We asked some industry veterans to recall memorable personalities they've encountered during their careers.
George Selden (The Cricket in Times Square) was a brilliant, volatile, fractious character with whom I worked on a number of books until his death in the late '80s. Most of our conversations revolved around his complaints about how slow the illustrator of the books, Garth Williams, was, but Jerry was liberal with his diatribes and I, myself, was frequently the target. Be that as it may, we got along fine and I miss him.
Here's a memorable and formative incident in our relationship. When I was new in the business, young and of an academic mindset, I was editing one of the books in Jerry's Cricket series. I deleted a chunk of text and wrote a note in the margin: "Is this absolutely necessary?" When the manuscript came back, Jerry had reinstated the deletion, and had written me a note: "No, it is not absolutely necessary. NOTHING is absolutely necessary, but texture is everything. Shithead!" –Stephen Roxburgh, namelos editions
It's been 20 years since his death but I still have dreams about my time in London working for the brilliant, mercurial, deeply sardonic, yet unfailingly generous creature that was Sebastian Walker, founder of Walker Books and its American sibling, Candlewick Press. Sebastianconvinced me to move to London without working papers ("Those can come later, dear") taught me about selling co-editions ("Just get them a little tipsy and tell them Putnam's is in for 20,000"), and orchestrated my first and only trip on the Concorde, with Iona Opie as my traveling companion. When he decided to ban smoking in the Walker offices he did so by edict: "Those who insist on destroying themselves with cigarettes can do so in the gutter, where they belong." He was, of course, a closet smoker. At Bologna, Sebastian hated eating in restaurants filled with other publishers, so he rented a bus and took his guests to a modest trattoria on the outskirts of town. We returned via public transportation on the 10:20 p.m. bus each evening, often racing through our desserts to get to the stop on time. And that's how I like to remember Sebastian, standing on the bus, gleefully feeding 25 tickets into the stamping machine. —Neal Porter, Roaring Brook Press
With her boyish figure, chopped black hair, gnarly tooth, and elfin charm, Margot Tomes looked like she'd stepped out of one of her own illustrations. She and her rail-thin, chain-smoking partner, Betty, shared the front and back apartments on the third floor of a walk-up in the East 70's. The exercise of climbing those stairs and the nutrition gained from the grapefruit juice they flavored their vodka with kept these ladies in health and good spirits well into their own seventies. While Betty's apartment was warm and cozy, Margot's studio was freezing cold and barren. A little wooden sled carrying a bowl of apples was its only decoration. She made her distinctive pen-and-ink drawings at a huge wooden desk that dominated the space.
Margot was quite secretive about her working methods. We would send her a dummy with blanks left for pictures and she would conceive and draw them. Random pencil sketches that showed the barest bones of the scene she had in mind were snatched away before I could enjoy them fully. She didn't make changes to the final art, choosing to redo it instead. Lucky is the child who stumbles upon and is moved by the mystery and fantasy in Margot's vision. Her otherworldly colonials and fairy folk populate books by such noted authors as Jean Fritz, Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, Mildred Pitts Walter, and Wanda Gág. My boss Ferd Monjo once told me that Margot was as old as Cinderella, and she stayed just that age all the time I knew her. —Barbara Lalicki, HarperCollins
Few in this country remember Kaye Webb, the great editor of Puffin Books in the U.K. who helped transform the paperback business there. A dynamo, filled with ideas and a passion for reading, Kaye was married to the satirist Ronald Searle, and moved in the worlds of theater, journalism, politics, and publishing with equal ease. I met her first in the mid '70s in New York when she swept into my office at the Viking Press swathed (and that's the only word for it) in mink. "Darling," she truly shrieked, "don't you love my coat? I told Jim Rose [the chairman of Penguin U.K. who had just acquired a portion of Viking] that it was cold in New York and that I had to have a fur coat for this very important trip."
