always brought the most money at the used book sales. But after taking a friend's advice, Peet turned to art classes at Arsenal Technical High School and thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with art media. He hoped to grow up and illustrate animal stories and realized that drawing would always be an important part of his life. Doing so well in art encouraged him to try harder in his other classes, which led to his earning a scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis.
Though Peet won prizes for his pictures, he left the art school because he couldn't earn enough money to both support himself and buy art supplies. Peet had also met the woman who would become his future wife, but he couldn't marry her without having stable employment. Even after art school, the sales from his paintings and then from his work on greeting cards wasn't sufficient. Needing solid, gainful work, he wrote to Walt Disney Studios because he'd learned that their animated films needed artists. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was in production with more ideas for movies needing to be drawn. Disney Studios replied by suggesting he attend a tryout in California. Fifteen people, hoping for a new job, drew Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Only three were chosen; Peet being one of them.
Peet worked as an "in-betweener". In other words, he drew the action sequences of Donald Duck over and over again until tedium beset him. The stability of the job allowed Peet to marry Margaret and start a family, but he felt bored drawing ducks. Months of illustrating the famous duck led him to yell out loud that he'd had enough of ducks. Fortunately, in his spare time, Peet had been drawing characters to use in the film Pinocchio. It was these illustrations that saved his job. Rather than getting fired, he'd been promoted. Peet worked on Pinocchio doing background characters and small scenes for films such as Fantasia before eventually moving up to write the story and do the sketching of One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword and the Stone.
Not one who liked working in a group, Peet looked to change jobs. He tried painting again but found he'd lost his touch. Then he drew editorial cartoons, but that didn't work out either. Peet deeply respected Walt Disney, yet sometimes he felt stifled. The two men collaborated closely, with Disney always having the final say. Tired of seeing his ideas changed, working with others, and not receiving much credit for what he did, Peet desired to try something different. Creating short stories for Disney and reading to his boys at bedtime enabled him to come up with his own book ideas with cartoon-like illustrations. He published his first book Hubert's Hair-Raising Adventure while still at Disney Studios.
Then, after being involved with over thirteen Disney productions and with 27 years experience, Peet quit Disney Studios during the development of The Jungle Book to become a full-time children's author and illustrator. Though Walt Disney and Peet had argued frequently, Peet was always glad he'd been respectful to his boss because Disney died one year after Peet had resigned. Embarking on a new career, Peet eventually wrote and illustrated over 30 books, receiving many awards and much recognition. In 1989 he won the Caldecott Honor Book Award for Bill Peet: An Autobiography. With surprise endings, eloquent poetic prose, humor, and capturing illustrations, Peet became known as one of the three most famous children's author/illustrators of his time alongside Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. This gifted, talented man passed away on May 11, 2002, in California.