May Cutler (1923-2011)

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Tundra Books founder, May Cutler at the age of 87. May passed away at her home in Montreal, surrounded by her family after battling several illnesses.

May’s accomplishments were remarkable, and after completing an MA in journalism from Columbia University, she worked for the United Nations, then as a journalist and later taught in the English department at McGill where she set up a three-year extension program in journalism. She also served as the first female mayor of Westmount from 1987-1991.

But we will always know her as the founder of Tundra Books, which she ran for almost 30 years. May was a visionary, and her passion for the arts and creating children’s books as works of art was evident in titles by renowned artists such as William Kurelek, Ted Harrison, Arthur Shilling, Song Nan Zhang, and many others. She is also responsible for the discovery of the incomparable Dayal Kaur Khalsa, who admired her publisher so much that she named the heroine of her books May.

May worked with author Roch Carrier and filmmaker Sheldon Cohen, when they teamed up to create one of Tundra’s perennial favorites, The Hockey Sweater. She also introduced Mohawk artist C. J. Taylor and the legends of the continent’s aboriginal peoples to children across the country.

May’s legacy is lasting. Every children’s book published in this country bears her influence. Her contribution to Canadian children’s literature was enormous and will live on forever.

We invite Tundra’s authors, artists, colleagues, and anyone who knew May, or even those who want to comment, to please leave your thoughts and reminisces below.

Please visit articles on May Cutler from:

The life and accomplishments of former publisher May Cutler will be celebrated in a special memorial event on Saturday, March 19 at 2:00p.m. at Victoria Hall in Montreal. The memorial event is being organized by members of the Cutler family, and will feature several guest speakers, including Mayor Peter Trent and author Roch Carrier.

Family establishes May Cutler Arts Fund
In honour of Cutler’s life and accomplishments — especially her interest in promoting the arts — a memorial fund has been set up by the family to help sponsor various art projects. This initiative came about over the past two weeks, said daughter-in-law Marina Cutler.

“As word got out about May’s passing, we had so many people contacting us to ask what they could do,” said Marina, who is overseeing the fund. “People wanted to know if they could make a donation, or should they send flowers — and if so, where should they send them?

“May and I had spent a lot of time discussing one of her dreams, which was to create an international sculpture garden in Montreal, so that was the springboard for the idea of the fund. We thought we could establish the May Cutler Art Fund in order to further her dream of this garden. Right now the focus is to follow through on that idea.”

Anyone interested in making a non-tax-exempt contributions to this fund can do so by sending a cheque to the May Cutler Arts Fund, P.O. Box 122 Station Victoria, Westmount, Quebec, H3Z 2V4. Contributions can also be made at the memorial event in Victoria Hall.


24 Replies to “May Cutler (1923-2011)”

  1. I’m sad to hear of the passing of such a great lady, she seems to have lead quite a full life though…

  2. More than twenty-five years ago I visited May in Montreal for an article on Montreal publishers. She was sharp and funny and gracious and her wonderful books made a very big impression on me. My thoughts are with her family.

  3. I had the privilege of interviewing May Cutler for an article on Tundra’s fortieth anniversary a few years ago. She was energetic, funny, and passionate. We sat in the Westmount Public Library which had been renovated while she was Mayor and which, she noted, came on time and on budget!

    It is absolutely true to say that every children’s book published in this country bears her influence. She was a remarkable person and this is a sad loss.

  4. May was an inspiring role model and wonderfully supportive publisher. Full of chutzpah, creativity, and accomplishment, she always delivered on her promises.

  5. I did not know May Cutler; but I know much of her far-reaching influence into the lives of children. The books that were and are still being published by Tundra books have inspired us, introduced us to unbelievably talented and creative authors and artists and find special places on library shelves, in schools and in our homes. The lives of my own children and all of the children I taught are better for the many books that came from Tundra to be shared with enthusiasm and love as she shared them with us.

  6. May Cutler was an amazing woman to have started Tundra Books, giving the world so many beautiful works of art in the form of books for children. We are still benefiting from her vision and generosity. My sincere condolences.

