Farrar, Straus and Giroux has announced that Frances Foster, who has headed up Frances Foster Books since 1995, is retiring after a long illness. The editor (née Frances Starbuck) has worked in children’s publishing for more than 55 years.
After starting as an assistant to Alice Dalgliesh, founding editor of the children’s book department at Scribner’s, Foster worked as a freelance editor while her children were growing up, then moved on to an editorial position at Knopf, where she edited books by such icons as Leo Lionni and Roald Dahl. Foster published about 12 books annually under her eponymous imprint, many of which were honored with or nominated for Newbery or Caldecott Medals, National Book Awards, and other major prizes.
The editor had a banner year in 1999, when an impressive number of her books received accolades. That year’s Newbery Medal went to Holes by Louis Sachar, with whom Foster had worked earlier while she was at Knopf, beginning with 1987’s There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom. Holes also won that year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, beating out two other FSG titles edited by Foster: Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos and Ann Cameron’s The Secret Life of Amanda K. Woods. Another of Foster’s authors, Peter Sís, won a Caldecott Honor for Tibet Through the Red Box that same year.
Following Foster’s retirement, FSG will continue to publish all the titles that she has acquired under the Frances Foster Books imprint. These include Second Impact by David Klass and Perri Klass, Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost, The Twins’ Little Sister by Hyewon Yum, and The Pilot and the Little Prince by Peter Sís.
“Frances Foster’s manifold gifts as an editor and encourager of talent were widely and deeply admired at FSG,” president and publisher Jonathan Galassi told PW. “She has been a beloved presence who made us all feel better about what we were trying to do. We will miss her greatly.”
Foster’s colleague Margaret Ferguson, publisher of Margaret Ferguson Books, also has high praise for her fellow editor. “I had always wanted to work with Frances, so I was ecstatic when she joined the FSG Books for Young Readers staff,” she said. “She brought many wonderful authors and illustrators with her, and as she developed her list she added many more. Of course, all of this contributed greatly to the success of the FSG list. More important, she brought a kind of enthusiasm and passion to her work that is uniquely Frances, and we all found it inspiring. She loved nurturing her authors and illustrators and developing new talent, and she enjoyed exchanging ideas about projects other editors were working on. Frances once said to me, ‘I couldn’t have done this without you,’ and all I can say is that we couldn’t have done it without her.”
Author, book reviewer, and children’s publishing historian Leonard S. Marcus places Foster in the pantheon of legendary editors for young readers. “Everyone recognizes the quality of her editorial vision, which puts her in the tradition of May Massee, Ursula Nordstrom, and Margaret McElderry, among others,” he said. “As a reviewer, I feel any book Frances publishes is worthy of the utmost serious consideration by virtue of the fact that she has aligned herself with it.”
Like those celebrated predecessors, Foster has been a champion of innovative children’s book artists, Marcus notes. “She looked for artists in the same adventurous way,” he observed. “One of the notable aspects of Frances’s career was her appreciation of the work of illustrators from Eastern Europe, including Peter Sís. She searched out a new graphic sensibility. These were artists who were not always doing the most accessible art, but their work was brilliant and challenging in ways Frances knew children would appreciate.”
Marcus also has first-hand appreciation for Foster’s editorial skills; his Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing will be released by Frances Foster Books in August. “She is a fine, subtle line editor who gives the utmost attention to every detail,” he said. “She has a light but firm touch. Frances doesn’t insist on a change, but writes a question in the margin that might prompt an author to reconsider. She is always able to get into the inside of a book, and is very devoted to helping authors and artists realize their full potential.”
And temperamentally, Foster seems to strike just the right note, said Marcus. “In publishing these days, there seems to be a feeling that there’s never enough time, but Frances’s office was always an oasis from that. She succeeded completely in continuing to have strong individual relationships with her authors and illustrators in an increasingly corporate publishing climate. She is so composed – I’ve always thought serene – and that’s the kind of atmosphere in which creativity flourishes. Frances always seems a bit amused by life.”
Foster’s Authors Show Their Appreciation
Here, other authors and illustrators who feel fortunate to have worked with Frances Foster reflect on their relationship and her forthcoming retirement:
I met Frances in 1984 when she hired me as her assistant at Knopf. Sitting in her wonderfully cluttered office I was immediately struck by her easy nature, her elegance, and what seemed to be an exquisite sensitivity to people and the world around her, to words and pictures. And I left thinking this was “someone.” In the years that followed that someone became many things to me – mentor, friend, editor, confidante. And what made her shine in all of these roles is what makes her shine as a person – her ability to bring to the table the best of humanhood – a gentle, wise being with a gift to communicate on many levels with words and without.
As an editor and as a person Frances nurtured her authors, encouraging and respecting their expression and voice, without ever sacrificing honesty or integrity. She loved her work and she made it fun for those around her with her playful spirit, sly grin, and mischievous blue eyes. In short she embodied (and still does!) all the best and most noble qualities we want to meet in the most satisfying books for children, and so much of what is important to children in that often turbulent journey from childhood to adulthood. I think this will be her legacy.
I came to New York in 1984, and was trying to place my (what I thought was amazing) Rainbow Rhino with a publisher. Now I know that the manuscript was not publishable, or that amazing, but it gave me the chance to meet most of the children’s book publishers and editors of that time. One of them, and the most kind, was Frances. Nobody wanted the story as it was. But she called me back, we worked on it, and it was my first book that I both wrote and illustrated.
