Frances Foster, renowned editor of books for children whose career spanned more than 55 years, died on June 8 at age 83. Here, some of her authors and longtime colleagues share memories and pay tribute to her warmth, generosity, and editorial prowess.
Dinah Stevenson, v-p and publisher, Clarion Books
I first knew Frances as a colleague, when I came to Knopf in 1980. She became my mentor and role model almost instantly. I was in awe of her brilliant editorial vision and the firm but gracious way she pursued it, despite a somewhat adversarial relationship with upper management – who didn’t “get” a lot of her books – and with a production crew that seemed to resent having to treat trade picture books differently from the mass market materials Random House churned out by the truckload.
She and I shared an assistant – that was then – and interviewed applicants for the position together. We invariably were drawn to the same candidate. “I like the ones who are a little weird,” I told Frances after one interview. “What do you mean, low-eared?” she asked. After I explained, “low-eared” became our code word for interesting and unusual people. Among our low-eared hires were Kate Banks, Jonah Winter, and Ann Rider, all of whom went on to become stars in the children’s book galaxy.
Frances and I remained industry colleagues, confidantes, and friends for the next three decades. Whenever we got together, even after a long interval, we easily picked up our conversation where we had left it the time before. It’s hard to believe there won’t be a next time.
Peter Sís, author and artist
On the official public side the words like “legendary,” “celebrated,” “admired” are used. But on the personal level the loss is deep and impossible to put into words. Could I draw it? Like a source of light in the darkest of forests?
When I was working on a book, I would give what I had just written to Frances and she would make sense out of it. She was patient while still quietly demanding the best of me.
Just the other day I laid out on the floor all the books we worked on together. She is in each of them. They would not exist without her, and I am proud of all of them.
Frances loved all her authors, and she loved to discover and nurture talent. She was gracious and luminous. For me as a Czech émigré she represented the best America has to offer. She truly is the Starbuck of Melville’s Moby-Dick. I will always see her, beautiful and elegant, welcoming me to her office in whichever building she was working. I keep finding the Post-its she patiently placed all over our many manuscripts and my doodles and book dummies, and her voice, her questions, her sense of values remain.
Denise Cronin, v-p, art director, Viking Children’s Books
I first met Frances Foster in 1981, when I changed positions from a senior designer working with Atha Tehon at Dial Books for Young Readers, to art director at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. I spent the next 13 years at Knopf, working closely with Frances on many books. When I think about it, there couldn’t have been a more natural segue. Frances, as an editor, shared many of the same characteristics as Atha, an art director – an elegant sense of design, a commitment to fine bookmaking, tact, wisdom, and grace. Frances, too, was a steadfast advocate for the authors and illustrators with whom she worked.
Frances was also a generous supporter of her colleagues. Her office door was always cheerfully open if work or life consultation was needed. The visitor chair next to her desk was well worn! As a young, inexperienced art director, I benefited greatly from Frances’s guidance. From her, I learned the fine art of editing or art-directing by question and suggestion, thus allowing the creator of something the freedom to explore solutions in a less confrontational way. Frances was hardly ever blunt, but her drawn-out “hhunh...” as a reaction to a questionable idea or design could speak volumes. Upon hearing that response, we all knew it was usually time to come up with a plan B.
“Sometimes the best editing is to hold back,” a tip once given by Frances in a talk we did together at the University of Kansas. “Listen carefully to the author’s voice.” To this day, that advice informs the way I interact with illustrators and designers; in fact, anyone I work with. It is only one of the many gifts Frances passed on to me, but it is the one I use the most. That, and her recipe/advice for a lasting marriage once given to a new bride – the Make Him Happy 30-Minute Chocolate Cake.
Kate Banks, author
The first time I met Frances, I was interviewing for a job as her assistant. As I took in the disheveled office scattered with playful props and books, my first thought was, “This could be fun.” Then Frances looked at me earnestly with her lively blue eyes and mischievous grin and asked if I’d taken the typing test required for the position. I hadn’t. “Oh,” said Frances. I later learned that “oh” was Frances’s expression for a predicament. But she hired me anyway. And in the years that followed she became not only my employer and my editor, but a mentor and the dearest of friends. And we shared not only our fictional lives but our private lives in ways that make for the best stories.
For me Frances’s unique vision came from her ability to be both spectator and participant in the process of creation. Both as an editor and a person, standing on the sidelines and watching the process unfold was as important to her as issuing directives. And she managed to step from one role into the other with effortless grace. She had a gentle curiosity and exquisite sensibility to person and place whether real or imaginary, a rare combination of the best human qualities that I can only sum up in a word: Frances.
In people’s lives there are those who are so pivotal that they shape their destiny and the people they become. Frances was such a person to me. And the gratitude and love I feel toward her are infinite, reaching beyond this world into a place where there is no time or space – or words.
