Editor, publisher, author, and anthologist Janet Schulman died on February 11 at the age of 77. We asked some of her authors, colleagues, and friends to share their thoughts and memories.
Julia MacRae, former publisher, Julia MacRae Books, London
The fact that both Janet and Margaret McElderry died within the space of a few days takes a huge slice out of the lives of those of us who shared the early days of the Bologna Book Fair, long before it became the giant thing it is now, and formed friendships which lasted throughout our careers.
I’ve occasionally wondered about the frequent American use of the word “feisty” but I now realize that it’s a word which defines Janet. Feisty she undoubtedly was—fearless and sometimes fierce in her commitment to quality in publishing, and intensely loyal to her authors and artists. Over those heady, exciting publishing years of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s in particular, I have many memories of Janet, but what I will never forget is that at a very difficult time in my own professional life it was Janet’s friendship and robust advocacy which paved the way for Julia MacRae Books, its staff and authors, to join Random House and continue to flourish. I owe her so much for this and for the added bonus that it brought us into even closer contact.
The last time we met in London we shared a walk on Hampstead Heath—Janet was a ferociously fast walker! —followed by one of the most indigestible meals ever, pasta with a rustic buffalo sauce. Bologna it wasn’t, and it had us both giggling helplessly as we tried to swallow our chunks of buffalo. Janet was always good for a laugh with her wonderfully wry, deceptively laid-back approach to life. In the emails we exchanged during her last illness the same feistiness and humor were still there, coupled with a calm stoicism which I found very moving and entirely characteristic of a woman who never lacked courage, a friend and colleague it was a privilege to have known.
Susan Hirschman, former publisher, Greenwillow Books
Janet was, I always thought, the smartest and most savvy of all of us. And funny and fun as well. We had 10 exciting years together at Macmillan, and then in 1976 she became a Greenwillow author. She wrote like a dream, whether it was a letter, an easy reader, or a picture book. One of my favorite memories is the ALA just before her daughter, Nicole, was born. Janet was at least eight months pregnant, and we had decided to take Margaret McElderry as a model and always stand up when we were in the booth. And late one afternoon Janet looked at me and said, “Do you think Margaret would mind if I just sat down for a moment?” We agreed that she wouldn’t mind at all!
After I retired, Janet and I talked, antiqued together, trimmed my Christmas tree, lent each other books, drank tea together, and walked the Cherry Tree path on the Hudson. She was a steady and good friend, and one of the few people I could bear to have tell me, in detail, the plot of a book she was working on. We were young together and I wish that we could have gone on being older together.
Chip Gibson, president and publisher, Random House Children’s Books
Janet Schulman was the most candid, straight-talking person I’ve ever known. The first time I met Janet was at the end of my first week at Random House Children’s Books. The announcement that some noodle from the adult side was being lobbed onto the biggest children’s book company in the world was being interpreted and reported pretty much as the end of all goodness and taste by pretty much everyone in the children’s book industry. However, corporations being what they are, I was being so lavishly basted by eager, approving sycophants that I had no idea of my creepy new status as the Antichrist of children’s literature.
At our first meeting Janet closed my office door and set me straight. “I have witnessed a lifetime of bone-headed executive decisions,” she told me with the boiling energy of irrepressible disgust, “but this is the stupidest thing I have ever seen.”
She was probably right. And she put me on notice that I had better pay attention, learn the business, honor my betters, keep my mouth shut, and do as little harm as possible. Which I tried my damndest to do.
A few years ago Janet—in a weakened, soppy moment, fueled with Sancerre—grinningly let slip, “You know, Chip, we could have done worse than you. Not much, but it could have been worse.”
It was one of the proudest moments of my career.
Marc Brown, author and artist
After my first meeting with Janet Schulman at Random House, around 1980, I felt like roadkill. She could be brutal. After many more meetings and several rejections, she found promise in a manuscript called Wings on Things. That’s when my graduate course in making picture books began with Janet and Ted Geisel as my editors.
Soon, my meetings with Janet became both productive and fun. My favorite memories of her are the annual summer work sessions at our farm on Martha’s Vineyard. For a few days each August, we would work, work, work and amazingly, stories would take shape. I loved the way Janet became completely immersed in our projects. There were scores of e-mails and phone calls contributing thoughts or details that always enhanced whatever book we were concocting. She edited my work and I edited her editing. It was a true partnership. Egos never obstructed the process. We both had the same goal, to make the best book possible.
On one of her summer visits, she had a surprise which she dropped in my lap at breakfast, saying, “This is a little something I thought you should read.” Then she was off for a beach walk. The “little something” was Judy Sierra’s wondrous manuscript for Wild About Books, which I immediately began illustrating in my mind. When I told Janet I wanted to illustrate it, she chuckled and said, “I kind of thought you might. Marc, it is high time that people know you can illustrate things other than aardvarks.” And with that wonderful gift, Janet sent me off on a new professional adventure, trying new techniques and growing as an illustrator. I didn’t think after 30 years of loving what I do that it was possible to enjoy it even more. Thank you, Janet, for unlocking that door.
The last time I saw Janet was an all-day meeting at Random House. We spent the morning and working through lunch on a challenging new book with Knopf art directors Isabel Warren-Lynch and Melissa Greenberg. There were many knotty problems to solve with this terribly complex new project and we did. Then into a large conference room filled with the power players of Random and Knopf. Our task was to plan the Wild About Books app, the very first Random House app for kids. Janet was always on the forefront of publishing and in my opinion, greatly responsible for shaping what may have been the Golden Age of children’s books. Any of us who were lucky enough to work with Janet became better at what we did because of her.
The day my wife Laurie and I received the news of Janet’s death we began daily toasts at dinner to help fill the emptiness and recall our wonderful times with her. I’m sure many of you reading this must share that emptiness. So dear friends and fans of Janet Schulman, let’s not wait for dinner to toast an esteemed woman and her remarkable life!
Nicole Schulman, daughter
I imagine that Janet’s many colleagues can relate better than I the important role my mother played in the children’s book publishing industry. I remember, however, the day in 1973 when my mom, the powerful vice-president of children’s marketing at Macmillan, came home with a big cardboard box. In it were all the things from her office including her (much coveted) dartboard. She said I could have it. No longer would it hang in her office (often with someone’s face taped to it), no longer would she stay in her office—Janet had been fired, out of the blue, for having the temerity to ask, along with most of the women at Macmillan, why it was that a female VP earned less than a male secretary. And although, at the time, I was thrilled (I got the dartboard and I got Janet!), soon I came to understand how unfair Janet’s treatment had been. Every time she and I would walk by the Macmillan building I would boo it loudly in a raucous show of sisterly solidarity.
The truth is that I was shocked by the firings. I had grown up on Free to Be... You and Me and honestly had not known that sexism existed. Janet was all too familiar with it. She told me how she had to fight her family to get an education. What was the point when, as a girl, she was only going to get married anyway? She told me how she had had to wear white gloves and a hat to her interviews. She told me how she had been chastised for wearing trousers to work, since women should only wear skirts and dresses. Janet was angry at how she had been treated, but she just kept going. Those who knew and worked with her in the past few decades are well aware of her many successes, but I remember how hard she had to fight to become that successful woman, and I love her for it.
Erin Clarke, executive editor, Knopf Books for Young Readers
Twelve years ago Janet hired me as her assistant at Knopf Books for Young Readers. I had just spent a hectic year in the adult group’s publicity department, assisting two extremely busy publicists. Surely assisting one woman who only came into the office three days a week would be a proverbial cakewalk. My first clue that this was not to be the case should have been when, just before I interviewed with Janet, I spoke to a friend who worked in another department at Random House Children’s Books.
“What’s she like?” I asked. “Janet is... well, she’s Janet,” he responded. “You’ll see.”
Indeed many people seemed to feel this way about Janet. She was a unique force—often feared, but always admired. I soon found myself in the enviable position of being taken under the wing of someone who was already a publishing legend. A few years earlier, Janet had stepped down as the publisher of Random House Children’s Books to become an editor-at-large, which as reported in PW, allowed her to be less corporate and wear blue jeans if she wanted. I knew next to nothing about children’s books. Janet knew everything and, luckily for me, she wasn’t reluctant to share her knowledge. In fact, she relished it.
