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An Interview with Frances Foster

In the September/October 2003 Horn Book Magazine, Leonard S. Marcus interviewed longtime editor Frances Foster, head of Frances Foster Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 

Leonard S. Marcus: How did you come to be a children’s book editor?

Frances Foster: I came to New York on the rebound, following a wonderful but unreal year of living and working in Rome and the breakup of a college romance. I loved the vitality and energy of the city and wanted to get into publishing; I chose children’s books because that was where my interests merged — children, literature, and art.

I started my job search by calling on the daughter of a friend of my aunt’s who was working for Margaret McElderry at Harcourt Brace. I had been urged to look her up and did so now because I hoped she could give me some leads. I hadn’t made an appointment and it turned out that I had come at a bad time; she was about to go on vacation and was in that frenzied state we all know. But she agreed to give me a few minutes and showed me into her office. We talked mostly about Rome, where I had just come from and she was going. When I got around to the point of my visit and asked if she had any suggestions for me, she said, “Yes. Don’t try to see anybody else without an appointment!” I was probably embarrassed at having been called on my unprofessional behavior, but at the time I only recognized a surge of defiance. So, in that mood, I walked the two blocks to Charles Scribner’s Sons, took the elevator up to the sixth floor, and asked for Alice Dalgliesh—without an appointment, of course—and she came out right away! She looked somewhat surprised when I told her why I was there, and I was waiting for her to say, “You can’t just walk in off the street and get a job.” Instead, she said, “An angel must have sent you,” and went on to explain that only that morning her assistant had announced that she was pregnant and would soon be leaving. She hired me on the spot. I took the requisite typing test (for female applicants only) and was offered a salary of $65 a week. So that’s how I started, and that’s how it happened to be Scribner’s. The person who gave me the good advice on how to apply for a job became my sister-in-law a couple of years later when I married her brother Tony. Their mother was Genevieve Foster, a Scribner’s author, so the whole thing became a little incestuous, and children’s books were a family affair.

LSM: Were there artists or writers in your family?

FF: My mother was a painter and taught art before she was married but gave it all up to raise a family. She continued to do a lot of things in the arts, however, and never stopped being an artist.

I’m sure that if she had lived in another time, and maybe been married to a different person — my father was a banker — she would have kept on painting. As it was, she went back to it after my two sisters and I left home and she did some really wonderful work. It’s probably not fair to suggest that my father kept her from painting. My mother drew him into the art world and interested him in weaving. He had a loom in our house, and together they opened a weaving studio in Berkeley, California, where I grew up.

LSM: Elizabeth Coatsworth was a cousin of yours. Would you see her, or receive books or letters?

FF: She sent us all of her books as they were published, and we saw her occasionally. When my mother was growing up in Pasadena, the eastern branch of the family often spent the winters in southern California. But by the time my generation came along, Elizabeth Coatsworth had stopped going west; we saw her and her writer husband Henry Beston on a couple of visits to Maine at their summer house in Damariscotta.

LSM: Did having her in the family influence your feeling about children’s book publishing as a profession worth pursuing?

FF: It must have — her books made a lasting impression on me. But I’m not sure how or when I became interested in children’s books and publishing as a profession, and it’s not as if there was any single moment or influence. I just followed my interests and fell into it. My mother had a wonderful collection of illustrated picture books by Maxfield Parrish, Maurice Boutet de Monvel, and William Nicholson. So I had a well-developed, maybe highly romantic sense of what children’s books were all about—thanks to all of those artists as well as Elizabeth Coatsworth.

LSM: And then there was an older member of your family who was involved in the Arts and Crafts movement.

FF: My grandmother’s brother was Elbert Hubbard, who started the Roycroft Press in East Aurora, New York. He modeled it and the Roycrofter community that grew up around it after William Morris’s communal Kelmscott Press. They did really beautiful bookmaking at Roycroft, and much of what they published was written by Elbert Hubbard, whose output was prodigious. I’m told that one of the essays he wrote, “A Message to Garcia,” is still used in some business programs.

