No limo, but her work is golden

Ilene Cooper’s stories carry on a conversation with kids


Andy Rathbun


When children’s author Ilene Cooper reads her books to kids, she always gets the same questions.

“Are you rich?”


“Do you drive a limousine?”


And then: “How do you get your ideas?”

That answer is not simple. It leads Cooper to discuss her lifelong love of books and her hometown of Chicago.

While working for the Chicago Public Library, Cooper was confronted with scads of children’s books and came to a startling conclusion: “I can do this.”

She was hired about 20 years ago as the children’s book editor for the American Library Association’s magazine, Booklist, and began writing in her spare time. Since then, she’s published books about all her childhood interests, from President John F. Kennedy to the Jewish faith.

She now lives in Highland Park and connects with her young audiences through her conversational writing style.

“[She’s] direct,” says Mary Harris Russell, who reviews children’s books and is a professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind. “She isn’t showing off for grown-ups. She’s talking to the kids.”

During an interview, Cooper, 54, speaks with ease about religion and the difficulties of growing up, subjects she deals with in her latest book, Sam I Am, the story of a 12-year-old boy raised in a mixed-faith household.

The only thing that makes Cooper bristle is her pet peeve: celebrity authors.

“From Madonna down, it’s sad,” she says.

She almost confronted Hollywood writer and director Carl Reiner on the subject during a party in his honor at the Los Angeles Book Expo. Reiner said he didn’t think he had a children’s book in him.

“I wanted to say to him, ‘No, really, you didn’t.’ But, since I was at his cocktail party . . .”

She let it slide?

“I did.”

She is, after all, a proponent of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “Whether it’s [my book] Queen of the Sixth Grade, where girls are mean to other girls, or Sam I Am, that’s about treating other people well, [the Golden Rule] seems to underlie a lot of what I’ve written.”


Andy Rathbun is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and writes for the Medill News Service.


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