It would be impossible to catalog everything I learned—or should have learned—from Janet, but here are just a few things I will miss about her. I will miss her industrious presence in the office, during which we, her colleagues, blatantly eavesdropped on her impassioned phone calls with authors, eager to learn how to be firm but kind. I will miss her elegantly penned notes in green ink, which, contrary to the sign posted on her door (“Janet set aside an hour each day to work on her threatening letters”) often contained words of praise and encouragement. I will miss her stories of publishing lore and how she fought for salary and benefit equity for women. I will miss her keen business savvy and her knack for publishing books of the highest literary quality and kid appeal while never losing sight of the bottom line. I will miss her sense of fun and camaraderie, including her willingness to dress up for the group-costume contest at the annual Random House Children’s Halloween Party (the two of us were Gaspard and Lisa one year, the Penderwicks another) and her belief in Champagne lunches with colleagues and writers to celebrate bestsellers, good reviews, and personal achievements. I will miss her ability to balance an impeccable work ethic with an enviable life out of the office—enjoying month-long vacations in southern France, reading the Times every morning and the New Yorker every week, reading adult books, seeing the latest art film at Lincoln Plaza, traveling to Flushing, Wimbledon, Roland-Garros to watch tennis at its best, remaining engaged and impassioned about politics and social justice, and taking pure delight in being a grandmother. Janet melded old-school publishing panache with a no-nonsense business acumen, and perhaps not surprisingly was deeply interested in—and not the slightest bit afraid of—the changes and challenges ahead of us in book publishing. I will miss her dearly.
Judy Sierra, author
In 1998, I received a call from Janet Schulman. “I’m semi-retired,” she said, before making an offer on a manuscript. I wondered what semi-retirement was, exactly. I would learn that Janet only truly retired from doing things she didn’t like. She pursued the favored parts of her profession at full throttle. She was fiercely devoted to the success of each book. She fought for children’s books with the same energy she fought for peace and justice in her personal life.
Because Janet chose to retire from business travel, and because I live on the west coast, we did most of our editorial work by telephone. I always looked forward to talking to her. She was so comfortable on the phone, so funny. Then there was Janet’s legendary voice, which traveled volubly up and down the scale, amplifying the intense emotions behind her words. It seemed to me that she edited mostly via alchemy, pointing out weak spots in the text, confident that, together, we would come up with most or all of the necessary changes during the course of our conversation. Usually, we did.s
On December 28, 2010, Janet sent me a lengthy e-mail about her return from vacation on the night of the Christmas blizzard. At 1:00 a.m., she and her husband had made their way home from Penn Station, catching a ride with a stranger, then walking the final block uphill through unplowed snow, Janet with the aid of a cane, Lester carrying their luggage. It was a gripping tale of survival, complete with images of an eerily empty Manhattan, all of it deliciously peppered with unprintable jokes and mini-rants—a testimonial to Janet’s undiminished spirit, her skill a writer, and her remarkable energy.
Linda Summers, former associate publisher (rights), Random House Children’s Books U.K.
London, March 31, 1990: Janet and I were together with some of her colleagues at a matinee of Bent at the Garrick Theatre. During the performance we could hear the poll tax protesters outside accompanied by police sirens. When the curtain went down we were told it wasn’t safe to leave. Janet was not phased by this and was delighted when the cast, including Ian McKellen, came on stage to discuss the play. Later, walking across Trafalgar Square in the aftermath of the riot, Janet exclaimed that it was just “like the anti-Vietnam protests” in which she had taken part. I think she would have liked to join the protesters that day!
New York, September 11, 2001: 9.30 a.m. in the Random House building, where Janet saw no reason why the meeting my colleague, Gill Evans and I, had scheduled with her should not go ahead—she wanted to see material on our forthcoming list. It was only as the grim news of a terrorist plot became known and the building was evacuated that we abandoned the meeting and reconvened that evening in the Schulman apartment. Janet was full of concern that Gill and I should be in the city on the worst day of its history. For us spending that evening with Janet and Lester was hugely comforting.