  7. May Cutler was an outstanding woman who built one of the foundations of the most important aspects of literature — books for children. Wherever she is, she’s flying!

  8. This is very sad news for friends and family and readers and writers. I first met May at a Serendipity conference in Vancouver in the early nineties. We spoke very briefly only, but when I sent her my first picture book “The Fish Princess” I was told that she had returned from the conference and said, “We need an author from the West coast” and so my manuscript was accepted and “inherited’ by Kathy Lowinger when Tundra took over and I suppose I was launched.

    May Cutler will be fondly and gratefully remembered for herself and her contribution to children’s literature.

  9. I had the great pleasure of working with May when I was the books producer at CBC Radio’s Morningside in the ’80’s. She was unfailing gracious, generous and she turned out first rate books. She has left a magnificent legacy.

  10. May hired me straight out of university and in the five years I worked at Tundra, I learned much about the craft of writing, the art of editing and the business of publishing. She was a force of nature. I wasn’t always happy with her, but that was part of the point: when you’re passionate, you piss people off. And then a little while later, you’re sharing a glass of whisky. May was something else. And those 5 years I spent working for her will stay with me forever.

  11. Thank you, May. I really appreciate that you gave me a great opportunity to publish my first English book, “Who Goes to the Park”, in 1984. It was such an exciting moment and time working with you. All are unforgettable and wonderful memories I will cherish throughout my life. Please accept my sincere condolences.

  12. May’s foresight in publishing ‘children’s books as works of art” has benefited generations. I’m proud that she accepted my first Tundra book: A Mountain Alphabet. This encouraged me to pursue a writing career. I’m happy to have met a Canadian icon in the world of children’s literature. May your heaven be a library full of good books, May!

  13. I had the great fortune to work closely with May for about 10 years, from the mid 80s until she sold the company to M&S in the mid 90s. Beginning as the “office assistant,” I finished off as her managing editor. Tundra Books was May Cutler’s child, and it really was the quintessential small press, fiercely and staunchly independent. In three tiny offices there were awards and accolades along the walls (dating back to my childhood), recognition and appreciation from around the world. This is what struck me, May Cutler’s small press, Tundra Books, was not just a Montreal, a Quebec, nor a Canadian institution, it was well recognized internationally. Travelling to the Meccas of the publishing world, the Frankfurt Book Fair and Book Expo in the US, and for children’s books the Bologna Book fair, I met time and again distinguished publishers from around the world who’d smile and say, “Nice to see Tundra Books thriving. Give my best to May.” This at a time when the “art” of the small press was dying, being swallowed up by big-box multinationals. Fondest memories of May Cutler included what she called “turning a new furrow”; she was proud to ‘discover’ and publish the work of at least 1 or 2 new book “artists” each year. She didn’t believe in formulaic publishing. As she’d say, “If I’ve seen it before, I won’t publish it.” And since the launch of Tundra Books in Expo year, 1967, with the publication of not just her own book, but with of a series of fascinating little Expo 67 guidebooks (still have my copies) on Sculpture, Architecture, Food, Shopping, etc. Tundra Books has always carried that ebullient multicultural vision of Expo year—decades before “multiculturalism” really entered into the children’s publishing mainstream. Recognizing alternate perspectives on the Canadian experience, May was the first to publish the artworks and stories of new (and old) immigrants to the country, fresh new perspectives. One of the most poignant and gutsy publications was Toronto artist Takashima’s book “A Child in Prison Camp”, describing and painting scenes of her childhood in a Canadian Japanese internment camp. This published in the mid 70s over a decade before the federal government made its official apology. It was always with some trepidation, but ultimately with joy, that we’d embark on each new publishing season with May, carefully shepherding six or eight new books, and new series of artwork, into print, insisting on the most colourful and original of designs, all under Her watchful eye. And we continued to be appreciated around the world, with tiny Tundra’s books winding up on the shelves of appreciative peoples’ homes in Japan (a very tough market to break into, I may add!), Scandinavia, France, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, England, and of course all across the USA. Because May Cutler considered her books, her authors and her staff like her own children (painful as that often can be), her offspring, she was at pains to ever let a book go out of print, a sentiment most unheard of in publishing nowadays. I still remember schlepping cartons of books from skids on her basement back and forth to the office, filling orders of 1 and 2 copies of this or that title published a decade or two earlier. So, May, I raise a glass to you, and thank you for keeping alive that art form that is the small press, for sharing your keen eye for new and original stories for people to enjoy the world over, and for creating a publishing house that is truly unique not only to Canada, but to the world. Cheers to you, my Dear May! – B.M.