LSM: Did you study literature in college?

FF: Yes, with a concentration in nineteenth-century literature. But for a time I thought I wanted to work with children and spent a year at Scripps College, in southern California, which had a good child psychology department and nursery lab school attached to the college. I don’t remember exactly how that career goal died; maybe running a summer day camp program had something to do with it. In any event, I felt free to pursue other interests.

LSM: I’ve always been a little puzzled about Scribner’s. On the one hand, it was one of the New York publishing world’s serene ships of state. On the other hand, it was the house responsible for publishing much of the most radical fiction of the early to mid-twentieth century: Hemingway, Wolfe, and Fitzgerald.

FF: You are asking how could it also be sort of stodgy? It was certainly both staid and progressive while I was there. By then, Charles Scribner, Jr., whom Alice Dalgliesh referred to as “the young Mr. Scribner,” had been running the house for maybe five or ten years. He was a publisher by inheritance but a scientist by instinct, and I never felt that he was completely comfortable in his role. But he carried on the family tradition of trusting his editors and giving them free range. There had been a succession of amazing editors at Scribner’s, starting with Maxwell Perkins and the poet John Hall Wheelock, and when I was there it included Burroughs Mitchell and Alice Dalgliesh. They were the driving force.

LSM: What was Alice Dalgliesh like as an editor?

FF: Sure and steady, also quite opinionated. Her background was early childhood education, and she was a natural teacher. She operated from her sure sense of what was good for children. But over the years she ventured far beyond her early childhood training. She published Robert A. Heinlein, which was considered pretty adventurous publishing at the time, although she was hardly a person who would strike you as being an adventurous soul. She published the artist Leonard Weisgard, and Genevieve Foster, whose biographies for children took into account what was happening all around the world, and tied each subject’s life to the people and events of their time.

LSM: Those really were pioneering works, weren’t they?

FF: Yes, they were a totally new kind of biography. We look at them now and find it hard to believe that that was ever a new approach, but it was new then. I think those books influenced many people.

LSM: Alice Dalgliesh seems to have been intensely interested in the modern world. Would you say she favored realism over fantasy to some extent?

FF: Totally. She was very much of the “here and now” school. I can’t remember any works of fantasy that she published.

LSM: Leonard Weisgard fits into that scheme in the sense that he was working in a deliberately contemporary style of illustration. And although Marcia Brown created many picture books based on folk and fairy tales, her very first book, The Little Carousel, was a story about the street life of her Greenwich Village neighborhood.

FF: Yes, that would have appealed to Alice, but she was also interested in Marcia as an artist. As so often happens, once you begin working with an artist or writer and respect her vision, you want to support and encourage that person’s development and so tend to go where she takes you.

LSM: Did you later work directly with Marcia Brown?

FF: Only as Alice’s assistant. It was mainly Alice who worked with her. But we all worked with everybody in a sense. No one had an enclosed office. Partial partitions were all that separated Alice’s corner office from the rest of us. As a result, there wasn’t a great deal of privacy and little could happen without everybody being involved or at least aware of it.

LSM: Was science fiction a new genre for children’s books at that time?

FF: As far as I knew — and Heinlein was a pioneer. Alice also published a series of younger science fiction books by Ruthven Todd, with a “space cat” hero who visited Venus and Mars and had various adventures.

Todd was interesting to deal with. He was a talented poet and a friend of Dylan Thomas, with whom he shared drinking time in New York. Space Cat Visits Venus was the very first book that Alice gave me to edit, and I took it quite seriously, seeing it as an opportunity to show her what a good editor I could be. I thought I’d done a really wonderful job and turned it over to her expecting praise. Instead, I got a lecture. She pointed out that I had broken the first rule of a good editor: I had done too much. Todd, she said, had a rhythm to his voice. She said there are always different ways of saying something, but often it’s your way as opposed to the author’s way. Alice was for protecting the author’s voice. It was a lesson well taught and one that I’ve never forgotten — even when I haven’t always adhered to it.

