Marni Hodgkin: Editor known for her integrity and her bestsellers, who helped to transform the world of children’s books in the 1960s and 70s

'Aware  of the power of reading on children’s minds,  she turned down Roald Dahl twice'

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The Independent Online

There have always been books for children, but the profession of children’s book editor is still relatively new. Marni Hodgkin, who has died aged 97, may not have been the first (that was Grace Hogarth) – but she was unusual  in following the profession on both sides of  the Atlantic.

She was born Marion de Kay Rous in New York, where her mother had worked for the Century Company, publishers of the St Nicholas Magazine, and her grandmother knew Frances Hodgson Burnett. The infant Marion was taken to see her, to be told that dolls came alive when the doll’s house doors were shut: “reason tottered”, briefly. Taught by her mother, she became an omnivorous reader, and after school and graduation from Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania (where she changed Marion to Marni), she decided that she wanted to be a children’s book editor or writer.

She wrote 19 letters to publishers, one of them Viking Press, where May Massee was queen of the children’s list, famous for publishing The Story of Ferdinand, a bestseller then and since, and Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline series. Massee took her on, and over the next six years taught her the trade: how to edit, read proofs, design a page or advertisements – and above all, how to choose artists and see their work properly reproduced. “We routinely won either the Newbery or the Caldecott medal [for children’s books] and May always said, ‘We should have won both.’” All this came to the fore later, when she had come to England.

In 1960, urged on by Hogarth (“English children’s books need you, Marni...”), she joined the publishing company Rupert Hart-Davis. She found a small but not inconsiderable children’s list, including Patrick O’Brian’s The Golden Ocean, forerunner of the Master and Commander series, and proceeded to add to it. She started with a classic, Mrs CV Jamison’s Lady Jane, re-illustrated by Robin Jacques, adding Claire Rayner’s What Happens in Hospital and Shilling a Pound Pears and Julia Rhys’s The Tinsel November, illustrated by Carol Barker.

In 1966, after Rupert Hart-Davis had been taken over, Marni Hodgkin moved to Macmillan, where her list grew and prospered. She had an outstanding success with Jill Paton Walsh’s Fireweed (1969), following it with Diana Wynne-Jones’s Wilkins’ Tooth (1973), Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners, which won the Carnegie Medal in 1975, and Eva Ibbotson’s Which Witch? (1979).

Among her picture-book successes were Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Green Children (1969) and the ever-popular Church Mouse series by Graham Oakley, an old friend from her Hart-Davis days. She retired in 1978, leaving a reputation not just for choosing or making best-sellers, but for principle. She knew the power of reading on children’s minds, and determined to give them what she thought the best; forbidden Doctor Dolittle in youth, she turned down Roald Dahl twice.

This career might have filled her life, but publishing was only part of it. She was also the daughter and wife of two winners of the Nobel Prize for Physiology. Alan Hodgkin won it in 1963 for research into the ionic mechanisms in the nerve cell membrane, and his father-in-law, Peyton Rous, in 1966 (40 years after nomination) for discovering that cancer could be transmitted by a virus.

In 1937, Hodgkin got a fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where Rous carried out his research. Invited by him, Alan met Marni, and they went to the theatre together. They met again on holiday in Connemara, where he proposed to her – but she turned him down. In 1939 she won a Yale Henry Fellowship (the first woman to do so), which raised his hopes; but war supervened. She stayed in New York, and his research was diverted from frog’s nerves to radar.

They continued to write to each other until 1944, when Alan was posted to the MIT Radiation Laboratory. Landing in New York in February, he went straight to her apartment and “spent the rest of the day in a long, delightful conversation”. All barriers down, they decided to get married as soon as possible, did so, and then had to cross the Atlantic in separate convoys.

After the end of the Second World War, Alan had to rebuild his former research, and Marni to build a new life in austere Cambridge, made more so by post-war shortages. Their family grew, and so did the scope and fame of Alan’s research. Marni wrote two detective stories, Student Body (1950) and Dead Indeed (1955). Once, on a visit to New York, she returned to her old desk at Viking, almost unnoticed by her former colleagues. The Nobel Prize celebrations made for a brief, exotic change.

This routine was broken when Alan became president of the Royal Society in 1970, and then, in 1978, Master of Trinity College. There, Marni and he found new outlets for their natural hospitality, taking special pride in the opening of the college to women undergraduates.

Alan retired in 1984, and the couple moved to a house in the middle of Cambridge. His health began to give way, and a failed operation on his spine left him unable to walk, and eventually paralysed. Marni looked after him tenderly until his death in 1998.

Her life thereafter lost no vitality. Reading, travelling, entertaining, watching children and grandchildren grow, filled her days. Her career was celebrated in 1997 by a book of tributes from all her publishing friends, devised by Di Denney, who was to her as she had been to May Massee. All her friends will remember her warmth, her wit, her voice with only a trace of American intonation, her affection for everyone she knew – and her unceasing interest in all around her.

Marni Hodgkin (née Marion de Kay Rous), book editor: born New York 28 November 1917; married Alan Hodgkin 31 March 1944 (three daughters, one son); died Cambridge 11 March 2015.