Legendary children’s book publisher, editor, and author Richard “Dick” Jackson died on October 2 from complications of multiple myeloma. We’ve gathered a number of tributes to Jackson from authors, colleagues, and friends.
Dick Jackson gave me my career and changed my life. How do you thank someone for that? I’d tried many times but he always said, “Oh, it would have happened anyway.” I don’t think so. Dick discovered Iggie’s House in the slush pile at Bradbury Press in 1969. The day he called to say he’d like to meet me and talk about the manuscript was the most exciting day of my life. From that first meeting he nurtured and encouraged me as a writer. He became my protector, my champion, my mentor, and the best editor any writer could dream of having. I always felt safe with Dick leading the way. I knew he had my back. We worked together on 12 books from 1970 to 1993. I once asked what he’d seen in Iggie’s House and he said, “I saw the next book and the book after that.”
Our work sessions were filled with laughter. Dick had a deliciously wicked sense of humor. He found things funny in my books that I didn’t even know were funny. We met face to face whenever possible, three times during the writing of each book. From the beginning, he asked questions about my characters. He always said I knew much more about them than I revealed in early drafts. He was right, of course. He guided me by asking the right questions. He knew what I was trying to say and he helped me say it as well as I could.
He taught me so well that even when I was working without him it was his voice I heard in my head asking me the questions that would unleash my imagination and solve my problems. All his authors felt the same way about him. Each of us thought, when we were working with him, we were the only ones. That’s how he made us feel. What an incredible gift. And then there was the gift of friendship that grew over 50 years. Losing him feels like the end of an era. There is no one else like him. There never will be. But I’m one of the lucky ones—I got to work with and know Dick Jackson.
Dick Jackson picked me out of the slush pile. I had returned to the U.S. from Zimbabwe after 17 years and wanted to publish a children’s book. I had no idea how to do it. In Africa it was easy. The editors wanted books and our main problems were getting enough paper and typewriter ribbons to write them. A friend gave me a list of children’s editors. I didn’t recognize any of the names, so I picked the one living closest to me. I sent Dick Jackson a copy of Do You Know Me and he sent it back, saying it needed more work. I didn’t know what he meant because in Zimbabwe all I had to do was give the manuscript to the editor. He would ask, “How long is it?” When I told him he gave me 10 cents per word and 10% royalties. It was a simple system.
I took out a few words and semicolons from the manuscript and sent it back. Dick called up and said, “You are being lazy. This is what I want you to do.” I followed his directions and he accepted the novel. It wasn’t until later that I discovered how unusual this was. When he realized I had a hazy idea of spelling and punctuation, he sent me a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. He was the first person to print realistic books about African children.
Dick and I worked together for the rest of his life. Although we were friends, we were very different. He liked going to plays, operas, and visiting the houses of writers in England. He was a civilized city person. I was a savage who liked camping in a desert. He would ask me, “What do you do out there?” “Look for coyote tracks,” I replied. “What do you do in Jane Austen’s back yard?” But he overlooked my faults, built my career, and was always an ally. A great editor and human being.
Looking back, with a touch of bittersweet irony that Dick would no doubt appreciate, one of my earliest memories of him was standing in front of a conference table at the old Macmillan building, speaking with great eloquence and emotion about his late partner at Bradbury Press, Bob Verrone, who had just passed away. Thirty-five years later, I only wish that I could summon Dick’s extraordinary command of language at this moment, but a single anecdote will have to suffice.
During the years that we were working together, ALA Midwinter was always a particularly fraught time for us. “Do I have to go?” Dick would ask. “Yes, you have to go,” I’d respond. “Everyone will want to see you, but maybe I’ll sit this one out.” Of course, we both ended up going, each and every year, and usually ended up enjoying ourselves. In 1993, the meeting was in Denver, and on Sunday night we followed our time-honored tradition of going to the movies while the awards committees deliberated. The movie we chose that year was Lorenzo’s Oil, an impossibly sad film about a child with a rare and invariably fatal illness. It turned out that Dick had an acquaintance whose child was similarly afflicted. Our marketing manager, Allison Murphy, was pregnant with her first child, and I had lost many friends to AIDS, still raging at that time. The film ended, the credits rolled, the theater emptied; the three of us reduced to puddles. “Not an auspicious choice, I fear,” Dick intoned, and I don’t think any of us slept a wink that night.
