David Bennett, publisher of Boxer Books, pays tribute to his longtime friend—publisher and author Bernette Ford, who died this past summer. Boxer Books has just released Ford’s last picture book, The Magical Snowflake, illustrated by Erin Robinson.
I sometimes play a game to see if a great book or movie can be summed up in a sentence. “A 19th-century, Columbo-style murder case set in Russia.” Crime and Punishment. “A magical story of good and evil set in space.” Star Wars. You get the picture.
Lives? Well, they’re not so simple. How does one sum up a whole life in a sentence? Particularly someone who gave so much to so many. That’s a tad Churchillian, I know, so forgive the Brit in me, but that is one way to sum up Bernette Ford, who had the gift of being there for everyone, all the time, for anything and everything.
In his obituary for Bernette in the New York Times, Neil Genzlinger called her “a leading advocate of making children’s books more diverse and making sure that people of color had opportunities to write and illustrate them.” That’s a superb tribute.
Then there is Bernette, the private person. If Bernette’s kitchen table could write a book, it would be a bestselling Mind Body Soul book. Family, friends, authors, illustrators, actors, singers, musicians, and those just passing through (like this Brit) felt a deep sense of belonging in that kitchen. With the inimitable George Ford (whose universal knowledge spans over nine decades), we were treated to a veritable feast, literally, and with joy, debate, sympathy, love, warmth, laughter, understanding, and enlightenment.
My family and I spent a Christmas with “The Fords”. While Dickens and Louisa May Alcott excel in creating Christmas in literature, here was the real thing. Full and bustling, noisy and exuberant, that great big, softly painted, warm-hearted Victorian Brooklyn home hugged you right into its heart and you were family.
A young and incredibly gifted woman of mixed parents (her father a factory foreman and her mother a jazz singer and actress) Bernette Goldsen Ford arrived on the American children’s publishing scene in the 1970s and opened wide a door for people of color into the publishing industry.
A businesswoman, a mother and homemaker, an immense reader, and a truly incredible source of knowledge (how does a person fit in so much and remember it all so clearly?), by 5.30 a.m. Bernette was a few coffees in (and cigarettes), sailing through the New York Times and Washington Post, consuming national and international political commentary, book, theatre, movie, and concert reviews and discovering the perfect restaurant and location all before work. This was her time.
As Paul Anka wrote, “Regrets, I’ve had a few…”—well, one actually. My wife and I rented Henry the Eighth’s 16th-century seaside castle in Deal for our 25th wedding anniversary. Bernette flew over specially for it. There was a big band. As I mingled through the rooms on my way to the Great Hall, my aged auntie grabbed my arm in a vice-like grip and insisted I talk to her. I dutifully did this only to discover later that I missed Bernette singing jazz. Bernette was a little crestfallen that I had not heard her. I was devastated. I never forgave my bloody aunt—or myself for missing the moment. Years later, however (and after I had been encouraged to sing in a chamber opera), Bernette and I sang together at her home with George at the piano—precious moments.
I once called Bernette at 6 a.m. about a decision I was struggling with. The advice, comfort, and patience I received encouraged me to tackle my day by simply believing in myself.
For all she was able to give to others, I don’t think Bernette believed in herself the way she was able to make others believe in themselves. At times she was full of self-doubt and at others intimidated—never really believing in her own talents as an author, no matter how much I tried to tell her how wonderful she was. Well, my soulmate in business and all things creative, and my dearest friend, I am so proud to be publishing your posthumous picture book, The Magical Snowflake. A book for the season brimming with anticipation, expectation, and joy.
Bernette once said, “Nice people finish last.” Well, that may be the awful truth sometimes, but nice people are remembered for all the right reasons. Anyone who met Bernette, even just once, will recall her gentle and open countenance. She exuded a natural warmth and informed and educated with patience and integrity, leaving us all with a better understanding of our world.