Legendary children’s book publisher, editor, and author Richard “Dick” Jackson died on October 2 from complications of multiple myeloma at his home in Towson, Md.
Jackson was born in 1935 and grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, where his father was in the automobile business. In his 2005 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, Jackson shared extensive recollections from his life, describing himself as a “dreamy boy” who was drawn to magic (which he performed at birthday parties), music, art, and the theater.
After graduating from boarding school in Massachusetts, he attended Yale University and received a B.A. in drama. After Yale, Jackson trained as an Army machine-gunner at Fort Benning in Georgia and expected to be sent to Germany. But his military service took a detour when Jackson was asked to write an article for the Fort Benning newspaper about basic training. The general at Fort Benning was so impressed with his writing that he asked Jackson to write speeches for him. As a result, he stayed in Georgia for his entire military stint, and was granted a discharge a few weeks early to pursue a master’s degree in English at Columbia University, where he met his wife Nancy.
But when the graduate English program at Columbia turned out not to be what he expected, Jackson left without finishing a full term, and followed his long-held passion for theater. In December 1960, he teamed up with two friends to produce an off-Broadway play written by another friend from college. The play closed after six weeks, and Jackson decided he needed to pursue another path to employment, heading to Harper & Brothers. According to Jackson, a gentleman at Harper & Brothers recommended that he attend New York University’s Graduate Institute of Book Publishing.
His eventual enrollment in the apprentice-style NYU program meant Jackson worked at Doubleday five mornings a week in production, and, in turn, Doubleday paid his tuition. At NYU, Jackson was greatly inspired by instructor Frances Keene, also Knopf’s juvenile editor, who recognized his interest in art and suggested he contact Margaret Lesser, the editor-in-chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers. Jackson recalled that in an area of publishing where women "ruled the roost," Lesser's initial reaction to his phone call was, "What would I do with you? After all, you're a man." Lesser eventually offered Jackson a secretarial job in the spring of 1962, following his graduation from NYU with a master’s in publishing. He said in his Arbuthnot lecture that his first editorial assignment for Lesser was creating an index for the classic D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Not long after that, Keene was named editor of the children’s book department at Macmillan and offered Jackson a job as her associate.
Jackson left his job at Macmillan in 1966 for a position launching a children’s list at small publisher David White Company. Later that year, after things at David White had gone south, he interviewed with Robert Verrone, a children’s publishing veteran at Prentice-Hall in New Jersey. Though Jackson did not take the Prentice-Hall position he interviewed for, he and Verrone, both fathers with young children, became friends and would go on to cofound Bradbury Press with Prentice-Hall’s financing in February 1968. Authors on Bradbury’s initial list included Paula Fox and Arnold Lobel. The program soon grew to include Avi, Judy Blume, Diane Goode, Susan Jeffers, Cynthia Rylant, Rosemary Wells, and then swelled with numerous other acclaimed authors and illustrators, many of whom became friends and followed Jackson to various publishing houses throughout his career.
New ownership at Prentice-Hall, not interested in keeping Bradbury Press, meant that Jackson and Verrone had to find new funding and a new location for their company, resulting in their buying out Prentice-Hall’s interest and moving to offices in Scarsdale, N.Y. In 1982, with Verrone in failing health, he and Jackson sold Bradbury to Macmillan. And after Verrone’s death in 1984, the Bradbury offices moved again, to the Macmillan building in Manhattan. Jackson left the company in 1986 to go to Orchard Books and head his own imprint, Richard Jackson Books, which he ran until 1996, the year he cofounded DK Ink, a children¹s imprint at DK. In 1999, he became editorial director of the Richard Jackson Books imprint within Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Though he “retired” from publishing in 2005, Jackson held his editorial director position until his death.
Jackson was often asked to talk about his work and career over the years. “It’s mysterious what we do anyway, editors,” he said in a conversation recorded at Politics & Prose in 2014. “We’re just enthusiasts. That’s our job, educated enthusiasts.”
According to Simon & Schuster, recognition for the books Jackson has edited or published across the span of his time in publishing include 16 Newbery or Newbery Honors, five Caldecott or Caldecott Honors, one National Book Award, two Coretta Scott King Medals or Honors, one Edgar Award, two Sibert Honors, seven Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards or Honors, one Scott O’Dell Award, one Charlotte Zolotow Award and two Mildred L. Batchelder Awards.
In 2016, at the age of 81, Jackson launched yet another phase of his publishing legacy by becoming an author. That year, Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, an imprint at Atheneum Books for Young Readers, published Jackson’s first picture book, Have a Look, Says Book, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. His next title, In Plain Sight (2016), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, was published by Roaring Brook Press’s Neal Porter Books imprint, and received a 2017 Coretta Scott King Honor for its illustrations. Porter, who edited that title and three others (one to be published posthumously), worked with Jackson at Orchard in the 1990s, and was a cofounder of DK Ink with him. Offering a remembrance of Jackson, Porter said: “I knew Dick for 35 years, worked closely with him for eight, published him for three, with another book still to come. He was my colleague, mentor, theater pal, and above all, treasured friend. The words that come to mind are elegance, followed closely by eloquence and unfailing generosity of spirit. I will miss him dearly, as will all who knew him.”
Jackson’s move to authordom came as a pleasant surprise to most everyone in his life. In a 2016 interview with PW, Jackson noted that he had embarked on this new path three years into treatment for the multiple myeloma with which he was diagnosed in 2010. As he told PW, the process of creating his own works was “tremendous fun” for Jackson. “It gives me energy rather than the reverse,” he said. “I felt a certain urgency to do the work while I still could.” Friends and fans are grateful he succeeded.