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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Just Walk Away: Authors and Illustrators Who Do

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?


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I have a different reaction to this sort of thing when it is a writer. I worry that he or she is having a writer’s block, a crisis of confidence, or something along those lines. I lived with it first hand with my father, an academic, who had a younger mentee stick it to him in the midst of their length book project and it all collapsed. It was years until my father recovered with another project. I can imagine one of the authors we know who has seemingly gone to ground trying to write, not getting positive editorial response from his/her efforts and simply having trouble of that sort. Especially those who feel there are people out there wondering what is happening. Or some may be taking their time on their next project along the lines of Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch came out, a decade or so since her last work.)

  2. I recently read Fireflies! by Julie Brinckloe to my boys. We all loved it, so of course I looked for more of her books . . . and came up blank. Does anyone know why she didn’t write more? Such a shame. Her prose and illustrations are both breathtaking.

  3. As the daughter of a writer who had three moderately successful books (adult literary fiction), then didn’t publish for a decade, I too have a different reaction: it’s quite possible the person is still writing, but simply isn’t selling.

    In the cases you’re highlighting, the writers and illustrators were not just moderately successful but tremendously so, and when people like *that* disappear, it’s much more likely a choice, but when midlist writers disappear, I tend to assume it’s not willingly.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Good point, that. And as Amy shows, every book can have its fans. The trick is letting the publishers know sometimes. I myself have loved lots of authors and illustrators over the years that didn’t break the bank in terms of sales but that did some spectacular work. It’s incredibly interesting when those folks do hit it big to see how those early works are repackaged and resold. Consider, for example, Tom Angleberger’s Qwikpick Society book. When he was publishing as Sam Riddleberger it went out of print. Now a different publisher has grabbed it since he found success with other titles. But I’m getting off topic.

  4. My theory: Editors leave, die, or are fired. The new editors coming in seem to lack a sense of history. And the corporate meme is new, new, new or a celeb to carry the publicity for the big $. I left my agent who was slowing down considerably (still friendly), with 16 books published the agents are saying they do not know what to do with me (??) I get that a lot. Or I need to change although the public (those who buy books) know my style and like it. Looking for an agent if anyone is open!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Your point reminds me of that great Deborah Underwood / Arthur Levine video I posted the other day.

    • Yup… new people come and the old people disappear. In addition to editors constantly moving I also think that children’s books only have about a 4 year window of recognition before the current crop of kid readers moves on to the next new thing.

      Also I’m amazed at all the ‘famous artist – writers’ who publish books but I never hear a peep about them! I was looking up some big name book makers thinking ‘Whatever happened to?’ when to my astonishment there were 8 new books that I’d never seen anywhere.

      Publishing is so ephemeral. I recently read about a Caldecott winner who was trying and hoping to sell a new story – whereas I figured once you’d won that prize, you could get everything published.

  5. I have now been published for 20 years… but I didn’t have anything come out between 2008 and the end of 2013. I know it’s not a decade, but it felt like it. In that time there were nightmarish family crises, but I kept writing. I wrote a pile of picture books, poetry and a novel. I finally sold one of the poems, which became “Once Upon A Memory,” but the novel hasn’t sold yet… and I’m still going back through the pile of works in progress hoping to sell them eventually… but the business changes over time; tastes change over time- for example picture books now must have very short word counts. It wasn’t always that way… sometimes I feel like I could disappear, but I love story, art, imagination and books too much. But sometimes it feels like such a battle to give birth to a book and it’s not as easy to fight that battle as you age. (and I do get Peggy’s love of her ranch- I have that love of my island home…) We all have reasons why we do things, but I’m very heartened to read that you care about these people and cherish their work- and it does live on, so we never really disappear. That is the blessing of books.

  6. I take everyone’s point: sometimes it’s just that a writer cannot write. I received an unexpected note from an author a few years ago whose books I blogged about and whined about there not being more — she told me WHY she hadn’t written more or again: a series of miscarriages, which left her just undone. And, though smart writers don’t rely on mood or muse, you sometimes simply cannot keep going if you’re so distracted and conflicted.