The following morning, we got the news that Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May, a Richard Jackson Book, had won the Newbery Medal. “In retrospect, not a bad night at the movies after all,” said Dick. A central theme of Missing May is the notion that love can transform and ameliorate grief. I know that will be true in time, but I suspect that I will always be missing Dick.
Toward the end of 2007, in the throes of making the book Moonshot, I found myself bogged down on one particular spread. I sent draft after draft to Dick. Draft after draft after draft, until I started wondering what I was trying to do, and why, certain only that I must be abusing Dick’s patience and confidence. When Dick called, I braced myself. “I don’t know,” he said. “They all work, but none of them sing.” It wasn’t what I expected to hear, it wasn’t even what I thought I wanted to hear, but it was the perfect response: license (and a request) to keep going, a reminder that with Dick the goal was always to make the book sing, and that the singing was always worth the time and effort, both mine and his. In truth this wasn’t something Dick often needed to say outright; most of the time he made me understand it simply by how he talked about the work, by the level at which he thought about even the smallest aspects of it, the way he kept asking questions when a book wasn’t succeeding, and the way he was quietly happy when it was. His standards were high, and he made me want to meet them.
If that meant work, and a lot of it—if the phone might ring (or be rung) at any time, weekends and evenings, or if one or two or three things to do with a book might occur to us even after the book was finished (“finished”)—well, that was fine with us both. The work was work but also play, in the most meaningful sense of the word. Our conversations about words, pictures, and page turns could feel like puzzle solving, or stagecraft, or shop class, and sometimes they were so much fun they felt like conspiracy. Always, too, they were an education. I never finished a phone call with Dick without a renewed sense of energy, humor, and purpose.
Dick was a reserved person in many ways, and like it or not so am I, but the work and play of making books for ourselves and our readers opened us both. Dick was my editor and my friend for 28 years. I was lucky to know him. He allowed me not only to do my best work, but to be my best self. I owe him more than I can say, in more ways than I can say. Neither work nor life will be the same without him.
Norma Jean Sawicki
At sales conferences, Dick could hold a room of seasoned book people spellbound as he presented the new books on the forthcoming list. Always enthusiastic about the books as well as the writers and illustrators who created them, he was private and respectful of the editorial relationship. Never in 50-plus years did I ever hear him say... “I did this” or “I suggested that.” The editorial relationship was confidential, and was broken only with the encouragement/wishes of the writer or the illustrator. He believed it took courage to be a writer, as well as an artist, and he did what needed doing in order for each writer and illustrator to do his/her best work.
He was a wise, astute publisher and an extraordinary human being whose love, respect, and admiration for his terrific wife, Nancy, and their three children and grandchildren, reigned supreme.
George Ella Lyon
In May 1984, I came home from a family bike ride, checked the mailbox, and found this note from Dick, tucked into a copy of Paul Janeczko’s Strings, which included poems of mine:
Paul has xeroxed a letter from February in which you told
him a bit about your life (and name), and it’s because of
that letter that I write particularly. It’s so lively and stylish!
I wonder if you’ve ever thought of (or tried) writing fiction
for kids.... I’d love to see anything you might have lying
about (or in mind).... Think about it, and thanks!
With those words, Dick Jackson changed my life.
I knew his invitation was a miracle, and immediately sent him stories and songs I’d made up for my son, then four. “Keep trying,” Dick replied. Along with Father Time and the Day Boxes, the first book he accepted, I sent a longish story based on my mother’s childhood. “Too complex for a picture book,” Dick said. “Why don’t you write a novel?” “I’m a poet,” I protested. “I can’t write a novel.” Dick didn’t miss a beat. “If you don’t want to work, just say so. But if you do, I’m willing to work with you.”
Challenging, intuitive, funny, kind, Dick reached out and called forth my work by believing it was possible. He did this for many writers and artists, I know, yet he always made me feel I had his full attention. That was part of his gift, his magic.
