In an era when authors often publish with multiple houses and work with more than one editor, Margaret Frith’s quarter-century of editing Jan Brett’s picture books is a pleasant anomaly. Their first author-editor collaboration was The Mitten, which Putnam published in 1989, and their latest is Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella, released this month under the same imprint. Set in snowy 18th-century Russia, the book features a cast of feathered characters and finely detailed portrayals of period architecture and dress.
Frith has worked in children’s publishing for 55 years. Her first editorial position after graduating from Rosemont College in 1958 was at Macmillan, by way of the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures course. After a subsequent stint at Scribner’s, in 1965 she moved to Coward McCann, which had joined with Putnam in 1936. “And that’s where I stayed,” said the editor, who technically retired in 1995 as president of the Putnam & Grosset Group, but continues to edit Brett’s books.
How did the editor and author get together? “It’s a really good luck story,” said Frith. “One day in 1988, [former CEO] Phyllis Grann announced that Putnam was acquiring Dodd, Mead’s children’s backlist. One of my jobs was to check on which authors were on that list, which Putnam then sold to Dutton. But one person on that list whose books we wouldn’t let go of was Jan Brett.” It was a smart move: Brett’s picture books now have 38 million copies in print worldwide.
Frith had first encountered Brett’s name sometime before that, when she accompanied sales department staffers to present her forthcoming list to Waldenbooks. “I had bought a fabulous version of The Twelve Days of Christmas at Bologna, and was really excited about it,” recalled the editor. “But after I presented the book, the Walden people said, ‘But have you seen Jan Brett’s beautiful The Twelve Days of Christmas that Dodd, Mead is publishing?’ That was my first introduction to Jan and I sure got my comeuppance – having them tell me hers was a better book than the one I’d bought! That’s how I knew when we acquired the Dodd, Mead list that she was good, and I didn’t want her to go anywhere.”
Frith and Brett met at a subsequent ABA in New Orleans, where the author had a propitious conversation with Tomie dePaola. “I had worked with many different publishers and had had some very good editors, but I didn’t feel I had a home,” said Brett. “I thought at that point in my career it was a good thing to get input from different people. Then Tomie told me I had to meet Margaret, that she’d be a wonderful editor for me. I was a little afraid, since the editor-author relationship is a very fragile one, built on trust. But we immediately hit it off when we had breakfast at Brennan’s, where the eggs cost $18!”
The pricey breakfast was a worthwhile investment, as Frith soon acquired The Mitten, which went on to become one of Brett’s top-selling books. “Jan is an author who has so many things going for her,” said Frith. “She has a gift for illustrating almost anything, and her detail is amazing. When she paints animals, you can almost pick a feather off the page. She brings an authenticity and originality to everything she does.”
The admiration is mutual. “One of the key things – though there are many key things about Margaret – is that she is a really good artist, and can look at books through an artist’s eye,” said Brett. “She knows when to leave me alone and let me construct a world in my mind. And she knows when to question things and ask, ‘Have you thought of this?’ She is very flexible, and she is very wise.”
After the Eggs, the Chickens
The genesis of Cinders offers a prime example of the collaborative spirit – and similar sensibility – between Brett and Frith. They share a fondness for chickens: Brett is an award-winning chicken breeder, and Frith’s next-door neighbors on Long Island have a small flock that she likes to visit and feed. “One day, I mentioned to Jan that I thought it was interesting that chickens have a pecking order,” said Frith. “I told her that my neighbors’ flock had one chicken that was low man on the totem pole, bossed around the others. And we both said, ‘She’s a Cinderella!’ ”
Brett immediately latched onto her editor’s suggestion that she do a chicken Cinderella story, and decided that wintry Russia of the past would be the ideal setting. “I’ve always loved the beautiful wintertime scenes in Dr. Zhivago, and I love the country’s exquisite architecture and the beautifully embroidered costumes,” she said. “I wanted to get away from the Disney version of Cinderella and create this new world.” To research the story’s setting, Brett traveled to St. Petersburg and Novgorod, where the onion-domed architecture inspired the Ice Palace that is home to the prince in Cinders.
Though Brett once brought chickens from her Massachusetts home to Manhattan for an appearance on the Martha Stewart Show (the chickens slept in the bathtub of her room at the Four Seasons), she’ll leave her flock at home on November 8 when she boards her customized bus to promote Cinders on a 24-city tour. “I thought about bringing them along, but it’s not fair to the chickens. They like to be with the flock,” she said. A highlight of the tour will be the Ohio National Poultry Show in Columbus on November 9. “It’s kind of like the Westminster Dog Show for chickens,” Brett said. “It will be a very fun experience, though I’ll be sorry not to be showing my own chickens.”
Brett and Frith are already at work on the author’s next book, The Animal Santa, a holiday tale set in Newfoundland, which Putnam will publish in fall 2014. And Brett looks forward to collaborating with her editor on future projects. “Margaret and I have the same aesthetic and view of what a children’s book should be, and we have the common goal of making every book the best it can be. I really hope that our relationship continues for a long time.”
Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella by Jan Brett. Putnam, $17.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-399-25783-4