Prolific children’s author, collage artist, and world traveler Ann McGovern died on Saturday, August 8, at her home in New York City. She was 85.
McGovern was born on May 25, 1930 in New York City. In her autobiography on her website, McGovern describes the circumstances of her childhood as difficult and sad, following the death of her father when she was five years old, and further complicated by her stuttering. She found solace in going to the library and reading books—especially fairy tales and adventures in faraway places. In elementary school, McGovern enjoyed writing poems and stories for her friends to illustrate. She even created a magazine with one friend that they printed and sold for a nickel per copy.
In high school, McGovern admitted that she was not a strong student. She worked several jobs during her teen years including mending and shelving books at a library, waitressing, and sorting clothes in a department store. After graduation, she attended the University of New Mexico (“the only college that would accept me,” she said in her autobiography) in Albuquerque. She married following her freshman year and had a son soon after. When the marriage ended, she headed back to New York to live with her sister.
McGovern continued to write whenever she could find a spare moment, and read voraciously. She landed her first job in publishing in the 1950s, at age 22, with Little Golden Books, and wrote several books for the company, most of them based on popular children’s cartoons and programs. She left Golden Books and did freelance writing before she took a position with Random House in the editorial department. During her time there, she wrote Why It’s a Holiday, a nonfiction title about holidays inspired by her son Peter’s questions, which was published in 1960. McGovern was a close friend of Ezra Jack Keats, and has said in interviews that Keats’s main character in the classic The Snowy Day was named after her son. Keats’s Whistle for Willie is dedicated to her, as well.
More published titles followed, including picture books (Zoo, Where Are You? illus. by Ezra Jack Keats, Harper, 1964), biographies (Runaway Slave: The Story of Harriet Tubman, Four Winds, 1965; the If You… series, Scholastic) and folktale retellings (Stone Soup, Scholastic, 1968), as did a new publishing job, with Scholastic. McGovern worked as an editor at the company for 13 years and during her tenure established the popular SeeSaw Book Club aimed at kindergarten and first grade readers. By the time McGovern left Scholastic to become a full-time writer, she had already published 18 books. Over her career, she amassed a catalogue of 55 titles.
In 1970, McGovern married Martin Scheiner, with whom she formed a blended family and traveled to all seven continents. (She also did school visits in all the states except Idaho, according to her website.) McGovern credited Scheiner with encouraging her to sail and scuba dive—despite her initial fear. She also accompanied Scheiner as he photographed total solar eclipses all over the world. McGovern’s excursions on land and underwater inspired several books along the way, some including photos by Scheiner and son Jim. McGovern continued to travel to visit her far-flung children and grandchildren and also took trips with friends following Scheiner’s death in 1992.
Scholastic chairman, CEO and president Dick Robinson told PW, “She brought fun, curiosity and a sense of adventure to everything she did, so writing and promoting books for children reflected her passion for life. She was a creative and passionate force in children’s books, bringing her own love of life to the work she cared so much about: exciting children to be curious about the adventure of life and learning.”
Longtime friend Judy Blume said, “I adored her. Her love of life, her curiosity, her energy, imagination, generosity—and that's just the beginning of what was special about Annie. On the day we said goodbye I choked up. She told me not to get maudlin. Then she cracked a joke about Bill Mauldin. What her friends learned from her was how to live, how to keep being excited by life. And then, how to die as she lived, with dignity, and on her own terms. She was an inspiration.”
Cartoonist Mort Gerberg, another of McGovern’s longstanding friends, offered this remembrance: “Among the many, many wonderful qualities about Annie, my friend of over 50 years, were her limitless generosity, boundless optimism, inexhaustible energy and great sense of humor. She was responsible for starting the children’s book part of my career by asking me to illustrate her Scholastic book, Ghostly Giggles, in 1972, because she thought my magazine cartoons were funny and would work well with her text. But I always cherished what I thought was my total, all-in-one, loving, comprehensive, work-and-play experience of Annie, when, one day, she told me emphatically that she had decided that I would do the drawings for her new book, Mr. Skinner’s Skinny House, because, she said, I was, unquestionably, the skinniest artist she had ever known.”
A memorial will be held at a yet-to-be-determined date in September.