Esteemed children’s book editor and publisher Ann Durell died at her home in Manhattan on May 6. She was 87.
Durell was born September 20, 1930 in Belleplain, N.J., a tiny town in Cape May County, which Durell described as “in the cranberry bogs,” in a 1962 PW profile. At age 10, Durell’s family moved to Princeton, where she completed her education through high school. During her youth, Durell began to collect children’s books, building a personal library that included some treasured titles that had belonged to her great-grandmother. As a child, “I wanted to write children’s books rather than edit them,” she told PW.
Durell developed her taste for writing early on when she was asked to review some titles for the Junior Literary Guild. Durell’s father knew JLG’s editor Helen Ferris through his work in the New Jersey State Department of Education, and had made the introduction to his daughter. When Durell’s first book review appeared in the JLG magazine Young Wings, she “was forever infected with the thrill of seeing my words in print.”
In 1952, Durell graduated from Mt. Holyoke College and began her job search. Logically, her father suggested she contact Ferris about employment. With guidance from Ferris—and a brush-up on her clerical skills—Durell joined the Doubleday training program, during which she acquired bookselling experience in one of the Doubleday shops. By 1953, she landed a position as secretary to Margaret Lesser, editor of young people’s books at the company. On the side, Durell continued to pursue her passion for writing. She took a course in writing for children taught by Phyllis Whitney at New York University and sold a few short stories for children to such magazines as American Girl. Whitney suggested Durell expand one of her short stories to book length, and it became Holly River Secret, a novel acquired by Lesser and published in 1956.
As her career as an author was budding, Durell continued at her day job, beginning to rise through the ranks on the editorial side. In 1958 she was selected to succeed Ferris as editor of the Junior Library Guild and took over that position fully when Ferris retired in 1959. Her position gave her “a bird’s-eye view of the whole range of children’s publishing,” she told PW, and she learned “a great deal in a short amount of time.”
She put her newly acquired experience into action when she became a children’s book editor for Holt in 1961 and later became editor-in-chief of the children’s department at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. In 1969, Durell joined Dutton Children’s Books where, over a nearly 20-year span, she worked with a roster of authors and illustrators that included Lloyd Alexander, Judy Blume, David McPhail, Diane Goode and Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, all of whom have received numerous prestigious accolades, the Newbery and Caldecott Medals among them. Durell retired in 1987 as v-p and publisher of Dutton’s children’s division and was succeeded by Christopher Franceschelli, now publisher of Handprint Books at Chronicle Books.
Durell married James T. McCrory on May 8, 1982. The couple traveled to England each spring and fall where she loved to indulge in one of her greatest passions: walking. In an obituary, her family noted the hundreds of miles Durell trekked during her retirement, in her New York City neighborhood of the Upper West Side as well as at vacation spots in the White Mountains and New Hampshire. Among other pursuits during retirement, Durell was active in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, served as a tutor for local public school children, and was honored as a 40-year member of the New York Society Library.
Franceschelli offered these words of remembrance of his predecessor. “I was both fortunate and unfortunate to attempt to succeed Ann. Fortunate, because I inherited a remarkably well-run department, a community of fiercely loyal authors, and Ann’s continued and always steadying presence as editor-at-large to the division. Unfortunate, because Ann ran her life as publisher as an act of steely will combined with a finely attuned editorial sensibility that unerringly homed in on the essentials of a text. That marriage of gifts presented itself as a baffling impossibility to a 20-something-year-old who could not figure out—and certainly could not replicate—the precision and professionalism with which she was able to complete all the day’s tasks, leaving the office every evening at 5:00 sharp to return (generally walking 80+ blocks) home to her beloved Jim.
In his words, “Ann made everything look if not easy then at least manageable. I have a sharp memory of—early on in my time at Dutton—being tasked to visit a quite famous artist at his summer home to persuade him to sign a multi-book contract. I hadn’t the faintest idea how to approach this assignment. Ann sensed my fear and a day or two before my trip she took me aside to reassure me: ‘It’s quite simple, really. You just have to walk him up the hill and show him the view.’ Perhaps it wasn’t quite that simple, but it was certainly effective and successful advice. I’m eternally grateful that Ann took me—and so many of us—for that walk up the hill and showed us all the view.”
In a tribute to her editor, and to Durell’s providing the inspiration for what became one of Blume’s most successful book series, Judy Blume told PW, “Without Ann there might be no Fudge. She took me to lunch on the day we met and gently suggested I turn a picture book about a boy who swallowed a turtle into an episodic family novel. I loved the idea, and Ann, too. She had a great sense of humor. When the book was finished I presented her with 20 possible titles and she chose Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. We did five books together and disagreed just once. She thought spiders in an outhouse were scarier/funnier than green, gurgling gas. I fought for green, gurgling gas. She let me have my way.”
Blume continued, “She was a delight in every way. A great editor, a champion for writers. She visited me when I lived in London. She visited in Santa Fe. And everywhere, she walked. She taught me the joys of walking. I remember the day she told me she was in love. All my memories of Ann are like that. She was such a lovely, gracious woman. I’m so lucky to have worked with her.”
Durell even influenced authors whose books she did not edit. In her acceptance speech for the 1978 Newbery Medal, which she won for Bridge to Terabithia, author Katherine Paterson spoke of Durell’s role in the book’s genesis. Paterson had attended a meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, at which Durell was scheduled to speak. “By some chance or design, depending on your theology,” Paterson said, “I was put at the head table.” The lunch discussion turned to everyone asking about each other’s children when Paterson revealed that her young son David’s best friend had been killed by a lighting strike and that her family was grieving with him. “No one interrupted me,” she said. “But when I finally shut up, Ann Durell said very gently, ‘I know this sounds just like an editor, but you should write that story.”
A memorial service—written by Durell herself—will be held at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 19, at the Church of St. Edward the Martyr, 14 E. 109th St., New York City.