Obituary: Bernette Ford
Boxer Books publisher David Bennett writes:
About 30 years ago, while on a sales trip to New York, I met Bernette Ford. I had no idea then that she would become my best buddy and our families would grow so close.
Bernette, a successful New York editor, author and publisher, started out in publishing in 1972, building an impressive CV via Random House, Golden Books and founding Cartwheel Books at Scholastic. A champion of children’s books by people of colour, Bernette co-authored Bright Eyes, Brown Skin in 1990, illustrated by her husband, George Ford. It is such a simple, playful, heartfelt and gentle text featuring a family of colour – the kind of book difficult to find just a few years earlier. She made significant cracks in the glass ceiling and let the light in for young creatives of colour.
When I met Bernette, we both knew there was a natural affinity. Bernette was the daughter of an African-American actress and jazz singer and a Jewish factory-working father. This is 1950s America. No wonder, then, she saw differences as positive energy and she put that energy to work. I am the son of an English, Irish (with a smidgeon of Italian) white, working class family. Lives lived thousands of miles apart, so different yet so similar. I’m known as the energetic, loud, expressive, talkative type and a bit of a hot head. Bernette, the calm, soft-spoken, clear, intellectual, empathetic and about as cool as they come type. And we had a ball for 30 years discussing and laughing at those differences, our backgrounds empowering who we are.
For a time, on my first trips to New York, I stayed at wonderful old-school hotels in Manhattan. Then one day, Bernette asked why I was paying all that money when she had a big old-school house in Brooklyn. One dinner there and that is where I stayed for almost every visit after. I had my own floor! Bernette, George and I talked for ages around the kitchen table about work, families, backgrounds, theatre, music, politics, the differences and similarities between America and Great Britain and their language, civil rights, class, publishing, creativity and creatives.
We worked incredibly well together producing the most successful books I ever published. It was always a joy to see her at Bologna for the children’s book fair. At one dinner, where I was hosting about a dozen publishers, Bernette could see I was struggling with the bill. She asked if I needed some cash. “No,” I replied, “I need a calculator – how do I work out a tip in lira with so many noughts?” She was a great tipper and had a system! Euros and mobiles have replaced all that stress – but I love that she offered me cash, straight up.
Bernette could tell you about every exhibition, concert, play, eatery and show in New York (and we attended so many). She was always up to speed on global politics, having read the papers (hard copies) every morning at 5 a.m. with her two cups of coffee.
Bernette was someone who listened, and I mean really listened. Her response was always measured, honest and delivered with such remarkable calm and empathy. That’s a skill I always wanted to learn – but it is not a skill and not something you can learn. It is who you are. As many tributes attest, she poured confidence and light on you to let your talent bloom. She was focused and before you knew it, she was making you stronger.
In the 90s, I published a series of books by Ken Wilson-Max about vehicles with ingenious, moving parts. I was getting a so-so response from the world. She said, “Add a little die-cut shape, any shape will do, to the corner of the case so that people will know it is not just a picture book.” I did, and the world responded with a first print run of more than half a million copies.
You know those people who are unflappable? Well, this was Bernette. Like all of us, she had her share of ups and downs but never a drama – approaching each situation seemingly calm and poised. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., “the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.”
When she first had cancer 10 years ago, she went through the treatment like a commuter does the train every day. No big deal, she would say – just have to get on with it. I know that part of that was bravado – but it is humbling to us mortals.
The New York Times recently quoted Bernette when she spoke at a conference in 2014: “All children, Black and white and brown and yellow and red, need to see themselves and their lives reflected in the books they read. Just as white children will feel valued by seeing themselves illustrated in children’s books, so Black children will feel as if they are not valued when they don’t see images of themselves in children’s books – and white children will feel that children of colour have no value.”
Bernette was diagnosed with cancer again in July 2020. Throughout her illness, I was unable to visit her because of the pandemic travel restrictions. While we messaged almost every day and had wonderful, long, regular video calls, and while I am grateful for the tech, there really is no substitute for a hug – two metres is better than three thousand miles. My sympathy goes out to all those who have lost loved ones and who could not or cannot be with them. It is a deeply saddening experience. Loss is such a short word and yet so utterly devastating.
Bernette leaves behind an amazing legacy and a torch now being carried by a new generation. Thank you, Bernette. I will miss you, as will so many, but your light shines on just as bright.
Photograph courtesy of Boxer Books