For the next several years we created joint editions of books in hard and soft, argued ferociously over what books would work in what country (the only one I won was that her favorite, Orlando the Marmalade Cat, would never work here). Though wracked with pain from crippling arthritis and demanding of her loyal and intrepid aides, she never lost sight of the crucial importance of children and reading, to the very end of her life. She inspired fierce loyalty, occasional fury over her high-handed tactics, but at her funeral service in St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, she played for the last time to a full house with a list of speakers of which I was proudly one, as well as Christopher Fry, the playwright, and Peter Mayer, her admirer and antagonist, then head of Penguin International. Kaye was larger than life in a publishing world that still respected passion, devotion, and unstinting work.—George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic
Trina Schart Hyman
When I was just starting out in the business, my boss John Keller and I traveled from Boston to Vermont to attend a children's literature conference. In the course of the trip, I met Trina Schart Hyman, a truly unforgettable character, for the first time. Trina lived in a farmhouse across the river in New Hampshire, a few short miles from the conference, and she invited John and me over for dinner. At that point in her career, Trina had been published by Little, Brown for many years. She was warm, lively, earthy, and mischievous in person. She was also wildly talented, and won many awards and honors in her too-short life, including the Caldecott Medal for St. George and the Dragon in 1985. When I asked Trina if she knew about the conference so close by (she did indeed) and why she wasn't participating in it, she laughed and laughed and asked if I was familiar with the phrase "F**KING BORE." Trina achieved great notoriety when an eagle-eyed reviewer noticed an image of a copulating couple Trina had drawn in her picture book, King Stork and, when I think about it now, I swear I can still hear her laughing. —Betsy Groban, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Jean Feiwel and I both vote for Walter Mayes. I first met Walter when he was a sales rep and I was a bookseller in the SF Bay Area. I was a clerk, and he came into the store for meetings with the buyer. I was a little scared of him, and tried to find some shelving to do in the farthest corner of the store. He’s well over six feet tall, had fiery red hair (still does—you go, Walter!) and made his opinions and his passion for books and readers well- and loudly known, as a rep, as a bookseller, and as an advocate for literacy. And I’d put money on his power to ignite kids’ appetites for reading in his read-aLOUD performances as Walter the Giant Storyteller. Walter now also shares his considerable talents with his middle-school students, as well as in his book collaborations with the fabulous Valerie Lewis. Colorful? Yes. Unforgettable? Definitely. —Liz Szabla, Feiwel and Friends
Some years ago, the great illustrator Tomi Ungerer returned to the United States for the first time in decades to endorse the re-publication of a number of his now classic children’s books. He had been first published by the legendary Ursula Nordstrom of Harper who early recognized his anarchic genius and his profound affinity for rebelliousness and the comic sensibility of young children. Tomi, freshly in America in the sixties , arrived to a country in turmoil, war, civil rights battles, injustices of every sort, all of which proved to be a spur to the thinking of this young Alsatian artist who grew up under Nazi rule, where speaking aloud critically could result in imprisonment or worse. Tomi has always raged against Heaven, as it were, and found his strength as an artist and satirist by recognizing the absurd in the world around him. He became a kind of professional “bad boy” because he didn’t care about what people thought of him beyond his work. Tomi was generous with the time he spent with me on my yearly trips to Ireland during the 80s and 90s.
But the classic incident came during that visit which launched his second “career” in America when he showed up with his wife of many years, Yvonne , and his three children and met my son and I in the bar at the old Gramercy Park hotel. Then a rather rundown local hotel, the bar was quiet and filled with older people when the Ungerers arrived on an Irish wind, exhausted, and with Tomi being shepherded by his family, we settled into supper and some more drinks. With the unerring sense of the wicked, he slowly and quietly, and then triumphantly and in full rhythm launched into the Horst Wessel song. The bar went quiet, the children rolled their eyes, Yvonne touched Tomi’s sleeve, and he finished with a touching childlike remark about power of a marching song. Suddenly the bar came alive again and the evening went on. Fully aware of the moment, Tomi simply said that no one should forget the songs of childhood. And that is his skill as an artist, to arrest muddied thinking and force thoughtful confrontation. Now in his third career in America, with the relaunch of many of his books by Phaidon, he once again will confront safety of thought and pomposity and undoubtedly allow children the opportunity to see and hear anew. —George Nicholson, Sterling Lord Literistic
One of the most colorful characters I've ever met in children's publishing is chairman of Walker Books UK, David Lloyd. I first met David during a Bologna Book Fair when I was publishing a book on the McElderry Books list, the rights for which I'd bought in from Walker. The only word I can find to describe David's approach to me is... swoop. David swooped towards me with a hearty laugh and warm welcome, a bold colorful tie round his neck, a hat at a jaunty angle on his head, just oozing humor and friendship. Our business meeting was full of laughter and merriment. And though we didn't meet up very often after that first time, it was a meeting I've never forgotten for its fun and sense of whimsy. Subsequently, I found out David was a drummer in a band and worked as a clown in several circuses around England before he started to write for children and landed at Walker Books as editor and chairman. I should have known! And what a brilliant platform from which to go into the business of publishing children's books: would that we had a few more rockers and clowns among us in those corporate meetings! —Emma D. Dryden, former publisher, Margaret K. McElderry Books
Over her nearly half-century in children's book publishing, Marjorie Thayer recommended the extra-dry martini as a heaven-sent restorative after a long day at work at library, bookseller, and education conferences. Her miraculously efficient metabolism rendered these lethal concoctions harmless, as they fueled her store of stories. At the end of a particularly hard day in her booth at an ALA conference in the early 1970s, Thayer confessed to a startled Marjorie Jones, editorial director of the Junior Library Guild, that though she might seem indestructible, she feared she might be slowing down. "Some evenings, I'm almost too tired to tell the cocktail waitress I want an extra-dry martini straight up with a twist."
Thayer had kidnapped Jones in the 1950s from the promotion department at Prentice-Hall where Jones was assigned to churn out sales copy for the company's eternally bestselling The Power of Positive Thinking, and put her to work in the company's new children's book department, which Thayer headed. Always grateful for this rescue, Jones thought overnight about how to help her mentor. The next morning she ordered a box of business cards that read: "I am the country's oldest living practicing children's book editor, and I will have an extra-dry martini straight up with a twist, please."
It worked. Thayer handed the card to wait staff, and thus relieved of her ordering effort, continued on into the 1980s—a popular, self-deprecating anecdotalist about herself, her times, and the wonderful world of children's books, which she had entered when Prohibition was dying and children's books in general trade publishing houses were just being born. —Lillian N. Gerhardt, former editor-in-chief, School Library Journal