Scholastic’s Richard Robinson, Dead at 84, a Leader in Children’s Books

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Calling reading a ‘civil right,’ Richard Robinson joined Scholastic in 1964 and led the company for almost 50 years.

Scholastic president and CEO Richard Robinson speaks at a 2012 conference produced by Publishing Perspectives in cooperation with Frankfurt Academy. Image: Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Scholastic’s Board: ‘A True Visionary’
Sad news on Sunday (June 6), as Scholastic has announced the death on Saturday (June 5) of Richard Robinson. He was 84.

In its media messaging, the publishing house says that Robinson’s death was unexpected and that he had been “had been in excellent health and had been overseeing Scholastic’s long-term strategic direction and day-to-day operations for the better part of five decades.”

The company’s announcement includes a statement from the board of directors, which reads, ““We are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Dick Robinson.

“Dick was a true visionary in the world of children’s books and an unrelenting advocate for children’s literacy and education with a remarkable passion his entire life.

“The company’s directors and employees, as well as the many educators, parents and students whose lives he touched, mourn his loss.”

Juergen Boos

And in a statement from Frankfurter Buchmesse, president and CEO Juergen Boos says, “I was very sad to learn that Dick Robinson passed away unexpectedly.

“He was a true leader in our industry, and he was very passionate about publishing books that inspire, educate, and guide generations of children.

“As a member of Frankfurter Buchmesse’s advisory board since its formation in 2005, Dick took a deep interest in the fair and generously shared his expertise. Over the years, we became friends. I admired his visionary leadership, and my thoughts are with his family and friends.”

Maria A. Pallante

Maria A. Palante, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), also has issued a statement, saying, “We are devastated by the sudden passing of Scholastic chairman and CEO Dick Robinson.

“He was an extraordinary leader in children’s publishing throughout his long career, and a generous mentor and colleague to generations of professionals, not only in children’s books but across the entire publishing industry.

“Dick believed deeply in the power of publishing to inspire students and drive progress.  A former chairman of the AAP’s board of directors, he was the longest-serving director in the organization’s history, serving on the board with dedication for 32 years from 1989 until his untimely death. We send our heartfelt condolences to Dick’s family, friends, and everyone in the Scholastic community.”

Brian Napack

Brian Napack, the president and CEO of Wiley who’s serving as AAP’s current board chair, says, “Dick Robinson was major force in publishing, and he’ll be missed dearly.

“He lived his mission to inspire and educate through literature, and to improve the world with empathy and understanding.

“The wealth of wonderful literature he published and the enduring relationships he nurtured through his career ensure a lasting legacy that teaches us to dream big, do good work, and advocate for all people.”

Robinson is survived by his two sons, Reece and Ben, from his marriage to Helen Benham.

At Scholastic, a contingency plan was in place, the company says, calling for James Barge, Scholastic’s lead independent director, to handle operations for continuity. In this, Barge is to work with Iole Lucchese, executive vice-president and chief strategy officer; Andrew S. Hedden, executive vice-president and general counsel and secretary; and Kenneth Cleary, chief financial officer.

“The company’s class-A shareholders and the company’s board of directors will be meeting independently,” Scholastic’s news release says, “to determine the best course for the company’s direction, including the appointment of an interim operating head.” Scholastic is a publicly traded company with a reported net worth of some US$1.2 billion.

Speaking at a November 2012 conference on children’s books produced by Publishing Perspectives in cooperation with Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Frankfurt Academy program at Scholastic’s offices, Robinson told the audience that a “great book” for young readers may have these five characteristics.

  • It contains a simple and original idea presented with clarity and great power
  • It connects with the reader, asserting its world directly into the reader’s mind
  • It makes the world seem larger and more interesting
  • It’s written with humor and a light touch
  • It’s a realization of a complete but very different world

In his keynote comments at the conference, Robinson talked of the evolution of the children’s book sector and how in the middle of the 20th century, “the gatekeepers” of children’s books were primarily librarians and schoolteachers. “It wasn’t a mass business until, probably, the ’60s and ’70s.”

Here’s Robinson in his complete keynote address in the Children’s Publishing Conference 2012:

To ‘Reach Children From Different Backgrounds’

Five years later, the National Book Foundation named Robinson its Literarian Award laureate for its 68th annual National Book Awards program, putting him into company with other winners of that lifetime achievement honor including Maya Angelou, James Patterson, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Dave Eggers, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

David Steinberger

National Book Foundation board chair David Steinberger, in a statement made to Publishing Perspectives on the news of Robinson’s death, says, “All of us at the National Book Foundation are deeply saddened by the news of Dick Robinson’s death.

“Dick was an incredible champion for books for young readers and for authors, and a treasured member of our literary community. Millions of children were introduced to the joys of reading and encouraged to become lifelong readers as a result of his work.

“We were proud to celebrate his contributions with the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community in 2017, and our deepest condolences go to his family and the team at Scholastic.”

In his acceptance speech in November 2017 at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City, Robinson referred to the company’s original  high-school magazine on literature and “current social issues” as “still our DNA” then almost a century after the company’s founding.