Margaret Ferguson, publisher, Margaret Ferguson Books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers
When I hired Frances to start her imprint she brought many talented authors and illustrators with her, and over the years she added many more. This was a real boon for the FSG list, but watching Frances develop her list was also fun to be around. Her enthusiasm, passion and determination were inspiring, especially because she published from her heart. I remember at her first sales conference with us, she leaned over and whispered, “Do you think my list is okay?” Of course, it was much more than okay – and was the beginning of something very special. Frances was a wonderful, wonderful colleague and friend who will be greatly missed.
David Klass, author
In 1999 I finished what I thought was my best novel, You Don’t Know Me, and my agent sent it off to five editors, including Frances Foster at FSG. He called me up two weeks later and said, ‘We have a good kind of dilemma – all five want it.’ ” Since he was not primarily a young adult book agent, he reached out to a friend who knew that world well to advise us. His friend’s advice struck me as a little strange. “You don’t have a dilemma at all,” she said. “If Frances Foster wants to publish your book, go out and buy some cake and balloons and throw yourself a party.”
I decided to follow that advice, and the party lasted for 12 years and nine novels. Frances was a wonderful editor who treated writers with great sensitivity and graciousness – she never insisted on changes but her gentle suggestions were so unarguably sensible that I believe I made virtually all of them. She had a great gift for seeing the book that I wanted to write, and step by step guiding me down the right path. She loved character, found the poetry in prose, had an almost musical ear for dialogue, but most of all she adored a good story.
The last book I brought her was Grandmaster, a novel set in the world of tournament chess that I wrote when my two children took up the game. I loved the father-son story at the heart of the book, but the rest of the novel was a bit of a mess, and Frances gently told me that it might not be right for FSG. I took it to a dozen other publishers who rejected it. A month later I got a call from Frances asking me what had become of my chess novel. “No one wants it,” I told her sadly. “Well, it had such a beautiful father-son story,” she said. “If you’re willing to work on it a bit, maybe we can make a home for it at FSG.”
She took my novels when everyone wanted them and when no one wanted them. I’m so very sorry the party finally ended, but how incredibly lucky I was to have the most wonderful, kind, hard working, generous, tasteful, elegant, and gracious editor any writer could ever dream of. I dedicated Grandmaster to my two kids who are so-so chess players, and: “To my Grandmaster of an editor, Frances Foster.”
Janine O’Malley, senior editor, Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers
I’ve been at FSG for nearly 16 years, and feel extremely lucky to have worked directly with Frances Foster for eight of those years. Her door was always open, and there were times when you would drop by to say hello and find yourself still chatting an hour later. When I was her assistant, my favorite task was organizing her office. She had a tendency to let things get pretty crazy (she was busy!), and after a few months, you wouldn’t be able to see a single surface under the Post-its, to-do lists, books, dummies, and sometimes even art. She and I would take hours going through the various piles, and though I’ve heard she worried that she was taking me away from more important tasks, I loved it. I probably learned the most from Frances in those moments! She had a great sense of humor, and we’d spend most of the time chatting and laughing while we sorted. She always had sound advice that grounded me, and her stories about publishing reminded me why I’d chosen to work in children’s books. She certainly shaped me as an editor, but she also taught me so much about living a meaningful and happy life doing what you love. I can’t help but miss her.
Barbara McClintock, author and artist
Going over the many email exchanges I’ve had with Frances, I’m struck by what an active participant she was in every aspect of my creative process. I have 23 messages back and forth from one afternoon as we worked to define the image of the Sleepy Giant for our book Leave Your Sleep. There are emails sent close to midnight, on weekends and holidays. Hundreds of emails sent over years of work on five books and two book dummies. All those emails are a precious thread to her that I will keep forever.
Frances was always there for me, with total attention and thoughtfulness, guiding me, encouraging me, humoring me, gently prodding me along, suffering with me during the long hours of working toward a deadline. Her grace, intelligence, inventiveness, gentle wit, and patience were constant.
I aspired to be the artist and author I thought she wanted me to be. She saw the bright, brilliant bits, and charmed them right out of me. That was her magic.
When I started the final drawing of a very long book project, our last book together, Frances emailed: “An exciting milestone. This seems very big. Walking on the moon pales by comparison.”
It was a great gift to have worked with this extraordinary woman who eclipsed the moon, sun, and stars with her gentle genius.
Robbin Gourley, author-illustrator and consulting art director for Boyds Mills Press
We were six months into the production of The Tree of Life, Peter Sís’s Caldecott Honor-winning picture book about Charles Darwin. Peter and Frances worked intensely; he was often in her office, huddled at her side. I worked with her almost daily on the book. Late one afternoon she sailed into my office to check on something I was to do for her, something for the book. I’m sure we shared a laugh – we usually did – and though it was late in the day, late in the week, late in the bookmaking, her blue eyes sparkled. She was on her way to catch the train to Hudson, where her husband, Tony, would meet her. She was wearing a nubby wool jacket the color of bright persimmon. It was so unexpected – she looked absolutely stunning, so elegant.