My first job in children’s publishing was at Bradbury Press. There were four of us—Norma Jean Sawicki, Margaret La Mare, Dick Jackson... and me, their assistant. Dick and Margaret shared a windowless office, and Dick’s desk—piled high and defying gravity—was tucked in a nook in the back corner. Sometimes he had lunch there with an author or artist, pulling out that little desk extension for a clear spot. I remember once getting a glimpse of early Henry and Mudge sketches when I delivered sandwiches to Dick and Suçie Stevenson. Judy Blume called. Judy Blume! Avi! Gary Paulsen came to the office. Gary Paulsen! I was invited to look at Stephen Gammell paintings when Dick, Norma Jean, and Margaret spread them out—in book order—on the floor. Dick didn’t really need an assistant, of course. He worked on the entire book, all the stages and elements, and cared so deeply about every detail. Once I begged to write a flap. Okay! Try A Fine White Dust. I gave it to him proudly. He politely read my tortured flap, thanked me, and then wrote it himself. I remember his cheerful ties—they reminded me of my dad—and cheerful eyes and the way he popped his head around the corner at the end of the day to wish me a good night. Consistent, kind, irreverent, funny, he was always there to observe and listen to and learn from, and for that I am deeply grateful.
It was an honor and thrill when all these years later Dick sent me several picture book manuscripts for the Greenwillow list. We’ve published two so far. First A Kiss for Akaraka, which was illustrated by E.B. Goodale; then Puddle, which he wrote for Chris Raschka. Dick would call and we’d talk about everything. The placement of the words on the page, the trim size, the page turns, a character’s body language, the history of a word, movement, color. Should we really ask the art director to painstakingly make the punctuation marks in Puddle round, to match our puddle, even though the font itself had square punctuation? Yes! We ought to, don’t you think? Yes. And who do you think wrote the flaps?
Dick was the most gracious man I have ever known.
When I mailed his small publishing company a story from my apartment in Huntington, W.Va., in 1979, I could not have imagined that the course of my life would be decided because of him. Not because Dick wanted my story—a picture book called The Relatives Came about my Appalachian family’s summer reunions—but because he believed, truly believed, in me. That I was a writer. He once said there are authors and there are writers. I wanted to be a writer. And he wanted me to write. He would drop me a note, “What are you thinking of, what are you writing?” He would mail photocopies of poems he loved and knew I would, too. I could talk to him about James Agee, about William Maxwell, and he was the one person who understood, then, back when I was in my 20s, why I loved their writing, why they meant so much to me. Dick invited me, again and again, to send him something, or tell him what I was reading. I went through some unstable times the first 10 years we made books together. He would send me blank contracts when the money situation looked dire. He was my hero in many ways. When I was a small child, my grandmother took care of me for nearly four years. After I grew up, I said to her, “You saved me.” And I could have said those same words to Dick.
We both loved the children’s book by Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family. We both knew it was genius. It is a story about being alone. And then one day, not. Love comes crashing in from every unexpected direction. Wherever Dick’s soul has gone, I hope the animals have gathered around him, I hope the poets are reading their poems aloud, and that there are stars forming the words “Welcome, dear friend.”
I first met Dick Jackson a few years after he and Bob Verrone founded Bradbury Press. As a young reading teacher working in a cash-strapped public school outside New Orleans and writing a quarterly column on children’s literature in an obscure underground newspaper, I was a newbie nobody. Still, whenever I saw him at conferences, Dick Jackson unfailingly showed me the same kindness as he did to, say, Helen Kinsey, then children’s book editor at Booklist. This unshakable consideration for others was his hallmark, but it was not until I had the honor of interviewing him in 1996 that I realized how deeply those qualities reached into so many aspects of his work.
At that time, Dick admitted that he published authors and illustrators, not books. “How?” I asked. The reply: “I listen, I look—sympathetically,” believing that the art of an editor is to “dare” fine books into existence. Dick Jackson rejected books coming from a high-minded adult rather than the nature of the young characters. A Richard Jackson Book, in Dick’s mind, created theater, and characters with distinct voices, histories, and personalities. The resulting protagonists, ranging from Margaret Simon in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to the myriad of individuals (including mutant detectives) in The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, have the ability to show readers that literature is “real life understood better.” Those of us who knew Dick Jackson may well remember his decency and grace, but the millions of readers who experience that “real life understood better” now know the power of literature. In my book, that’s as good as it gets.
