On Saturday, my former boss, Dick Robinson, died, unexpectedly. He had run Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, educational publishing, school book club and school book fair company, for five decades, and I worked for him when I ran Scholastic in the UK. During his tenure – he inherited the running of the business from its first CEO and chairman, his father Maurice (“Robbie”) – the business grew and diversified, with sales of $1.5 billion dollars even in a pandemic year that made elements of its business challenging or impossible. There’s no-one else who has ever been more powerful, and wielded that power more benevolently, in the world of children’s books.
Dick was many things. He was a visionary, combining strong business sense and prudence with an unfailing commitment to the idea of children’s literacy, particularly that kind of joyful literacy achieved through children’s reading for pleasure. Making reading accessible to children was his life’s work, and he was particularly engaged with making books accessible to children whose access was challenged by opportunity, geography or money, whether through giving books to schools running the book clubs and fairs, through publishing extraordinary books that shape children’s imaginations like Harry Potter, Captain Underpants and The Hunger Games, or through innovative digital literacy catch-up programmes. If there is, within the children’s book business, a spectrum between those of us who are most interested in literature and those of us who are most interested in literacy, I’d say that Dick was firmly on the literacy side of that spectrum: he was not a snob about reading, minding much less about what children were reading than that they were reading. He believed that literacy and reading can and does change lives. Dick was open-minded and fiercely intelligent: conversation with him was dazzling because he knew so much about so much, and he was always willing to consider new ideas, new projects, new ways of doing things. Dick was international in his outlook: after his studies as a young man in the UK, and his engagement with Scholastic’s work throughout the world, he was knowledgeable and interested about different places and different cultures: I think it would be fair to say that not every American CEO, given the power and scale of that country, shares a similarly broad perspective. Dick was quiet and thoughtful: though he could be an inspiring speaker, particularly to an audience of teachers (he loved teachers!), he was perhaps most engaged and engaging in smaller groups and in conversation with individuals. I remember many of the things he said to me: about business, about schools and libraries, about books and about people. He was a shrewd judge of people, and I know that he had an unerring sense of my own weaknesses as well as strengths. And, to me, he was unfailingly kind and encouraging, and extraordinarily generous in his recognition of what Nosy Crow has achieved.
Fourteen years ago, I was at a dinner held in honour of his seventieth birthday, and as a joke, I quickly wrote a rhyme for him that everyone could join in with. Here are a couple of verses: doggerel, perhaps, but also a joke of the most serious and heartfelt kind:
“Integrity and grit combined
With vision and incisive mind.
Determined, honest, wise and kind:
So which boss stands out from the crowd?
Who of Scholastic makes us proud?
Who is it? Let us shout it loud!
I worked with him for five formative, challenging, exciting years. He made me laugh. He made me cry. He made me furious. He made me work hard. He made me be honest with him. He made me believe in him and in his vision. I feel privileged to have worked with him and to have shared time with him since. He is a loss to me, certainly, but he is an immeasurable loss to the world of children’s books.