Amy Schwartz, who captured life as viewed by a child, dies at 68

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Amy Schwartz, who captured life as viewed by a child, dies at 68
The dozens of books for young readers that she wrote and illustrated had a knack for finding “the wondrous in the mundane.”

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Eleven years before the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Amy Schwartz envisioned a Send Your Daughter to Work in Your Place Day.

That is the plot of Schwartz’s first book for young children, “Bea and Mr. Jones,” or half of it; the other half of the story is that while Bea is filling in for her dad at the office, Mr. Jones, Bea’s father, spends the day as a kindergartner.

The book, written and illustrated by Schwartz and published in 1982 to good notices, hit the little-kid sweet spot and probably amused a fair number of parents too: Mr. Jones, a frustrated advertising executive, finds a renewed joie de vivre as an unusually bright kindergartner, and Bea becomes “president of toy sales” at the ad agency.

In July 1983, “Bea and Mr. Jones” enjoyed a fresh burst of attention when Madeline Kahn read it on the third episode of a new public television series aimed at young viewers, “Reading Rainbow.”

Schwartz was on her way in a career that would eventually include dozens of books for children, including “Things I Know How to Do,” scheduled to be published next month.

She died Feb. 26 at her home in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. She was 68. Her husband, Leonard S. Marcus, a historian of children’s books, said the cause was cardiovascular disease.

Schwartz was an artist by training and illustrated a number of children’s stories written by others, but when she first moved to New York in the late 1970s and was having no luck building a career as an illustrator, some editors suggested that it would help if she were presenting a completed book as part of her portfolio. “Bea and Mr. Jones” was one of the results.

Her books included several on the theme of “100 Things,” written in rhyme — “100 Things That Make Me Happy” (2014), “100 Things I Love to Do With You” (2017), “100 Things I Know How to Do” (2021). Among her most recent books was “13 Stories About Ayana” (2022), a follow-up of sorts to her “13 Stories About Harris” from two years before.

To fit 13 stories into a book for an age group with a notoriously short attention span required that some be decidedly spare. One story in the “Harris” book was just one sentence: “Harris was standing on his truck and he shouldn’t have been.” It was accompanied by two illustrations: of Harris on his toy truck, and of Harris in a heap beside it, crying, after it had tipped over.

“Schwartz clearly appreciates how children behold the wondrous in the mundane,” the New York Times reporter Dan Barry wrote of Schwartz’s “What James Likes Best” for The Times Book Review in 2003. “There are so many details of everyday life to notice, so many things to ponder, so many questions to ask. And Schwartz presents the everyday in an engaging way that challenges the child to notice, think — and participate.”

Marcus, who collaborated with Schwartz on two books, “Mother Goose’s Little Misfortunes” (1990) and “Oscar: The Big Adventure of a Little Sock Monkey” (2006), said his wife “often noticed things in a situation that had completely passed me by, and she usually saw straight through to the heart of any matter.”

“I was always a little bit in awe of her ability to do that,” he said in a statement. “Her books are like that, too: comical and heartfelt but most of all true.”

In a 2010 interview with the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Schwartz told a story about renting a car to take her 3-year-old son to the Storm King Art Center north of New York City to view its outdoor sculpture, including works by some of the world’s most prominent artists. What stuck in the boy’s head from the trip?

“What he fondly remembered long afterwards,” she said, “was the fact that silly old Mom had turned on the windshield wipers in the rental car, even though it wasn’t raining.”

The windshield-wiper moment ended up as a scene in “What James Likes Best.”

Amy Margaret Schwartz was born April 2, 1954, in San Diego. Her father, Henry, was a real estate investor and writer, and her mother, Eva (Herzberg) Schwartz, taught chemistry at a San Diego community college.

As a child, she loved to draw and read, so much so, she said in a biographical sketch on her website, that she developed the ability to read while walking home from school. She started college at Antioch, in Ohio, but earned her bachelor of fine arts in drawing in 1976 at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in the Bay Area.

Schwartz and Marcus married in 1990. In addition to her husband, she is survived by a son, Jacob, and three sisters, Joan Schwartz, Deborah Schwartz and Rebecca Schwartz.

“Amy was an acute observer of all the tiny details that together make up a child’s life,” Mary Cash, vice president and editor-in-chief at Holiday House, one of her publishers, said in a statement. “Her wonderful books celebrated, laughed at, and offered so much insight into that existence.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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