A changing of the guard is underway, as a number of women who have greatly influenced children's publishing have, more or less recently, relinquished some or all of their responsibilities to a new line of command. In conversations with six well-respected editors, PW asked about their debuts in the business, highlights of their careers, current work and plans for the future.
Conversing with PW from Brittany during an extended stay in Europe following her July retirement from Greenwillow, Susan Hirschman recalls how it all began. Growing up in New York City, she always knew that she wanted to work in publishing and during her college years she zeroed in on children's books. "I think I was enormously lucky to have figured it out, though I don't know how I did," she reflects. "But I do know that for 47 years I never wished for anything else."
After a year's stint as a secretary at Knopf, she moved to Harper & Row, which she explains, "I had longed to do as soon as I found out who was publishing what." There Hirschman worked for Ursula Nordstrom for 10 years, and in 1964 left to become editor-in-chief of Macmillan's children's book department. When close to 200 people were fired from that company a decade later (including Janet Schulman; see below), she recalls, "I resigned in protest and was asked to start a new children's division at Morrow. And that was Greenwillow."
Hirschman quotes Nordstrom as once telling her "you can't only do what you enjoy," yet, she comments, "the way Greenwillow was made up, I pretty well could. I didn't find it difficult to juggle administrative and editorial duties because for 25 years Morrow was almost completely noncorporate. There were very few meetings and fewer memos. And when HarperCollins bought Morrow and we became more corporate, Virginia Duncan, whom I had hired to succeed me when I retire, was there to cope. So I did what I did and was happy."
Hirschman cites the shift in markets for children's books from institutional to retail as the most dramatic change she experienced during her career. She recalls attending the Bologna fair some 15 years ago, when, in her words, "Merchandise was just coming in and everything I was shown either folded or popped or flapped. I was horrified and thought, 'Oh good. Other people can buy this and we will corner the market in hardcover books.' But I was wrong. This was the future and I didn't know it."
But this new generation of products did not affect her editorial decisions, Hirschman asserts. "I still looked for books that I thought kids would like reading and that were worth their while to read. Bestsellerdom is infinitely less interesting to me than well-written, well-plotted books with characters about whom I care. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had a career where I could publish without compromise, and could publish, as the cliché goes, authors and not just books."
Hirschman, who just turned 70, also expresses great satisfaction at handing over Greenwillow's editorial reins to Duncan, whom she praises as "embodying the best of the past with a knowledge and understanding and even a passion for the future." As for her own future, Hirschman insists that "I am not going to make any plans until I know what life is without a nine-to-five framework. All those years of not-enough-time are over and I'm taking advantage of all this time in every possible way. I know they say that retirement isn't a perpetual vacation, but so far that is exactly what it has been. And, oh, I am having a nice time!"
Recently retired from Children's Book Press in San Francisco, the company she founded 26 years ago, Harriet Rohmer discusses her rather unorthodox path to the publishing world. Before moving to the west coast, she had spent time in France, working for UNESCO and the French Press Agency, and then she returned to New York City to launch Brownstone Press, which published primarily poetry. "I came to know a lot of people in the Beat movement," she observes, "and from them I learned that you don't need the backing of a large institution to do something you really want to do. You just need some connections and resources. Small presses were springing up at the time and I had some resources and decided to start one."
But when she arrived in San Francisco's Mission District in 1975, Rohmer recalls, "my resources had been depleted. I became a Head Start mother, which was a real learning experience. I noticed that most of the children who were in the day-care center with my son were from various Spanish-speaking traditions. Yet all the books the teachers read to them had nothing to do with the cultures of these peoples. There was no way that any of these children of color could open up a book and see themselves."
So she stepped in to fill this void, launching Children's Book Press with three grants. The first 10 releases (three of which are still in print) were folktales from different Spanish-speaking cultures. Rohmer's research to ensure the authenticity of these tales was extensive. "I searched out elders in these Spanish-speaking communities, often talking to them with the help of their grandchildren, since many only spoke the indigenous language of their native land. This was a long process, over many cups of tea, but I wanted to make sure I had the stories right, that this was the way they remembered them."
