November 19, 2017

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Folklore Author Robert San Souci Dies at 68

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Robert San Souci, photo courtesy of Random House

Acclaimed folklore author Robert San Souci died December 19 following a head injury resulting from a fall. He was 68.

Though San Souci was responsible for dozens of picture books, he was best known for The Talking Eggs: A Folktale from the American South (Dial, 1989), a Creole adaptation of the Cinderella story set in rural Louisiana, which won illustrator Jerry Pinkney a Caldecott Honor. San Souci’s strong use of figurative language added to the book’s appeal, and it still remains a library staple.

San Souci made folklore and tales from around the country and all over the world accessible to children and adults. An avid traveler, he journeyed around the United States, drawing inspiration from local legends, folktales, and history for works such as Cut from the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale (Philomel, 1993), and Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend (Dial, 1994).

He also presented young audiences with lesser-known but beautifully retold versions of familiar tales. In addition to creating his Creole Cinderella from The Talking Eggs, he penned Little Gold Star: A Spanish-American Cinderella Tale (Morrow, 2000) and Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella (S. & S., 1998). Proving his versatility, he also published Cinderella Skeleton (HMH, 2000), a macabre and darkly funny version of the classic tale, written in verse.

With Fa Mullan: The Story of a Woman Warrior (Hyperion, 1998), San Souci made his mark in the world of children’s films, displaying his knack for innovative storytelling to an even wider audience. His version of the Chinese legend of a young woman who takes her father’s place in war, posing as a man to fight the Tartars and winning glory in battle, was the basis for the Disney film Mulan, and he also wrote the story for the movie.

Born in San Francisco in 1946, San Souci developed a strong passion for writing early on. His brother Dan San Souci, a respected children’s book illustrator and a frequent collaborator with his brother, recalls one of the author’s first forays into the craft, writing a science fiction novel as a seventh grader.

“He was so happy when my aunt gave him a typewriter so he could spend the summer typing the manuscript out. It didn’t take long for him to figure out why she had given it to him—the “r” was missing. So that summer he typed it all out, filled in the “r’s” with a pen, and submitted it for publication. My other brother and sister were sure that this was going to make him famous, and we’d be along for the ride. He did get his first rejection slip, which he kept…. But this was the seed to such an incredible body of his published books.”

San Souci studied creative writing at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA, obtaining a B.A. in 1968. He studied folklore, myth, and world religions at California State University at Hayward, later working as a bookstore manager and copyeditor.

Author Robert San Souci (l.) with brother Dan San Souci

Author Robert San Souci (l.) with brother Dan San Souci, photo courtesy of Dan San Souci

Even as young men, San Souci and brother Dan were an ideal team.

“We loved to work together doing projects where we could share our talents,” says Dan.

The idea of collaborating on children’s books—with Robert providing the text and Dan the illustrations—was soon born. Though their first book, about a prince who saves a princess from a dragon, didn’t sell, after Robert attended a Blackfeet Indian powwow in Montana, he came up with the idea for their next picture book, The Legend of Scarface: A Blackfeet Indian Tale (Doubleday, 1978). The brothers would go on to work together on many other picture books, including As Luck Would Have It: From the Brothers Grimm and Sister Tricksters: Rollicking Tales of Clever Females (both 2008, both August House).

An ALA Notable author, San Souci is remembered by the library and children’s book community not only for his work but also for his commitment to his fans and willingness to help fellow authors. Children’s literature reviewer Sharon Levin fondly remembers his interactions with children.

“He always made each child feel special, as he took time with them, chatted with them, and then wrote a full page letter to them in the book they were having signed,” says Levin. “Books signed by Robert San Souci are some of our most treasured books.”

Dan, too, stressed his brother’s devotion to fans.

“Robert loved traveling to schools and loved spending time with the kids,” he tells SLJ, highlighting one of his brother’s favorite stories from a school visit, describing a little girl who was “absolutely mesmerized by every word that he spoke.”

When the presentation was over, the author asked for questions, calling on the attentive girl first, who replied, “’Mr. San Souci. You’ve got a piece of pepper or something else stuck to your front tooth.’” Dan added, “He really got a kick out of honest kids were and some of the things they would say to him.”

Author Jane Yolen, who wrote the introduction for Cut from the Same Cloth, emphasizes San Souci’s talents. “He was a storyteller’s storyteller and understood how to be a minimalist yet find the greater meanings in the tales he told. He was never bombastic. He loved both people and stories. What could have been a greater life? And he outlives his death.”

Cindy Kane Trumbore, too, who edited Sukey and the Mermaid (Macmillan, 1992) while editor in chief of Four Winds Press/Macmillan and Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend while executive editor of Dial Books, praised not only San Souci’s talents but his larger-than-life personality. “He was an editor’s dream,” she says. “His research was impeccable, and while every word in his manuscripts had been carefully crafted, he loved to hear suggestions and responded to them enthusiastically. He was also a warm, thoughtful person and a great storyteller. I remember his description of a power failure early one morning in San Francisco that had caffeine-deprived residents pounding on the door of his local Starbucks and ordering them to open up. Thinking about that makes me miss his laugh!”

“Everybody in the publishing business loved Robert,” says Dan. “He went out of his way to help people out, whether it was editing a manuscript or helping them to find an agent or publisher.  He was truly happy for everyone and for their successes. So many people have contacted me and told me how he helped them out with their careers. I know he was responsible for many of the books I published. He was always the older brother looking out for me.”

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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  1. Barbara Gifford says:

    I arranged an author visit with Mr. San Souci at my elementary school in 2001. He couldn’t have been nicer and put me at ease, as I was in awe of having a famous author at our school. Mr. San Souci was so appreciative of the children’s comments and he did write a special, individual note in each book he signed. I was so sorry to hear he had passed. I have been putting his books on display and they are flying off the shelves. I’ll never forget him. We have lost a California treasure.