Rising children’s author-illustrator Paula Cohen, whose debut solo picture book Big Dreams, Small Fish (Levine Querido) was published on March 1, died suddenly on February 24 at her home in Fanwood, N.J. She was 57.
Cohen was born June 26, 1964 in Albany, N.Y. and grew up there, in a neighborhood where her grandparents owned a small family grocery store—very much like the one that would eventually appear in her picture book. She demonstrated a passion for art early on, writing and illustrating her own stories from a very young age.
Cohen further developed her artistic talent and skill while earning a B.F.A. in illustration from Parsons School of Design. Cohen then worked as a freelancer doing editorial illustration for a number of years and her art—noted for its whimsical and humorous style—appeared in many publications as well as some books for Crown. She took a hiatus to raise her two sons and began running art programs and camps, according to an interview with In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. “Then I realized I had forgotten to follow my dream and started focusing only on children’s book work,” Cohen wrote in her artist statement for SCBWI, an organization in which she had been an active member since 2015.
Firmly set on her path to pursue a children’s book career, Cohen submitted a writing sample and was accepted to the Tent Children’s Literature Program at the Yiddish Book Center, a weeklong program where participants workshopped Jewish stories with various mentors. It was there that Cohen connected with one of the instructors, Miriam Udel, who was writing and compiling a book of Yiddish children’s tales. That meeting soon led to a close collaboration on Udel’s anthology Honey on the Page (NYU Press, 2020), which Cohen illustrated.
Cohen then signed up two more projects, Big Dreams, Small Fish and The Incredible Shrinking Lunchroom, the latter by Michal Babay (Charlesbridge, July). Along her journey she cultivated many ties in the kidlit community. In addition to her activities with SCBWI, she created the logo for KidLit Caravan, a group for debut picture book authors, and was scheduled to speak at the ALSC National Institute this fall.
Cohen’s husband Paul Martin shared a statement in tribute. “Big Dreams, Small Fish was truly a labor of love for Paula,” he wrote. “The main character, Shirley, is named for her beloved mom, whose parents owned a store not unlike the one depicted in her book. It is such a comfort that Paula was able to realize her dream of being an author. The love that the amazing children's literature community has shown her and my family has been a blessing at this difficult time.”
Christy Ewers of the CAT Agency, who represented Cohen, remembered her this way: “Paula was so much like Shirley, the protagonist of her debut picture book. She was thoughtful, fiery, sweet, funny, talented, and wildly determined. She loved her family, her friends, and her community and she made the world a friendlier place. It was a true honor to be a small part of making one of Paula’s big dreams come true. She will be missed by all of us in her extended family.”
On the TAP into Scotch Plains/Fanwood website Fanwood mayor Colleen Mahr said, “I want to send my heartfelt condolences to Paula’s husband and sons and to all those who knew her in our tight-knit community. I was lucky enough to know Paula and over the years she would reach out offering up creative ideas on how to use her talents to promote and enhance our town. There was such a sense of excitement for her on the upcoming launch of her wonderful book.”
To further honor Cohen, her friends from the children’s book world have come together to encourage people to purchase Cohen’s book in her memory. Author Deke Moulton got the ball rolling on Twitter with this tweet:
A large chorus on social media quickly followed and continued to boost the title on its official book birthday.