LSM: Judging from Heinlein’s letters to her, Alice Dalgliesh was sometimes eager to tell him what to do.

FF: Well, her policy wasn’t always hands off. She was a Scotswoman and could be very, very stubborn.

LSM: Were there as many professional conventions to go to then as now? How has publishing changed in that regard?

FF: I don’t remember any conventions, not even ALA. Did they exist? I do remember that a lot of attention was paid to key librarians, and some editors did a good deal of traveling. They went personally to see these various librarians and to keep the connections open. Now we work so hard to present the books. But I remember sales conferences back then as very informal affairs. We held our sales conference in a hotel, like the St. Regis, and invited librarians and some booksellers—but really just a handful of people, twenty-five at most, along with the sales force. Alice would talk informally about the books. She’d tell behind-the-scenes anecdotes, little stories about the author or the artist or something that happened while they were working on a book, and that was all. When my sister-in-law was doing library marketing at Harcourt Brace, she did a lot of traveling and would typically stay with one of the librarians she was visiting. Staying in a hotel was out of the question. You were a houseguest.

LSM: What was office life like?

FF: Life seemed much racier in other parts of the house. Our department was a peaceful, profitable outpost, and Mr. Scribner, who had known Alice Dalgliesh from his childhood, often came to her for advice or to complain about the way publishing had changed since his father’s time. I can dearly hear Alice humoring him, saying, “There, there, Charlie,” and laughing in a lighthearted way from her perspective of having seen much more change than he had. And on the subject of change, one day he brought her a letter written around the turn of the century by Scribner author Frank Stockton, who worried about the current craze for bicycle riding and what its effect on reading might be.

Alice wasn’t much of a gadabout. She was friends with Ursula Nordstrom and May Massee, but there wasn’t a lot of socializing or going out to lunch. The Cosmopolitan Club was a place where professional women could gather. But more often, when Alice took authors out, she went around the corner to the White Turkey, a slightly upscale Schraft’s.

Authors and artists sometimes came by the office. Those who lived in or around New York came more often: Marcia Brown and Leonard Weisgard were frequent visitors. Robert Heinlein stopped by when he was in town from Colorado; Leo Politi came once a year from Los Angeles; Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Arctic explorer, delivered a new manuscript every couple of years; and Ruthven Todd came when he was sober. But there wasn’t a steady stream of visitors or events. I don’t think the “meeting” had been introduced, and most days were fairly quiet, even slow.

LSM: How was the children’s book department regarded within the house?

FF: I’m not sure, but people had enormous respect for Alice Dalgliesh. Charlie Scribner had been a young boy when she came to work for his father, so he always thought of Alice as an authority figure. You know, though, I think that children’s books have never been viewed as really on the level with adult books—despite the fact that it was already very clear during the 1950s that the children’s department was a highly profitable part of the business. And you can’t completely ignore a moneymaking division, so I think we were accepted.

LSM: You left Scribner’s around the time that Alice Dalgliesh retired.

FF: Yes, I stayed on a year or two, and then I left after the birth of our first child, which was in 1961. Then I did freelance work for a while with William R. Scott. It was fun to be involved with that group of people: Bill Scott, May Garelick, Carla Stevens. And it was so different from working in even a company as small as Scribner’s. This handful of people met once a week and then each went his or her separate way and did the books and then came back together the next week to talk about them.

When my children were small, I read manuscripts for Margaret McElderry and went into the office, at Harcourt, a couple of days a week and brought reading home. I learned a lot from Margaret.

LSM: What, for example?

FF: I was seeing books from yet another perspective, and by looking at manuscripts she was working on, I could see the art of line editing. Also, the art of making suggestions in the form of a question. Her way of posing a question to elicit a response from an author without being prescriptive. Some of that came naturally to me; it was how my mother communicated. Or it may be that in seeing how Margaret did it, it just seemed the most natural way to do it.