    I do check back to see about Heather Quarles every few years, though. The book she wrote, A DOOR NEAR HERE (1998 Delacorte), is a classic problem novel in the style of the 80’s After School Special trope, substance abuse, horrible parents – but somehow she escaped being run-of-the-mill by adding a belief in and a hope for Narnia — and then the book became heartbreaking and poignant and really good for a debut novel…

    …but, that’s all she wrote. She’s apparently a college professor now, and this was her MFA project, and she’s now doing other things.

    In a way, I kind of envy people who can just walk away. At times writers may be aggravated enough to, but it would be hard to just… make that decision and go.

  7. Caroline Parr says:

    I always loved Eve Rice’s picture books, especially Sam Who Never forgets and Benny Bakes a Cake, to say nothing of New Blue Shoes. Apparently she went to medical school and left her picture book career behind. But I always wonder if there’s not just one more manuscript left behind…

  8. Well, it’s not that easy to get a next book out. After finishing my Alvin Ho series (final book is coming out this August), NONE of my subsequent manuscripts or book ideas have been accepted for publication for nearly a year now. My greatest fear after each book is that I’ll never write again (because I’m so spent), or more realistically, that I’ll never get another contract. It can happen! So “just walk away” may be a misnomer. There are no guarantees in creative work. You could be at the top of your game, but your work is subject to the whims and fickleness of the marketplace. So if I’m not out again with another book for awhile, don’t count me among those who “just walked away.” I’m working as hard as I can, but everything else is out of my control.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      That is the craziest darn thing I ever heard. I cannot live in a world without additional Lenore Look books. Ima gonna go bust a few heads now.

  9. I always wonder about Elizabeth Marie Pope. She published two nearly perfect books (The Sherwood Ring and The Perilous Gard) and…that’s it! I haven’t been able to find any information about why she didn’t publish any more, but sometimes I can’t help thinking about the books she might have written.

  10. re: Judy Blume – there was a recent announcement that she’s working on a new adult book (not New Adult!)

    re: Elizabeth Marie Pope – I thought her 2 wonderful books were published rather late in her life – perhaps that’s all she had time for? I don’t really know however.

  11. A lot of it has to do with trends or fashion. Some books published not long ago could certainly not get out there in today’s market (said one of my editors recently). Or, some creative folks may take a different path, but still fulfill their artistic needs – a quote from David Halberstam: “Sometime you outgrow your media.” (I did less publishing for a time while working on a project just now finally
    coming out.) People may have personal or health issues. Or dislike (these days) the marketing necessities. Or, they may be really talented, and have gotten great attention, but just not care… Been there, done that. Maybe the challenge is over. Who knows. I respect people who aren’t driven by fame and fortune. The pleasure of craft…that’s another issue.

  12. I want to echo the authors who have said that sometimes we haven’t gone anywhere, we’re just struggling to convince someone in publishing that we have more books worth sharing. Lenore Look, I adore your books and am appalled that no one has bought your next one.

  13. Another thing is trends. Some will not write this or that to fit in, artists follow their own vision, not a trend. Also, social media is now filled with cliques and power tripping and using folks to get ahead. They are brazenly pushy and it seems the more one talks and talks (about themselves) the more one gets noticed. Even unpublished folks who put “author” in front of their names. All of a sudden they are now “experts” in the field having no publishing experience. They go for the win at all costs, knocking over, trampling quieter people doing their art. One last ting, is that with the social media is this weird focus on the personality, not the product. Everyone is trying to be the star on the stage. Books get pushed back behind the curtains. Even editors and agents are doing the show (that video). I don’t get it. We all need to step back and let our books become the stars. Perhaps that is why books got popular before social media. Now it feels more like a sloppy cocktail party rather than a book business.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Maybe so but consider the most recent award winners. While Brian Floca is a great public speaker he’s also an artist first. One that’s been plugging away in the business for years and years. The books do get put first sometimes. It just takes a while for some folks.

  14. I’d just like to say, “Officer Buckle and Gloria” still makes me fall out of the chair laughing.