June 28, 2017

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Holiday House Celebrates 75 Years Making Books for Kids

Gail Gibbons, Russell Freedman, Melanie Hope Greenberg, and other noted children’s authors and illustrators recently joined more than 200 librarians to help celebrate the 75th anniversary of Holiday House, the first American company to solely publish children’s books.

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From left: VP for Sales Barbara Walsh, John Briggs, Russell Freedman, Kate Briggs.

Helen Gentry, the company’s founder, told Horn Book in 1935 that she and her staff expected to “have fun making books”-and that still holds true more than seven decades later, says Terry Borzumato-Greenberg, Holiday House’s vice president of marketing. “Seventy-five years of independence in an era of corporate publishing is certainly worthy of celebration,” says Margery Cuyler, who was vice president and editor-in-chief at the company from 1975 to 1996.

Over the years, the small publisher has released a number of books by literary legends such as author Glen Rounds; illustrators Leonard Everett Fisher and Trina Schart Hyman; and authors/illustrators Tomie dePaola and Leonard Weisgard.

John Briggs, the current owner and president of Holiday House, says he’s strived to maintain independence in an atmosphere where other competitors like Dutton and Clarion have been gobbled up by larger houses like Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Random House.

“I believe the small independent publisher plays an important role,” says Briggs. “No one publisher is the answer for all authors. We have had the good fortune to have strong lists, and authors and illustrators who have stayed with us.”

Briggs, a Yale graduate, borrowed money from family members and purchased the company in 1965 when he was only 29. Using Holiday House’s stellar 30-year reputation for producing classics such as Big Red (1945) by Jim Kjelgaard and Rain Makes Applesauce (1964) by Julian Scheer and illustrated by Marvin Bileck (the company’s first Caldecott Honor Book), Briggs more than tripled the number of books published annually to 50 from 15.

“I had a wonderful 21 years at Holiday House, since John and Kate (Brigg’s wife and vice president for marketing until her retirement five years ago) were fully supportive of expanding the list and introducing new authors and illustrators to the field,” says Cuyler. “Their whole business was built on trust, friendship, and loyalty.”

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During Cuyler’s tenure there, Holiday House published the first books of Steven Kroll, author of Is Milton Missing (1975), Betty Bates, who wrote Bugs in Your Ears (1977), and Ann M. Martin, author of Bummer Summer (1983). Cuyler, now the editorial director at Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books, remembers the old days when she and her staffers would call back and forth over the partitions between their offices and dress up in costumes for dePaola’s annual Halloween party. She also recalls late-night storytelling sessions with the likes of Eric Kimmel, many of whose books were published by Holiday House, including Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins (1989) and The Mysterious Guests (2008).

Freedman, whose first book, Teenagers Who Made History (1961) was published by Holiday House, along with children’s literature scholar Barbara Elleman, in 2000 wrote a history of the company called, Holiday House: The First Sixty-Five Years. In it, they explain the history and meaning behind its iconic logo, a sketch of a little boy sitting atop of a rock reading a book. The colophon dates back to Ernest H. Shepard’s 1938 illustration for the book, The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame, which was published by Holiday House and is still in print. The boy is described as reading “natural history and fairy-tales … without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible” This is emblematic of the fiction and nonfiction book lists that Holiday House produces-and the image has identified the firm ever since.

Reflecting on the company’s success, Briggs credits his staff, and the authors and librarians who select and buy quality books.

Indeed, throughout the years there have been offers from larger publishers interested in buying Holiday House-but Briggs has always resisted.

Why? Because “it’s not about the money,” he explains.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.

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