Ann McGovern, a globe-trotting, scuba-diving children’s book author who delved into biography, nature and folklore during a prolific career that produced a number of perennial favorites, died Saturday in New York. She was 85.
The cause was cancer, said her son, Peter A. McGovern.
With more than 50 children’s titles to her credit, McGovern was known to generations of young readers for her bestselling “Stone Soup,” based on a fable about strangers tricked into sharing food. First published in 1968, it was reprinted in 1986 with illustrations by Winslow Pinney Pels and has sold millions of copies.
She also wrote “Too Much Noise,” about a farmer’s search for serenity in an overcrowded house. It has been in print since 1967 and won a Caldecott Medal for illustrator Simms Taback.
Her nonfiction reflected a deep interest in the natural world as well as “exciting children to be curious about the adventure of life and learning,” said Dick Robinson, chairman and president of Scholastic Inc., where McGovern was an editor for many years.
Her spirit of adventure led her to ride camels in Mongolia, swim with eels in Egypt and dive in the Red Sea with Eugenie Clark, the renowned underwater scientist who died in February. She wrote books with and about Clark, including “Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark,” published in 1978.
Her personal life was also a source of inspiration. For seven years, McGovern lived in a former home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. A little more than 8 feet wide, it was thought to be the narrowest house in New York. Her 1980 book “Mr. Skinner’s Skinny House” was the product of imagining what kinds of people could not adapt to such cramped quarters, such as an actor who plays Pinocchio.
Ann Weinberger McGovern was born in New York on May 25, 1930. Her father, Arthur, who was a bacteriologist, died when she was 5. Her mother, Kate, was a teacher who sent Ann and her sister Janet to live with their grandparents.
Her mother took them back two years later, but she “never smiled and hardly talked to us,” McGovern recalled in an autobiographical sketch for her website. She developed a stutter, which increased her sense of isolation. “My teachers never called on me because they saw how hard it was for me to speak,” she wrote.
To ease her loneliness, McGovern read fairy tales and adventure stories. In school, she and a friend started a magazine for which she wrote poems and stories. She continued to develop as a writer in high school but struggled academically. She went on to the University of New Mexico, where her best grade was in horseback riding.
She dropped out of college after one year to marry Hugh McGovern, an English teacher. She was 20 when their son Peter was born and 22 when the marriage ended.
As a divorced single mother, she moved back to New York with her toddler and found work with the publisher of the Little Golden Books children’s series. Her job was tedious — stamping the date on manuscript pages before they were sent to the printer.
Her break came when she overheard another employee saying that the company needed a book on Roy Rogers. McGovern stayed up all night to draft a story about the cowboy star. Pronounced “not too terrible” by an editor, “Roy Rogers and the Mountain Lion” became the first of several Little Golden Books she wrote while in her 20s.
McGovern later worked at Random House, where she screened manuscripts in the children’s book department.
At Scholastic, where she worked in the 1960s, she created the SeeSaw book club for beginning readers.
She did not lose her stutter until she married Martin Scheiner, an inventor of medical electronics, in 1970. They were married for 22 years, until his death in 1992.
“She said he gave her so much confidence she didn’t have to stutter,” her son Peter said. Scheiner also taught her to scuba dive.
McGovern’s other survivors are children Charles A. Scheiner, Ann C. Scheiner and James B. Scheiner; three grandchildren; and her companion, Ralph Greenberg.