Dean Robbins transforms complex adult biographies into accessible and fun books for children

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It could easily be mistaken for overnight success or a sudden career change, but it’s really just the latest chapter in a story that began 20 years ago.
Photo by Ann Shaffer

It could easily be mistaken for overnight success or a sudden career change: Longtime Madison journalist and former Isthmus editor Dean Robbins has published four children’s books in the past year . But this is really just the latest chapter in a story that began 20 years ago – a story that has hardly been written at all.

“I’ve always had a pantheon of heroes since I was little, and I never got out of it,” Robbins says of people like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong – historical figures he had pictures of on his back. wall, yesterday and today. When Robbins became a father, he began telling his son “heartbreaking stories of those incredible lives”. Then he started writing them. In the mid-2000s, he wrote a manuscript on Ruth and sent it to Harcourt. The editor accepted it immediately, then asked for more. Robbins quickly wrote manuscripts on Robinson and Armstrong – Harcourt picked them both up. “I had fantasies of my son and his boyfriends coming to see me read at Borders when these books came out,” Robbins says.

Then Houghton Mifflin acquired Harcourt and the publisher who had championed his books disappeared, leaving the titles “orphaned” before they could be published. Robbins dusted himself off, got an agent, and tried, unsuccessfully, for another seven years to sell a book. Her son has grown up. Borders closed. “So many years have passed and I thought, ‘Am I crazy to keep trying to do this?’ “says Robbins. “One of my favorite Babe Ruth quotes is, ‘It’s very hard to beat someone who never gives up.’ ”

Finally, in 2013, Robbins’ agent sold his first children’s book to Scholastic: “Two Friends,” a story that depicts the actual moment Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass got together for tea and a chat. Robbins has now published eight children’s books, including 2021-22’s “You Are a Star, Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” “Thank You, Dr. Salk!” “¡Mambo Mucho Mambo!” and “The fastest girl in the world!” All four are with different editors and feature different illustrators, and they continue to translate complex adult biographies and themes into accessible, dramatic, and fun books for children. Robbins was finally able to fulfill her dream of reading aloud to children with classroom and bookstore readings – until the pandemic. Most of Robbins’ school appearances in 2021 have gone virtual. Ongoing supply chain issues have also pushed the release of his fourth title into 2022. But Robbins has no shortage of ideas or passion he can draw on to write about his heroes – he’s released three more. titles over the next two years and says there are “probably hundreds” of additional manuscripts on his hard drive – and he’s certainly no stranger to writing through challenges.

“One of the reasons I didn’t quit was because it was so fun to write the stories,” says Robbins, who has never stopped working in journalism and is currently co-editor. from On Wisconsin magazine. “I have such a strong feeling about these people that I’m writing about, it’s kind of like a way to get closer to them, do some research, and then write the story and try to bring them to life on the page in a way that might interest or inspire someone else.

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