Esteemed children’s editor Dinah Stevenson, lauded for being a keen spotter of talent and for shepherding numerous books and authors to the industry’s highest accolades, and former publisher of Clarion Books, died on January 23 in Hoboken, N.J. She was 81.
Dinah Solomon Stevenson was born in 1942 in Los Angeles to Louis Solomon, a television producer and writer, and Wilma Shore, a feminist, painter, and writer. She spent her earliest years in L.A. and as the 1950s dawned, both of Stevenson’s parents were blacklisted during the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings.
By 1954, the Solomons had moved to New York City where Dinah graduated from Elisabeth Irwin High School in Manhattan. She then headed to the Midwest to study at the University of Chicago, earning her B.A. in 1963 and M.A. in 1966, and setting her sights on a future in academia. During both college and graduate school, Stevenson did part-time work at the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. Her responsibilities included “cleaning up the scholarly papers of the Assyriology and Sumerology professors, almost none of whom were native English speakers,” which was then referred to as Englishing, she recalled to PW in 2018.
That experience put her in good stead when she abandoned her plans for further academic studies and landed a job back in New York City as a copy editor at J.B. Lippincott Junior Books in 1971. “I discovered it was a lot like Englishing,” she said. At Lippincott, Stevenson moved to the editorial department and climbed through the ranks to senior editor in 1979, all with a goal of eventually working with adult books. “Being a children’s book editor was the furthest thing from my mind until I actually was one,” she told PW.
In 1980, Stevenson was named senior editor for Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon Books for Young Readers. Five years later she joined William Morrow & Company as executive editor of Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books where she worked with editor-in-chief Dorothy Briley. In early 1990, Stevenson moved to Clarion Books as executive editor, reuniting with Briley, who had been named Clarion’s publisher in 1989. Houghton Mifflin had acquired Clarion from Seabury Press in 1979, and the imprint is now owned by HarperCollins, which purchased Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2021.
During her years at Clarion, Stevenson edited a raft of award-winning books including Caldecott Medal winners Golem by David Wisniewski (1996), and The Three Pigs (2001) and Flotsam (2006), both by David Wiesner. The two Newbery Medal winners she edited are The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman (1995), whose career Stevenson launched with Catherine, Called Birdy (1994), which won a Newbery Honor the year prior; and A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (2001), whose first manuscript (for Seesaw Girl, 1999) Stevenson discovered in the slush pile. Clarion’s Caldecott-Newbery sweep in 2002— with The Three Pigs and A Single Shard—put Stevenson in elite company: she became only the third editor (after Margaret McElderry and Walter Lorraine) whose books received both awards in the same year.
In another impressive streak, Stevenson’s books won the Sibert Medal three consecutive years, from 2003 to 2005: The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by James Cross Giblin; An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy, which was a Newbery Honor title and a National Book Award finalist; and The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights by Russell Freedman, which also won a Newbery Honor.
Throughout her career, industry friends and colleagues knew Stevenson as an enthusiastic foodie and an eager traveler. She was a regular at the Bologna Book Fair and she fostered particularly strong ties with publishers in the U.K., where she visited each year.
Stevenson rose to v-p and publisher at Clarion by 2005 and worked with a broad roster of notable authors and illustrators, eventually transitioning to the role of editor-at-large in 2017. She announced her retirement in 2020, after 30 years with Clarion, though she continued to take on select editorial projects through 2023, including The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt.
A memorial for Stevenson is being planned.
Betsy Groban, former publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, said: “I adored and worshiped Dinah for over 40 years. I’ll let others speak to her courage, her dignity, and her nonpareil editorial brilliance—I mean who else, without looking it up, knows the difference between a foreword, an afterword, a preface, and an introduction? I’d rather talk about the tattoo she got on her wrist for a Big Birthday—it said NOW—and the clothing exchange we kept up for decades. Dinah and I lived and worked in different cities, New York and Boston, but in addition to the obvious—our devotion to children’s books—we had a lot in common, and very similar taste in clothes. Whenever we saw each other, we’d exchange a nondescript paper or plastic bag containing a few of our latest loved-but-no-longer-wanted garments. Like so many others, I can’t believe that Dinah is truly gone. I feel so lucky to have so many glorious memories of our time together, as well as a sampling of her beautiful clothes.”
Anne Hoppe, v-p and editorial director of the Clarion and Allida imprints at HarperCollins Children’s Books, offered this tribute: “While the galaxy of Dinah’s award-winning contributions to children’s literature shines brightly, it may be that her biggest impact on our culture is one of her least known. As a junior editor tasked with writing copy for a series of stories in which readers determined the outcome by deciding which page to turn to next, she coined the phrase ‘Choose your own adventure,’ felicitous wording that now denotes an entire genre. But I think that if Dinah had had a personal motto, it would have been ‘Choose your own team.’ Dinah knew that publishing was made up of people, not numbers, and she never lost sight of the humanity at the core of children’s books. She surrounded herself with talented creators and colleagues, and she trusted them to make the best work possible, offering light touches that elevated good efforts to extraordinary work, and whenever possible having a little fun and good food along the way.”
And author Linda Sue Park remembered Stevenson this way: “Dinah pulled my debut manuscript from the slush pile in 1997, and we worked together for the next 20-plus years, publishing 20 books all told. Not many editor-author pairs can claim such longevity. She knew how to drag me kicking and screaming to the book I was trying to write all along—by asking gentle and perspicacious questions. She never offered a suggestion unless I asked for one.
Beyond the pages, we had fun whenever we were together. We talked a lot about restaurants and cooking and knitting. Before she died, she sent me two big boxes full of knitting equipment, including a swift and a ball winder. Knitters will understand how special these gifts are. I will miss her doubly—as editor and as friend.”
A more extensive collection of remembrances from Stevenson’s authors and publishing colleagues will follow later this month.