LSM: She took the lead in publishing authors and artists from around the world. Was that aspect of her work of particular interest to you?

FF: Very much so. It was one of the things that made hers such a fascinating list. She had many authors who lived in England, and European illustrators such as André François and Felix Hoffmann.

I read for Margaret until that fateful day in 1971 when Mr. Jovanovich, who had recently assumed command from his father, told her that the wave of the future had passed her by. He wanted someone younger to run the department, and in one of the most incomprehensible moves in the history of children’s publishing, he let her go.

Though I felt like a traitor, I stayed on for a time, doing freelance reading and editing for Margaret’s wave-of-the-future replacement, a young woman who was unprepared for the job (though trying to replace Margaret McElderry would put anyone at a disadvantage). It was during this period that I met Ann Cameron, then an assistant to Bill Goodman in the adult trade division. Ann was a poet and had been one of Robert Lowell’s students at Radcliffe. One day she showed me a story she had written for children called “Loaf.” It was about a baguette who, responding to a call to resist his destiny, rose up off the rack where he was cooling and marched out into the world to get a life. With its personification and symbolism that went right over a child’s head, the story flew in the face of everything I’d learned from Alice Dalgliesh, but it introduced me to Ann as a writer to watch.

Another notable submitter was a fourteen-year-old author named Polly Horvath. I didn’t know her age at the time; I thought she was either a very young and precocious writer or else a decidedly crazy older one. The writing was wild to the extreme, but the characters and situations were eccentric and funny. It’s heartening to read Everything on a Waffle and The Trolls now and see that in mastering her craft, Polly Horvath has reined herself in but hasn’t become too tame.

I left Harcourt to become a freelance editor at Knopf, whose children’s department was soon to be merged with Pantheon’s under the direction of Fabio Coen. One of my first assignments from Fabio was to write a letter to Roald Dahl, putting forth specific suggestions for toning down his controversial descriptions of the Oompa-Loompas for the revised edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This was given to me as if it were a routine task—a follow-up to conversations Fabio had already had with the author—but I took pains with the letter anyway, knowing that it would surely be a sensitive issue. It wasn’t until Dahl’s answer came that I realized what my role had really been. To Fabio’s great surprise, Dahl was both civil and compliant, accepting each suggestion without even a hint of anger. I saw now that I had been sacrificed because there was no one left in the department who was still on speaking terms with Roald Dahl! And that’s how I became his American editor for his next six children’s books.

LSM: Tell me more about Fabio Coen.

FF: Fabio had well-developed artistic and literary instincts, and he did very sophisticated books. I immediately think of Robert Cormier when I think of Fabio. The Chocolate War came in while I was there, and I remember Fabio giving it to me to read when it was still under consideration and asking if I thought the bleak ending made it too depressing. I wasn’t aware that the absence of a happy ending was something new or radical in children’s books or young adult novels. It seemed to be the natural kind of an ending for that book — honest, strong, and disturbing.

Fabio was one of the few males among children’s book editors. Men didn’t come into the field in greater numbers until the money came, and that happened after the infusion of federal money in the mid-1960s. Fabio had started at McDowell, Obolensky in the late fifties, so he’d come earlier than most, from a background in theater and the arts. He had grown up in Italy and immigrated to the U.S. in the late thirties. He and Leo Lionni moved in the same circles of expatriate European artists, writers, and architects. So when Leo did Little Blue and Little Yellow — originally, just to amuse his grandchildren during a train ride — he took it to Fabio.

So many of the people with whom an editor works become teachers of sorts. Leo was great to work with. He had such strong ideas about what he was doing. He thought of the picture book as theater. He saw each double-page spread as a stage set. His characters were his actors. That is very much the way that Leo’s books work.

