Few people add the title "author" to their resume in the eighth decade of their lives but there’s a reason that Dick Jackson, a long-time children’s book editor, is an exception to the rule. Jackson has the word “legendary” practically affixed to the front of his name: “He is amazing,” said Caitlyn Dlouhy, whose eponymous imprint at Atheneum Books for Young Readers just released Jackson’s first book, Have a Look, Says Book., illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
But wait, there’s more: in September, Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter Books imprint will publish Jackson’s second title, In Plain Sight, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. “Dick was as brilliant an editor as you could possibly be, but I never thought he harbored any deep desire to write his own books,” said Porter, who has known Jackson since they worked together at Orchard Books in the 1990s. “It is enormously flattering that he would think of me to edit something he’d written, but I can’t deny it was also a little intimidating.”
In fact, Porter bought three manuscripts from Jackson; Dlouhy has bought five.
Jackson, now 81, retired in 2005 after a publishing career that spanned more than four decades and included co-founding Bradbury Press, Orchard Books, and DK Ink. Since his retirement (from Atheneum, where he had his own imprint), he has taken on select projects, editing Susan Patron’s Newbery Medal–winning The Higher Power of Lucky, Brian Floca’s Caldecott Medal–winning Locomotive, and four Robert F. Sibert Honor books.
Selling eight picture books in a short span would be a phenomenal accomplishment for any writer, but Jackson’s feat is even more astonishing, because for the past six years he has been expending considerable effort just to stay healthy. In 2010, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma that has no known cause and is difficult to detect early. “It attacks the bone marrow, and your bones get very frail but that has not started with me yet,” Jackson said. “I’m sort of the poster child for this disease by lasting six years. It can be diagnosed one day, and over a weekend, you’re gone.”
Instead, three years into a regimen of radiation and chemotherapy, Jackson’s imagination went into overdrive. “Words would crop up in the middle of a dream, and I would wake to jot them down. I’d get an idea when I was driving, and I couldn’t wait to get home and get it down,” Jackson said. “I started doing rhyming games with myself, just diddling around with words. It just got crazier and crazier.”
Jackson announced his new career by submitting a manuscript to Atheneum in October 2013. “To my mind, it came completely out of the blue,” Dlouhy said. “I was like, ‘Wait, what? Wow!’ ”
That manuscript, All Eyes, All Ears, is being illustrated by Katherine Tillotson for publication in spring 2017. Jackson also sent Dlouhy the manuscript that became Have a Look, Says Book., which hit bookstores this month. Jackson drew on his many years of reading aloud to his grandchildren for inspiration. “You know how when kids are sitting on your lap they are always touching the illustrations? Touch is one of the senses that doesn’t get a lot of play in picture books, so I thought to write a book of tactile words.” A sample verse:
I am furry says Kitten.
I am wooly says Sock.
I am wet says Mitten.
We are fleecy says Flock
(stock-still on a rock).
Dlouhy “lucked into” signing Kevin Hawkes to illustrate. “By some miracle he was about to be free, which never happens,” she said. Still, Dlouhy faced one formidable task: suggesting revisions to a former colleague. “I have only been truly intimidated twice in my publishing life,” Dlouhy said. “The first time was when I had to edit the chapters Oscar Hijuelos sent me when he was writing his first YA [Dark Dude, 2008], and the second time was when I had to write an editorial letter to the legendary Dick Jackson.”
Unsurprisingly, Jackson “was as gracious and welcoming of ideas as an author could be,” Dlouhy said. “He loved the back and forth, and there was no beating around the bush. He was quick to say when he agreed with a suggestion I’d made or to explain what he was trying to do if he didn’t like one.”
Rounding out the five Jackson picture book texts that Dlouhy has signed are This Beautiful Day, illustrated by Suzy Lee (summer 2017); a retelling of the Three Billy Goats Gruff (2018); and Tree of Cats (also 2018).
Over at Roaring Brook, Porter was also stunned to receive a manuscript from Jackson. He asked Jerry Pinkney to illustrate In Plain Sight, a story about a grandfather who playfully tests his granddaughter’s observation skills by hiding things around his room. Porter said he’d always wanted to work with Pinkney, and this title seemed perfect: “It’s an old-guy kind of book, and we’re three old guys with a lot of admiration for each other, so I thought we should work on it together.” (Jackson and Pinkney will appear together at BEA to talk about their collaboration.)
Like Dlouhy, Porter had one nervous moment: “Dick clearly knew what he wanted; he had all the page breaks already inserted in the text,” Porter recalled. “He also had art notes, and I finally had to tell him, ‘We need to lose those. This is Jerry Pinkney. Let’s give him a long leash. He’s earned that.’ ”
Porter signed up Laura Vaccaro Seeger to illustrate Jackson’s Snow Scene (fall 2017), a book with simple, minimal text. “She and I have done 16 books together, but she has never illustrated anybody else’s work,” Porter said. Seeger and Jackson edited the book together over the telephone. “We got it down to 74 words,” Jackson said. “She has her own vision for the book, which is perfectly fine.”
The third title for Porter, Tessa Takes Wing (September 2017), is perhaps the most fanciful in Jackson’s oeuvre. “It is about a very small child who, much to the reader’s amazement, sprouts wings and propels herself out of her crib to fly around her room,” Jackson said. “Her parents can’t see her. She’s visible only to us and her dog.” Julie Downing is illustrating.
There is a wide variety of styles in the eight books Jackson has sold (all without an agent). “I know enough not to do the same book twice,” he said. And he has more ideas. He can’t explain his late-in-life productivity except to say that the “late” part probably has a lot to do with the output. He is not cured; his cancer is not in remission. He maintains a regimen of chemotherapy in pill form, he naps every day, and he does not go out into the world too much, because his immune system is compromised. Producing his own books has been “tremendous fun,” he said. “It gives me energy rather than the reverse. I felt a certain urgency to do the work while I still could.”