The University of Oklahoma Press, a scholarly press renowned for its emphasis on history and biography about the Western U.S., is moving in a new direction, with the publication this month of Lois Lenski: Storycatcher by Bobbie Malone. Lois Lenski is a biography for adults of the prolific children’s book author and illustrator who wrote 52 books between 1927 and 1972, primarily children’s and YA historical and regional fiction, but also her memoirs. The second of her 15 regional novels, Strawberry Girl, about a family working in the fields in rural Florida, won the 1946 Newbery Medal. Lenski also illustrated the popular Betsy Tacy novels by Maud Hart Lovelace.
“Lois Lenski had a huge impact upon people of a certain age,” said Kent Calder, acquisitions editor at the University of Oklahoma Press. “There’s a whole group of readers out there in their 60s who remember these books about people in different parts of the country, and were shaped by them. And her illustrations are immediately recognizable so we tried to get as many of them as possible in.” The 336-page book contains 36 black-and-white illustrations.
“She is such an important writer and illustrator,” Malone added, “And the stories she told are so important: she talked about children who were poor, about things that happened to them that weren’t always happy. She made a huge impression on me.” Malone says that she began reading Lenski’s books in “fourth or fifth grade,” and began collecting them in the 1980s. Lenski died in 1974, a month shy of her 81st birthday.
Calder and Malone told PW that they had once been colleagues at the Wisconsin Historical Society: she had been director of the Office of School Services there until her retirement, and he had been the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press until he moved to Norman, Okla. to assume his current position. Calder knew, they said, that Malone had been traveling around the country since 2008 and researching Lenski’s life in the various collections around the country of Lenski’s papers, including what Calder describes as “a big chunk of” Lenski’s papers housed at the University of Oklahoma in its Western History Collection. It is the largest of the 18 collections.
Malone called Lenski a “challenging” subject to research and write about, as she “wanted to control how her story was told.” The collections at the institutions housing her papers contain both published and unpublished materials, but lack personal letters and other such documents, as “she was very private about her personal life” and wanted only materials relating to her professional persona preserved. “She either destroyed the personal [papers] or didn’t put them in the archives,” Malone said, disclosing that she was able to peruse family letters and photographs after establishing a relationship with Lenski’s family.
Malone’s literary agent, George Nicholson, who was also the agent for the Lois Lenski Covey Foundation, had suggested to Malone that she submit her manuscript to a press affiliated with one of the institutions housing Lenski’s papers. After Nicholson died in 2015, Calder negotiated directly with Malone to acquire the manuscript.
“It’s one of those happy coincidences,” Calder said of his relationship with Malone preceding the acquisition, noting that Lois Lenski is “unusual” for an academic press with a focus on Western history and biography that publishes only 10% of its list for the trade. The unexpected success of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Bibliography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, however, had an impact on the decision to acquire Lois Lenski. Pioneer Girl was published by South Dakota Historical Society Press in 2014; it has gone back to press eight times, and currently has 165,000 copies in print. Its success in the marketplace caught SDHSP completely by surprise.
“We can’t imagine that happening,” Calder said, but if there is a sudden and insatiable demand for Lois Lenski as there was for Pioneer Girl, the press has “production systems in place” for a quick turn-around. “We publish 100 books a year,” he added, “We have a fully operational production department that can get on top of it.”
Lois Lenski is being released with a 2,000-copy print run, which is about average for a first printing for the university press. While the publisher has not done anything special before publication to promote it, beyond sending out press packets and ARCs to media, it is sending an ARC to one media outlet that it usually does not bother contacting: O Magazine.
“Oprah Winfrey is a big Lois Lenski reader,” Calder said, disclosing that Winfrey has repeatedly spoken in interviews of her childhood love for Lenski’s novels. “We’re not counting on anything – but it’s possible with Oprah.”
Lois Lenski: Storycatcher by Bobbie Malone. University of Oklahoma Press, $26.95 July ISBN 978-0-8061-5386-5