LSM: Did his books develop through a series of steps that you were able either to witness or be a part of?

FF: Leo spent half the year in Italy and the other half in New York, and it was while he was in Italy that he made his books. When he returned to New York he came with the finished art and made a grand presentation of it. So when I first started working with Leo, I was mainly an appreciative audience and shepherd, seeing the book through its production. But as time went on, Leo seemed to want and welcome greater collaboration, and he discussed ideas and showed me storyboards before going off to work. He still came with all his pictures in hand and laid them out around the room, and he’d tell the story, which he knew but hadn’t committed to paper. So, in those later books, my involvement came with the actual storytelling. There was a good deal of exchange, and I think he enjoyed it as much as I did.

LSM: In his memoir, Between Worlds, which you edited, he writes in philosophical terms about the proper place that each person and object has in life. Making books for young children seems to have been a way for him to distill his ideas about harmony and balance.

FF: And do you remember, also in the memoir, his talking about working at the foundry? One of the other artists working there at the same time said of his sculptures: “You’re always telling a story.” That storytelling quality was an important aspect in all of Leo’s work. And there was a very playful side to his character. So children’s picture books suited him very well. And you’re right, they reflected his philosophy.

LSM: Turning to another kind of book, let me ask you about Louis Sachar’s Holes. Many readers who knew Sachar’s earlier books were taken by surprise by it, because it was for older readers and in some ways far more serious. But were you surprised?

FF: Not as surprised as others seem to have been. The first book I worked on with Louis was There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, which was hugely popular with kids and made a clean sweep of the state children’s choice awards, but it also had an underlying seriousness. The Boy Who Lost His Face dealt with serious issues, too. Yes, Holes was a leap, certainly in age and complexity, but there were things about it that were so distinctively Louis Sachar, especially the way he tells a story with every single detail having its place and purpose. As an editor, I notice that. He would say something early on, and I would wonder, “Why is he saying this?” And I would start to think, “It’s not important. It can go.” But on second thought I knew it must be important, like a piece of a puzzle, and that I’d have to wait to find out where it fit: why, for instance, do we need a gypsy woman who has to be carried up the mountain to the stream? Or an ancestral curse? These elements were such pure Sachar that I wasn’t surprised. It didn’t occur to me that maybe I should have been until I realized that everybody else was. If I had been comparing Holes only to Sachar’s Wayside School stories or his Marvin Redpost series, I might have reacted differently, but the Sachar I knew best had prepared me for Holes.

LSM: Would you talk more about the phenomenon of writers and artists going off in a new direction? What are some of the other examples from your publishing career that first come to mind?

FF: Look at Peter Sís. Peter started out doing the very young picture books that he published with Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow when his daughter Madeleine and his son Matej were very little. He did Trucks Trucks Trucks when Matej was three and obsessed with trucks. Now Peter, along with Matej, has outgrown that stage. Madeleine was six and had lost her first tooth when he began Madlenka. Like his children, he and his interests have evolved.

LSM: How did you meet Peter Sís? What did his portfolio look like?

FF: I met Peter when he first came to New York, which must have been about 1984. He had been in Hollywood, doing film work. He had already illustrated some picture books in Europe and knew that he wanted to do more illustration work when he met Maurice Sendak, who I think was in Los Angeles for ALA. Maurice told him he should move to New York. And so Peter did. When I met him he had illustrated a couple of books for Greenwillow, including Sid Fleischman’s The Whipping Boy, was a weekly contributor to the New York Times Book Review, and was now making the publisher rounds with his portfolio. I saw it and was amazed. So much talent! Happily, I had the manuscript for Oaf by Julia Cunningham to give him, and it seemed perfect for him. After that I knew that I wanted to continue working with him.

