Acclaimed children’s author, distinguished children’s librarian, and stalwart champion of intellectual freedom Susan Patron, best known for her Newbery Medal-winning novel The Higher Power of Lucky, died October 24 in Los Angeles, following a long battle with lung cancer. She was 75.
Patron was born March 18, 1948, in San Gabriel, Calif., near Los Angeles, where she grew up the middle of three daughters of George and Rubye Hall. From the age of eight, Patron already knew she wanted to be a writer, she said in a Something About the Author interview in 1994. When she told her father about her career ambitions, “I received both encouragement (go ahead: if you want to be a writer, write) and excellent advice (learn how to type),” she said. He offered further wisdom when he suggested story ideas were all around if she just kept her ears open. “I began eavesdropping and hearing stories everywhere,” she recalled.
By 1965 Patron was enrolled at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and would later spend her junior year abroad at Trinity College, Dublin. During her time in Ireland, Patron sharpened her listening-for-stories skills, surrounded by “gowned professors as well as the cab drivers, the children and the pub orators—the best extemporaneous talkers in the world.” She received her B.A. from Pitzer in 1969 and shortly after graduation she married native Frenchman René Patron, a rare book restorer who had recently opened his own business. When planning her own next steps, Patron recalled to SATA, “René said, ‘The bravest, kindest, most interesting people I have met in America are librarians.’ ” Following that supportive signpost from her husband, she soon earned a master’s of library science from nearby Immaculate Heart College in 1972—the same year she landed a position as children’s librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Patron thrived in her librarian role, rising to senior children’s librarian and juvenile materials collection development manager and training while mentoring librarians at 72 different branches over her 35-year tenure at LAPL before retiring in 2007. She served on committees for children’s book awards and other work for ALA and ALSC and was a member of the board of advisors for KCET public television’s Storytime program.
All the while she focused on her keen ear for stories. At the library she observed first-hand the kinds of tales that kids enjoyed most, and she also launched STORY: Seniors Taking the Opportunity to Reach Youth, a program that recruited older adults to learn storytelling techniques. By the late 1980s, these experiences were among the catalysts for Patron to at last follow her long-held dream of being a writer and try her hand at creating books for children.
Patron sent her first manuscript, a contemporary retelling of “Stone Soup,” off to several publishing houses before esteemed editor Richard Jackson at Orchard offered her a contract. Burgoo Stew, the first of three picture books illustrated by Mike Shenon about a boy named Billy Que, his rowdy pals, and the Dustdobbins that live under his bed, was published in 1991. She followed those up with the chapter book Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe (Orchard, 1993) and picture book Dark Cloud Strong Breeze, illustrated by Peter Catalanotto (Orchard, 1994), before hitting what she described as “a wall” in a 2007 interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith. It wasn’t until 2003 that Patron overcame her writer’s block and found her way into the heart of a long-gestating story that would become The Higher Power of Lucky (Atheneum/Richard Jackson, 2006), which was awarded the 2007 Newbery Medal.
In the novel, Patron introduces 10-year-old Lucky, who lives in tiny mining town Hard Pan, Calif., as the ward of a Frenchwoman after her mother dies and her father abandons her. “Like the child-version of myself, Lucky eavesdrops on adult conversations; she is searching for a form of spirituality, a higher power,” Patron told PW in 2007. It’s while listening in on a 12-step meeting that Lucky hears a local man’s account of how a rattlesnake bit his dog on the scrotum. Use of the word sparked controversy as librarians, teachers, parents, and authors took sides on the issue of censorship and efforts to ban the title from libraries. At the time, Patron addressed the situation in a statement which first ran in PW, noting that she was “shocked and horrified” about the uproar.
After her retirement from LAPL in 2007, Patron continued Lucky’s journey in two sequels, Lucky Breaks (Atheneum, 2009) and Lucky for Good (Atheneum, 2011). Over the span of her years as an author, she was a long-serving member of SCBWI’s Advisory Council. Lin Oliver, co-founder of that organization, one of Patron’s lifelong friends, and current SCBWI Impact and Legacy Fund managing director, wrote, “Susan’s contribution to children’s books was immeasurable. She imbued everything she did with grace, charm, wit, and wisdom—from her books to her counsel to her librarianship. She was a true lover of books, language, and people, beloved by all her colleagues in the SCBWI. Her life was a blessing to us all.”
Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and publisher of her eponymous imprint at S&S/Atheneum, who worked closely with Patron, offered these words of tribute: “The higher power of Susan. That was always my first smiling thought after any conversation, letter exchange, or manuscript revision with her. She was incapable of writing even an email that you didn’t want to re-read three times as it was so insightful, provoking, or flat-out funny. I imagine her choosing each word with that particular slight tilt to her head when she landed on the exact one she needed.
Susan had a sublime way of looking at, then writing about, the world—don’t get me started on owl pellets. Her way—in all things—was fierce yet gentle, grounded in reality yet bolstered by an almost visionary sense of hope that subsequently shimmered up through every book she wrote. Which made sense. To Susan, hope was a Higher Power that every kid deserved. She was also living proof of the power of words—a single word, in fact, one word that sent a quake through schools, libraries, and the media. Her response to the maelstrom that followed? Fiercely gentle, realistic but hopeful, trusting and respecting the reader’s intelligence, calmly fighting “the crows of fear caw[ing] into our ears.” The Higher Power of Lucky? The higher power of Susan Patron.”
Virginia “Ginny” Walter, professor emerita at UCLA’s school of education and information studies, was one of Patron’s longtime LAPL colleagues. She shared this remembrance: “Susan and I met in 1973 when we were both working at the Los Angeles Public Library. I was a young adult librarian; she was a children’s librarian. LAPL is a big system, and we probably wouldn't have known each other except for ‘Giraffe.’ That was the name of the newsletter that an informal group of us young radical librarians circulated. Our motto was ‘we stick our necks out’ as we critiqued library policies that we felt hindered free and equitable services. We also promoted bold, new ideas. That was the start of a long and rewarding friendship.
Many young readers have enjoyed Susan’s words in books like The Higher Power of Lucky. Her friends also had the pleasure of reading her well-chosen words in emails. Just days before she died, she sent an email to a few friends in which she talked about her husband René who was in a wheelchair because of a broken hip. ‘He managed to lift himself up out of the chair, lean over, and give me a kiss.’
I will miss her.”
And fellow Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata remembered her friend this way: “I last saw Susan years ago when she, her husband, my boyfriend, and I had lunch in a small Italian restaurant near where we both then lived. We talked sparingly of books, and more about dogs. The Patrons had a ridgeback they loved very much, and I had my Dobermans. What I remember most about her though was that after many years together, she and her husband were still so deeply in love as to be residing in a world of their own, quite separate from the world the rest of us lived in. A part of their beautiful souls belonged only to each other. I always think of that as evidence of how deep her understanding was of what really matters during our time here, and I ponder it every time I need a reminder.”