Regina McDonnell Hayes arrived in New York in 1966 after a two-year stint as an au pair in Paris, unsure of what to do next. She signed with a temp agency, accepting a variety of dull assignments until one day she landed in the offices of Coward-McCann, a now-defunct division of G.P. Putnam's Sons, working for the publicity director. Serendipity intervened: a new colleague confided she was quitting, and suggested Hayes should apply for her job, working with the children’s editor.

“They hired me but I don’t think there were any other applicants,” Hayes said. “I knew from the first week that this was what I was meant to do. The idea that the people in that office read books all day was enough.”

Fifty-four years later, Hayes retired from Viking Children’s Books on February 1, where she had been publisher for 30 years and an editor-at-large since stepping down from that role in 2012.

The editor of numerous award-winning books, steward of a storied backlist, beloved mentor of authors and junior colleagues, she said she wanted to leave without fanfare. “I had been thinking about it for a while but I didn’t give them much warning,” said Hayes, who fought attempts to send her off with a lot of “fuss.” Instead, the office had a little gathering where her colleagues toasted her and gave her their best wishes electronically. “They went into the video studio and put them all on a thumb drive so I could watch them at home later because they knew I would have been mortified to watch in public.”

A Bookish Kid

As a child, Hayes says she was the stereotypical “kid with her nose in a book all the time,” but she majored in psychology at Newton College, now a part of Boston College. “I started as an English major but it was ruining my reading. I didn’t want to analyze the books. I just wanted to enjoy them.” As a result, she began work in publishing with no formal education in literature or editing and, at the time, that was okay. “There was not much pressure on us or even attention to what we were doing because we were just a backwater then,” she said. “The bosses hadn’t realized how much gold there was in ‘them thar hills.’ ”

Among the seismic changes Hayes has seen in her career was the realization of that gold, the enormous growth of a retail market for both frontlist and backlist books, and a revolution in the way books are marketed. “When I started, you basically just threw a book out there,” she said. “Other than getting it to the important librarians, there was no marketing.”

There has also been, of course, a complete technological transformation in how books are made. Hayes remembers the laborious process of pre-separating colors for illustrations and the days when only three colors could be used because “four-color was too expensive.” When she began at Coward-McCann, freelancers created book jackets, but the rest of the book’s elements were designed in-house and by hand. “You got out the typeface book and figured out what font you wanted for a chapter head and then you used tracing paper to copy it.” She learned the business from editor-in-chief Alice Torrey, who had an unsentimental attitude about children’s literature. “She always had a cigarette dangling from her lip and she used to say, ‘The one word I don’t want to hear is cute.’ ”

After seven years, Hayes moved to Dial to work for legendary editor Phyllis Fogelman. Unlike Coward-McCann, Dial had its own art director, Atha Tehon, who, Hayes said, “had high standards and exquisite taste.” When she told Tehon about designing her own books at Coward-McCann, “she almost fainted. I got a real education in design from her.”

Fogelman, who personally edited the works of Tom Feeling and Julius Lester, was committed to diversity decades before it became a publishing imperative. After acquiring a manuscript that had won the Council on Interracial Books writing contest, she assigned Hayes to edit it. The book was Song of the Trees by Mildred D. Taylor, the first book in Taylor’s (eventual) quintet about the Logan family. Hayes edited Taylor’s next book, too: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial, 1976). “I remember when I first read it thinking, ‘Can this be as good as I think it is?’ and it was.” The book won the 1977 Newbery Medal. Taylor wrote three more volumes, the latest of which, All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, was edited by Hayes and published by Viking this past January.

“Those books taken together are just an amazing, intimate portrait of civil rights in 20th-century America, and they are so powerful because it is so personal,” Hayes said. “Those stories are infused with Mildred’s family story, the stories she heard growing up.”