Peter had the storyboards for a picture book, very cute but much too long—ninety-six pages—and way too complicated. Still, it was charming and seemed full of potential, if we could just get to it. So we worked together to try to find the single, simple story hidden in those ninety-six pages that might fit into a thirty-two-page framework, and the result was Rainbow Rhino, the first book that he’d both written and illustrated. Then he did Follow the Dream. Peter was interested in Christopher Columbus’s story partly because the five-hundred-year celebration was coming up, but also because of his own coming to America. He wanted to show what America meant to him. Peter had come here as an émigré, leaving Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain had been lifted. He couldn’t go back, so for a time he was without a country. Then he became an American citizen, and he saw parallels between his quest for freedom and Columbus’s voyage of discovery. I remember somebody at Random House saying, “Why are we doing a book about Christopher Columbus by a Czech? What does he know about that story?” I think he knew a lot about it, and that his personal, middle European perspective was very interesting. His next book was Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, which launched my first list at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

LSM: Did Peter open you up to Eastern Europe as a source of art?

FF: I’m not so sure that Peter opened me to Eastern Europe. But maybe the reason I like Peter’s work so much has to do with my own taste in art and illustration. I have liked the work of many European illustrators but was for the most part discouraged from publishing them at Random House. When I came to FSG, I was much freer to follow my own heart and instincts, and a number of European artists came my way—Tomek Bogacki, and Dušan Petričić, who illustrated Joan Dash’s The Longitude Prize, and Boris Kulikov, who is Russian and illustrated Lore Segal’s Morris the Artist. Boris and Dušan were both regular contributors to the New York Times, as Peter had been, but I think the fact that I’m doing as many books as I am with Europeans has more to do with being at FSG, where they are welcomed. I had wanted to publish Baboon, the first picture book that Georg Hallensleben did with Kate Banks, when I was still at Knopf and couldn’t get it past the editorial board.

LSM: He’s such a terrific artist.

FF: Yes, and he is establishing a following here. But at first, although many people loved his work, others thought the art was “too New York,” “too strong,” “too European,” always too much of something. It seems that people have to learn how to look at the work of some of our best artists. In the very beginning this was true of Peter Sís’s work. He may never have true mass-market appeal, but over time he has educated a very broad and admiring picture book population—and an underground audience as well with his marvelous whale that has been riding the New York subway lines for the past two years.

LSM: I’d like to ask you about experiments with format. The Longitude Prize is a good example. The look and feel of that book is very different from what most publishers would have chosen.

FF: I signed up The Longitude Prize on the basis of a proposal, several years before it was published, having been totally hooked by the story of John Harrison and his struggle for recognition. Then by the time the manuscript was completed, Dava Sobel’s Longitude had already come out, and then her Illustrated Longitude, with all of the archival illustrations…

LSM: Longitude was everywhere!

FF: Longitude was definitely everywhere. The most logical way of doing our book, of course, would have been to put it in a standard format with those same archival illustrations, and I considered doing that. But I thought that Joan Dash’s treatment of the subject deserved a fresh approach, something that was all its own. I had been noticing Dušan Petričić’s illustrations in the New York Times Book Review and could tell from his work that he had a very facile mind. At the time, I hadn’t seen any of his scientific drawings and didn’t know that he illustrated a monthly column in Scientific American. Turning to him was one of those hunches that happened to be a good one, and he really poured himself into the job. He did all of those wonderful initial letters that tie the whole concept of the chapter into the way it opens: a wave breaking over the A, for example, a map of London running through the L. It was Dušan’s illustrations that helped drive the design. Our art director, Filomena Tuosto, got inspired, our production manager Susan Doran got on board, and the distinctive format emerged.

LSM: Is there any echo in that book for you of Genevieve Foster’s biographies? In somewhat the same spirit, Joan Dash calls the reader’s attention to her sources and makes a point of highlighting various aspects of her subject’s world.