“Dick Jackson likes weird books.” Or so a friend thought. “You write weird books. Send him something.” Had I just hit a Street Called Easy? Not exactly. Nevertheless, having sent him my first hand-drawn dummy I received a three-line note back: “Thank you for Charlie Parker played be bop. I quite love it. Can we meet?” (Later Dick confessed that he wasn’t sure about what was going on in this book and wanted to see if I was of sound mind.) At the end of our meeting he said to me, “Some people will get this book and that’s great. We love ’em. Some people won’t get this book. F*** ’em.”
Dick Jackson was not my Street Called Easy, he was a Highway Called Easy for so many of us, with countless branchings and exchanges. The street has come to an end. I know Dick wants us to build new roads.
How does one edit the editor extraordinaire who is Richard Jackson? That was my initial thought when Dick suggested sending me “a little something I scribbled down,” to consider editing, to consider for publication. Other thoughts immediately followed—of great honor, anticipated fun, and, yes, more than a modicum of terror. What if I offered up bad ideas? Egads—what if I had no ideas? I needn’t have worried; with his inimitable grace and humor Dick left one feeling that every suggestion was worthy, every great idea yours even when they actually came from him.
The unexpected revelation? When wearing his author hat (a jaunty one, but subtle-y so), another side of Dick Jackson emerged—one containing hints of shy, a simmering excitement, and a white knight in the battle of comma overuse. Both of us firm believers in show-don’t-tell, here are flashes of Dick, as author:
Upon discovering I had giddily fired off a second starred review sans any other vital information: What’s the source of this pleasing news? Oh, I shall become impossible.
Upon sending me a pair of new manuscripts: When ideas come they come not spies but in battalions, as Hamlet notes.
Upon my querying a line he’d slipped into near final proofs of Have a Look Says Book: The whiff line comes from the flowered wallpaper past which the chair floats, could all be roses for something whiffier.
Upon seeing proofs of This Beautiful Day: The latest is lovely. I am happy. I am spoiled.
On a comma question: Interesting. I could do without it, actually.
On another: Ladies, I have tried, but cannot love that comma placement.
I was the one spoiled, clearly, and what is now impossible is to know that the streak of magnificence that was Dick Jackson has left our worldly world. His books, so many books already, and more to come, are with us, at least (comma or no, Dick?) for when we need the whiffier.
I was terribly saddened to learn of the death of Dick Jackson, a good friend and one of the great editors.
Over many years I worked with him on some 20 books. Among his many skills was his ability to work with very different writers. I rather suspected the way he worked with me was not at all the way he worked—or was—with Paula Fox or Judy Blume, Brian Floca or so many others. In fact, during the few times I was with him when he was with a group of his writers and illustrators, he looked positively uncomfortable, as if he much preferred to be with us individually. Chameleon-like, if you will, but creatively so.
He was enormous fun to work with. So many of our editorial talks were punctuated with laughter, and rich creativity. To talk out a problem, a difficulty, was to find creative ways to solve the problem. I loved working with him. And while I know he would be embarrassed to have it expressed, I loved the man. And I have absolutely no doubt that in that emotion, I stand in a large crowd.
During a blizzard one night I sat on my office floor, writing and faxing Dick. Thermal faxes curled and rolled over and away across the floor as I wrote four board books—sending them to him in real time. He’d comment, I’d write. I’d write, he’d comment. I was unsure of the genre, I was unsure of my abilities. But soon the stories were done and the snow had let up. I faxed him that I had no words for him being there when I was so unsure. He told me he had no doubt I would always find the words. Always. I didn’t believe him then, but I always remember his words when I’m searching for my own.
Most people think of words and pictures when they think about Dick Jackson. I’d like to give a shout-out to his numbers.
