Rising children’s author-illustrator Paula Cohen, whose first solo picture book Big dreams, little fish (Levine Querido) was released March 1, died suddenly February 24 at her home in Fanwood, NJ She was 57 years old.
Cohen was born June 26, 1964, in Albany, NY and grew up there, in a neighborhood where her grandparents owned a small family grocery store, much like the one that would eventually appear in her picture book. She demonstrated a passion for art at an early age, writing and illustrating her own stories from an early age.
Cohen developed her talent and artistic skills while earning a BFA in Illustration from Parsons School of Design. Cohen then worked as an editorial illustration freelancer for several years and his art, renowned for its whimsical and humorous style, has appeared in numerous publications as well as some books for Crown. She took a break from raising her two sons and began hosting art programs and camps, according to an interview with In Geveb: A Review of Yiddish Studies. “Then I realized that I forgot to follow my dream and started focusing only on children’s books,” Cohen wrote in her artist statement for SCBWI, an organization of which she was an active member. since 2015.
Determined to pursue a career in children’s books, Cohen submitted a writing sample and was accepted into the tent’s children’s literature program at the Yiddish Book Center, a week-long program where participants worked on Jewish stories with various mentors. It was there that Cohen met one of the instructors, Miriam Udel, who was writing and compiling a Yiddish children’s storybook. This meeting soon led to a close collaboration on the anthology of Udel Honey on the page (NYU Press, 2020), which Cohen illustrated.
Cohen went on to sign two more projects, Big dreams, little fish and The Incredible Shrinking Dining Room, the latter by Michal Babay (Charlesbridge, July). Throughout her journey, she has cultivated many connections in the kidlit community. In addition to her activities with SCBWI, she created the logo for KidLit Caravana group for early picture book writers, and was scheduled to speak at the ALSC National Institute this fall.
Cohen’s husband, Paul Martin, shared a statement in tribute. “Big dreams, little fish was truly a labor of love for Paula,” he wrote. “The main character, Shirley, is named after her beloved mother, whose parents owned a store similar to the one described in her book. It was such a comfort that Paula was able to fulfill her dream of being an author. he love that the incredible children’s literature community has shown him and my family has been a blessing during this difficult time.
Christy Ewers of CAT, who represented Cohen, remembers her like this: “Paula looked so much like Shirley, the protagonist of her first picture book. She was thoughtful, fiery, sweet, funny, talented and extremely determined. She loved her family, her friends and her community and she made the world a friendlier place. It was a real honor to help make one of Paula’s big dreams come true. She will be missed by all of her extended family.
On the TAP Scotch Plains/Fanwood website Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr said: ‘I want to send my deepest condolences to Paula’s husband and sons and to all who knew her in our tight-knit community. I was fortunate to know Paula and over the years she offered me creative ideas on how to use her talents to promote and improve our city. There was such a feeling of excitement for her over the upcoming launch of her wonderful book.
To further honor Cohen, his friends in the children’s book world have come together to encourage people to purchase Cohen’s book in his memory. Author Deke Moulton got the ball rolling on Twitter with this tweet:
A large chorus on social media quickly followed and continued to boost the title on its official book anniversary.