Janet was a loyal and supportive colleague and friend for almost three decades. I loved her no-nonsense, positive approach—there was nothing of the drama queen about Janet. She held strong beliefs about human rights, the environment, and causes which she felt were injust. She was a talented and exceptional publisher, a brave and warm, generous-spirited woman, and her passing will be a deeply felt loss for so many.
Anita Lobel, author and artist
I have known Janet since the early ’70s. My first impression of her, before I ever worked with her, was her very individual, sporty look. Janet’s tall and slim look went well with her urbane, somewhat gruff, no-nonsense ways. In 1983 Janet asked me to illustrate A Night Before Christmas. I jumped at the chance. I love Christmas and certainly wanted to work with Janet. Over the years, she found other texts for me, which suited and appealed.
Janet was smart, extremely fair and fun to work and have lunch with. As an editor, she had her own knack for zeroing in unexpectedly, on a word or a phrase, which may had seemed all set, but, with a minor tweak, instantly, made a text better. I admired her as an editor, as well as the fine writer of many picture book texts.
But, it was not until during the last two years, when we worked on a book about my cat, that Janet and I became really close. She was a “cat person.” We began a newer author/editor duet. I grew to love crusty Janet. When the cat book came out last fall, hardly a day went by when we were not in touch, when Janet would instantly share a good review or comment. It was our book, Janet’s and mine.
I had just begun work on a little book she had given me the idea for, when she announced the return of her cancer. But, this was Janet. Even though she was sick, and going through annoying chemo, she never gave in. Never stopped working from home. I believed she was sure to outwit this disease, I believed she would come through just fine. I believed it until the last phone call I got from her from the cancer hospital. She could hardly talk. Janet was calling to let me know that she had put in a request at the office for a payment I was owed.
I can hardly believe that I am writing this, and not another amusing, gossipy note to Janet. I will miss smart, chic Janet. I will miss her as a friend, an editor, and the terrific person that she could not help being.
Meilo So, artist
A few years ago, I gave Janet Schulman a Chinese seal with her name engraved on it, by coincidence, the word “Schulman” in Chinese could be translated phonetically as “Ten Thousand Books.”
Perhaps ten thousand books is a bit of an exaggeration, but out of the many books that Janet edited and wrote, I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work on a few. She was very trusting and supportive to my ability as an illustrator, at the same time always giving me her honest opinion. I was often influenced by her passion for the subject which we were working on. Every project she took on meant something special to her, and that genuine enthusiasm helped me to get into the swing of things every time.
It was lovely to know Janet not only confined to her office, or via letters or emails. The handful of times we met, we went to see Brighton Pier, explored antique shops in the lanes, spent hours browsing through Japanese prints. She would shown me her favorite spots in Central Park: the carousel, and of course, Pale Male’s nest.
From such brief meetings I was able to know her not only as the woman of ten thousand books, but the woman as good friend, colleague, wife, mother and grandmother.
Stephanie Spinner, author and former editor
Janet was brilliant, tireless, tough, creative and funny, a strategist and a visionary. She also dressed well, favoring jackets, shirts, and trousers of excellent fit and high pedigree, wide-brimmed Herbert Johnson hats, wing-tip shoes, and heavily Argyled socks. She cut an unforgettable figure.
I mention this because of a story she once told me about her time at Macmillan. She was at a business gathering there when “X,” a high-ranking (male) executive, said to her, “Tell me, Janet, when are you going to stop dressing like a man?” To which she replied, “As soon as they start paying me like one.”
They didn’t—at Macmillan. At Random House, Janet kept wearing exactly what she pleased. Nobody there ever questioned her dress code—probably because they were simply too busy trying to keep up with her.
