Jean Feiwel ’76, editor-in-chief and publisher of Scholastic Books, has been awarded the 28th annual Curtis Benjamin Award by the Association of American Publishers. A children’s book publisher for more than two decades, Feiwel is responsible for launching several series, including the Harry Potter, I Spy, Adventures of Captain Underpants and Magic School Bus books. In 1996, she introduced the Dear America series and began to direct Scholastic’s multicultural publishing program—and has continued with both the series and program ever since.
Recently, the publisher, who is also senior vice president of Scholastic, talked to us about some of the changes in the children’s book field during the past two decades. “Unfortunately,” she says, “some of those changes haven’t necessarily been for the good. Children’s book publishing has become a huge business, and people are always looking for the next big thing, the next Harry Potter success story. It’s not good, but it’s a fact of life.”
Some things, though, have endured, she says, like the popularity of classics like Curious George, and the Madeline series and Good Night Moon. And children, too—however changed they are in some respects these days—are still inherently the same, says Feiwel.
“There are some enduring truths about developmental stages and emotional stages, so whether you were 7 in 1953 or in 2003, there are probably things that continue to be very similar,” she observes.
But how does a publisher keep up with the inevitable shifts in children’s tastes? Feiwel says she does it by “staying in touch” with kids— through book clubs in classrooms and at book fairs, for example.
“And by being open to change,” she adds. “When Captain Underpants first came out, lots of parents thought it was rude, disrespectful and just plain silly. But it has become a huge best seller.”
There are also the elements of luck and timing. “Success is not necessarily something you train for in my field,” she says. “You have to find your way. But it’s what Sarah Lawrence prepares you for and what the College is so good at—giving you confidence and self-esteem and independence so you do find your own way. You learn not to just follow the traditional path.”
The Curtis Benjamin Award, first given in 1975, now annually recognizes a living publisher in the U.S. who has demonstrated exceptional creativity and innovation in publishing. Feiwel is only the third woman to receive the honor.