Perhaps what Hayes cherishes most from her Dial years, though, is her reunion with James Marshall, whom she had first worked with at Coward-McCann. “Meeting Jim changed my whole attitude,” she recalled. “He showed me that children’s books could be so smart and funny and quietly subversive. His books were definitely for children but they also gave adults something because he had an incredible sense of humor. You could just walk down the street with him and he would point out 10 things that made you laugh, none of which you would ever have thought of yourself.”

The Viking Decades

She helped me write some of the best books of my life, teaching me something new with every pass.
— Sarah Dessen

After nearly a decade at Dial, Hayes became publisher of Viking Children’s Books in 1982, a job she held until 2012, when she became editor-at-large.

During those decades she edited, published, and befriended many of the most beloved luminaries of children’s publishing, including Barbara Cooney, Roald Dahl, Robert McCloskey, Simms Taback, and Rosemary Wells, whom Hayes had first worked with years earlier at Dial. Wells recalled, “She was assigned to edit one of my early novels because there was a Roman Catholic heroine and since Phyllis Fogelman knew nothing about the Catholic tradition, she sent my manuscript to a beautiful brown-haired Irish girl on her staff. It was Regina. We instantly because mischievous friends, chatty new mothers as well as editor and writer.”

Wells and Hayes reimagined the board book category with Very First Books, a series that launched two bunnies named Max and Ruby. Up until that time, baby and toddler books were all based on simple concepts. The Max and Ruby books actually had little plots, told quickly across six spreads.

Hayes also edited Mary on Horseback, a novel about a traveling nurse that Wells considers one of her best works. “Regina’s mark is all over its pacing and its purpose,” Wells said. “It was she who said, ‘You’ve got a chunky middle-aged heroine who doesn’t know how to dress. What’s worse, she births loads of babies. How to lose every boy reader in the world! Keep her in the background as gray eminence.’ And I did.”

Eventually, after Hayes became Viking’s publisher, she had to set down her pencil. “I started out trying to keep certain books and authors to myself but I finally realized it was really unfair to the authors because I’d be keeping them waiting for months,” she said. “Shaping a list is different from being an editor. It’s different but it can be just as exciting.”

At Viking, she was also charged with revitalizing Puffin, the paperback line, which at the time she took over, had an annual list of 10–12 titles. Nancy Paulsen was managing editor and the two of them went to town. “Nobody was really paying attention to us, so we just plunged in. It was sort of like, ‘My father’s got a barn. Let’s put on a show!’ ” she said. “Before we knew it the list had grown to 75 books. I had to go in and ask for more acquisition money from our president [Alan Kellock] and he looked at me and said, ‘75 books? How did that happen?’ ” Kellock doubled their budget – from $25,000 to $50,000.

The 1980s saw a rapid growth in retail sales, with membership in the Association of Booksellers for Children having grown to 400 stores. Children’s booksellers needed books they could handsell directly to adults who might not know what they wanted—sturdy paperbacks, good-looking reissues of the classics, and new books that would appeal to a generation of kids raised on cartoons.

In 1987, “a young man came in one day” to see Hayes. “His portfolio was stunning,” she remembers. “We were definitely interested in giving him work but we didn’t have a manuscript for him at the moment.”

Lane Smith remembers this meeting vividly, too. “Jon [Scieszka] and I had previously been kicked out of several publishing offices with A Tale of a Wolf [its original title],” Smith said. “It had been suggested to us that our weird and slightly scary take on a classic fairy tale might not be appropriate for small readers.”

Hayes read the dummy while Smith waited. “This was too much for my nerves so I moved to a wall to admire an original Bemelmans’s Madeline painting,” he recalled. “But my ears were turned around backwards like a cat’s, searching for some clue to Ms. Hayes’s reaction. Was that a chuckle? Wait, was she actually laughing? If so, this was a response our book had not received in the weeks we had been shopping it around.”

