In Memory: Robie Harris; Petra Mathers & Dinah Stevenson

Cynsations is celebrating its 20th anniversary by switching to a quarterly publishing schedule, featuring in-depth interviews and articles. Thank you for your ongoing support and enthusiasm!

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Author Robie Harris

Author Robie Harris died in New York City on January 6. She was 83. From Publishers Weekly, Harris is “best known for her stories about young children’s powerful emotions and her frequently challenged and banned books on human sexuality, including It’s Perfectly Normal: [Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, illustrated by Michael Emberley (Candlewick, 1994, 2014)].”

Harris recounted the book’s beginnings on her website, “…I was sitting in an editor’s office. He asked me if I would like to write a book on HIV and AIDS… I told the editor that if I were to write a book on the topic, I would write a comprehensive book on sexual health …kids and teens did need to know about the virus, but that they also needed to know a lot of other things about their changing bodies, growing up, sex, and sexual health in order to stay healthy.”

Publicist Deborah Sloan shared her experiences of helping to promote the book with Cynsations readers in a 2010 interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, “I will never forget meeting that dynamic duo and hearing how they went about talking and meeting with parents, health educators, scientists, pediatricians, social works, child development specialists, clergy, teachers, and librarians to be sure to present the information in the most accurate, up-to-date, clear, kid-friendly way possible. I was in!”

Sloan continued, describing how she shared designed pages with librarians and booksellers. “the conversations that resulted–honest, complicated, charged and passionate–helped build a buzz for this book that’s still going strong today. The people I showed those early pages to felt a part of the process…I think they felt It’s Perfectly Normal was their book too.”

Not everyone appreciated Harris’s honest, comprehensive approach to sexual health and the 20th Anniversary edition of It’s Perfectly Normal ranked fifth on the Top 10 challenged books of 2014 by the American Library Association.

PEN America’s tribute to Robie Harris included the book’s powerful impact and an account of a Delaware judge who praised the book for helping a child tell her mother she was being sexually abused. Harris said there were more heroes in the case, “the mother was also a hero in this story, for listening to her daughter, and that the librarian who ordered the book and kept it on open shelves also made this possible,” Danika Ellis reported for a 2022 Book Riot article, Sex Ed Books Don’t “Groom” Kids and Teens. They Protect Them.

Harris wrote more than 30 books for young readers with her latest update to It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, Gender, and Families, illustrated by Michael Emberley (Candlewick, 1999, 2024) published in January.

Author-Illustrator Petra Mathers

From Publishers Weekly: Award-winning children’s book author-illustrator Petra Mathers died February 6 with her husband, author and photographer Michael Mathers, at their home in Astoria, Ore. She was 78.

Mathers was born in the Black Forest region of Germany and spent her childhood surrounded by nature and discovered the world of fine art when a family friend gave her an art dictionary at age 11.

She apprenticed in a book industry program that included work at a publishing company and bookstore, along with business and literature classes. She immigrated to the United States with her husband and son in the late 1960s.

She illustrated her first picture book, How Yossi Beat the Evil Urge by Miriam Chaikin (Harper & Row) in 1983. Soon after, Mathers wrote and illustrated Maria Theresa (Harper & Row, 1985) which won the Ezra Jack Keats Award. More picture books and accolades followed. Mathers published more than 40 books for young readers.

Mathers donated more than 500 of her original works to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

“In 2019, Mathers returned to The Carle to handwrite text from her books on her illustrations, which was her preference,” the Carle Museum website states. Mathers’ handwritten text and illustrations from Lottie’s New Beach Towel (Aladdin, 2001) appear on the museum’s website.

Mathers’ last book, When Aunt Mattie Got Her Wings, was published by Beach Lane Books in 2014 and closed the Lottie picture book series.

Friends of the Mathers noticed similarities between the book and letters the Mathers sent in February, The Astorian newspaper reported. In the book, Aunt Mattie leaves a goodbye note for her niece, Lottie before her death.

Editor Dinah Stevenson

From Publishers Weekly: “Esteemed children’s editor Dinah Stevenson, lauded for being a keen spotter of talent and for shepherding numerous books and authors to the industry’s highest accolades, and former publisher of Clarion Books, died on January 23 in Hoboken, N.J. She was 81.”

Stevenson started her career as a copy editor at J.B. Lippincott Junior Books in 1971 and moved up the ranks. In 1980, she became senior editor for Alfred A. Knopf and Pantheon Books for Young Readers. After moves and mergers, she landed at Clarion as executive editor in 1990.

While at Clarion, award-winning books she edited included:

Caldecott wins for Golem by David Wisniewski (Clarion,1996) and The Three Pigs (Clarion, 2001) and Flotsam (Clarion, 2006), both by David Wiesner.

Newbery wins for The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman (Clarion, 1995), and A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2001). Stevenson launched the careers of both Cushman and Park by publishing their first manuscripts. Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy (Clarion, 1994), won a Newbery Honor in 1994 and Stevenson discovered Park’s first manuscript (for Seesaw Girl, Clarion, 1999) in the slush pile.

The nonfiction Stephenson edited also won awards: The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by James Cross Giblin (Clarion, 2002) won the Robert F. Sibert Medal; An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy (Clarion, 2003), received the Sibert Medal, a Newbery Honor title and was a National Book Award finalist; and The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights by Russell Freedman (Clarion, 2004) won the Sibert Meal, along with a Newbery Honor Award.

Though she officially retired in 2020, Stevenson continued to work on a few projects, including The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion, 2023).

Cynsational Notes

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library, an Austin SCBWI volunteer and bookseller at Paper Bark Birch Children’s Bookstore. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.