Mini Grey, author and artist
I was incredibly fortunate in having Janet as my U.S. editor and champion. She was an especial supporter and collaborator in the unfolding adventures of Traction Man. (I still have the operational build-it-yourself robotic dog she sent me when we were working on Traction Man Meets Turbodog.) An appreciator of offbeat dark humor, the child’s-eye view, and just plain fun, Janet’s editorial input was unflinching, unsentimental, yet embraced the slightly subversive—and I could rely on her for insightful opinions told in a direct way. My son Herbie and Janet’s grandson Max were born at nearly the same time, so for the last four and a half years we’ve had an ongoing comparison of their respective current obsessions (often involving trucks and toys). We’d just very recently begun a new story—I have her enthusiastic first notes. I’ll be greatly missing the rest of them.
Herb Cheyette, agent
Janet loved tennis both as a player and as a devoted fan. Each year she spent at least a week of her vacation at Roland-Garros, the site of the French Open. The resiliency required for clay court tennis also permeated her professional dealings.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises was approached by NASA to permit a planned Mars probe to be named “Dr. Seuss,” an acronymn obstensibly standing for “Direct Robotics Space Explorer United States Ship.” designed to inspire children to become interested in the possibilities of space travel. As an adjunct to the probe, NASA wanted to arrange for the publication of a children’s space encyclopedia featuring The Cat in the Hat.
Janet committed Random House to participate. At NASA’s invitation, Janet and I visited the NASA complex located near Cleveland and began the contract negotiations. By reason of dealing with a governmental agency, it took nearly a year for suitable contracts to be concluded. Finally, contracts executed by Random House and DSE were submitted to NASA for countersignature. NASA never responded.
We learned later that NASA had a new manager who presumably was not interested in expending hard-to-obtain funds on children’s education, because all the personnel who had dealt with us were either transferred or retired. On learning of this change in circumstances, Janet responded, “The ball is still in play. We control The Cat. What do we need NASA for?” The result was the creation of The Cat in the Hat Learning Library series, which became not only a very successful line of books, but also the basis for the new Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That half-hour television series on PBS.
Jane O’Connor, author and editor-at-large, Penguin
Janet was a force of nature. I worked for her for seven years, and watching Janet in action was probably the best education in children’s publishing anyone could hope for. For me she was certainly a professional role model. But in the 20-plus years since I left Random House, Janet became something much more important. She became my friend. We’d have dinner; we’d gab at the gym while on adjacent treadmills; or I’d bump into Janet in Riverside Park and we’d end up going for a long walk. Just recently I was looking through a box of old photos. I came across one of Janet with Ole Risom, another Random House legend. Both knew my husband and both were at our 25th wedding anniversary party. What I love most about the photo is what Janet’s wearing. Janet had great style and she’d arrive at the office in her trademark fedora and a smartly tailored pants suit. On that night, however, Janet’s in a fancy top and a short, sexy black chiffon skirt. She’s laughing and looking like the most adorable party girl. It’s that outside-the-office Janet that I’ll remember with greatest fondness.
Jack Prelutsky, author
Janet Schulman was a true original, a creative and perceptive editor, and more importantly, a loyal friend. I am devastated by her loss, and think of her every day.
It was her idea for us to do The Random House Book of Poetry for Children. We spent endless hours together sifting through thousands of poems to select the almost 700 poems that comprise the book. Whenever it all seemed too much, which was often, we adjourned to her latest favorite restaurant, where I ate too much, and we both drank perhaps a bit too much wine. The anthology was a grand collaboration in more ways than one.
She was also responsible for unearthing Dr. Seuss’s unfinished manuscript, and suggesting to Audrey Geisel that I was just the writer to bring it to completion. It became Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! I was recovering from cancer surgery when I worked on the book, and we spoke on the phone almost daily—she nursed me through the whole process. For my last book with Janet, when I read her my poem, “Rooster and Hens,” she told me that she liked it, but wondered where the rest of it was. “You’ve written a second verse, but it needs a first verse,” she said. “I can’t do it,” I insisted. “I’ve done all I can with that poem.” “Just write the bleeping first verse,” she commanded. I finally did, albeit under protest. Of course she was right, as she always was.
Janet had an indomitable spirit. We spoke frequently during the last three months of her life. “I’m tough!” she told me several weeks before her death. “I’m not going to let this beat me.” I believed her... it was the only time she was wrong.
I knew Janet for 45 years, and will miss her for a long, long time. I know that many of us will.