Longtime children’s book editor Norma Jean Sawicki died on March 4 at her home in Manhattan. She was 78.
She was born September 25, 1942 in Washington State and grew up in Utica, N.Y. After attending Concord College in Athens, W. Va., Sawicki moved to New York City in 1965 to work in children’s book publishing—something that “was always her goal,” according to her sister, Carol Parker of Baldwinsville, N.Y.
Sawicki began her career in children’s books at Crowell-Collier and Macmillan, and then became juvenile editor at St. Martin’s Press in 1967. Soon after, she moved to Bradbury Press as senior editor. She had become recognized for her strong editing skills and continued to further establish herself via key roles at a number of publishing houses. In 1971 she was named children’s book editor at Crown, and headed that department for 11 years, until she was brought on board to lead Scholastic’s hardcover imprint Four Winds Press in 1982. From there she rejoined Bradbury Press (which had been sold to Macmillan in 1982) as executive editor, in 1985, and a year later, was named publisher. In November 1986, she moved to Orchard Books as children’s book marketing director, transitioned to editor-in-chief, and became publisher in 1989. Sawicki left Orchard in 1992 to create and run the Ticknor & Fields Books for Young Readers imprint at Houghton Mifflin. In 1995, amid changes at the company, Sawicki’s imprint was folded into Houghton Mifflin Books for Young Readers and Sawicki succeeded Walter Lorraine as director of children’s books at the company. Later that year, Sawicki left Houghton Mifflin and became an independent children’s publishing consultant. Some of the authors and illustrators Sawicki worked with include Garry Disher, James Cross Giblin, Luli Gray, Steve Jenkins, Jim Murphy, Margaret Wild, and Julie Vivas.
Sawicki wrote two picture books of her own: Something for Mom, illustrated by Martha Weston (Lothrop, 1989), in which a girl stalls for time one morning before coming down for breakfast so she can wrap her mother’s birthday gift; and The Little Red House, illustrated by Toni Goffe (Lothrop, 1989), featuring a child playing with a set of colored nesting houses.
Children’s book historian Leonard Marcus recalled, “Norma Jean was my original editor for Minders of Make Believe (Houghton, 2008). In fact, we signed the contract in Dick Jackson’s home in California. She happened to be visiting, and I was out there for the summer. She was very interested in the history of the field and she thought it was important that it be recorded and documented.
I think of her as an old-fashioned book person; she really cared about typography and all the details that make a book feel distinctive. She really studied those things. When she created her own imprint at Houghton Mifflin, she called it Ticknor & Fields which was a very old publishing name from early 19th-century Boston. Ticknor & Fields was the publisher of Emerson and that group of New England intellectuals who were the founding figures of American literature. So she wanted to associate her work with them. That’s very revealing, I think. It showed her love of the past and her commitment to certain ideals.”
Brenda Bowen, a senior literary agent with The Book Group, shared recollections of the days in the early 1980s when she was Sawicki’s assistant editor at Four Winds. “When I think of Norma Jean I think of cigarettes, a wicked laugh, and her endless capacity to question authority. She was brought to Scholastic to innovate, and she did, notably with Ken Robbins’s Tools, Scholastic’s first New York Times Best Illustrated picture book. Above all, she was a fighter.”
“Norma Jean Sawicki was distinct and unforgettable,” said David Saylor, v-p, creative director of trade publishing, and publisher of Graphix at Scholastic. “She often said about herself that she ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly.’ And that was very true in my experience. She could be confrontational, opinionated, and combative. And when she wanted to, she could be wonderfully engaging, charismatic, and charming. She was always deeply passionate about children’s books, even long after she left the industry.”
Saylor recalled being part of Sawicki’s team at Houghton. “I worked for Norma Jean as her art director. She hired me, and editor Judy Levin, in 1993 to start Ticknor & Fields Books for Young Readers.
When I think of the speed and energy with which she worked, it’s still is a bit astonishing. We started with nothing—not even stationery—and within months we had a full list of books to launch our list. Norma Jean was a doer: determined and energetic and a ferocious advocate for our books.
Something I learned from Norma Jean was that an editor and art director could actively guide an artist or author to create their best work if they were willing to rethink their proposal or book dummy from scratch—if it was really necessary. One day, she sat me down with a book dummy and we photocopied and cut and pasted and rearranged and discussed, and by the end of the afternoon, we had turned a nice book into a much better book. Editorial letters were all well and good, but sometimes pulling something apart was the best way to move a book forward.
But what I remember most is her crackling energy that could change the tenor of a room. She was part of a tradition of strong-willed and driven publishers who wanted to make a difference. I learned a great deal from her, for which I’ll always be grateful. Our years working together are indelible.”