He told the crowd, to sympathetic laughter, “I always wanted to receive a prize for a novel and I wrote several of them. Unpublished.”

The question “how could I get more kids to read?” became a “personal challenge to me,” he said. And he pointed out that “Research shows that if children choose and own their books, they’re much more likely to read and finish them.”

Scholastic’s mission, “then as now,” he said, “is to engage all children in reading, and be sure that our books and magazines are easily accessible in subject matter, in reading level, in price, and–above all–in student interest.

“I always wanted to receive a prize for a novel and I wrote several of them. Unpublished.”Richard Robinson, National Book Awards, 2017

“Through the years, we worked hard to find books and topics that would reach children from different backgrounds. And I’ve personally been working on what is now called ‘diverse books’ for more than 50 years.

“Today, we’re keenly aware that the children in US schools are more economically diverse than ever before. Fifty percent of the children are of color. So more effort needs to be made to find a wide range of experiences in order to reach our goal of reading for all.”

One thing that was interesting that night as Robinson spoke was his reference to the National Book Foundation “choosing Scholastic” for the honor, deftly deflecting the honor from himself–and at the same time reflecting the closeness between the man and the company he led.

And in what was almost an aside, he quickly listed some of the signature brands put on the map by Scholastic over the years, mentioning book series “as various as ‘Goosebumps,’ ‘Captain Underpants,’ ‘Magic School Bus,’ and even ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘The Hunger Games’—all titles that are labeled children’s books—have topped the all-time bestseller lists for all books, children’s and adult, and will certainly live for generations.”

By that autumn speech in 2017, Robinson could tell the National Book Awards audience that Scholastic in 50 years had sold “more than 13 billion copies of more than 100,000 titles.”

We’ll embed the video of Robinson’s Literarian Award comments at the end of this article.

‘Reading Is a Civil Right’

Scholastic was founded in October 1920 by Maurice R. Robinson, “Robbie,” Richard Robinson’s father.

The younger Robinson, born in Pittsburgh, was a Harvard graduate, and studied at Oxford University’s St. Catherine’s College, at Cambridge, and at Columbia’s Teachers College. Having been a teacher of English in Evanston, Illinois, he started working with the Scholastic in 1964 as the assistant editor of Literary Cavalcade and within a decade had become publisher of Scholastic’s school division.

He was elected president of Scholastic in 1974 and CEO in 1975, and chair of the board in 1982.

“Through this reading revolution we can and must provide schools with far greater resources … Reading is a civil right.”Richard Robinson, PEN America Literary Gala, 2019

Robinson presided over the company’s expansion into Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and parts of Asia, and saw the company’s exports going to 165 countries. Among honors he received are the Partners for Children Award and the Corporate Leadership Award from Save the Children; R.R. Bowker’s 1998 Literary Market Place Publisher of the Year; Publishers Weekly’s Publishing Innovator of the Year in 2011; and the Cleveland E. Dodge Medal for Distinguished Service to Education from Teachers College at Columbia University.

He served as chairman of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) from 1996 to 1998; was made an honorary member of the Order of Australia for service to the promotion of children’s literature; and was named by Ernst & Young an “entrepreneur of the year.”

In much of today’s coverage, of course, mainstream news media are referring to Robinson as “Scholastic’s publisher of Harry Potter.” But as Hillel Italie points out in an obituary this evening for the Associated Press, Scholastic “has long said it distributes one out of every three children’s books in the United States.”

Italie quotes Robinson telling the AP in a 2020 interview, “We are dealing with issues like global warming, racial inequality in a way that doesn’t polarize the issue but gives points of views on both sides and is a balanced neutral position but not in a sense of being bland.”

Rowling: ‘Incredibly Grateful’

Richard Robinson accepts the award of Publisher Honoree at the PEN America 2019 Literary Gala. Image: PEN America

Robinson was named PEN America’s Publisher Honoree in 2019, and was introduced at that event by the actor Alec Baldwin. In Baldwin’s remarks, he praised Robinson as someone who “exemplifies PEN America’s mission—a mission that resonates deeply with me personally, as we continue to fight for a free press and to acknowledge the importance of freedom of thought and creative expression.”

Robinson, Baldwin said, “is someone who understands the importance of language—how much depends on our ability to express our ideas, to access books that can change us and challenge us. Under his leadership, Scholastic has become not just the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books, but also an organization that helps schools, teachers, and parents work together to make great stories accessible and relevant to millions of young people.”

And JK Rowling sent a message to be read on that occasion, saying, “You’ve centered your life and your business around the fundamental belief that every individual child should be enabled to develop their potential to the fullest possible extent, and that a key part of that is the ability to read, and to discover other worlds through stories.

“I’m just one of the people who is incredibly grateful to you for having made this your mission.”

Below is the video of Robinson’s acceptance speech for the Literarian Award in November 2017 at the National Book Awards program at Cipriani Wall Street. Former president Bill Clinton made the presentation before Robinson spoke.

More from Publishing Perspectives on Scholastic is here, more on the National Book Awards is here, more on PEN America is here, and more on children’s books is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.