Ava Weiss, the highly regarded, former longtime art director at Greenwillow Books, died on November 25 at the age of 95.
Weiss was born Ava Morgenstern in 1925 in Vienna, where her father Julius was an executive for the Czech-based shoe manufacturer Bata. According to Weiss’s son Andrew, Bata relocated the family, who were Jews, to the U.S. soon after the 1938 German annexation of Austria to save them from Nazi persecution. Shortly after the family’s arrival in New York City, Julius Morgenstern died, and Weiss and her mother Alice found work sewing epaulets on uniforms for the U.S. Army to support themselves. In those years Weiss also contributed to the household by waitressing and she was also named one of the “Miss Subways” winners whose posters appeared on New York City subway trains.
Weiss earned a full scholarship to Barnard College as well as to Cooper Union. But because Barnard would not allow her to live at home and continue working, she accepted the offer to attend Cooper Union, where she focused on commercial art and illustration, graduating in 1947. Upon earning her degree, Weiss took her first steps into a publishing career as a freelance illustrator of both business and trade titles as well as book jackets. While in her 20s, she met Al Weiss, a chemical process engineer who was also a WWII immigrant, originally from Berlin. The couple married and had two sons, John and Andrew. Al Weiss’s work took the family to Florida, the U.K., and Germany in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but once they returned to the U.S., Weiss resumed her illustration career and eventually joined Macmillan as art director in the children’s book division.
At Macmillan, Weiss was part of a formidable and profitable children’s book department led by editor-in-chief Susan Hirschman that produced works by critically acclaimed authors and illustrators. But in October 1974, Weiss was among those who left Macmillan in the wake of what the company’s chairman termed a “belt-tightening” strategy that resulted in the firing of 185 people. The move made headlines and sent shock waves through the industry. It also closely followed the filing of a class action complaint earlier that year by Weiss and numerous female colleagues claiming that Macmillan had discriminated against its women employees, who received wages and benefits inferior to those of their male counterparts.
The corporate seismic shift at Macmillan led to Weiss’s next career phase. By December 1974, she joined Hirschman, managing editor Ada Shearon, and editor and author Elizabeth (Libby) Shub—all colleagues from Macmillan—to set up shop anew at William Morrow, forming the Greenwillow Books division. Weiss served as Greenwillow’s art director until her retirement in late 2001. During her 27-year tenure, she worked with an all-star array of award-winning authors and illustrators including Donald Crews, Kevin Henkes, Anita and Arnold Lobel, Peter Sís, and Paul O. Zelinsky. Andrew Weiss characterized his mother’s Greenwillow era as one of “energy, creativity, joy, and caring. She loved her colleagues, she loved working with the artists and authors around her, she loved going to the printers to make sure all the books were perfect,” he said. “It was her dream job, and she, like Susan [Hirschman], kept at it until she was 75.”
Weiss stayed busy in her retirement, living in New Jersey for a number of years following the death of her husband in 2001. In 2014, at the age of 89, Weiss moved to San Francisco to be closer to her son Andrew and his family. She remained “active and fulfilled up until the past 18 months,” Andrew Weiss said, when “age simply caught up with her” and her health began to decline. “Ava died in peace, of old age, with care and love around her, and we all feel pretty fortunate,” he added.
At Weiss’s request, her family is donating her collection of children’s books and original art to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.
Susan Hirschman, retired publisher and founder of Greenwillow Books, remembered her friend and colleague this way: “She was amazing. There was nothing in the development of a book that she could not make work. Disasters were averted—sometimes daily. Problems were not allowed to exist. ‘Ava can fix it’ was a mantra that worked every time. And all the while she was cheerful and enthusiastic and made all of us and every artist and author know that everything was absolutely the way it should be, and that the Greenwillow family and its books would flourish because she would have it no other way. She thought each artist she worked with was the best. Ava’s ‘You’re a genius’ made each recipient of the phrase overflow with pleasure. She meant it—and it was a gift she gave with joy. In our many years together, I watched her teach—and learn—and glory with the rest of us in the results of her endless and seemingly untiring work. She was Ava—unique, loved, and never to be forgotten.”
Virginia Duncan, v-p and publisher of Greenwillow Books, who succeeded Hirschman in the role beginning in 2001, paid tribute to Weiss’s legacy. “I loved working with Ava—even for those few short years—and learned so much from her. She made every book right. Reduce something, enlarge something, move a page turn… she was a wizard with scissors, tape, a pencil, and tracing paper! And she bustled about the office with her sparkling eyes and infectious energy, keeping us all on our toes. Greenwillow’s wonderful and rich backlist is a testament to her passion, her dedication, and her incomparable flair.”
Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky recalled Weiss’s influence: “I heard about Ava Weiss early on in my forays into children’s books: she was the art director who knew more than anybody about getting books to look good. So, I was overjoyed to be taken onto the Greenwillow list as of my second picture book, for, among other reasons, the chance to learn from her. Ava was wonderfully smart; she spoke with verve and humor, and just the right amount of European accent to give whatever she said that much more eloquence and aplomb. And I learned under her wing; Ava was terrific at explaining her ways of handling book production, color correction, in proofs and on press. She was always trying new approaches. What struck me most, on press visits with her, was how her charm worked on the pressmen; they would all come around to chat with her, and I saw how they would go to enormous extra lengths to get results that might not have been available to any ordinary art director!
Sylvie Lefloc’h, who worked with Weiss for many years and is now associate art director at Greenwillow, offered this tribute: “Anybody who worked for Ava will say that she was an excellent teacher and mentor; we all graduated with ‘golden hands,’ as Ava would say—this was pre-computer, old-school-mechanicals time. Working for Ava was like getting a free education. She could look at type in six-point size and tell you what the font was. She also had an incredible sense of design. One of her favorite sayings was ‘less is more.’ Illustrators would trust her so much that they let her correct their own art with a paintbrush if they could not come into the office! The last time I saw Ava was at ALA in 2015 in San Francisco. We walked the exhibit floor, she exclaimed ‘You are a genius!’ to a few illustrators, we had lunch, shared stories, and ate the most unusual food, as if she had never retired in 2001. The next day, when I went to her apartment, she had her Mac computer open and we talked book-cover design. And, of course, we gossiped!”
Celebrated Czech-born illustrator Peter Sís shared his experience working with Weiss: “Greenwillow Books was a most wonderful portal to enter the world of children’s books in the 1980s, especially for an immigrant looking for a family. And what a family it was—plenty of wondrous relatives run by four amazing women. Susan [Hirschman] was editor-in-chief, Ada [Shearon] knew everything about numbers, Libby [Shub] about writing, and Ava as an art director. Once I would say that I have ‘an idea,’ I would meet with all four of them. They would listen, they would look at the doodles and when I was lucky Susan would say, ‘We will give you a contract.’ Ava would make copies, cut pictures with her scissors, pick a blank dummy of certain size, tape it all together, and give you the vision of what the book will look like. She was an optimistic cheerleader of the project giving me so much hope that I could not stop making pictures. Those were mythical times of bookmaking and I am blessed to have experienced it.”
Before she ever created books of her own, author-illustrator Rosemary Wells knew Weiss as a design mentor. “Ava Weiss, art director for Macmillan Children’s Books, hired two newbie junior designers, each 23 years old, in the fall of 1967. One was me and one was [late author-illustrator] Susan Jeffers. Each of us adored Ava. She wove us right into her life. I love to think of going back in time, because both Susan and I were about to embark on long, satisfying careers as illustrators but we didn’t have a clue yet at the time. I think Ava did. The day I was to become a first-time author I showed my little dummy book to Ava before anyone else. She looked up at me with that wonderful smile. ‘Take it down to Susan Hirschman, before she goes into a meeting,’ Ava said. I did and Susan Hirschman put me on the next spring’s list. When I came back to Ava’s office grinning from ear to ear she said, ‘See! I was right. You’re on your way, Rosemary.’ She was right. Everyone who worked with Ava loved her. Bless her cheerful, generous heart and her long, fruitful life.”
Author-illustrator Nina Crews is among those who benefited from Weiss’s tutelage as well, sharing this remembrance: “Ava was an amazing person—a great designer and a natural teacher whose warmth, optimism, and enthusiasm was tempered with practicality and no-nonsense frankness. Before bringing my own projects to Greenwillow, I spent part of a summer interning with Ava, Ada, and Susan. Ava gave me so much during those weeks. She did not assign me busy work, but let me help on the books, assisting her with layouts and dummies. Her teaching continued years later as we worked together on my first picture books. I recently came across the photos she mailed from her trips to China to oversee books on press—pictures of the press operators with proof sheets and a note about how terrific she thought the book was going to be. It was incredibly thoughtful of her and I still use the images to explain the bookmaking process on my school visits. Lastly, I am so happy to have seen Ava five years ago with Dad [noted author-illustrator Donald Crews] and my sister, Amy. We were in San Francisco for ALA when Dad won the Wilder Medal. It was great to see how happy she was, taking things easier than she used to, but still fully engaged in the world.”
And author-illustrator Kevin Henkes, recipient of the Caldecott Medal as well as two Newbery Honors and numerous other accolades, spoke fondly of Weiss’s warm and wide-ranging guidance: “When I began my career, I was young and there was so much I didn’t know. Lucky me—Ava was a natural teacher. I learned so much from her. During my early years at Greenwillow, I’d usually go to New York for a week once or twice a year. I loved when Ava let me sit in her office and watch her work. Ava took me out to lunch. She took to me to the Morgan Library. She took me shopping for a birthday present for my wife. Ava taught me how to prepare overlays for preseparated art. She taught me how to use chopsticks. She gave me her old type catalogs and a Pantone guide, all of which I still use. I can’t work on a book without thinking of her. I’m enormously fortunate to have had her in my life.”