  14. May, the Zhang family – Song Nan, Shengli, Haoyu and Haoyong are all missing you terribly. If were not for your foresight and encouragement, Song Nan’s art would probably never have made it into children’s literature in Canada and around the world. For Haoyu, you are a great inspiration and role model, for you did everything your way.

  15. When May Cutler was in the room, you knew it. Even during her quiet moments!

    It is an honour indeed to be published by Tundra Books, the company May created and nurtured with skill and verve.

    Somehow, it’s fitting to write–“what a dame!–May was larger than life and our lives are richer for having known her.

    All best wishes and sincere sympathy to the Cutler family–and May’s huge Tundra “family.”

  16. To hear that May has passed away makes me sad. I remember her once telling me that she “wanted to live forever but the research was not in her favour”.
    I was one of those privileged to call her “my publisher” and I will always be grateful for the way she treated me. I was lucky to be published in the “old days” with the ABC team (Arjun , Bill and Catherine) working in the office. Truly I was treated like gold by all of them and have such wonderful memories that I will treasure forever. When I went to Montreal May insisted on taking me to the opera – my first- La Traviatta. When she came to see Yvette Moore and I at Agribition here in Saskatchewan, she had such a great time she almost missed her flight back . We had to push her into the taxi to the airport along with all her purchases “for the family”. She was great for our economy and we did have fun together.
    But more important, May understood the book- A Prairie Alphabet. May published my manuscript which every other publisher turned down and made it into something beyond my abilities.
    Thank you May for being my publisher as well as being a friend.
    To all the Cutler family – my condolences and may your memories of May provide you with stories that make you smile and provide comfort. She would like that.

  17. May was a great publishing pioneer, full of passion for her work and her authors, unafraid of anyone or anything — especially any institution. She was a true original, one of a kind. As the comments above show, she’ll be greatly missed.

  18. In our first meeting over 25 years ago, when I knew nothing about illustration, May told me to buy some masonite boards and a set of acrylics. “Now go paint.” was all she said. My life has never been the same since. What I’d like to say to May: You have been like no other in the publishing world. What a privilege it has been to have had your guiding influence on my career! Your legacy will surely live on in the pages of Tundra’s illustrious books. Thank you, May.

  19. One of May’s great ideas was to publish children’s books as works of art. In 1991 I walked into Tundra Books as an unknown artist with the idea of telling the ancient story of Gilgamesh in picture books. May immediately placed her trust in me, and in my work — through her vision, the idea became a trilogy of published works. I admired her generosity and love of art. I learned a lot from her, not only about books but also about life. May always brought a wonderful enthusiasm to each new book. I will miss it very much. Last year I was presenting my book Lord of the Sky at the Babar en Ville bookstore in Westmount. Out of the blue, May stopped by to congratulate me. I had not seen her for years. She surprised me and made me very happy, just as her work has made many children happy and will continue to do so. Thank you May!

  20. The books May Cutler published are all amazing works of art. When I see that Tundra has published a new book, I know that it is going to be worth adding to our collection. Over the years, May donated many beautiful things to the Westmount Public Library’s Children’s Department, including some wonderful art tiles from William Kurelek’s books. These tiles are still on display for all to enjoy. Her love of children’s literature and libraries is inspirational. We will miss her.

  21. 20 years ago, i was a tour guide in london,i met may 3 times a lovely vibrant intellectual lady , i took may around highgate cemetery and had a very enjoyable day, visiting the graves of notables ,whereupon she took me for a meal, a lovely lady and great company with a great mind.

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