To illustrate these books, Rohmer tapped the talents of the muralists who had decorated the walls of the Mission District, graphically recording the history of their cultures. "The art they created for the books was vividly colored and very unlike most of the pastel or black-and-white children's book illustration at the time. We actually received criticism from some librarians who told us that the bright colors would upset children's delicate psyches!"
Rohmer's company donated the bulk of the first print runs of these inaugural releases to bilingual classrooms in the city, and, in her words, "the overwhelmingly positive reaction from educators created such a demand for more books that suddenly I was unwittingly in business." Since then, the press has published more than 60 titles with multicultural themes and now has a full-time staff of 10. Over the past two years, Rohmer has gradually removed herself from the daily operations of the company but will remain a consultant until year's end (Ina Cumpiano has been named editorial director). Rohmer then plans to continue her writing she is currently penning stories for adults and perhaps consult for those interested in starting publishing companies or nonprofit organizations.
"I loved what I was doing but I'm really an innovator and it is time for something else," Rohmer muses. "I am happy to have given voice to many new authors and artists and I am pleased to have played a part in making children's literature a literature of inclusion rather than exclusion."
A native of Pittsburgh, Margaret McElderry graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1933 and went on to earn a second B.A. in library science from the Carnegie Library School. After working for almost nine years with Anne Carroll Moore at the New York Public Library as a children's librarian, she took a leave of absence and went overseas during World War II, first joining the Office of War Information Overseas Branch in London and then serving as chief of projects for the United States Information Service in Brussels.
Shortly after her return to the States, McElderry found herself walking past the library in midtown Manhattan. She recalls: "There I was, just off a troop ship, and I thought to myself, 'No, I won't go in quite yet.' But I did walk in and interrupted a meeting. That day someone who was at the meeting ran into Fred Melcher [editor of Publishers Weekly and president of R.R. Bowker] waiting for a light to change on Madison Avenue. He told her that Harcourt, Brace was looking for a children's book editor and the only person he could think of for that job was Margaret McElderry, but unfortunately she was overseas. And the woman said, 'No, she's back!' Why he thought of me I haven't a clue, but it was one of those wonderful accidents of life."
Though she was very familiar with children's books, McElderry notes that "I didn't know anything about publishing, but I decided to take a chance. And Harcourt took a chance too, of course." It was a lucky gamble: she went on to spend 25 years at this house. But in 1971, after editing many Newbery and Caldecott Medal and Honor winners (including the Newbery and Caldecott Medals together, in 1952), McElderry was asked to take early retirement, a request that stunned her. "When I asked why, I was told that the wave of the future had passed me by," she says. "That was the exact wording, and it was a real slap in the face."
Obviously, many others thought otherwise, as McElderry soon received job offers from 12 publishers. The winner was Atheneum, where she launched her own line of books. In her words, "My imprint was given to me as an honor, and it was, since it was the first children's book imprint to have a person's name attached to it."
McElderry experienced firsthand the wave of mergers and acquisitions as Atheneum joined with Scribner and subsequently became part of Macmillan, which in 1994 was acquired by Simon & Schuster. Through it all her imprint endured and still does, of course, though in 1998 she retired as its director and became editor-at-large. The current v-p and editorial director of Margaret K. McElderry Books is Emma Dryden, whom McElderry praises as "a wonderful editor and a very good friend. She worked with me for years and it has been a perfect transition."
McElderry continues to work with a core of her authors, including Susan Cooper, Louise Borden and Barbara Abercrombie. And, now in her late 80s, she keeps the same schedule she always did, coming into the office four days a week. "I don't come in as early and sometimes I don't stay quite as late as I once did," she remarks. "It gives me a nice freedom."