When our first child, Madeleine, was born, Frances taught us a few ways to hold a baby so that she could sleep, and I could work on – Madlenka? Or maybe Starry Messenger? Frances even flew to Paris, where we were living for a year in 2000, so that I would not give up on my book about Charles Darwin. I had started it, but it was turning out to be more difficult than I had thought, and she came to help.
Frances did not get upset when I left her suitcase behind a taxi in Chicago, thinking the driver would see it and put it in the trunk, which of course he did not. Interestingly, my own suitcase made it into the trunk. Frances’s first office at FSG didn’t have a window, so I painted a window for her – complete with an image of her flying on an open book above a blue ocean full of snapping monsters.
I’d describe her impact on my career as Yin and Yang. She understands what I am trying to say and makes it possible. Her ongoing legacy? I do not dare to answer this. I am too close and she is full of light. She is a big part of what I have done.
My words are not gracious enough to describe how Frances is. When I was still in the School of Visual Art’s MFA program, I had a portfolio meeting at her office. At that time, I didn’t know who she was – I had just come to New York from Korea and I never thought I could even write the story. After she looked through my dummy, she told me, “There is something in here.” And that was it. I had to find out how to make it into a book. It took me a long time to make another dummy. How happy I was when she said, “I think you did it!”
That was how Frances taught me how to write: she just waited, she never forced me to change my story this way or that way. But whenever I was about to give up becoming a writer, she checked on me and asked, “How is your story going?” And she always told me that I am good. Now I’m only beginning to understand what a great editor she was, still is, and will be.
I remember Frances Foster well. I think it was in the late ’80s that I first came to know her, in connection with a book called The Ruby in the Smoke. She was the best kind of editor. She had a complete understanding of what I was doing in that book, and her only concern was to help me do it as well as it could be done. I was delighted to meet her in Toronto when the book won a prize from the International Reading Association, and to find that she was as generous and elegant in person as she was clear and helpful at the other end of a set of proofs. I wish her very well for her retirement, and I hope she enjoys all the books she’ll now be able to read without having to work on them.
Some time in the early 2000s, my agent sent Frances this insane picture book I had written and tried to illustrate. I had never made a picture book before, though I’d wanted to for a long time. I don’t draw. I had done the book on printer paper with a child’s box of watercolors. It was bonkers, but Frances told the agent she’d like to see more from me some day. Later, after the agent stopped dealing with my picture book attempts, I sent Frances a query letter. Six months later, she wrote back saying yes, she’d like to see the manuscript of my story, Five Creatures. Nine months after that, she called me and made an offer on the book. I had forgotten all about it.
She accepted my book, Love You When You Whine, when other people at FSG didn’t care for it. Frances acquired it anyhow, because she was Frances, and she could make her own decisions. Then she was wonderfully open in terms of choosing an illustrator. Sergio Ruzzier is not an obvious choice for a cuddly toddler book about maternal love, but I saw this odd little painting of ill-looking birds he’d done, pinned on the wall of her office. I said, “Ooh, can I have that guy?” and she said, “Sergio? Sure.”
I would have no career in picture books if it weren’t for Frances.
In 1995, I was an unpublished author. My wonderful agent, Barbara Markowitz, agreed to take me on as a client because she had faith in my manuscript, Beethoven in Paradise. Barbara had worked with Frances for many years and knew immediately that it was a story that she would like. She was right. Frances published that book – my first – in 1997. Over the next 16 years, Frances and I published 10 more books together.
When Frances was selected as the mentor honoree by the Eric Carle Museum last summer, FSG asked her authors to submit a note titled, “What I’ve Learned from Frances Foster.” This was my note: “I’ve learned not to panic when a letter from her begins with the words, ‘Brace yourself.’ I’ve learned not to panic when a phone call from her begins with the words, ‘I have a little niggle’ (a reference to a character in The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester, who has a little niggle). I tried to learn from her the proper use of ellipses, but I still don’t get it. I’ve learned patience, open-mindedness, tact, an appreciation for the creative process, and the importance of compromise. To quote some editorial correspondence I sent to her a few years ago, ‘As always, thanks for your insight, instinct, smarts, humor, respect, patience and safety-mindedness.’ ” (The latter being a reference to a BB gun scene that I initially thought was quite hilarious but was reminded by wise Frances that it was a bit too unsafe for a children’s book.)
It’s difficult writing about Frances as my editor in the past tense, because it’s almost impossible to think that she isn’t there to pick up the phone, or answer middle-of-the-night emails, and not having her tireless energy and support is so hard. I’m pretending that I’m working on a project that’s not hers, and that I’m out of touch until I start my next book with her. She is a friend, a mentor, a sage, a rare and witty person who graced my life and quietly taught me to be the best and strongest author I can be. I am so lucky to have had her as my editor. She and one other editor, Dianne Hess, have made my career, each in their own ways.
Frances always honored the intelligence and curiosity of children and what she knew children were capable of understanding. She believed in the ability of her young readers to enjoy and appreciate books that had bigger ideas and concepts. She asked all of us – her authors, artists, co-workers, and readers – to be our very best selves, and she had the magic personality to make us all happy to do just that for her.