March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ Talks to Legendary Book Editor Frances Foster

Frances Foster accepting her Carle Honor. Photo by Johnny Wolf.

Frances Foster was honored last month by the Eric Carle Museum, which awarded the renowned children’s book editor with a Carle Honor in the mentor category. School Library Journal took the opportunity to ask Foster to reflect on her career editing some of the biggest stars in children’s publishing, from Roald Dahl to Peter Sís.

Legend has it that an angel was instrumental in getting you started in children’s books. Is that true?

So it seemed. I called on Alice Dalgliesh, founding editor of the children’s book department at Scribner’s, without an appointment (what was I thinking?). I was applying for a job and thought Scribner’s would be a good place to start. I had spent many hours browsing in the Scribner bookstore on the ground floor of 597 Fifth Avenue, so it was a short and easy step from there to Ms. Dalgliesh’s office on the sixth floor. 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.” Her assistant had given notice that very morning, so yes, there was an opening that needed to be filled, and I was hired on the spot. From that moment on, I have believed in angels and in luck.

What was it like working at Scribner’s in its iconic building on Fifth Avenue in New York City?

A. It was amazing, both real and unreal. There was so much history living in that building. I felt surrounded by ghosts. Mine was the desk where Thomas Wolfe perched to view the various Fifth Avenue parades; the fifth floor was where Ernest Hemingway and Max Eastman had their famous fistfight in Maxwell Perkins’ office. Mr. Scribner, who Ms. Dalgliesh referred to as “young Mr. Scribner” or simply “Charlie,” was now the second generation of Scribners to head the publishing house. He and Dalgliesh were on easy terms with each other since she had known him throughout his childhood. From my position, it seemed that she and her office was his confessional; I can still hear her placating him with, “Now Charlie….” and a word of reassurance. With none of the offices, not even Mr. Scribner’s, being fully enclosed, it was an impossible place to keep secrets. Even whispered conversations eventually became public.

Such was the case when Igor Krupitsky, head of the rare books department at Scribner’s, unearthed a painting of Robert Louis Stevenson signed by John Singer Sargent in an upper floor storage closet. Yale University, where the Stevenson papers reside, was immediately contacted, and though they questioned the authenticity and very existence of such a portrait, it was shipped off to them… and quickly returned. Yale rejected it as a fake on all counts. It wasn’t Stevenson, and the signature was forged. The painting then stood on a table in Scribner’s office, prompting all who entered to ask about it, so those of us who were within earshot heard the story of Yale’s shortsightedness many times repeated, until one day Scribner’s mother visited and set the record straight. It was a portrait of a Scribner uncle painted by another uncle and signed “Sargent.” In short, it was a family joke that quickly became a company joke, though some of us thought it was funnier than Mr. Scribner did.

You were Roald Dahl’s editor for six of his books. A notoriously difficult author—true?

Bob Gottlieb, who headed up Knopf’s adult department, was Dahl’s true editor, but I was the editor of record for five or six of his children’s books, including Danny the Champion of the World (1975), George’s Marvelous Medicine (1982), and The Enormous Crocodile (1978, all Knopf). And yes, he lived up to his legend, but I should make clear that besides being “difficult,” he was witty and funny, and often appreciative. Still, he was predictably unpredictable, and in time he severed his connections to Knopf and moved on to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and eventually left FSG for Viking.

You received the Carle Honor in the mentor category. Here are some names of children’s literature legends with whom you have worked. I’m going to mention their names and have you respond.

Roger Duvoisin: I met Duvoisin near the end of his life and worked on one picture book with him and an anthology of Petunia stories. This was the era when artists prepared their own color separations on acetate for four-color printing. Duvoisin is the only artist I’ve ever met who didn’t complain about this and actually liked the process. He said it reminded him of printmaking, of preparing a stone for lithography. He loved every part of the bookmaking process, and he opened my eyes to viewing it as he did.

