Children’s book author and journalist Karen Blumenthal, widely recognized for her works of narrative nonfiction addressing complicated subject matters, died on May 19 in her hometown of Dallas, following a heart attack. She was 61.
Blumenthal was born and raised in Dallas, where, she noted in her website bio, she was “a nerdy, obnoxious kid with thick glasses” who loved reading and visits to the public library. In a video interview for the Spirit of Texas Middle School Reading Program in 2012, she recalled that one of her favorite childhood books was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. “One of the things that fascinated me about the story was the idea that you could be an observer and sort of capture what happens in the world. And maybe because of that book I became a journalist.”
Blumenthal was yearbook editor and class valedictorian at Hillcrest High School, graduating in 1977. She then headed to Duke University, where she became editor of the university’s newspaper and earned a B.A. degree in economics in 1981. Duke was also where Blumenthal met her husband, fellow journalist Scott McCartney, with whom she raised two daughters when the couple settled in Dallas after college.
After graduation from Duke, Blumenthal began her career as a suburban reporter at the Dallas Morning News. She soon moved to the paper’s business section, and in 1984 landed a position at the Wall Street Journal’s Dallas bureau as a reporter and editor. During this time, she began working toward her M.B.A. at Southern Methodist University by taking classes on nights and weekends, eventually receiving her degree in 1990. Blumenthal returned to the Dallas Morning News as business editor in1994, and became the Journal’s Dallas bureau chief from 1996 to 2004. Among her achievements in that role at the WSJ was her editing work on a story about 9/11 which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for spot reporting.
When her own daughters became readers, Blumenthal said she grew frustrated with the nonfiction titles available to them. Her desire to change the situation spurred her to try writing for young people. The result was her first published book, Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929 (Atheneum, 2002), a title that enabled her to use her business expertise in a different way. Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America (Atheneum, 2005) followed, and Blumenthal knew she wanted to continue on the path of exploring complex and sometimes controversial topics in this format. By 2006, Blumenthal left her full-time position at the Journal to be a freelance writer, though she continued with the paper as a personal finance columnist until 2013.
In all, Blumenthal wrote nine titles for young readers, including her most recent book, Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights published by Roaring Brook in February. She also wrote three business titles for adults, two Wall Street Journal Guides focused on personal finance among them.
Emily Feinberg, Blumenthal’s editor at Roaring Brook, shared these words of tribute: “I feel so lucky to have gotten to know Karen, and to have worked so closely with her on her most recent book,” she said. “When I was editing Jane Against the World, Karen and I would joke that most of my comments in track changes weren’t edits at all; they were me writing WTF next to a fact about a horrible deed or poisonous law. When I learned that she passed away, all I could think was that I want to write WTF in the margin, but she won’t be able to respond.”
Feinberg continued, “Karen was the best of us all. She was humble and curious. Brilliant and kind. She was unstoppable. If she needed an interview or an answer, I’m convinced she didn’t sleep until she got what she wanted. She was a journalist through and through and was committed fully to the truth—both finding it and delivering it to young readers. Our world is less now because she’s not in it. I’ll miss her very much.”
Johanna Allen, senior marketing manager at Macmillan’s Children’s Publishing Group, offered this remembrance: “The last time I was with Karen was at the North Texas Teen Book Festival in March, where she greeted the MCPG team with her trademark smile and a batch of delicious freshly baked cookies. It was always a pleasure to have a chance to sit and chat with Karen—she was incredibly intelligent, passionate, and a thoughtful conversationalist. We discussed Texas, Duke basketball, and current events, but we mostly talked about her newest book, Jane Against the World, and the political landscape it was being published into. Karen was deeply concerned about the future of reproductive rights in our country but inspired by young readers and her fellow authors who are pushing back against the stigmas surrounding women’s health and fighting to make a change. I will miss Karen dearly, but I know her work will continue to educate and motivate readers everywhere.”
Kelsey Marrujo, senior publicist for MCPG, said, “I could go on for days about how brilliant and hardworking Karen was. But what stood out most was her character. Every day on e-mail, she treated me like a friend. She’d ask about my cat and my family, and how I was faring in NYC, especially during the pandemic. She’d even apologize for being ‘crabby’ on days where maybe one exclamation mark was missing from the message. Karen, I’d think, that’s not crabby—that’s just normal! These seem like small things, but they weren’t to me. I’ll miss her kindness, humor, and energy. This is a truly painful loss, but her memory and work will continue to inspire.”