Hayes finished and told him on the spot she wanted to publish his book, which was retitled The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. “I recall saying, ‘Excellent,’ or something equally nonchalant but if Regina had looked out her window minutes later she would have seen a madman zig-zagging into traffic, coins spilling from pockets, wildly looking for a pay phone to tell Jon our lives had just changed.”

Hayes remembers that, right out of the gate, Viking had trouble keeping True Story in print. “I think we reprinted something like six or seven times that first year, for a total of something like 80,000 copies, which for that time was huge,” she said. Next came The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, which won a 1993 Caldecott Honor.

“Without Regina, there would not have been a True Story of the 3 Little Pigs or a Stinky Cheese Man or a Math Curse or Science Verse or Time Warp Trio series,” said Scieszka. “She had both an editor’s sharp eye for a good story, and a generous, kid-centered heart. And she always saw that humor was important.”

Simms Taback also won a Caldecott Honor during Hayes’s tenure, for There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, a redesigned edition of a novelty book he had published years before. “After that, he brought in Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, which of course went on to win the Caldecott Medal,” Hayes said. “He was a joy to work with. The last book we published with him [Taback died in 2011] was Kibitzers and Fools. He came in to meet with [art director] Denise Cronin and me about it one day and I remember he said, ‘This is the most Jewish book I have ever written and I can’t believe I’m here putting it together with a couple of Irish girls.’ ”

Reviving the Backlist

At Viking, Hayes also worked closely with the estates of many departed creators, including McCloskey, Ludwig Bemelmans, Don Freeman, Ezra Jack Keats, and Astrid Lindgren to ensure backlist classics like Make Way for Ducklings, Madeline, Corduroy, The Snowy Day, and Pippi Longstocking would continue to reach new audiences. In the 1970s, many of the books had been redesigned without jackets, or in a reduced trim size, to save money. Hayes restored them to their original glory.

The work brought her in contact with legends like Cooney, whom she visited at the author’s home on the Damariscotta River in Maine, in a house her son had built for her. “Thomas Moser made all her cabinets and in her studio there was a place for every brush and tube of paint,” Hayes remembered. “Everything was blue and white. It would have made for incredible photos although I can’t imagine Barbara would ever be on Instagram.”

McCloskey, who also lived in Maine, was “lovely and so sweet,” Hayes recalled, but also very shy and intimidated by his own fame. She remembers him being asked to give a speech at the Children’s Books and Author breakfast at ABA. He arrived in New York, where the plan was to meet for dinner the night before, but McCloskey went to the wrong hotel and his luggage had been lost.

“Finally, he showed up about 8:30 [p.m.]. A kind lady had found him wandering around a different hotel,” Hayes recalled. “He was wearing a ratty old sweater so we bought him socks, underwear, and a new shirt in the hotel gift shop. They were outrageously expensive but he said they were the best socks he had ever had. The next morning he came to the breakfast in the new shirt, but with the ratty sweater over it. He said he couldn’t give the speech to a big audience ‘with just a thin shirt between me and them.’ ”

What’s Next?

Hayes plans to spend more time with her four grandchildren, who live in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. (“They have libraries like you wouldn’t believe,” she admits.) She will miss the work, and the people she worked with will certainly miss her. “She helped me write some of the best books of my life, teaching me something new with every pass,” said Sarah Dessen, who published more than a dozen of her bestselling YA novels with Viking. “I am so lucky to have gotten to work with her.”

Rosemary Wells said Hayes belongs in the pantheon of great editors, “the whisperer behind the curtain” that helps each actor perform to his highest ability. “I have had the good fortune of working with the best and brightest editors of my generation,” said Wells, who counts Fogelman, Michael di Capua, Dick Jackson, Ann Tobias, and Amy Ehrlich among them. “But Regina takes the cake.”

No doubt Hayes would blush at that praise. Then and now, for her, it was always about the story. “I still love the work and I’m never happier than sitting with a big fat manuscript, a pencil in hand, to date myself, but it was time to make way for ducklings,” she said. “I just had to do it and know that I’d then figure out what to do next.”