Robert Cormier: I had just gone from freelancer to staff member at Knopf/Pantheon and was working for Fabio Coen when the manuscript for The Chocolate War (Pantheon, 1974) came in. Fabio had given it a first read and was asking each of us in the department to read it. This was 1973 and YA books weren’t what they are today. There had been many powerful and disturbing books about adolescents— e.g. Lord of the Flies—but they were published for adults before being discovered and claimed by YAs. Could he risk publishing it as a YA when it was not only dark but didn’t even have a happy ending? Would it be banned out of existence? Well, it was widely banned but certainly not out of existence. I was never Cormier’s editor but an admiring supporter and friend.

Leo Lionni: I became Lionni’s editor when Fabio Coen retired in 1979 and worked with him until his death in 1999. Leo taught me how to make picture books. He was the first of what Peter Sís calls my émigré artists, soon to be joined by Peter and much later, at FSG by Tomek Bogacki, Sergio Ruzzier, Boris Kulikov, Gabi Swiatkowska, Yangsook Choi, and Hyewon Yum. Lionni had a distinguished career as a graphic designer before the idea for a picture book came to him in a moment of desperation or inspiration when he was trying to entertain his two active grandchildren on a commuter train from Grand Central to Greenwich, Connecticut. Tearing colored shapes from the pages of a magazine—he was art director for Fortune—and using his briefcase as his stage, he held them in his spell as he told the story for Little Blue and Little Yellow (McDowell, Obolensky, 1959). This opened a well of ideas and casts of characters who play unforgettable roles in his picture book dramas.

Philip Pullman: I felt I’d hit my stride as an editor when Ruby in the Smoke (Knopf, 1985), the first in Pullman’s Sally Lockhart quartet came my way. It wasn’t because these books presented a challenge—they were pure pleasure—or that Pullman needed a lot of editing; it was because they felt like something I’d been looking for without knowing it for most of my publishing career. Philip Pullman calls them historical thrillers with old-fashioned Victorian blood and thunder. And that’s exactly what they are, grounded by a solid understanding of history and storytelling. My editing was mainly done through asking questions, educating myself as it happened, and carrying on an animated cross-Atlantic communication by letter and telephone with this very nimble thinker and amazing storyteller.

Peter Sís: Peter was actually a man without a country when I first met him, a Czech émigré who resisted his government’s order to return home from Los Angeles where he was on a film assignment in the early 1980s. This was Cold War politics, and when the chance to stay presented itself, he grabbed it. What did New York look or feel like to a struggling artist who couldn’t go home? A museum curator in Los Angeles had secretly sent samples of his work to Maurice Sendak who introduced Peter to Susan Hirschman, who gave him a David Shannon book to illustrate and after that Paul Fleishman’s The Whipping Boy (Greenwillow, 1987).

But New York City was expensive and Peter came with nothing but natural charisma, indefatigable energy and enormous talent. He needed work. Coming from a Communist country he’d expected, or maybe just hoped he would find subsidized housing for artists and a living stipend from publishers. He quickly realized that he would have to go from door to door with his portfolio and show his wares. I was one of the lucky editors he called on. I’d never seen work quite like his—visionary, beautiful, intellectually challenging—we set out to free a 32-page picture from the 92-page storyboard in his portfolio about a white rhinoceros. Rainbow Rhino (Knopf, 1987) was the first book that he wrote and illustrated.

Polly Horvath: I was a freelance reader for Margaret McElderry at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Polly Horvath was a fourteen-year-old budding novelist submitting long, messily typed, madcap manuscripts. I didn’t know she was fourteen at the time; she could have just as easily been an eccentric adult who had an out-of-control imagination, was drawn to weird characters and once she got started telling a story didn’t know when or how to stop. So I was actually relieved to learn her age. I couldn’t reject her with our form letters, even with a personal note at the end, it seemed too dismissive of her potential. I know that I wrote at least one letter to her, urging her to keep writing, and that she did, polishing her craft and gaining a measure of control without losing any of her originality.

You were the editor for the Newbery Winner Holes (Farrar, 1998) by Louis Sachar. What are you memories about working on that book?

