August 21, 2017

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Beloved Children’s Book Editor Frances Foster Dies at 83

Foster2Renowned children’s book editor Frances Foster, who worked with legendary authors and artists such as Roald Dahl, Leo Lionni, and Louis Sachar, died Sunday, June 8, following a long illness. She was 83.

The legendary editor had worked in children’s publishing for more than 55 years before retiring from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2013, where her eponymous imprint was founded in 1996. Foster launched an illustrious career seemingly by chance in the early 1950s, when she began working at Scribner’s under Alice Dalgliesh, founding editor of the children’s book department.

Foster told SLJ in 2012 that she applied for the position on a whim, showing up at Dalgliesh’s office without an appointment: “I was green, new to the city, and new to job-hunting, so it never occurred to me that she wouldn’t see me. As it happened, when she heard why I had come, she welcomed me and said, ‘An angel must have sent you.’” Dalgliesh’s assistant had just given notice, and Foster was hired right away. She said, “From that moment on, I have believed in angels and in luck.”

Foster went on to work with authors such as Kate Banks, Roald Dahl, Helen Frost, David Klass, Louis Sachar, Phillip Pullman, Barbara McClintock, and Peter Sís, among others. Under Foster’s guidance, Sís wrote several award-winning picture books, including the Caldecott Honor book Tibet Through the Red Box (1998) and the Caldecott Honor and Sibert Honor book The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (2007, both FSG). Sís, who worked with Foster on his first book, Rainbow Rhino (Knopf, 1987), attributes his successful career to Foster’s excellent work: “She gave me my first chance 30 years ago. Looking back, I can see that none of the books that are special to me would have happened without her help.”

Though Foster saw the publishing landscape transform over the course of her career, she told SLJ that her commitment to finding quality children’s literature never waned. “We still look for unforgettable stories,” she said. Many of the titles she worked on in addition to Sís’s garnered awards and accolades, such as Louis Sachar’s Holes (FSG, 1998), which won the Newbery Award and the National Book Award in 1999.

In spite of her myriad accomplishments, those who worked with her were struck by her humble, down-to-earth nature. Gae Polisner, author of The Summer of Letting Go (FSG, 2014), described her initial anxiety about working with the eminent editor. Though Polisner “was a bit intimidated when I stepped out of the elevator of the flatiron building for our first meeting,” Foster graciously greeted the author. “I expected to have to wait for her in some lobby or anteroom, but instead, there she was, out in the hallway waiting for me, warm and welcoming. That has always stuck with me, that and how thoughtful and soft-spoken she was in all our interactions, wise and sophisticated, yet utterly without pretense.”

Foster1Foster received an Eric Carle Honor in the mentor category in 2012, and her authors praised her ability to hone and nurture talent. Monika Schroeder, author of Saraswati’s Way (FSG, 2010), said that “[Foster] knew when it was time to hold my hand but also when it was time to push me back to swim on my own. I have learned so much from her, and ‘What would Frances say?’ will always guide my writing.”

Picture book author and novelist Emily Jenkins stressed Foster’s talents: “She had a wonderful eye for the art of picture books and a wonderful ear for their rhythms.” Barbara O’Connor, author of On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s (2012) and Fame and Glory in Freedom, Georgia (2008, both FSG), described Foster as “wise, calm, gracious, always respectful of the creative process, and (almost) always willing to compromise. Her editing style was to ask questions that forced me to think about my work in new and deeper ways and to explore what-if possibilities.”

O’Connor emphasized her former editor’s sense of humor as well. “I still have a piece of correspondence from her in which she said: ‘Thank you for reminding me how bad Fame and Glory really was before I got my mitts on it.’ Classic Frances.”

“For Frances every project was a passion project,” says Margaret Ferguson, publisher of Margaret Ferguson Books, a division of FSG. “She published the books she loved, not caring so much about the market or trends, but believing that excellent books would find their audience. And she was right.”

Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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Comments

  1. I never had the good fortune to work with Frances Foster, but always wished I had. Everything I heard from authors who had worked with her made me envy them. Each book she published was unique, with her voice only guessed at by their excellence, unlike those of the many A-list editors I had worked with. She presented all that she did with quiet elegance; and she will be missed.

  2. Frances was my editor these last 44 years. She believed in my books, that is, when she worked on them she stepped inside them to understand them from my characters point of view and asked me questions that wound up deepening my own understanding of what the books might become. Rather than forcing me in some direction that she chose, she helped me to deepen my own direction. She worked that way with all her writers, and so she never interfered with our individuality or robbed us of our individual voices. I will miss her always.