I was perusing the old Top 100 Picture Books and Top 100 Chapter Books polls of yore (still my most popular posts, even after all these years) when a thought occurred. Looking at the list you can see a lot of folks who are still working to this day. Your Mo Willemses. Your Eric Carles. And you can see a lot of folks who have departed this great green plain, either long ago or recently. Your Ezra Jack Keatses. Your Margaret Wise Browns (though with that trunk of her spewing out continual books, will she ever truly leave us?).
Then you have an entirely different category. Authors and illustrators that created classics, then just left the field. Poof! No more books. These are the folks that just walked away. They’re rare but they happen and they’re the subject of today’s post.
There are two types of authors/illustrators in this respect. Those who stop at the top of their career and those who stop once they aged a bit and are tired of the business/want to do other things. Of the latter I can think of quite a few who are still kicking about doing their thing. That thing just doesn’t happen to involve producing new works for kids. Judy Blume, for example. If anyone is allowed to rest on her laurels, it would be she. Occasionally she’ll reappear and do something like the Pain and the Great One early chapter book series, but by and large she’s out of the running, doing other things in her life like the Tiger Eyes movie. Beverly Cleary at the grand old age of 98 hasn’t written anything since the last Ramona book Ramona’s World, published in 1999. She occasionally pops up for interviews when folks like NPR remember that she’s still alive. I wouldn’t put it past her to suddenly come out with a final Ramona Quimby book either (which reminds me of Peter Sieruta’s old April Fool’s post on the very topic lo these many years ago).
Perhaps the person that intrigues me most in this respect is Marcia Brown. Does the name ring a bell? She is, I believe, the woman who tied the record for most Caldecott Awards (rather than Honors) with David Wiesner. Considering that her first Caldecott came in 1954 you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d passed on, but in fact she’s currently residing in California. Early in her career she worked for New York Public Library in the same Central Children’s Room that I did and it was there that she would test out her book ideas on the kiddos. For the latter part of her life she dedicated herself to her paintings, no longer working the field of children’s literature. I believe Leonard Marcus went out and visited her relatively recently, but I’m not sure where that interview is slated to appear. Sometimes I wonder if there are books she wished she could have published.
Then there are the folks that left while they were near the peak of their popularity. These are the people that intrigue me particularly. One of the most notable cases would be that of Peggy Rathmann. If you want an example of a picture book author/illustrator who left at the top of her game, see ye no further. The creator of such fantastic books as Goodnight, Gorilla, Ten Minutes to Bedtime, The Day the Babies Crawled Away (note to self: put on hold for daughter), and Officer Buckle and Gloria amongst others, she hasn’t produced a new picture book in ten years. Aside from having the world’s greatest author photo, word on the street has it that Ms. Rathmann is perfectly happy working on her California ranch. So why no more books? No clue but I dare to dream that someday she’ll do an interview with Leonard Marcus or Jules Danielson and we’ll hear from her again. Failing that I’d settle for a new book. *bats eyes in the direction of Nicasio, California longingly*
I considered adding Lois Duncan to this list since she was a young adult author even before the term became popular. There was a time when her books were prolific and wonderful. But reading the recent and marvelously researched BuzzFeed article Who Killed Lois Duncan’s Daughter? I know that this is a very different case. There are authors that quit writing in a genre because they willingly choose to go another direction with their lives. Then there are those that choose to quite writing in a genre because they are forced to go in another direction. Ms. Duncan probably would have been happy to continue writing suspense thrillers, had the circumstances of her life been different.
How long do you give it until you declare that a person is “gone”? If they’re alive then there’s always the possibility, however remote, that they’ll pull another manuscript out from behind their backs at some point. Hope springs eternal, after all. Take J.K. Rowling, for example. Will she ever write another children’s book again? Years ago she suggested that she’d write a “political fairy tale” of some sort, but that manuscript has yet to arise. Considering how successful her nom de plume experiment with adult literature turned out to be, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to see her pull the same move on the children’s book publishing world. Think about it. What if, some year, a nondescript manuscript from a supposed debut author appeared on the Scholastic line-up and we only found out later that its true author was Ms. Rowling? I’m sort of thrilled by the potential there. It could happen.
You can never really write anyone off either. Norton Juster, for example, was capable of going decades without publishing a thing, only to reappear years later.
Have you any authors or illustrators you wonder about?