After a stint working in advertising in New Orleans (where her husband was stationed in the Army), Janet Schulman finally got the chance to launch her publishing career in 1959, after moving to New York City. Hired by Macmillan's advertising department, she worked on books from all of the house's divisions, but one category snared her attention. "I was asked to help rewrite the jacket copies for the Narnia books," she recalls. "I'd never even known that C.S. Lewis wrote children's books. I read them and was bowled over that children's literature could be like this! From then on, I volunteered to work on all of the children's books and became more and more involved in them as the years went by."
Involved she surely was during her 13 years at Macmillan, where she started one of the first children's paperback publishing programs and was instrumental in marketing Watership Down, the first children's novel to appear on the New York Times bestseller list. But her tenure at that house ended in 1974 when, Schulman bluntly states, "I was fired during a period of cutting back and downsizing, along with some 180 others. But I have maintained all along that I was fired because of my activities helping to form and acting as co-chair of the women's group in the company."
After several years working as a freelancer on editorial and marketing projects and writing children's books, Schulman signed on with Random House in 1978; she served in turn as director of children's marketing, editor-in-chief and publisher of RH's children's imprints, including Knopf and Crown.
By 1994 she was ready to take another step. In her words, "Our division had grown tremendously and the industry was changing dramatically and I felt as though I had been transformed into a business person, going home every night with a briefcase filled with P&L forms, contracts to sign and agendas for management meetings. I realized I was no longer having fun."
Schulman resigned her title, became v-p and editor-at-large and adopted a three-day work week, one that is "almost exclusively devoted to editing, which is wonderful. I don't have to act like a boss, and I can wear blue jeans if I want." Among the authors she currently edits are Jack Prelutsky and Marc Brown; she has also edited two anthologies for Knopf, The 20th Century Children's Book Treasury and the just-released You Read to Me & I'll Read to You.
Big changes Schulman has witnessed in the children's book industry include what she terms "the shift from depending on the library market to being captive of the chain stores at least for right now. This has had a large impact on the kinds of books published," she continues. "It is now difficult to publish books that don't fall into easy categories, and everything has become a little too homogenized and politically correct. You used to be able to publish a few thousand copies of a first novel or a book of poetry because you knew you would have the library sale and you could make a profit margin. Now it is very hard for new artists and authors to get started."
On the positive side, Schulman acknowledges that publishers are now able to distribute greater quantities of books with the growth of the trade market. And, at least in part due to Harry Potter's popularity and the subsequent surge in sales of fantasy titles and other works of fiction, children's bestseller lists are, in her words, "not simply celebrity books and movie tie-ins, but a very sizable number of them are what I would call real books."
Thrilled to have four-day weekends to play tennis, hike and visit museums, Schulman asserts that she doesn't miss a thing about her old life. "Though I am still part of a corporation, I don't have to be corporate, which is a good thing. I never excelled in the role of putting on a corporate face."
"For a long time it had been a dream of mine to step away from my administrative responsibilities and spend my time working creatively with the authors I had worked with for so many years," says Margaret Frith of her decision six years ago to leave her post as president of the Putnam & Grosset Group. "I had initially said I would do it when I was 40, and then 45 and those years came and went because I was still enjoying what I was doing. But since I refused to give up my authors, I was basically wearing two hats and splitting myself in too many ways."
So, with the approval of Penguin Putnam CEO Phyllis Grann, Frith switched to a reduced schedule and, as editor-at-large for Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, she continues to edit the work of an impressive roster of authors and artists: Tomie dePaola, Jan Brett, Jean Fritz, Eric Hill, Paula Danziger and Peggy Rathmann.
Born and brought up in Bermuda, Frith graduated from Rosemont College in 1958 and headed for New York City, via the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, to start her career in publishing. At Radcliffe, she was especially intrigued by the session on children's books, since she had been an art major. The editorial job she subsequently landed at Macmillan exposed her to many aspects of the children's book business. "I did tasks that would now be considered marketing and also read manuscripts, did some copyediting and flap-copy writing," she recalls. "With my art background, I was given some responsibilities in that area, too, since there was no separate art department then."
