By Nancy Sheridan
It was December of 1979, and Susan Cooper, Margaret Hodges, David McCord, Erik Haugaard, Jill Paton Walsh, and Norma Farber were contributors to the Horn Book. Not a bad line-up. And I was continuing an editorial internship that would eventually lead to the job of editorial assistant and, later, assistant editor.
Memories of those times overwhelm me: the crowded offices we worked in, with desks surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with all the books reviewed in past years. Stacks of new books coming in daily and put in piles that spilled over onto the floor. The heady, cozy smell that sometimes brings those offices back to mind when I step into a library these days. Memories of spending hours reading books at my desk, curled up with a cup of coffee. (Yes, that was part of the job; someone had to check the facts in the reviews!) Saturday morning reviewers’ meetings spent around a long table discussing books.
And of course there are memories of the books, the authors and illustrators, and the articles we worked on. The special storytelling issue; Peter Neumeyer’s two-part article on E. B. White’s drafts of Charlotte’s Web (an amazing article, but a difficult one from a production standpoint!); Chris Van Allsburg’s Caldecott speech for Jumanji paired with David Macaulay’s biographical sketch. And so much more.
But above all else are the memories of the people on the staff, and one person in particular. Ethel Heins was editor at the time I worked there. No one image from my Horn Book days is stronger than the image of Ethel. No matter what she was doing, her passion for children’s books was evident, and what she passed on to me was greater than anything else I’ve ever acquired in my professional life. For she passed on to me — and certainly to others — both her knowledge of and her passion for children’s books. She was willing to share both of those things — couldn’t stop herself from sharing, actually. Now I am not looking back and seeing her with rose-colored glasses. Anyone who knew Ethel knows that she had the ability to both irritate and inspire. I remember a time when, as an intern, I sat in on a proofreading session. We were near the end when I timidly asked if there really should be two rs in Newbery, as the title of one of the articles about the Newbery Award suggested. Ethel shrieked, praised me, and quickly deleted the second r. I knew that earned me points! A couple of years later, when she handed me my first book to review (a small nonfiction book called The Truth about Gorillas, which now sits behind me on the shelf of my study), I knew she believed in my ability. And when my name went up on the reviewers’ masthead with the likes of Mary Burns, Ann Flowers, and Paul Heins, I knew I had truly earned her respect.
I’ve learned many things in the course of my later years in publishing, but none so valuable as what I learned from Ethel, a tiny woman with enormous knowledge and vitality. The value of it all is clear as I sit with my children and share my own knowledge and passion, as I look at our shelves crammed with books, as I watch my children spend hours with those books — and I do remember.
Nancy Sheridan is a freelance editor living in Danville, New Hampshire.
From the September/October 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine