Obituary: Bernette Ford
Author, editor, and publisher Bernette Ford, a great champion of children’s books by people of color, and highly regarded for her expertise in the mass market arena, died of cancer on June 20. She was 70.
Ford was born in New York City on June 30, 1950. In a 2010 interview with the Brown Bookshelf, she recalled an early childhood in which books gave her solace and escape as she dealt with feelings of fear and loneliness in the face of her mother’s illness. She taught herself to read before kindergarten and by high school she said she entertained thoughts of becoming a writer.
Following her graduation from Connecticut College in 1972, Ford joined Random House’s children’s division as an “editorial assistant in training,” as it was termed, as part of the company’s “minorities recruitment program.” As Ford told the Horn Book in 2019, “I think they forgot after the first six months that I was Black,” noting that as the daughter of a Black mother and Jewish father, she was “very fair-skinned.” She stayed at Random House for seven years, working initially for editor-in-chief Walter Retan and associate publisher Ole Riesom, who, she told PW, in 1991, “taught me much about art and design.” In those early days Ford developed her editing skills and tastes, and embraced a mass-market publishing philosophy of “supplying a large audience of very young children with the best quality books at the lowest price.”
It was also during her first job that Ford met Valerie Flournoy, then an editorial assistant at Dial working with editor-in-chief Phyllis Fogelman on some books by illustrator Tom Feelings. Ford frequently credited Feelings with founding a workshop in New York City for the few people of color working in publishing in the mid-1970s. The group began meeting, eventually calling itself the Black Creators for Children, and Ford met her husband, illustrator George Ford, through their gatherings. The organization grew to be an influential force and was a launching pad for many Black authors and illustrators.
In 1979 Ford accompanied Retan from Random House to Western Publishing, where he was named publisher of Golden Books and she senior editor. Throughout her four years there, Ford rose to editorial director and tried to expand Golden’s offerings beyond licensed characters to include original low-priced picture books as well as board books and other formats.
By 1983 Ford moved on to Grosset & Dunlap, which had recently been acquired by Putnam and was the company’s first venture into mass-market publishing. She began as editor-in-chief and then became publisher during a six-year-stint where she introduced many successful novelty formats and substantially grew The Little Engine That Could property. In 1989 Ford was tapped to launch the mass-market imprint Cartwheel Books at Scholastic. She served as executive editor and director of special projects, a title that enabled her to also acquire picture books for Scholastic’s hardcover line and develop non-book items for the company’s book clubs, among other things. When she was setting up Cartwheel’s 1991 debut list, Ford explained her book-selection criteria to PW: “I try to do commercial books that are fun—things that really jump out and grab children. It’s important to hook them at a very young age; when children have an early relationship to books, we build lifetime readers.”
As she built her resume, Ford had been simultaneously gaining her footing as an author. She initially wrote some in-house texts on assignment as “B.G. Ford” for Random House and Western, titles that were illustrated by her husband George. Then, in 1990, Ford co-wrote the groundbreaking picture book Bright Eyes, Brown Skin with her friend Cheryl Willis Hudson, also illustrated by George Ford, for Just Us Books, the publishing house founded by Hudson and her husband Wade.
When Ford left Cartwheel in 2002, she also left behind the world of corporate publishing. Her next step was to found packaging and consulting firm Color-Bridge Books in January 2003. One of her first, and favorite, projects at her new company was producing the 24-book Just for You! series of African American early readers for Scholastic Teacher Resources, all of which were created by authors and illustrators of color, including Ford, who wrote the titles Hurry Up! and Don’t Hit Me! (2004).
Ford was encouraged to write the picture book First Snow, illustrated by Sebastian Braun (Holiday House, 2005), when London book packager David Bennett had sent her Braun’s sample artwork and asked if she would craft a story to accompany it. Bennett launched his publishing company Boxer Books in the U.K. in 2005 and in the U.S. the following year, with Ford working as U.S. consulting editor. He soon sent Ford more artwork seeking text and Boxer published Ford’s No More Diapers for Ducky! (2006) and several follow-ups illustrated by Sam Williams (Bennett’s author-illustrator pseudonym).
Bennett shared a remembrance of his colleague and friend: “As a Brit growing up in England, I dreamt about coming to America and being part of a family. Who knew that one day, on business in New York, I would meet my closest, dearest friend and my American family. We have been best buddies for 30 years. Her presence in all our lives was a gift and her passing is going to be very, very tough.
Bernette simply understood people, shining a light into people’s lives with her overwhelming sense of calm, sensitivity and gentleness, effortlessly combining her smart business brain with incredible creativity. She was loving, caring, kind, inspirational, empathetic, truthful, funny and such a great character.”
Grace Maccarone, executive editor at Holiday House, recalled working with Ford as an editor on her staff as well as an editor of her work. She recounted her memories of those days: “Bernette Ford was a publishing pioneer—the first African American publisher of children’s books at a major publisher. One of the luckiest days of my life was when Scholastic hired Bernette to create and launch a mass market imprint for young children, and assigned me and a few other editors to her staff. What fun and exciting times those were! Her publishing standards were high; under her direction were bestselling series such as I Spy, Clifford, and First Discovery Books, as well as award-winning individual books such as Shades of Black. And all this wonderful work was produced by a staff of women, most of us working mothers. Bernette managed us with understanding and with love, and we all became very close.
Over the past year, Bernette and I had been working together again as Holiday House is publishing her semi-autobiographical picture book, Uncle John’s City Garden [summer 2022]. Via phone calls and Google Meets, we had been engaged in our work and having some laughs despite her illness. And Bernette has taught me how to make succotash.”
And Ellie Berger, executive v-p and president of trade publishing at Scholastic, offered these words of tribute: “Bernette was a pioneer in building out the young novelty category with bright, engaging, and wonderful books. I have particularly fond memories of watching her in Bologna, as she inspired young packagers and connected with talented creators from around the world. Bernette will be missed, but she leaves an indelible mark on children’s books and the readers who love them.”
This article has been updated.