Eminent children’s book editor Virginia Buckley, who guided numerous titles to awards and acclaim during a long and successful career, died peacefully at her home in Leonia, N.J. on October 21. She was 91.
Buckley was born Virginia Iacuzzi on May 11, 1929 in Manhattan. Her parents, Alfred and Josephine Iacuzzi, were both Italian immigrants, and both were linguists. Buckley grew up in her beloved Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where she graduated from Fort Hamilton High School in 1946. She went on to Wellesley College, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English in 1951. Pursuing further study, Buckley earned a M.A. from Columbia University—where she met her husband of 60 years, David Buckley, in a seminar—before beginning work in children’s book publishing. The couple had two children, and in 1969 the Buckley family moved from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to Leonia, N.J.
Buckley was a novice editor at the publisher Thomas Y. Crowell in 1971 when she was paired with a writer named Katherine Paterson, who had submitted the manuscript for her first novel. Following more than a year of revisions and fine-tuning shepherded by Buckley, in 1973 Crowell published Paterson’s debut, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, set in mid-12th-century Japan, and inspired by the experience of Paterson’s young adopted daughter.
That initial book project forged a working relationship between Buckley and Paterson that also grew into a close friendship and would last close to 40 years. Paterson’s 1977 novel The Master Puppeteer won the National Book Award for Children’s Literature that year, and the editor-author duo had a very prolific decade during which Paterson won the 1978 Newbery Medal for Bridge to Terabithia; a 1979 Newbery Honor and a second National Book Award for The Great Gilly Hopkins; and a second Newbery Medal in 1981 for Jacob Have I Loved.
In 1980, Buckley moved to Dutton where she was editorial director of the Lodestar Books imprint until leaving the company in 1997. She then joined Clarion Books, where she served as editor for many years, until her retirement in 2010.
Author Katherine Paterson recalled when she initially met Buckley in this remembrance: “Today I dug out the first letter I received from her. It is dated March 29, 1972. My first novel had been rescued from the Thomas Y. Crowell slush pile by Sandra Jordan, accepted by Ann Beneduce, and handed over to Virginia for editing. I’m not sure when I stopped being Mrs. Paterson and she Mrs. Buckley, but you can only imagine what a thrill it was to receive that letter which regarded my multiple times rejected manuscript with respect and even a bit of praise. She said there’d be ‘suggested revisions, but only of a minor sort,’ and she’d be writing me more at length soon. ‘In the meantime, I want to tell you that it is a pleasure for me to be working on your book.’ We worked on many books together over the next nearly 40 years. Her aim every time was for me to write this particular book as well as I possibly could, and it was her task to ask the probing questions that would lead me to do so. I could not possibly have become the writer I am without her. Her perceptive editing and the friendship that grew stronger through the years have enriched my life beyond measure.”
Christopher Franceschelli, who heads Chronicle’s Handprint Books imprint as well as the packager SmartInk Books, and is former president and publisher of Dutton Children’s Books, paid tribute to Buckley’s stature in the children’s book world with these words: “In the early ’80s, I was an eager but utterly raw sub rights manager trying to sell paperback rights to the various editors in town. Attempting to learn the tastes of my customers, I asked them each to name or send me copies of two books they particularly treasured. Of the 10 books I received, one was Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved; another was Malcolm Bosse’s remarkable novel, The 79 Squares. Only years later would I learn that both had been acquired and edited by Virginia. So it was an amazing—but in hindsight—hardly surprising—fact that 20% of the books best loved by the most discerning of our colleagues should have been Virginia’s. Unpresumptuous but meticulous, quietly but deeply passionate, Virginia Buckley had an extraordinary impact on children’s literature. I consider myself privileged to have worked alongside her.”
Jennifer Greene, senior editor at Clarion Books, offered a memory of her former colleague. “As she was nearing retirement, Virginia was still gamely attending production meetings, though an assistant could have done it for her. As we reviewed the Clarion projects, it became clear that Virginia’s to-do list was expanding, with several sizeable editorial tasks coming due. Someone remarked on this, and she said, with a small smile, ‘Why, yes. The weekend seems to be shaping up quite nicely.’ This sums up so much of what I loved about her—her admirable work ethic, subtle but sharp wit, and endless goodwill and cheer.”
Gary Schmidt, winner of two Newbery Honors (Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, 2005; The Wednesday Wars, 2008) and a Printz Honor (Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy) was also one of Buckley’s longtime authors and close friends. Schmidt believes that one of his favorite anecdotes about Buckley captures her spirit: “The last time I was with Virginia, we had had dinner with other folks from the publishing house at a fancy French restaurant in New York. It was late, and I told her I would walk her back to her train. She said I should go back to my hotel, since I had a very early flight. So, we went back and forth, and usually she won any argument with me, but this time she finally agreed that I could walk her back to Grand Central, but I couldn’t go inside. We walked through the streets of NYC, so late at night, and we got to Grand Central, and she kissed me and patted my cheek, and inside she went—all 90 pounds and 90 years of her. She was absolutely indomitable.
Virginia cared about children and she cared about words. They were her passion. She loved them both, and her forte was bringing them together. Beautifully.”
Rosemary Brosnan, v-p and editorial director of Quill Tree Books and Heartdrum at HarperCollins Children’s Books, has fond memories of her own early days in the industry, under Buckley’s tutelage. “Virginia Buckley was my mentor and a good friend,” she said. “When I met Virginia, after answering an ad in the New York Times for an editorial assistant position, she was running Lodestar Books. Virginia did not fit the image I had of someone who worked in book publishing; I assumed she would have an air about her and would be a little snooty. Instead, she was very down-to-earth and made me feel immediately at home in her office. At the end of the interview, she handed me a stack of books to read, to see the type of books she was publishing. There were novels by Katherine Paterson and other illustrious authors, and fascinating nonfiction. I was immediately hooked.
The next day, my mother died suddenly. And the day after that, Virginia called me and offered me the job. I told her what had happened, and she said she would hire a temp in the meantime and would wait a month for me—or as long as I needed. I’ve never forgotten her immense kindness, at a time when I surely needed it.
The day I started my job as Virginia’s assistant, I knew I had found my calling. She took me under her wing and taught me how to be an ‘old school editor,’ in the best sense of the phrase. Nothing escaped her eagle eyes. I learned so much taking dictation from Virginia and typing her brilliant, insightful editorial letters on my IBM Selectric typewriter. Because there were only two of us doing editorial work for the imprint, within a month I was writing editorial letters for her, and copying her voice, which I had absorbed. I still say to authors about edits, ‘Nothing is writ in stone’—and that is a classic Virginia Buckley line!
In one of my first attempts at writing flap copy, I wrote something treacly about ‘the magic of childhood.’ Virginia came over to my desk and said, ‘There’s nothing magical about childhood. Children can be very mean to each other, and childhood can be tough.’ I learned my lesson and left out the sugary stuff in future flap copy!
I still use what Virginia taught me every day in my work. I was so fortunate to have learned from the best.”