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Editorial: The Incomparable Robin Smith

Robin Smith (1959–2017) was, famously, a talker. When I first met Robin some twenty years ago, we were sitting in a Children’s Literature New England lecture hall waiting for the day to begin. It was immediately apparent that she was something out of the ordinary: not only was she talking a mile a minute in that wholly engaging and vivacious way of hers, but she was, simultaneously, knitting so quickly that her fingers were a blur and primed to take notes on the upcoming lecture. She was clearly a force of nature, and I became a devoted admirer from that moment on.

Robin was also a doer. Unlike the talking, the doing was often quiet, behind-the-scenes, but just as prolific and generous. A newborn in the family? Look for a handknit hat. A milestone to mark? Receive a handwritten note. Robin was a passionate advocate of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee and its mission. She served on the jury, but she didn’t stop there: she urged people to join the organization; when she saw a lack of diversity on other ALA book committees, she encouraged CSK members to run for election. As teachers, she and her husband Dean Schneider brought to their school a steady stream of children’s book creators — always including authors and illustrators of color. Robin and Dean spent happy summers on Little Cranberry Island, Maine (home of their great friend Ashley Bryan); at community potlucks, Robin rolled up her sleeves and, night after night, did the dishes.

It seems too reductive simply to list her professional accomplishments, but here’s a baseline: for twenty-four years she taught second grade at the Ensworth School in Nashville — teaching hundreds of children to read (and to love reading); to make things (all her students learned to knit); and to be better people (her motto was “You can’t say ‘you can’t play’”; no one was excluded in a Robin Smith classroom). She served on multiple ALA book award committees, including the Caldecott, CSK, and Geisel. She was a longtime contributor to and reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine — highly valued for her knowledge of books, understanding of the child audience, and distinctive voice. Along with Lolly Robinson, she was the originator of our Calling Caldecott blog, imprinting it immediately with her passion, her insights into picture books, and that voice. Editor in Chief Roger Sutton rightly called her “one of the best things to ever happen to The Horn Book.”

Before Robin’s death in June, Kathleen T. Horning wrote, “No one has loved more or been more loved. There will never be another Robin.” And this July, her memorial service in a large auditorium at Ensworth was packed. Standing room only. The line to sign the guest book was over an hour long. Four of her former students, now young adults, took turns reading aloud one of her favorite picture books: Alice McClerran and Barbara Cooney’s Roxaboxen, a story about children creating a harmonious community with their hands and imaginations. Attendees at the service, many wearing colorful items of clothing Robin had made for them, represented all aspects of her productive, varied life. Scraps of overheard conversations revealed similar realizations, along the lines of: “I knew her as a sister/knitter/Smith College alumna/teacher; I didn’t know she was a reviewer/nationally known blogger/integral member of the children’s book community!” Like Walt Whitman, Robin contained multitudes.

Her son Andrew spoke eloquently about his mother, calling her a “fierce fountain of empathy,” a person who actively committed herself to the greater good. Yes, indeed. For me that’s why her passing is such a huge loss: not just that we love Robin so much and lost her too early, but that we need her so much. Some people use their artistic gifts to create beautiful things; others roll up their sleeves and do the dishes. Robin did both. To honor her, I beseech you to follow Andrew’s entreaties: “Make something. Inspire someone. Be kind. Stand up for someone less fortunate than yourself. Make the world a better place than you found it.”

Do it for our world. Do it for the incomparable Robin Smith.

From the September/October 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more tributes to Robin, please visit hbook.com/tag/dear-robin; for links to her work for The Horn Book visit hbook.com/author/rsmith/.

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Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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Comments

  1. What a beautiful tribute, Martha. I wanted so badly to be in Nashville for her memorial, to be among the people who loved her, but the timing didn’t work out. Thanks for broadcasting Andrew’s charge for those of us who missed it. One thing I didn’t know about Robin: that her favorite picture book was Roxaboxen. It’s mine too; I wish we’d had time for that conversation.

  2. Thanks, Martha. Reading this I found myself flooded with memories of talking with Robin, buoyed by her spirit and infectious smile. I miss her.

  3. Sylvia Waugh says:

    That tribute made heartening reading. How fortunate you all were to have someone to earn such love and respect.
    You may delete this I know – it is perhaps straying too far from the topic at hand – but how I wish your comment policy could be adopted by that world out there.

  4. Jenny Moseley says:

    Robin was a force of nature who was so kind and loving and so low key that you didn’t understand her impact on you until you were forced to reflect on it. sadly that was when you were faced with her passing. Love you Robin. And thank you for your wisdom, it was so important to me as a parent.

  5. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Ellen, I’m not sure that Roxaboxen was absolutely Robin’s favorite picture book, but it was clearly “a” favorite. Also I have just learned from Julie Danielson that the video of the memorial service is up on the Ensworth School website. Here is the link; you just need to scroll down to find the video:
    https://www.ensworth.com/page/explore/news–media/video-gallery

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