The following year, Frith left Manhattan for a year of ski-bumming in Stowe, and upon her return spent several years in a marketing-related job at Scribner. In 1964, she was hired by Alice Torrey, editor-in-chief of Coward-McCann (then an imprint of Putnam), launching her 37-year association with the company. At that point, Frith reflects, "Children's books were just beginning to move into the trade. I remember the first time I'd say it was sometime in the early '70s that our department was allowed to go to ABA. We were given a little table in the corner to put our books on. The sales director approached us and said, 'What are you doing here?' It was on and up after that."
Other key developments in the industry that Frith has observed over the years include the consolidation of imprints ("now it seems like a smaller world"); the emergence of branded and licensed publishing (she recalled the first movie tie-in she ever worked on: the novelization of E.T., "which we thought was going to be just a little book, but it went on and on"); and the increased business responsibilities of editors ("I'll never forget the day I was first asked to do a budget and had to do a full forecast for the following year frontlist and backlist books. I'd never had to do anything like that in all my editing years").
Now Frith can focus on what she loves best. She has written one children's book and is working on another. And she has more time for her authors. In her words, "I have the luxury of reading their books in my garden and taking my time to think about ideas. I do not go into the office unless I want to. I consider this my dream job."
Preparing for a three-month sojourn in France and Italy, Ann Beneduce takes time to reflect on some memorable moments in her publishing career. The founding editor of Philomel Books explains that she fell into children's books "quite accidentally." In 1957 she started as a junior editor at Doubleday and after a time went to the personnel department to complain that, despite her title, she was doing the work of a senior editor, and she asked for a raise and a promotion. "I was told, 'My dear, we never make women senior editors except in the areas of children's books, cookbooks or mysteries.' Well, I had no interest in the last two and there was no opening in children's books there but there was one at Lippincott."
In 1964, after a three-year stint at Lippincott, Beneduce was appointed editor-in-chief of children's books at World Publishing, where she one day received a book proposal from an advertising artist named Eric Carle. She liked his work and, after giving him an assignment to illustrate Lila Perl's Red Flannel Hash and Shoo-Fly Pie, Beneduce published his first solo venture, 1,2,3 to the Zoo.
Then Carle showed up with a proposal for a book about a worm who ate his way through the pages of a book, which metamorphosed into The Very Hungry Caterpillar. That book was so complex to produce, Beneduce recalls, that she was unable to find an American manufacturer to take it on. "I was going to Japan on vacation and found a publisher there who could produce the book," she says. "And the following spring I went to Bologna and found enough European copublishers to make the project feasible."
While at World, Beneduce also published Jane Yolen's first book, The Emperor and the Kite, illustrated by a young artist named Ed Young, who first created some sample illustrations on spec. Beneduce loved what she saw, as did others: the title became a Caldecott Honor Book for 1961 and marked what Young's editor calls "the start of a brilliant career."
Another high point occurred while Beneduce was at the editorial helm at T.Y. Crowell from 1969 to 1977, a period she describes as "a golden time for me and for children's books." A sharp-eyed junior editor, Sandra Jordan, spotted Katherine Paterson's first manuscript in the slush pile. The novel, Of Nightingales That Weep, was set in medieval Japan, Beneduce notes, "and Sandra, knowing my interest in Japan, called it to my attention. I wonder today if anyone would even read an over-the-transom submission and then be given the nod to publish a book set in medieval Japan."
Collins was Beneduce's next stop, and since that house had bought World's children's backlist, she was happily reunited with many of her beloved books and authors. Then, in her words, "Putnam in 1980 bought the World list and me and gave me my own imprint, Philomel." Under this imprint, Beneduce published books by such authors as Carle, Young, Yolen, Tasha Tudor and Mitsumasa Anno, all of whom she continues to work with as a consulting editor since her resignation from Philomel in 1986. (Patricia Lee Gauch is now v-p and publisher of the imprint.) In addition, Beneduce acts as a consultant to other publishers, has translated seven books from the French and has written seven children's books of her own with three more in the works.
"One of the lovely things about being an independent editor and consultant is that I don't have to take everything that comes along," Beneduce remarks. "I work on what I want to work on."