When I arrived at Simon & Schuster in 1998, Dick had moved on to another house to work his magic. Once a week the S&S children’s division held a reprint meeting, where we reviewed the books that needed to be reprinted before the stock got too low. Information about each book was put up on a viewgraph (yes, a viewgraph), which listed historical data about the title—pub date, sales, and the name of the editor. Book after book after book, the name that appeared was Jackson, Jackson, Jackson. Hatchet, One-Eyed Cat, The House of the Scorpion, A Blue-Eyed Daisy, The Relatives Came—on and on they went.
Dick often said: “You can’t get by on your charm alone.” He had masses of charm, unfailing instincts, and perfect pitch. Phenomenal numbers, too.
It was around 2001 when I first began working with Dick Jackson. As have so many before me, I soon became devoted to the man, his intelligence, warmth, humor, and vision. He was such fun to work with and he knew exactly how to coax the best possible book out of his authors and illustrators, certainly out of me. I am so proud of the books we made together.
Dick had taste and an appetite for the arts. His emails were often peppered with references to something he had seen. For example, this bit from when I was working on the illustrations for All the Water by George Ella Lyon: “The most recent Duccio purchased by the Met shows the Babe reaching one hand up to touch (or almost touch) the Virgin’s face. It’s powerful (and sweet, yes, that too). What about a child’s gesture toward the mother??” And the following from our correspondence on Dick’s own picture book, All Ears All Eyes: “Take a look at Greif ‘Sonate de Requiem’ on the Avie label for a beautiful forest scene—not moonlit but in effect something like it. I have no idea about the music... I was looking up a Handel piece on this rather obscure label and came across this image.”
I have to admit among my favorite emails were the ones that arrived in all caps. I was delighted with “NIFTY” and the note that included “I LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS” (this triple love was delivered for the cover sketch of Penguin and Little Blue by Megan McDonald).
He was a well published author and there are several manuscripts still in the works with various houses. Our last book together is one of them. A wry and funny retelling of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” it includes a salute to storytelling by a grand master of the art form. I am deeply grateful to have known and worked with him.
Dick was famous for being an incredibly fast reader—no one was quicker at responding to agents or authors—so when I started working with him at Atheneum I assumed he was a speed-reader. In fact, he told me, he was a very slow reader because he was dyslexic. And yes, he had talked to his therapist about how interesting this was given his choice of career. No doubt because he was dyslexic, and also because of his theater background, reading was a physical experience for him. He told me once that he paid attention to his body when he was reading a submission, and if he found himself shifting a lot or sighing, that was a signal that maybe something was wrong. It was entirely typical of Dick to pay attention to something easily overlooked and intuitive like this and articulate it so precisely into really excellent (and funny) editorial advice—which I use to this day.
I had heard of Richard Jackson’s distinguished reputation from the very beginning of my career, though it was some time before we met face to face. As my work garnered more attention, I was frequently invited to attend children’s literature conferences, and somewhere along the way, Dick and I were finally introduced. Conversation was casual between us at first, but in time our exchanges gradually lengthened.
Years after our first meeting, we appeared together on a panel at the Key West Book Festival. Dick was there, and Judy Blume, along with a number of other authors I can no longer bring to mind. What I remember is the subject, “Subversion in Children’s Literature,” and how it took us all by surprise. We found it a little confusing perhaps, but that allowed us to open up more than we might have. Later, I listened to Dick share a piece of his editing process. I remember being taking aback when he spoke of typing out on a typewriter each sentence and paragraph of a novel he was editing—how remarkable his willingness to invest that level of effort to get inside the text! It was an eye-opening reveal, and my respect for him only deepened.
In 2014, Neal Porter asked me to illustrate In Plain Sight, which Dick had written. I loved his text, but I also relished the idea of expanding this relationship, and that feeling served as an impetus for my creative energy. After the book’s release, we attended BookExpo America in Chicago, to introduce our new collaboration. Dick and I spent many hours together over the course of the week attending panels, book signings, and dinners; but it was during the in-between times that we engaged in spirited talk—from one subject to another, from one reveal to the next, and from broadening smiles to outright laughter.
Of course I will always think of Dick Jackson’s elegant, productive years as publisher and editor extraordinaire. And then I will pause and remember, too, that gentle, infectious smile, and the heart behind it.