FF: Well, that’s an interesting connection, because there is an echo, isn’t there? The first manuscript was a more conventional biography of Harrison. But it wasn’t working because so little was known about the man and his life. We struggled along with that for a while, and it became the kind of book that an editor can easily wish would just disappear. I didn’t know what to do with it. And then, in discussing the problem with Joan Dash, we decided that it should really be something closer to a history of the science of the time. That gave her a chance to go into the fascinating stories about all the other people — the competition — who were working toward the same end. It became a much better and much bigger book.

LSM: While still at Knopf, you published Philip Pullman.

FF: The Golden Compass had just come in before I left, and we were in the process of putting it under contract. I’d done the three Sally Lockhart books and three novels with Philip before then. He’s an amazing writer, a brilliant, brilliant man. I count him as another teacher. His thinking process is elaborate but so grounded in his knowledge of history and literature. He knows so much. Any little question I might ask, about a plot element or a character or an idea, would lead to something that was just much bigger. Everything was connected.

LSM: Would The Golden Compass be another example of a book that came as something of a surprise, of an author setting off into new territory?

FF: The only thing that kept it from being a total surprise was that in all of his correspondence Philip hadn’t kept it a secret that he was writing something that was going to be a surprise. But again, as with Louis Sachar, the part that wasn’t a surprise to me was the fact that he’s such a good storyteller and so smart. I had come to expect that almost anything he wrote would cast a spell. But no amount of advance notice could have fully prepared me for The Golden Compass. It was heartbreaking to have to leave that book behind.

LSM: Did much change between the British and American editions?

FF: I’ve not compared the two editions of The Golden Compass, but the first book we did, which was The Ruby in the Smoke, was in the process of being published in England when I saw it in manuscript. Philip was not only willing but seemed eager to enter into a fresh round of editorial scrutiny. He said it gave him a chance to rethink elements that hadn’t been resolved. A lot of writers wish they had a chance to rewrite the book they’ve just finished, and he approached it in that spirit. So our edition and the books that followed were in some ways different from their British editions. They weren’t just co-productions. I never worked with the British publisher; all of my work was directly with Philip. It’s sheer pleasure to work with a writer who’s so deft. He can spin around on his toes…and he really is dazzling.

LSM: Was he dazzling at the beginning? Or did he become dazzling?

FF: I think he became more dazzling. In the beginning, he wrote historical fiction set in nineteenth-century London. They’re just great stories. Not dazzling in the same way that The Golden Compass is, but awfully good.

Another writer who keeps growing is Kate Banks, whose picture books with Georg Hallensleben are, I think, perfect young picture books: And If the Moon Could Talk; Baboon; Spider Spider. I was very surprised, however, when the manuscript for Dillon Dillon, her first novel, arrived, because I had heard nothing about it. I didn’t know she was writing it. I expect she’s somebody who’s going to constantly surprise me.

I have worked with any number of writers who started out thinking that some day they would also write an adult novel, and then decided—Louis Sachar was one—that it wasn’t all it was stacked up to be. I think he thought at one point that it would be a mark of arrival. When I first knew Ann Cameron she talked about the adult novel she planned to write. Then she wrote The Secret Life of Amanda K. Woods instead and found that there was more satisfaction for her in writing that novel than in any of her attempts at the great adult novel. So I think it’s not necessarily the pinnacle of achievement for a writer any more than it is for somebody who edits children’s books. I’ve often been asked if I ever hoped that I might become an adult editor—as if that’s what happens to children’s editors when they grow up. But it’s not what I’ve wanted, ever. Still, it’s hard to change the public’s perception. When someone asks what you do and you say you’re a children’s book editor, the usual response is something like, “Oh, isn’t that fun? That must be so much fun.” If fun means it’s exciting to see good ideas and creative work come together — well, yes, it is fun. But it’s not all fun.

Leonard S. Marcus About Leonard S. Marcus

Leonard S. Marcus’s forthcoming books include Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration (Candlewick) and, as editor, The Kairos Novels (Library of America) by Madeleine L’Engle. His exhibition Garth Williams: Illustrator of the Century opens at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, on May 1, 2018.

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