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Ann McGovern, 85; wrote ‘Stone Soup,’ other children’s books

Ann McGovern in 1987. She wrote more than 50 books, some with historical themes.Frank C. Dougherty/New York Times

WASHINGTON —Ann McGovern, the author of more than 50 children’s books that illuminated fables, history, the animal kingdom and other arcana and exotica for young readers, died Aug. 8 at her home in New York City. She was 85.

The cause was cancer, said her son Peter McGovern.

For decades, McGovern’s books were mainstays of public libraries, classroom book nooks, bedroom shelves and children’s treasure piles.

She was perhaps best known for ‘‘Stone Soup,’’ first published in 1968, a picture book recounting the folk tale about a vagabond who persuades an elderly woman to make him soup from a stone — and other ingredients that, through the traveler’s ingenuity, join the rock in the stew.


‘‘Stone Soup’’ and other books by McGovern sold millions of copies and represented the hard-won success that at times in her life might have seemed very far off. As a child, she stuttered and was rarely called on to speak in class.

When the time came for her to go to college, she wrote on her website, a single school, the University of New Mexico, accepted her. She left college to marry an English teacher and had a son before divorcing at 22.

After moving back to her home town of New York, she lived with her sister in a fifth-floor walk-up and found work at the publishing house that printed Little Golden Books. One day in the office restroom, McGovern heard a colleague say that the house needed a volume about the singing cowboy star Roy Rogers. And so McGovern wrote one, ‘‘Roy Rogers and the Mountain Lion’’ (1955).

McGovern wrote a number of Little Golden Books, mainly based on children’s television shows, before venturing into independent writing projects. Her collaborators over the years included the acclaimed illustrators Ezra Jack Keats and Tomie dePaola. A childhood friend, Nola Langner, illustrated the first edition of ‘‘Stone Soup,’’ with Winslow Pinney Pels illustrating a 1986 version.


Many of McGovern’s books sought to answer the questions that seem to spring to children’s minds more quickly than most adults can answer them. ‘‘Why It’s a Holiday’’ (1960) was written as a reply to her son, who wondered about holidays after she stayed home from work on Labor Day.

When she was in grade school, McGovern recalled, the subject of history seemed boring — ‘‘all about dates and places,’’ she wrote. In the ‘‘If You . . .’’ series, she sought to give more dynamic answers to children’s curiosities about the past.

The books included ‘‘If You Lived in Colonial Times’’ (1964), ‘‘If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln’’ (1966), ‘‘If You Sailed on the Mayflower’’ (1969), and ‘‘If You Lived in the Days of the Knights’’ (2001).

For good measure, she threw in ‘‘If You Lived With the Circus,’’ written to satisfy the curiosities of her son, whose excursions to the circus had prompted him to ask if clowns were always funny.

Particularly for her female readers, McGovern offered stories of heroines from history, including ‘‘The Secret Soldier: The Story of Deborah Sampson’’ (1975), about a woman who posed as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War, and ‘‘Runaway Slave’’ (1965), about abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

A more recent biographical subject was Eugenie Clark, the world-renowned ichthyologist and oceanographer known the ‘‘shark lady’’ and a friend of McGovern’s.


McGovern was an accomplished scuba diver, experience that informed her book ‘‘Down Under, Down Under’’ (1989), about the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.

Closer to home, she wrote ‘‘Mr. Skinner’s Skinny House’’ (1980), about the 8½ feet wide abode in New York City that was home to the writer Edna St. Vincent Millay and where McGovern also lived for a time.

Ann Weinberger was born in Manhattan on May 25, 1930. Her father died when she was 5. Her mother ‘‘never smiled and hardly talked to us,’’ McGovern wrote on her website. ‘‘I read books all the time to escape the loneliness I felt. I loved fairy tales and reading about adventures in far away lands.’’

Her first job, at 14, was at a library. After her employment at Little Golden Books, McGovern worked at the Random House publishing company and as an editor at Scholastic before embarking on full-time writing.

Her marriages to Hugh McGovern and Howard Greenfeld ended in divorce. Her third husband, Martin Scheiner, an inventor of cardiac monitors and other medical equipment, died in 1992 after 21 years of marriage.

McGovern credited him with cultivating her love of travel, reflected in books including ‘‘Elephant Baby’’ (1982), inspired by a safari, and ‘‘Playing With Penguins and Other Adventures in Antarctica’’ (1994), based on her trips to the South Pole.

Survivors include her companion of eight years, Ralph Greenberg of New York City; a son from her first marriage, Peter McGovern of Portland, Oregon; three children from her third marriage, whom she adopted as adults in 1990, Ann C. Scheiner of Silver Spring, Md., Charles Scheiner of Dili, East Timor, and James B. Scheiner of Tortola, British Virgin Islands; and three grandchildren.


Besides her international expeditions, McGovern traveled widely in the United States to speak to students.

‘‘Sometimes,’’ she once observed, ‘‘when I look at a sad, shy face in the audience, I see the lonely child I once was and I hope that maybe my words can have some influence on a life.’’