Publisher, editor, and award-winning children’s book author James Cross Giblin died on Sunday, April 10, following a long illness. He was 82.
Giblin was born in Cleveland in 1933 and grew up in Ohio. He studied at Northwestern University before transferring to Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Ohio, receiving his B.A. in 1954. Giblin received an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1955 from Columbia University.
As a child he took an early interest in reading, and in drawing comic strips, which he has said was greatly encouraged by his mother. This passion persisted and he worked on school newspapers throughout junior high and high school and began to pursue playwriting in college. He stayed in New York City after earning his degree at Columbia to do so, but when that career path didn’t go as planned, he took at job at Criterion Books in 1959, and soon turned an eye toward specializing in the children’s book field. In the early to mid-1960s Giblin was an associate editor at Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, then moved to Seabury Press in 1967 and became editor-in-chief, spearheading the development of the children’s book line there, later called Clarion Books. When Houghton Mifflin bought Clarion in the late 1970s, Giblin moved to the company as Clarion’s publisher.
In 1980 Giblin saw his first children’s book published, The Scarecrow Book (Crown), written with collaborator Dale Ferguson. Giblin went on to write more than 20 books for young readers, mainly nonfiction, historical nonfiction, and biographies. His early title Chimney Sweeps: Yesterday and Today (Crowell, 1982) won the 1983 National Book Award (then called the American Book Award) in the children’s book category and Giblin’s The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler (Clarion, 2002) garnered the 2003 Sibert Medal, which honors the “most distinguished informational work for children” in a given year. Giblin’s books were frequently praised by reviewers as easy-to-understand, engaging, and containing a level of detail derived from painstaking research.
As an editor, he worked with such authors as Eileen Christelow and Mary Downing Hahn, whose debut titles he published and with whom he continued to work after he took early retirement in 1989 to focus on his own writing. In 2012 Giblin established the James Cross Giblin Scholarship Fund within the Highlights Foundation. The annual awards provide access to Highlights programs and workshops for writers (focusing on those with a passion for juvenile nonfiction) as well as for individuals working in children’s publishing.
Molly O’Neill of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, and a former marketing assistant at Clarion, shared this tribute to Giblin, whose professional generosity she greatly admired: “I just learned that James Cross Giblin is gone and I’m quite sure that the entire children’s publishing industry just grew a little dimmer as a result. During my first job as a marketing assistant at Clarion Books, each time I asked a question (even the simplest of questions!) Jim would regale me with tales of Ye Olde Publishing Days Gone By, and delve into the histories of the business, and I always felt like I was sitting at the feet of a legend, soaking up living history. I never got much work done on the afternoons he’d come into the office, but I think I learned half of what I know about the industry’s evolutions from listening to his stories. Jim was a brilliant historian, a superb writer, a beloved editor, and such a magnificent gentleman: truly a representative of our industry’s Very Best. I will miss him.”
Lynne Polvino, senior editor at Clarion who worked closely with Giblin, offered this remembrance: “Jim was a wise and patient mentor who taught me many invaluable lessons. I think perhaps the most important was that a good editor doesn’t simply point out issues and correct them, but knows how to ask the right questions to lead an author to her own solutions. Jim’s authors were fiercely loyal to him, which says so much about what a wonderful editor and person he was. He had an amazing mind for details – he could recall what color sweater a person was wearing at an event 20 years ago! – and he was a font of charming stories and anecdotes about the children’s publishing world. I will miss hearing those stories very much.”
Dinah Stevenson, v-p and publisher of Clarion Books, released a statement announcing the news of Giblin’s passing. In addition to chronicling some of the major achievements of the “legendary editor and award-winning author” who wrote “several impressive biographies for Clarion,” she noted that “a memorial service will be announced in due course.”