Dean Robbins transforms complex adult biographies into accessible, fun books for kids

It could easily be mistaken for overnight success, or a sudden career pivot, but it’s really just the latest chapter in a story that started 20 years ago.
Dean Robbins with a cover of You're a Star Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Photo by Ann Shaffer

It could easily be mistaken for overnight success, or a sudden career pivot: longtime Madison journalist and former Isthmus editor-in-chief Dean Robbins publishing four children’s books in the past year. But it’s really just the latest chapter in a story that started 20 years ago — one that almost wasn’t written at all.

“I’ve always had a pantheon of heroes ever since I was little, and I’ve just never grown out of that,” says Robbins of people like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong — historical figures whose pictures he had on his wall, then and now. When Robbins became a father, he began telling his son “rip-roaring stories of these amazing lives.” Then he started writing them down. In the mid-2000s, he wrote a manuscript about Ruth and sent it to Harcourt. The publisher accepted it immediately, then asked for more. Robbins quickly wrote manuscripts on Robinson and Armstrong — Harcourt scooped them both up. “I was having fantasies of my son and his little friends coming to see me read at Borders when these books came out,” says Robbins.

Then Houghton Mifflin acquired Harcourt and the publisher who’d championed his books was gone, 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. His son grew up. Borders closed. “So many years passed and I thought, ‘Am I crazy to keep trying to do this?’ ” says Robbins. “One of my favorite quotes from Babe Ruth is, ‘It’s very difficult 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 describes the real-life moment that 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 on Earth!” All four are with different publishers and feature different illustrators, and they continue to translate complex adult biographies and themes into accessible, dramatic, fun books for kids. Robbins finally got to turn his dream of reading aloud to children into reality with classroom and bookstore readings — until the pandemic. Most of Robbins’ 2021 school appearances went virtual. Ongoing supply chain issues also pushed the publication of his fourth title into 2022. But Robbins has no shortage of ideas nor passion he can drawn on to write about his heroes — he has three more titles publishing over the next couple of years and says there are “probably hundreds” more manuscripts on his hard drive — and he’s certainly no stranger to writing through challenges.

“One of the reasons I didn’t stop is that it was so pleasurable to write the stories,” says Robbins, who never quit working in journalism and currently serves as co-editor of On Wisconsin magazine. “I have such a strong feeling about these people I write about, it’s kind of like a way to get close to them, to do the research and then to write the story and to try to make them come alive on the page in a way that might interest or inspire somebody else.”

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