Lerner Publishing Group announced on Monday that Joni Sussman, the publisher of Kar-Ben Publishing, is retiring this summer after two decades at the helm of the Lerner imprint, which publishes children’s books with Jewish characters and themes.

“Throughout her 20 years at Kar-Ben, Sussman has been a driving force behind the creation of engaging and award-winning Jewish children’s books including both fiction and nonfiction board books, picture books, and novels,” Lerner said in a statement. “Under her leadership, Kar-Ben has become a cornerstone in Jewish educational literature, providing a platform for diverse voices and perspectives that celebrate Jewish heritage and culture.”

The industry confirmed Lerner’s assessment last month at the American Library Association conference in January, when Sussman received the 2024 Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries for “her outstanding contributions to Jewish children’s literature, [which] have left an indelible mark on the literary landscape.”

Founded 50 years ago in 1974 by Madeline Wikler and Judye Groner in Maryland as Kar-Ben Copies to publish nonfiction and fiction children’s books and calendars featuring exclusively Jewish themes, Kar-Ben was acquired in 2001 by Lerner and moved its operations to Minneapolis. Kar-Ben currently releases 18–20 titles each year, ranging from picture books to middle grade titles. Sussman, who previously worked at Meadowbrook Press, was named director of Kar-Ben Publishing in 2004, and named publisher in 2008.

“It’s a wonderful time to be a publisher of Jewish children’s books,” Sussman told PW, because the commitment to diversity in publishing and selling books that has intensified in recent years has only benefited Kar-Ben. “It used to be,” she explained, “people were not so interested in Jewish children’s books—and now they are included in the push for more diverse books on bookshelves and in libraries and schools.”

The press’s debut release in 1974, Wikler and Groner’s My Very Own Haggadah, is still one of the press’s top sellers, with more than two million copies sold. Kar-Ben is also the publisher of the Sammy Spider series, which Sussman calls “iconic.” The first volume, Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah, written by Sylvia A. Rouss and illustrated by Katherine Janus, has sold 85,000 copies since its 1993 release; the 18th title in the series, Sammy Spider’s Big Jewish Books of Holidays, will be released in fall 2025. Another noteworthy Kar-Ben release, The Prince of Steel Pier by Stacy Nockowitz, received the 2023 National Jewish Book Award.

“I’ve had the truly great honor of overseeing the publication of almost a generation’s worth of Jewish children’s books,” Sussman told PW. “We’ve grown in the past 20 years from a small imprint into a wonderful juggernaut.” Among her personal favorites is The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro, a Sydney Taylor Honor book, and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. “My parents were Holocaust survivors so this story of the righteous gentiles of Denmark was very special to me personally,” she said. She also cited Rifka Takes a Bow by Rebecca Rosenberg Perlov, illustrated by Cosei Kawa, a Sydney Taylor Honor book. Sussman reflected, “Growing up in a Yiddish-speaking household, I love this story written by a 96-year-old author who grew up on the stage of the Yiddish Theater in New York where her parents were actors.” Another book she’s especially proud of is Shoham’s Bangle by Sarah Sasson, illustrated by Noa Kelner, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book. “This beautiful story about an Iraqi family that emigrates to Israel speaks to the diversity of the Jewish people,” she said.

Sussman, whose last day at the helm of Kar-Ben is June 28, will celebrate her 70th birthday on July 2. “My goal was to retire by my 70th birthday,” Sussman said. “The Friday before it is close enough.” Sussman intends to continue her volunteer work with the nonprofit organization Books for Africa, to “travel more without a laptop,” and spend more time with her grandchildren. “I am looking forward to my time being my own,” she said.