Award-winning children’s author and former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman, widely recognized for her playful picture books focused on the everyday wonders, relationships, and experiences of childhood, died July 7 in her home in Greenwich, Conn., following a long illness. She was 92.
Hoberman was born August 12, 1930, in Stamford, Conn., the oldest child of Milton and Dorothy Miller Freedman. She grew up primarily in Stamford, where her childhood was filled with good neighbors, friends, and classmates, and treasured weekly trips to the public library. A voracious reader, she also entertained thoughts of writing in those days. “From as far back as I can remember in any contiguous way—that is when one’s earliest memories begin to hold each other’s hands, so to speak—I have always wanted to be a writer,” Hoberman wrote in her 1994 autobiography for Something About the Author.
Upon graduating from Stamford High, Hoberman enrolled in Smith College. In 1949, she was a member of Smith’s first “junior year abroad” group—which also included future first lady Jacqueline Bouvier—to travel to France since before World War II. A memorable summer as part of a work brigade in Yugoslavia followed, before she returned home.
During her senior year at Smith, she met Norman Hoberman, then a senior at Harvard Law School, on a blind date. The couple married in February 1951, with each vowing to finish their respective studies. Later that year, her B.A. in history in hand, Hoberman landed a job writing society and human-interest stories for a daily newspaper in Harrisburg, Pa., near the Air Force base where her husband began his military service at the Office of Special Investigations. Norm was subsequently stationed in Newfoundland, and the Hobermans’ first daughter was born there in 1953.
After the Korean War, the Hobermans and their three small children settled in Cambridge, Mass., where Norm changed course from a legal career to study architecture, and Hoberman found work as a freelance children’s book copy editor at Little, Brown, working with Mary Rackliffe. Though she had not intended to write for children, Hoberman found herself giving it a try when she was inspired to make up rhymes for her own kids. In 1955, she crafted some verses about various types of shoes, and Norm provided some illustrations to go with them. At Rackliffe’s suggestion, Hoberman mailed the manuscript to Helen Jones, children’s editor at Little, Brown, and in 1957 All My Shoes Come in Twos was published. As an author-illustrator team, the Hobermans published four more books with Little, Brown in the 1960s.
By 1960, the Hobermans were building a new house in Greenwich, Conn., designed by Norm and not far from his architecture job in New York City. The family welcomed a fourth child in 1963, and Hoberman accepted a part-time position with the New York Graphic Society in their Greenwich office, where she edited various projects and was tasked with launching a children’s book department. But after two years, she left NYGS, citing her desire to get back to her own writing and spend more time with her children.
Another creative detour was around the corner. A chance meeting with a fellow children’s writer in Greenwich led Hoberman to a simultaneous career writing and performing in puppet plays and musicals for children as part of a troupe called the Pocket People from the late 1960s until 1975. All the while, she kept up with her poetry, publishing several books, including A Little Book of Little Beasts, illustrated by Peter Parnall. In 1978, Hoberman published A House Is a House for Me, illustrated by Betty Fraser (Viking, 1978), of which she said: “House began with the title-cum-refrain, which popped into my head one day and refused to depart until I had written the entire poem…. Much of it almost seemed to write itself.” The paperback edition of that book won the 1983 National Book Award in the children’s paperback picture book category.
When Hoberman became an empty nester in 1982, she started her own graduate studies in the English department at Yale, hoping to beef up her teaching credentials for the Creative Writing for Children course she taught at Fairfield University. She earned her M.A. in English literature in 1985.
Hoberman continued to publish at a steady pace throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, delivering such titles as The Seven Silly Eaters, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Harcourt, 1997); One of Each, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Little, Brown, 1997); and All Kinds of Families!, illustrated by Marc Boutavant (Little, Brown, 2009). Little, Brown is also home to her bestselling You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You series of books, illustrated by Michael Emberley, and designed for children and adults to read to each other. This particular project grew out of her longtime literacy advocacy and volunteer work with Literacy Volunteers of America.
In all, Hoberman created more than 45 books for young readers. She served as the Poetry Foundation’s Children’s Poet Laureate (now known as the Young People’s Poet Laureate) from 2008–2011. Poetry was never far from her mind, and at the time of her death Hoberman was working on How Elegant the Elephant, a compilation of celebrated and unpublished poems about animals and insects, illustrated by Marla Frazee and scheduled for fall 2024 publication by Little, Brown.
Megan Tingley, president and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, offered this remembrance: “Mary Ann and I worked together for my entire career, from the first month I started working at Little, Brown as an editorial assistant in 1987, until 2023 in my current role; publishing over 25 books together. For Mary Ann, writing poetry was as essential as breathing. She had a gift for finding the extraordinary in everyday things—buttons and pennies, butter and jam—she could write a poem about anything. She was still writing until the week she passed away, composing a new farewell poem to share at a ‘bon voyage’ party she hosted for family and friends. That is quintessential Mary Ann—creating joy out of a sorrowful occasion.”
Linda Zuckerman, who edited several of Hoberman's books at Harcourt, said: "Mary Ann, my dear old friend and creator of wonders in rhyme, how I will miss you! Musical, impeccable and often funny verses that go straight to the hearts of young children—how did you do that? Working with you was an undiluted pleasure—the rare experience of writer and editor being of one mind from the very first. Thank you, Mary Ann. I am forever grateful."
Author and illustrator Marla Frazee shared this tribute: "It was such a lucky break when I got to illustrate The Seven Silly Eaters at the start of my career. Mary Ann Hoberman’s text was a marvel of wit, precision, storytelling (in perfect rhyme, no less), silliness, and deep emotional truths. Trying to pair pictures with that brilliance was an enormous challenge and responsibility. But I fell in love with her writing more and more with every day I worked on the book. Then when we finally met, I fell in love with her too. I’m illustrating a collection of Mary Ann Hoberman poems right now. As I continue the work, I will remember Mary Ann’s delight in all things and her contagious smile, and I hope I can channel even a fraction of her immense enthusiasm for life into my pictures."