Richard Robinson, longtime Scholastic CEO, dead at 84

NEW YORK (AP) — Richard Robinson, who as the longtime head of Scholastic Inc. shaped the reading habits of millions of young readers through such bestsellers as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels and through a wide range of educational materials, reading clubs and book fairs, has died. He was 84.

The children’s publishing giant announced that Robinson died Saturday, but did not immediately provide a cause. He had been in excellent health, according to the publisher.

“We are deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Dick Robinson,” Scholastic’s board of directors said in a statement. “Dick was a true visionary in the world of children’s books and an unrelenting advocate for children’s literacy and education with a remarkable passion his entire life.”

Under his leadership, Scholastic became the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and has long said it distributes 1 out of every 3 children’s book in the U.S. The publicly traded company’s estimated net worth is around $1.2 billion, down from over $1.6 billion in 2016 but well above a low of under $800 million during last year’s pandemic.

Besides the “Potter” books, Scholastic also publishes such popular series as Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” and Norman Bridwell’s “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” Scholastic is otherwise a classroom fixture through its clubs, newsletters and other programs, including a partnership with novelist James Patterson. Participants in Scholastic’s annual Art & Writing Awards for students have included Robert Redford, Stephen King and Lena Dunham.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden tweeted Sunday that “Robinson was a giant and a legend in children’s literature” and cited his “lasting legacy” as a supporter of libraries and reading.

Robinson’s survivors include two sons he had with Helen Benham, from whom he is now divorced.

A Pittsburgh native and graduate of Harvard College, he was the son of Maurice R. Robinson, who founded Scholastic as a classroom magazine in 1920. The younger Robinson worked as a high school English teacher and a bricklayer, among other jobs, before joining Scholastic as an associate magazine editor in 1962.

“I was going to be a teacher and a writer — joining Scholastic was never a consideration, and my father knew that,” he told chief executive.net in 1997.

He rose to president in 1974, CEO in 1975 and board chair in 1982, the year of his father’s death, and vastly transformed the company. Robinson’s time at Scholastic was marked by global expansion into the book and education markets, and into television programming through “Clifford,” “The Magic School Bus” and other series. He also endured financial ups and downs, even with the historic success of “Harry Potter,” and occasional battles with censors who objected to books like “Potter,” “Captain Underpants” and Alex Gino’s “George” as inappropriate for younger readers. Scholastic books often were in the annual list of “challenged books” that is compiled by the American Library Association.

“We strongly believe our books and magazines need to address tough topics that are relevant, even if we get backlash or boycotted,” Robinson told The Associated Press in 2020.

Robinson presided over historic changes in the business and culture, whether the rise of digital media or the increased emphasis on diversity and scrutiny of the past. In 2016, Scholastic pulled “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” a picture story about one of Washington’s slaves, after widespread allegations that the book presented a benign portrait of enslavement. This spring, Pilkey agreed to withdraw “The Adventures of Ook and Gluk” because of what he called “harmful racial stereotypes.”

Speaking to the AP last year, Robinson said that Scholastic aimed to educate readers in an even-handed way.

“We are dealing with issues like global warming, racial inequality in a way that doesn’t polarize the issue but gives points of views on both sides and is a balanced neutral position but not in a sense of being bland,” he said. “Here are the arguments on the other. Here is what people are saying. Here are questions you can ask to formulate your own view.”

Robinson is a former chair of the industry trade group the Association of American Publishers and a member of the Association of Educational Publishers Hall of Fame. In 2017, Robinson received an honorary National Book Award for his contributions to the literary community. Two years later, he was cited by PEN America for his contributions to free expression.

“Working with you and the team at Scholastic on Harry Potter has been one of the most significant and meaningful partnerships in my life,” Rowling, the British author for whom Scholastic served as the U.S. publisher of her Potter books, said in a 2019 statement provided for the PEN award. “A unique relationship exists between authors and the publishers who have supported them — and you, Dick, have supported me and my work in countless, indescribable ways.”

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