Children’s book author and illustrator Barbara Seuling, a former editor also known for teaching about writing for young people, died September 12 in Lebanon, N.H. of complications from cancer. She was 79.
Seuling was born July 22, 1937 in Brooklyn, N.Y., where, she said in her autobiography, that her parents, extended family, and neighbors, steadily filled her young imagination with stories. Her mother instilled in her a love of reading and books – and the habit of spending Saturdays in the local public library. Summers were often spent at family members’ beach bungalows or in the country where she was able to roam and learn about nature with her cousins and older brother. Seuling’s younger brother was born when she was nine, and she has noted that it was reading to him that cemented her love for children’s books.
Seuling was a good student before and after a rough and awkward patch during junior high. And though she was unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, Seuling knew that drawing might be a part of it. As a child, she said in her autobiography, “I showed talent for drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil.”
When she was a young teenager in the early 1950s, Seuling said a film about singer and actress Jane Froman, With a Song in My Heart, changed her life. She became fascinated with the story of Froman’s recovery from terrible injuries suffered in a plane crash during a 1943 USO tour. Seuling joined the Jane Froman Fan Club, the Fromanettes, a group of like-minded girls she met when she tracked down Froman’s Manhattan address. Seuling and Froman eventually met and became close friends, and another member of the Fan Club, Winnette, became Seuling’s best friend, and later, her wife. It was through her work on a newsletter for the Fan Club that Seuling first dipped her toe more seriously into writing, drawing, and editing.
Upon graduating from high school, Seuling studied at Hunter College in Manhattan while working a full-time day job at an insurance company. At age 19 she found a job at Columbia University, where one of her benefits was free college credits. But the grueling pace of working full-time and going to night school got to be too much and Seuling ended her studies after several years.
Seuling’s first official step into publishing was when she landed a job as a secretary to two editors at Dell Publishing, where a fledgling children’s books department was just being established under the leadership of Lee Hoffman. Hoffman took Seuling under her wing, and when the children’s department expanded, offered her an assistant job. Hoffman left Dell and she was succeeded by George Nicholson, to whom Seuling became an assistant. She learned about all the various publishing departments as Nicholson grew the division and established the Yearling line of paperback reprints and Delacorte Press, among other things. Nicholson gave Seuling her first true illustration job as well, when he assigned her the artwork for a middle-grade novel. On her own, she had also begun writing the Freaky Facts nonfiction series published by Xerox Educational Publications.
When Nicholson later moved to Viking, he published Seuling’s first picture book there, The Teeny Tiny Woman: An Old-English Ghost Story (1976). She wrote and illustrated several more picture books, and also illustrated picture-book texts for other authors. In addition, she continued with the Freaky Facts books and other nonfiction, as well as puzzle books. She left Dell in the early 1970s and worked for two years at Lippincott before deciding to become a freelance writer and illustrator.
Her body of work continued to grow, and in the late 1990s, Seuling wrote the early chapter book title Oh No, It’s Robert!, illus. by Paul Brewer and published by Cricket Books. A series about Robert followed and was a hit for Scholastic Book Clubs, for which Seuling wrote more than 20 titles. Cricket also published those subsequent Robert stories – two per volume – in hardcover.
Outside of her own children’s book projects, Seuling used her extensive publishing experience to lead small private writing workshops. Her adult nonfiction title How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published, first released in 1984, was considered a key read for aspiring authors and is currently in its third edition. She taught a class in writing for children at the Graduate School at Bank Street and offered workshops and lectures in Manhattan and summer writing workshops in Vermont. With fellow author and editor Fran Manushkin, she took part in an education project in early 2002, sponsored by the George Soros Foundation that involved teaching the craft of picture book writing to a group of students (who were selected in an application process) from 28 countries in what was formerly the Soviet Union. The project was rewarding in many ways, especially because Seuling has said, “Of all I have written, the work I love best is in picture books. Picture books offer the greatest challenges and bring the most satisfaction.”
Manushkin recalled the Soros Foundation project and offered some memories of her friend and colleague: “Many people were shy about flying after Sept. 11, but Barb wasn’t,” Manushkin said. “She created a smart and thoughtful curriculum to help writers and illustrators from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia, Mongolia, and Russia create books for newly freed citizens: books that show children solving everyday problems. These books are still available in many languages.”
Manushkin added, “Barb’s work also lives on through American writers she mentored for years in New York and in her summer workshops in Vermont. Barb was also an impetus behind the formation of a writers group that has been going strong for 25 years: in the past, our group included Harry Mazer and Norma Fox Mazer, Ellen Levine, and Miriam Cohen. It is sad to add Barb to this list of supportive and wonderful writers who are no longer with us.”
Children’s author Marvin Terban, who co-founded the writers group with Seuling, shared these words about his longtime friend: “Barbara was one of the nicest, kindest, most supportive, most loving creatures who ever walked this Earth, or, in her later years, who ever tootled along upon it in her scooter. She was a major influence in the children’s publishing world, especially through her classic book How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published. Many followed her sage advice and achieved their dreams of being published because of her. Many others took her summer writing course at her home in Vermont. Several good books came out of those summer workshops too.”
“Barbara was a great storyteller, as her many wonderful books amply prove," Terban said. "Her timing was excellent. But this week, my dear friend's timing was off because she left us far too soon. We are heartbroken that she is gone. But those who knew her are grateful that for a period of time, whether long or short, she was part of our lives. Sweet dreams, dear Barbara.”
Seuling is survived by her wife, schoolteacher and artist Winnette Glasgow, her younger brother, Dennis, and four nieces.