Bernette Ford, Champion of Diversity in Children’s Books, Dies At 70

bernette ford
Bernette Ford. (Courtesy Boxer Books)

Bernette Ford, a force in children’s publishing who grew up on Long Island and brought diversity to picture books, died of cancer on June 20 at her home in Brooklyn. She was 70.

The publishing executive and author was a champion of hiring more writers and illustrators of color and having racial minorities represented within the pages of picture books for young readers. She notably launched Scholastic’s Cartwheel imprint in 1991 and was among the first Black executives of a major children’s book publisher.

“Bernette was a pioneer in building out the young novelty category with bright, engaging, and wonderful books,” Ellie Berger, president of trade publishing at Scholastic, wrote in a tribute to Ford. “I have particularly fond memories of watching her in Bologna, as she inspired young packagers and connected with talented creators from around the world. Bernette will be missed, but she leaves an indelible mark on children’s books and the readers who love them.”

Ford grew up in Uniondale. According to a 2010 interview with Brown Bookshelf, Ford said she spent her childhood finding comfort in reading and taught herself to read before Kindergarten. By high school, she knew she wanted to be a writer.

She graduated from Connecticut College in 1972 and began her career as an editorial assistant at Random House, where she eventually rose to editorial director of the children’s book imprint, Golden Books. She then worked at Grosset & Dunlap, and at Scholastic beginning in 1989, according to Publishers Weekly.

By the ‘90s she began publishing her own books with various other publishers. She co-wrote the acclaimed picture book Bright Eyes, Brown Skin, which featured images of four Black children living their everyday lives, a rare concept for a children’s book at the time. It was published in 1990 and illustrated by Ford’s husband, George.

Some of Ford’s other titles include First Snow, Hurry Up! and Don’t Hit Me!

In 2003, a year after leaving Scholastic, Ford launched her own company, Color-Bridge Books. She will have a new children’s book, Uncle John’s City Garden, released posthumously in 2022.

In addition to her husband, Ford is survived by her daughter Olivia, sister Elizabeth Yarboro, brother Russell, and a granddaughter.

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