Author-illustrator Amy Schwartz, best known for her warm, humorous tales with a kid-centered point of view, and her equally distinctive gouache and pen-and-ink artwork, died suddenly on February 26 at her home in Brooklyn. She was 68.
Schwartz was born April 2, 1954 in San Diego, Calif., where she grew up the third of four daughters of Henry, a writer, and Eva, a chemistry professor. A self-described quiet and studious child, “I loved to read from the start,” Schwartz wrote in her autobiography for Something About the Author. She fondly remembered a house where books were treasured, family read-alouds, and frequent trips to the library. She also enjoyed art and, from an early age, spent lots of her free time painting and drawing.
Schwartz excelled in high school and earned enough credits to allow her to graduate midway through her senior year and begin studies—including art classes—at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. But a year and a half later, she transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where she majored in drawing and earned her B.F.A. in 1976. After graduation, she worked a seasonal job at a Berkeley costume shop while continuing to draw and search for illustration jobs.
When Schwartz eventually landed a gig illustrating The Breakfast Book (1979) as well as a second title for Chronicle Books, she believed she was finding her footing in the literary world. Around this time, she also took a keener interest in children’s book illustration, inspired by an art school friend pursuing the same career track, and encouraged by her experience taking a four-session children’s book illustration course in San Francisco. With new confidence in her illustration work, Schwartz set off for a brief stay in New York City to make the rounds of publishers with her portfolio. Though no assignments came of that first attempt, Schwartz received some advice that stuck: several editors suggested she might have a better shot of selling a project if she also wrote her own text. She then decided to move to New York on a more permanent basis, taking a clerical job and enrolling in a children’s book illustration and writing course at the School for Visual Arts.
Things began to click for Schwartz professionally when she submitted two projects from her SVA coursework around town and soon caught the interest of publishers. She was working as a production assistant at Simon & Schuster when her first picture book, Bea and Mrs. Jones, featuring a kindergartener and her advertising executive father who swap places, was published by Bradbury Press in 1982. That same year the book was cited in the New York Public Library’s selection of 100 Best Children’s Books.
And in 1983, Harper and Row released Schwartz’s Begin at the Beginning, about a girl struggling to find a way to get started on an art assignment. Schwartz had developed a solid working relationship with her editor for that book, Jane Feder, and when Feder left Harper in 1982 to become an illustration agent, she invited Schwartz on board as one of her first clients.
Throughout the 1980s Schwartz was especially prolific, writing and illustrating her own books as well as illustrating works by other authors including Amy Hest, Eve Bunting, and her father, Henry Schwartz, with whom she would eventually collaborate on four projects. This steady schedule allowed her to write and illustrate books full-time.
In 1990 Schwartz married author and children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus and in 1992 they welcomed their son Jacob. Schwartz wrote in her autobiography that “his arrival dramatically changed our lives.” She noted that the overwhelming, very early days of parenthood inspired her picture book A Teeny Tiny Baby (Orchard, 1994), which opens with the line “I’m a teeny tiny baby and I know how to get anything I want.”
Over the last 30 years, she continued to steadily produce lauded books with a variety of publishers. In all, Schwartz created more than 60 books for young readers, and her work has consistently been recognized as being funny and empathetic with a true-to-life perspective. She has said that she found the kernels of stories in memories from childhood, her family, her surroundings, and everyday experiences. “All of my books begin with something real and important to me,” she wrote in SATA, “something that has struck an emotional chord in me.”
Marcus, Schwartz’s husband of 32 years, shared: “For all the time I knew her, she was caring and generous and funny and smart and such a canny observer of people, too. She often noticed things in a situation that had completely passed me by, and she usually saw straight through to the heart of any matter. I was always a little bit in awe of her ability to do that. Her books are like that, too: comical and heartfelt but most of all true.”
Meredith Mundy, editorial director at Abrams, delivered this tribute: “Working with Amy over the past five years on her 100 Things series for Appleseed has been an absolute joy. I will miss our emails and phone calls—no detail was too small to warrant her thoughtful consideration…. She was a master of capturing subtle gestures and the triumphs—large and small—of childhood. She was a star in the picture book world as well as a delightful human being and will be greatly missed by her Abrams family.”
Mary Cash, v-p and editor-in-chief at Holiday House, said, “I can’t think of anyone who understood and portrayed the day-to-day routines of families with young children with more intelligence and joy. Amy was an acute observer of all the tiny details that together make up a child’s life. Her wonderful books celebrated, laughed at, and offered so much insight into that existence.”
Allyn Johnston, v-p and publisher at Beach Lane Books, offered this remembrance: “Amy’s impeccable eye and ear for the specific details of children’s lives was unparalleled,” she said. “It gave her books a universal honesty that touched people of every age. I recently read her A Teeny Tiny Baby aloud to a class of 175 adult picture-book writers as an example of brilliant pacing, page turns, and emotion—and the room was riveted from start to finish. Thirty years later, the book is as fresh and funny and irresistible as the day it was published. That is the power of Amy Schwartz’s work.”
“During my time at Roaring Brook Press, I was privileged to work with Amy on five delectable books,” said Neal Porter, v-p and publisher of Neal Porter Books at Holiday House. “It always amazed me that someone with such a quiet, thoughtful, even taciturn demeanor could produce such sparkling, irreverent work. I think she is one of the great unsung heroes of contemporary picture books.”