Over the years, we talked about many things, mostly books: how typography and illustration should be unexpected, unforgettable. We talked about fashion. She told me she liked my silk blouse. I told her I picked it up at a Dosa sale but had to alter it, take out the darts. I could pick one up for her if she liked. Yes, she said, a gray one, but leave the darts in. We talked about her children. When reading to five-year-old Kate she’d asked, “What color is your world?” and Kate had said, “PINK!” She told me stories about her childhood in California, a distant time and land. She told me that as a young woman riding the subway early in her working life in New York she had overheard an advertising exec say he was going to “romance the words.” We tried to do that at Farrar, Straus & Giroux during those exceedingly fortunate (for me) nine years that I worked with her – romance the words and the pictures. Frances was brilliant at it. She loved her work and it was apparent in her kindness to everyone, her generosity, confidence, impeccable good taste, and the magnificent books.
Helen Frost, author
I have been so lucky to work with one of the best editors in children’s books for more than 10 years. Frances Foster edited seven of my books and taught me, in a completely respectful and gentle way, how to take a book from the seed of an idea to a pull-it-off-the-shelf actual book. She would ask questions in such a way that I would step back and realize I was on the wrong track (“Helen, do you think you are making this harder than it needs to be, having a dog musher in a wheelchair for most of the book?” she asked, about an early version of Diamond Willow, and I saw that the accident should happen to Roxy, Willow’s dog, rather than to Willow herself). Frances rarely suggested a way to fix things; she just said, “I know you can do this.” And even when things were very hard, I always found, eventually, that she was right.
I will be forever grateful that Frances and I had an opportunity to work together and become friends. She is a treasure in my life.
Anne Schwartz, v-p and publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, Random House
Frances and I worked together for almost 10 years, and became good friends. When she and her wonderful husband, Tony, invited my little family up to their country house one summer weekend in 1987, we eagerly accepted. From my new vantage point, it was easy to see what all of us in the office already knew: Frances was like Martha Stewart only way cooler. I still remember what she served for dinner that Saturday evening (vitello tonnato – who even knew?!), and to this day, I make salad dressing the way she did. It was a simple vinaigrette, but instead of using just red wine vinegar, she mixed it with balsamic, which cut the tartness. OK, that may not sound terrifically exciting in these gastronomically advanced times, but back then it seemed ingenious.
And when I think about it now, the mixing of that vinaigrette perfectly embodies how Frances worked with her lucky authors and illustrators. Editing can be a rough business, hard for writers to swallow if it isn’t done with care. Frances cut the tartness; she took care. Her comments were always kind and considered; she asked rather than told; even her handwriting in the margins of a manuscript looked sensitive and thoughtful. I learned a lot from her, and I will miss her.
Hyewon Yum, author and artist
When I first visited Frances’s office, I called up her from the phone in the office corridor outside the gray steel door. I was nervous; I hated all the office doors in the world and numbers on the phone and sweat on my hand. I looked at the time a few times more to check I’m at the right place, at the right time.
“Hyewon?” was what she answered. That made me a little surprised (I always have trouble saying my name out loud, especially by phone), and gave me great comfort.
Then I became one of her authors. And whenever I visited her office, she put out my books in front of her bookshelf, so I felt like I’m something. So I can even do something great as she did call my name like someone.
She always said gently, “There’s something in here.” She didn’t even give me a hint, she just waited. And now I know that’s how she taught me.
Susan Dobinick, associate editor, Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers
I was working in textbook publishing but wishing for a job in children’s trade when I got an e-mail from a former professor, Beth Spires, telling me that her editor was looking for a new assistant and offering to pass my resume along. When I was hired by Frances Foster and Margaret Ferguson, I was pretty sure I had somehow managed to land the best job that could possibly exist. Frances was generous from the start – I felt like she took me seriously from my first day, even when I hadn’t done anything to earn that trust yet. I think people loved working with her so much because every relationship was so firmly based in this respect for other people’s opinions and work, and it felt like since you already had this trust established and out of the way, you could just focus on making good books together. I worked with Frances from 2010 until her retirement two years later, and I’m so grateful for the time I had to learn from her.
Leonard S. Marcus, author and children’s book historian
Frances was an inspiration. She had an inner calm that seemed completely natural to her, and which made the world feel right to a visitor to her office like me. Nothing about her was obvious. I liked to watch her pause to consider a question that had been put to her. Her response would invariably go straight to the heart of the matter, most often with a subtle flash of humor along the way. Frances edited by posing questions – quiet, probing questions that revealed the overlooked confusion in a paragraph or pointed to a topic or theme in need of further elaboration. She did this with great delicacy and a fine regard for the author’s intention. It was an education to be edited by her and I think that everyone Frances published must have wanted more than anything to be worthy of her and her high standards.