You've probably heard that, "it all started from a mouse," and you probably know there was a man behind that mouse. If you're looking at this page, then you probably want to know more about that man, Walter Elias Disney, and we're happy to help.
Walt was a complicated man. As an animator and illustrator his talents were limited, but he was able to surround himself, encourage, and organize training for a remarkably talented group of artists, while creating an environment that pushed those artists to achieve more than they alone may ever have accomplished. Walt also had an understanding of what makes a compelling story that few filmmakers have ever matched and a relentless desire to innovate to find more effective ways to tell those stories. Walt was also difficult to understand, which made working with him a challenge for many people. All of those narratives play out in a variety of different books about his personal and work life. We'll highlight a few of those books here and provide a couple more complete lists below.
We suggest starting with Bob Thomas' Walt Disney: An American Original. This is an older authorized biography, which some may suggest presents a somewhat sanitized story of Walt's life, but it doesn't completely gloss over Disney's flaws and Thomas had access to information that other biographers did not. As such, it presents facts that are important to all those who followed Thomas in documenting Disney's life.
Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination is one of the more respected recent biographies of Walt Disney. Gabler also served as a advisor to the PBS American Experience documentary about Walt, which is worth seeking out if you prefer watching videos to reading about history. Last we checked, that video was available in its entirety through the Hoopla platform that is available through many local libraries around the country.
One Walt Disney biography that I don't recommend is Leonard Mosley's Disney's World.
This was one of the first biographies of Walt Disney that I read, so
I've left it on my list partly for that reason, but also
because it does discuss one valuable lesson, that famous figures we build up
with heroes have their share or human flaws. The trouble is the book
tends to focus too much on Disney's flaws, without offering compelling
evidence to back up many of the author's assertions, so it mostly just
perpetuates (or, maybe at the time actually initiated) some myths about the man. It's useful mostly if you want to get an idea where some of those myths may have originated.
If you're looking for a book about Walt Disney that works well for younger readers, then Katherine and Richard Greene's The Man Behind the Magic is a great choice. If you wish to introduce even younger children to Walt as an actual person, then Brad Meltzer's I am Walt Disney offers an accurate overview of Disney's life in an engaging easy-to-read format.
Following the list of books directly about Walt are biographies about some of people who worked closest with him over the years and a couple individuals who Walt seemed to trust and rely on. Those who really wish to understand Walt will benefit from hearing how these individuals worked with and otherwise related to Walt. None of these individuals is more important than Walt's brother, Roy O. Disney, and Bob Thomas was again able to write the official biography of Roy Disney, Building a Company.
Several other individuals had frequent important interactions with Walt at different times during their lives, though Ub Iwerks was a key figure in the initial success of the Disney studio and returned to help the Disney brothers stay near the forefront of film innovation throughout Walt's life. Iwerks was also Walt's partner during some of his early, less-successful ventures, so outside of a short time running his own competing animation studio, his career was largely linked to the Disney studio. Don Iwerks documents this in Walt Disney's Ultimate Inventor, a book full of photos, though a little light on text, that nonetheless sheds light on an often unsung essential contributor to Walt Disney's success.
There's some evidence to suggest Walt may have played favorites with some animators. Whether or not that is a fair description of how he managed the studio it's pretty clear that he recognized unique talent among those who worked in his studio, and the stories of a couple well-known Disney animators that stood out from the crowd and attracted more of Walt's attention than some of their co-workers were Ward Kimball and Rolly Crump. Todd James Pierce tells Kimball's tales in The Life and Times of Ward Kimball, while Jeff Heimbuch organized Crump's own words in It's Kind of a Cute Story.
Another grouping of books includes those with some stories about Walt. Marty Sklar was hired by Walt as a young UCLA student and went on to write some of the words Walt shared would speak. Sklar rose to lead Walt Disney Imagineering, and documents his own career and lessons learned from Walt in Dream It! Do It! (and later in two other books). Jack Lindquist and Tom Nabbe were two other individuals who didn't work as closely with Walt as Sklar, but also started their careers in the early days of Disneyland, with Nabbe actually talking Walt Disney into hiring him to work at the park while Nabbe was still a child. Others, who didn't work for Disney, have also collected stories about Walt and the company, including Jim Korkis, whose The Vault of Walt series is full of interesting and entertaining stories. Michael Crawford's The Progress City Primer does much the same, compiling some of Crawford's most popular blog posts into an intriguing collection containing some of the most offbeat stories in Disney history, but also including some stories directly involving Walt Disney.
One last series of books worth mentioning here is Walt's People, from Didier Ghez, a massive multi-volume collection of interviews with people who worked for Walt Disney or for the Disney company over the years. At last count there were 23 volumes of this series, so I won't link to each individual book here, but most should be easy to find through your favorite online book store. The DIX project website has details about what's in each edition and offers the chance to quickly search through the whole series if their is a particular subject you are looking for. Didier Ghez's own website also offers an far more complete list of Disney biographies if you're ready to move past the titles that we've highlighted here.
|Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. Pocket Books, 1980.|
|Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. University of California Press, 2008.|
|Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Vintage Books, 2007.|
|Susanin, Timothy S.. Walt Before Mickey. University Press of Mississippi, 2011.|
|Miller, Diane Disney Walt Disney: His Life in Pictures. Disney Press, 2009.|
|Meltzer, Brad. I am Walt Disney. Dial Books, 2019.|
|Greene, Katherine. The Man Behind the Magic: The Story of Walt Disney. Viking, 1991.|
|Mosley, Leonard. Disney's World. Stein and Day, Incorporated, 1985.|
|Moran, Christian. Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow: Walt Disney and Technology. Theme Park Press, 2015.|
Other Biographies of Individuals That Worked Closely with Walt Disney
|Thomas, Bob. Building a Company. Hyperion, 1998.|
|Iwerks, Don. Walt Disney's Ultimate Inventor. Disney Editions, 2019.|
|Pierce, Todd James. The Life and Times of Ward Kimball. University Press of Mississippi, 2019.|
|Crump, Rolly. It's Kind of a Cute Story. Bamboo Forest Publishing, 2012.|
Books That Include Some Stories About Walt Disney
|Sklar, Marty. Dream It! Do It!. Disney Editions, 2013.|
|Lindquist, Jack. In Service to the Mouse. Chapman University Press, 2010.|
|Nabbe, Tom. The Adventures of Tom Nabbe. Theme Park Press, 2015.|
|Bossert, David A.. Remembering Roy E. Disney. Disney Editions, 2013.|
|Crawford, Michael. The Progress City Primer. Progress City Press, 2015.|
|Korkis, Jim. The Vault of Walt. Ayefour Publishing, 2010.|
|Korkis, Jim. The Vault of Walt: Volume 3. Theme Park Press, 2014.|
Let us know what you think of our list. Did you find anything here that's helped you? Have you already read any of these titles? Is there anything we're missing? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below or through our firstname.lastname@example.org email address.