Over the last 20 years as an executive art director at S&S I worked with Dick primarily on picture books. I came to have deep admiration and great affection for him, always looking forward to our meetings and phone calls. He’d get down to business right away but all business with him was enhanced by side-stories. Sometimes he’d dish out a bit of gossip, or unspool an incisive commentary about current affairs, but he could also render a most tender tale about his or someone else’s childhood. He was a storyteller at heart.
He had strong opinions about the world he inhabited and when it came to developing picture books this was always evident. He’d waste no time getting to the points he wanted addressed, always pushing for The Best Book Possible. An example of this principle was apparent in the last fully realized book we worked on together, The Magic Flute by Chris Raschka. Chris had come up with the idea to make a graphic novel picture book of that wild-and-crazy opera by Mozart. It was no simple task to break it down for young readers and Dick and I sent it back to Chris for close to two years’ worth of revisions. There was no reason to push the schedule for an arbitrary deadline so Chris worked and reworked and finally pulled through with a strong book brimming with grace and competence, delighting us all.
I will miss Dick Jackson immensely. In addition to all his professional merit he was a special and dear human being.
Dick called me at work the Monday morning of the 2007 ALA Midwinter conference, just after the announcement that The Higher Power of Lucky had been awarded the Newbery Medal, tears of emotion in his voice. I’d been sending versions of the book to him for 10 years. The shining force of his faith in the work—both noun and verb—got me through. We talked a little; I asked him if there was some kind of Newbery Manual so I’d know what to expect next; he laughed. Then he said that I was scheduled to be on the Today Show the next morning, and a flight from L.A. to NYC was being arranged.
“Do I really need to?” I asked. That sounds petulant but the truth is, I wasn’t a fan of talk shows and I hated flying. Plus, as he and I had always agreed, my job was to write the next book, not necessarily to market the last one. “We’re doing a training workshop for new children’s librarians tomorrow,” I added. (I was the juvenile materials collection development manager for the Los Angeles Public Library and I loved my work.) Then Dick explained: this coming year would not be about me. It would be about honoring the award, honoring the American Library Association, and honoring the Association for Library Service to Children. “Get used to it,” he said, “and have fun. See?” Yes, I did see and I complied happily. These past years, as he wrote joyous, luminous picture books in spite of circumstances that would have brought most of us to our knees, Dick showed me once again how I might become a better version of myself, with fortitude and grace, and have fun doing it.
Anyone who attended his Arbuthnot Lecture knows saw that Richard Jackson was a man of the theater. His interests were wide and he knew how to hold an audience with words, action, and setting. All that combined to make him a dynamic and successful editor, who cared about his authors and illustrators. In later years, Dick took that world view and created wonderful picture books.
I am a librarian who cares about Dick and his books. I was lucky enough to be his friend. One of my favorite memories is of a hot summer day when Dick gave me a tour of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where he helped arrange flowers for the church’s special occasions. Then there were the annual trips to New York to meet Dick and Nancy for a meal and a Paul Taylor concert. Visits with Dick and his lovely wife Nancy were always a special time for me. Dick Jackson was a special person and we are richer because he lived.
I never dread sitting down to write. But I absolutely do not want to write this piece. Because this is good-bye to the man who made my career.
I’d been writing for probably 20 years by the time I met Dick Jackson. Westerns, mysteries, short stories, work for hire kids’ series, nonfiction, magazine articles, a few books for young people that didn’t really go anywhere. I was about to give up trying to be a writer and head off toward the horizon behind a dogteam.
But then Dick gave me my first real break. I wrote, and he published, Dancing Carl. Everything changed for me and my writing career because of Dick.
Early on, he rented a conference room at the Adolphus Hotel and gathered some of his friends to meet me. It was ALA and they were librarians and he let me talk to them and I showed them my slides from the Iditarod. Some of those friends later sat on the committee that gave Dogsong a Newbery Honor. I know Dick lobbied for me with librarians I never got the chance to sit and talk with, and countless sales reps and bookstore owners and teachers and reviewers.
So maybe I’m not saying good-bye here, but thank you. Thank you, Dick, for taking a chance on me, and for all that came after. Every writer should have someone like you to light the way.