Prolific children’s book author and former editor Kathleen Krull, widely acclaimed for her skill at crafting detailed and entertaining biographies and other narrative nonfiction, died on January 15 following a brief illness. She was 68.
Krull was born July 29, 1952 in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and then her family moved to Wilmette, Ill., where she grew up playing several musical instruments and was an early and avid reader. In her website biography, she credits two nuns at her Catholic elementary and middle school with being “particularly encouraging” of her writing. Krull wrote that her eighth-grade teacher Sister Della was the “first person who told me I might be a writer when I grew up,” and had remained an important person in Krull’s life, long after her school years.
As a teenager, Krull’s passions for music, reading, and writing were in full force as she gave piano lessons to local children and played the organ at her church. She also noted in her biography that she was fired from a part-time job at the public library in Wilmette—a favorite destination of hers—because she was reading too much rather than completing her prescribed tasks. Following high school, Krull studied music at Northwestern University and then earned her B.A., magna cum laude, majoring in English and minoring in music, from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., in 1974.
Krull embarked on her editorial career in children’s books “the day after I graduated,” she shared in her bio. She began as an editorial assistant at Harper & Row in Evanston, Ill., and rose through the ranks, holding positions as associate editor at Western Publishing in Racine, Wis., from 1974–79; managing editor at Raintree Publishing in Milwaukee from 1979–83, and then landed a spot as a senior editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in San Diego from 1982–84. During this time Krull continued writing and had work published in the Trixie Belden mystery series (under the pseudonym Kathryn Kenny) as well as titles in the Beginning to Learn About series for Raintree, among other projects.
In 1984 Krull left corporate publishing and became a full-time writer. Among her earlier projects was the children’s music book Songs of Praise (Harcourt, 1989), for which Krull served as piano arranger and editor, and which was illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt. Krull and Hewitt would collaborate again for Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought) (Harcourt, 1993), the first in their series of critically acclaimed and popular anthologies of brief profiles of historical figures.
Illustrated biographies became Krull’s format of choice, and she was often praised in reviews for her lively writing and her knack for including quirky or unusual tidbits about her subjects. She said in interviews that that she enjoyed “playing detective” in researching her books; when explaining her approach to nonfiction she wrote the following on her site: “To hold their own against all the competition for a child’s time, nonfiction books have to reflect something special…. I try to make fresh, contemporary choices from my research—little ironies, amusing juxtapositions, concrete details, strengths and weaknesses. I use a ‘warts and all’ approach because I want to write biographies for kids living in the real world. I know readers have to survive all kinds of hurts and traumas; my way of helping is to dramatize how people in the past have done it.”
In addition to the Lives Of… series, Krull created the Giants of Science and the Women Who Broke the Rules biography series. She also wrote numerous standalone biographies, sometimes partnering with her husband, children’s author and illustrator Paul Brewer, whom she married in 1989. The duo’s projects include The Beatles Were Fab (And They Were Also Funny), illustrated by Stacy Innerst (Harcourt, 2013) and Stay Curious! A Brief History of Stephen Hawking, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Crown, 2020).
Krull’s oeuvre grew to more than 100 books for children in all. Her title Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez (Harcourt, 2003), illustrated by Yuyi Morales, was a 2004 Pura Belpré Honor Book, and her titles were frequently selected as ALA Notable books and chosen for state children’s book awards lists. Krull’s works received numerous distinctions from review journals and educational organizations as well.
Susan Cohen, senior literary agent at Writers House, represented Krull for more than 30 years. “Our partnership began about the same time as her marriage to Paul. to her husband and co-author, Paul Brewer,” Cohen told PW. “She was not only talented, but always brimming with great new ideas, and her books were both critically acclaimed and widely popular. Editors always wanted to keep working with her. A critic once dubbed her ‘The Queen of Kids’ Nonfiction.’ ”
“To say she wrote picture book biographies is to underestimate the breadth of her curiosity and creativity,” Cohen said. “Her books were about folks both well-known and obscure. She always found the kind of obscure fun facts that kids love, or new ways of looking at well-known figures, as through their humor. With due respect to my other clients, Kathy was about the wittiest. It was an honor and true pleasure to work with her. I’m still hearing her voice in my head and I’m glad her voice will still be speaking to kids for many years.”
Emily Easton, co-publisher and v-p of Crown Books for Young Readers, who worked closely with Krull on many projects, remembered her author and friend this way: “I first met Kathleen when I approached her to write about Harry Houdini after reading her book, They Saw the Future. I thought the subject matter might intrigue her—and it did. So many of our 14 books followed that same path to publication—a question about whether we had a shared curiosity about a person or subject—from Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, to our most recent book about astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. Curiosity was Kathy’s superpower, though she also liked to think about it as just being nosy! That combination of a seeking mind and a wicked sense of humor made Kathy’s books a delight for all ages and hooked many young readers on nonfiction and reading in general. I will miss our conversations and quests to unearth the juiciest and most fascinating nuggets from history. But more importantly, I will miss her delight in the human spirit. And I will simply miss my friend. How fitting that our last book together has the title Stay Curious!”
Maria Modugno, executive editorial director at Random House Studio, recalled how she came to know Krull decades ago. “Kathy was the first editor I hired when I became director of children’s books at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in San Diego,” Modugno said. “After I interviewed Kathy, I knew she would be the perfect senior editor. I wondered if it was okay to hire someone who could easily be my friend. Kathy was talented, personable, and quietly commanding.
“Kathy was relocating from the Midwest to San Diego. Having just relocated from New York myself, I assured her that she could take the time she needed to settle in and unpack before coming in to the office. After a week passed by and Kathy didn’t show up, I panicked. Did I make a mistake? What if she never came in? I gave her a call to see if my concern proved to be right. But unfazed, Kathy calmly said she was still unpacking her books and invited me to stop at her house that evening for a glass of wine. I was still worried. How many books could she possibly have? As I soon found out, Kathy had a book collection that could rival that of a major metropolitan public library. She really was still unpacking!
“My visit marked the beginning of an editorial collaboration and a friendship that endured long after Kathy left publishing to become a remarkable and celebrated author.”
Jeannette Larson, Krull’s longtime editor at HMH and now consulting editor for Flyaway Books, paid fond tribute to her author and friend. “Kathy made an editor’s role easy, because her own excellent work was complemented by her openness to collaboration and her appreciation for what an adventurous illustrator can bring to a text,” Larson said. “Most important, she never forgot that her primary readers were kids. Although she didn’t compromise her deep research, she had a knack for highlighting an angle or tidbit that a kid would find fascinating or funny. Through our many books together, I saw that over and over across a remarkable range of subjects—a talent that spilled over from her own curiosity and sense of humor.
“Even the mail carrier got a glimpse of her personality; her envelopes are collector’s items! Despite the email era, Kathy continued to send cards or packages adorned with a ridiculous or flattering, or both, nickname for the recipient, often written in giant letters and complemented by an array of cartoons or stickers. Her love of fun echoed in so much of what she did, whether in work or friendship.”