Founding art director of Walker Books who oversaw some of the company’s great children’s classics including We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
From The Guardian obituary by Patrick Benson.
Amelia Edwards, who has died aged 77, was the art director of Walker Books and one of the most important influences on children’s book publishing in the 20th century. Working with some of the best illustrators and writers of the age, she built a list of classic titles that shaped the reading experience of generations of children.
In 1978 the entrepreneurial Sebastian Walker invited her to join him as the first employee of his fledgling company, Walker Books. It rapidly became Britain’s leading independent children’s publisher.
Amelia’s design talent came at a particular moment in the history of children’s books, when the advent of cheap four-colour printing made possible new and adventurous forms of publishing. Colour separation was becoming increasingly sophisticated, as was the software used in book production. She quickly mastered the new technologies, but was always acutely sensitive to the deep traditions of storytelling. She knew how to read a text and bring out the pacing in a narrative better than anyone. She had only one aim – to get the story to tell itself properly to a child.
Amelia and Sebastian shared the belief that the most important people in publishing are the authors and artists who create the books. She was a champion of the right of illustrators to be paid properly and given the best possible contracts. This attracted many distinguished illustrators to the company; what made them stay was the presence of a designer who was their equal and understood their work.
The artist Helen Oxenbury, who worked with her for more than 20 years, said: “She will fight tooth and nail to achieve what she considers to be the perfect book for each author/illustrator. Nothing is too much trouble. No amount of hours are too long in the struggle to get a detail exactly right. No paper is too expensive if she has decided that is what the book demands. One is never told, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.’ She is quite simply the best and has done more for the way people regard children’s books than anyone I know.”
Millions of children and adults have received profound pleasure from the classic books Amelia helped create, such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Farmer Duck, Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear?, The Mousehole Cat, Five Minutes’ Peace, Guess How Much I Love You, Owl Babies, Here Comes Mother Goose, I Saw Esau, and editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels. She is the only art director to have won the Eleanor Farjeon award for distinguished services to children’s books (in 2001).
She was born Amelia Santaromita in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, John, worked for a transport company while her mother, Marie, was a dressmaker. Amelia studied art at a local community college before starting her career as a designer for the American Book Company. In the late 1960s, on a holiday in London, she met her future husband, Danny Edwards, and decided to stay. She got a job with the publisher Marshall Cavendish, where she met Walker.
Amelia encouraged generations of illustrators, including Nicola Bayley, Jill Murphy, Anita Jeram, Chris Riddell, Charlotte Voake, Sue Heap, Barbara Firth, Jill Barton, Kate McEwen, Angela Barrett and me. She nurtured our careers and guided us with wit, skill and imagination.
When I was illustrating Owl Babies, for instance, she suggested a revolutionary technique that involved first drawing the images in black ink on white paper, then painting in a solid black area on the left-hand side out of which the text would be reversed. The drawings were then transferred on to clear acetate, and I painted the colour on a new sheet of paper, very loosely with watercolours.
The effect was twofold. It made the production of foreign language editions very straightforward, and it enabled the printer to achieve a really rich, lustrous black finish as the black plate was not affected by an overlay of colour. The book was first published in 1992 and it still looks as bright and bold today as it did 25 years ago.
Over the years Amelia assembled a talented team of young designers. She was a hard taskmaster but inclusive and generous with praise. Never patronising and always modest about her own skills, she was a generous mentor – it is no accident that so many leading children’s book publishers have someone on their design team who worked under Amelia.
When she retired in 2001 to live in the country with Danny, Amelia continued to offer advice to artists and former colleagues. She never lost her passion for design and her beautiful house and garden demonstrated that she never lost her touch.
Though she would never have spoken at a conference, she had no equal as a designer, teacher and confidante. She allowed others to do their best – and sometimes to find in themselves a best they did not realise was possible. Her influence is immeasurable.
Danny predeceased her by a day.
Amelia Edwards, art director, born 28 March 1940; died 22 November 2017