Children’s book publisher Phyllis Fogelman, a trailblazing champion of books by Black authors and illustrators and mentor to many in the children’s book industry, died on December 18 after a long illness. She was 89.
Fogelman was born Phyllis Gensburg on May 4, 1933 in Philadelphia. She grew up in New London, Conn. before attending Barnard College and then later graduating from NYU. She began her publishing career working as an administrative and editorial assistant at Mid-Century Book Society in New York City. She married attorney Sheldon Fogelman in 1960. After that marriage later ended, she married publishing advertising executive Erwin Baker.
In 1961 Fogelman took a position at Harper & Row as a production editor and an associate editor of children’s books, advancing to senior editor under legendary department head Ursula Nordstrom. In October 1966 she was named editor-in-chief of the children’s division of Dial Press. At Dial for more than three decades, Fogelman rose to become president and publisher, and in 1998 was given her own eponymous imprint. Fogelman resigned from her imprint, then under the Penguin umbrella, in 2002.
Fogelman was frequently lauded for her pioneering efforts to seek out and publish works by Black authors and illustrators. In 1968 she published Julius Lester’s first book for children, To Be a Slave, illustrated by Tom Feelings. The title was named a 1969 Newbery Honor and both Lester and Feelings built lasting professional relationships with Fogelman, creating numerous works highlighting Black heritage and culture.
In her search for new material in those days, Fogelman kept an eye on such things as the industry’s Council on Interracial Books for Children, a group that administered an annual writing contest for people of color. A writer named Mildred Taylor won the 1973 competition with a submission called Song of the Trees. Fogelman bought the novella and published it in 1975. The title won a 1976 Coretta Scott King Honor and its sequel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was awarded the 1977 Newbery Medal.
“People said black books wouldn’t sell,” she recalled to PW in a 1994 article. “I said they would, and they did.”
Fogelman is also credited as a driver in the popularization of books for babies. Faced with a dearth of “worthwhile” baby books—ones with engaging art as well as a plot—for her young son, David, Fogelman sought to publish such works, beginning with a quartet of board books released in 1979 about bunny siblings Max and Ruby by author-illustrator Rosemary Wells, with whom she was already working. Those titles launched the Very First Books line at Dial.
Among the other creative talent Fogelman published over the years are Mark and Caralyn Buehner, Leo and Diane Dillon, Susan Jeffers, Steven Kellogg, Jean Van Leeuwen, and Jerry and Gloria Pinkney. Under Fogelman, the Dillons won back-to-back Caldecott Medals in 1976 (Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Vera Aardema) and 1977 (Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove). And Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney began a long and fruitful connection to Fogelman and Dial beginning with the jacket artwork for Song of the Trees and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and including award-winning picture books like The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy (1985) and John Henry by Julius Lester (1994).
Fellow children’s book industry editors and publishers Regina Hayes, Anne Schwartz, and Paula Wiseman have cited Fogelman as an influential mentor on their career paths. In 2013, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art awarded Fogelman a Carle Honors in the Mentor category, recognizing her as a champion of the picture book art form.
Hayes, former publisher and editor-at-large at Viking Children’s Books, worked for Fogelman as an editor at Dial from 1973 to 1982, during which one of her assignments was to edit Taylor’s Song of the Trees (and Taylor’s subsequent books). She shared this remembrance: “Phyllis was an extraordinarily good publisher. She had wonderful taste, and was committed to having the best possible design and production. Decades before the push for diversity, she made it her mission to publish Black writers and artists really well. Her standards were high and all of us who worked for her learned more from her than we knew.”
Rosemary Wells, who worked closely with Fogelman for nearly three decades, paid tribute to her with these words: “Phyllis Fogelman was a part of a new generation of editors, post-war free thinkers who came of age in the 1960s. So began the golden years of children’s literature. Phyllis, often queen of good humor and hilarity, taught this wildly imaginative and energetic artist self-discipline. She believed in me and caused me to only produce my best work, otherwise she’d turn it down which was unthinkably awful. She had superb, unerring taste. So, I learned to believe in my best work. I have manuscript pages with comments back and forth in different color pencil, scrawled on the backs of the pages, by Phyllis and me. These were arguments about the tiniest of grammatical or other details. I never won a single editorial argument with Phyllis.
She taught me the art of precise writing. Four lines a page is enough in any picture book. She taught me how to put something away until a long season’s wait would cure a manuscript’s ills. She did this for everyone on her list. The talent to inspire was her genius.
I have missed Phyllis these many years. But her gift to me is a small Phyllis, about an inch-and-a-half high. She sits on my keyboard and comments until I get my work right. I can still hear her high heels clack-clacking fast down the hallways. I can see her shoulder pads on her many stylish outfits and feel the warmth of her welcoming grin. Rest in peace, dear friend.”