I had already done four novels with Louis Sachar, beginning with There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom (Knopf, 1987), so I wasn’t surprised to find Holes came in in very good shape. Louis generally completed five full drafts of a novel before he shared it with anyone. I also knew that every little piece was there for a reason and in the end, it would all fit together like a puzzle. His books were fun to work on and Holes more than most. Then came the fun of publishing it to a world that rallied around it. That was a dream year for me, starting with Holes winning the National Book Award, followed by the Newbery Medal, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and every other major award in Children’s Literature. A year like that could go to one’s head, but life has ways of spreading the riches around. Sachar’s FSG competitors for the National Book Award that year were Jack Gantos for Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (1998) and Ann Cameron for The Secret Life of Amanda K. Woods (1998, both Farrar). That same year, 1999, Peter Sís won a Caldecott Honor for Tibet Through the Red Box. An embarrassment of riches that I found not even a little embarrassing.

Natalie Merchant, Barbara McClintock and Frances Foster at the Eric Carle Honor awards. Photo by Johnny Wolf.

Both Barbara McClintock and Natalie Merchant presented you with the Carle Honor and they told us about you. Tell us about them?

A. Well, their introduction was lovely but more than a little embarrassing, especially coming from two artists who are so hugely gifted. I first heard about Natalie’s album Leave Your Sleep (Farrar, 2012) in an interview she did with PBS and instantly thought it should be a picture book, too, illustrated by Barbara McClintock. A friend of Barbara’s had given her the album, and she had the same thought. It took us a while to track Natalie down, but when we did we learned that she already knew and loved Barbara’s work and that she had always intended the project to be a picture book as well as an album. They both brought a lot of passion and intelligence to this project, and together they are committed to doing whatever they can to get music and art and poetry into children’s lives.

How has children’s book publishing changed?

A. How hasn’t it changed? It’s tempting to start with technology. (I say this as I’m working on an antiquated company-issued laptop that was handed down by someone in finance. In those days, editorial got the hand-me-downs.) When I got my first publishing job, we used manual typewriters. The electric typewriter represented a big advancement and introduced more speed and efficiency. I don’t know if younger people can possibly imagine how computers and email, texting, and smartphones have affected the pace of the entire publishing process, of the world, for that matter. We editors worked only on hard copy—some of us still do, by choice; designers did everything by hand. They traced fonts and pasted up mechanicals.

Manuscripts were delivered by mail or messenger and traveled through the production process and were sent off to the printer or compositor to be manually typed or keyboarded and then set in type. Now of course, they travel as digital files. Designers do almost everything by computer, and many artists and authors do, as well. How books are bought and sold has changed, too. There were hundreds of independent bookstores across the country that specialized in children’s books. B. Dalton, our first chain arrived in the late 1960s. The books have changed, too, while also remaining the same. We still look for unforgettable stories.

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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.



  1. “How hasn’t it changed?” Frances Foster is a master of the art of asking the right questions; I learned so much from her on the books we did together. Thank you, Frances, for ALL the amazing books you’ve given us!

  2. Thank you for this tribute. We need so much more of these reflections to appreciate our past. Fabio Coen was among my first editors who stood up for my book, MAMA, back in the ’70’s due to its theme of a single parent forced to steal for the survival of her children. He, too, was a pioneer. MAMA is still in print after 35 years (Boyds Mills Paperback). And it was Fabio at Knopf who gave a young artist the chance to do the jacket art — TED LEWIN.

  3. I have the great privilege of having Frances as my editor. She is wise and kind. Smart and funny. Patient and understanding. She understands and respects the creative process. Lucky, lucky me.

  4. I’m also one of the lucky, lucky ones to have had Frances as my editor for more than ten years. She’s as wise and wonderful as everybody says. I’d have lunch everyday with her if I could, learning more and more about her career and her life. But as I can’t, this will do me for the time being. Thank you for this fine interview.

  5. Margaret Tice says:

    As a librarian, I always found Frances to be very helpful and gracious. At conferences she always had time to tell me about her new books. What wonderful, unforgettable stories she has given us!

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this marvelous interview. I started writing during the days of typewriters when I had to sit down for a couple of weeks and retype a pencil-edited manuscript from start to finish. The world of publishing has changed so much, it’s almost surreal. And I am a very lucky reader of so many of Frances Foster’s books. Thank you for your brilliant work for children’s literature.