Karen Blumenthal, 61, Dies; Journalist Turned Young-Adult Author

Karen Blumenthal, 61, Dies; Journalist Turned Young-Adult Author

Credit…via Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group

In 2016, Karen Blumenthal, a longtime financial journalist who had turned to writing nonfiction books for young adults, wrote a biography of Hillary Clinton that was supposed to be printed the day after the presidential election. When Mrs. Clinton lost, Ms. Blumenthal suddenly had to rewrite her entire last chapter. She did so, meeting her publisher’s deadline, and the book went to press as scheduled.

“It’s a legendary story at Macmillan, how she turned it around,” Emily Feinberg, one of her editors there, said in an interview. “She was a pro.”

Ms. Blumenthal’s training as a journalist, working for three decades under deadline pressure, certainly helped. She was a reporter and editor at The Dallas Morning News for five years and The Wall Street Journal for 25 before becoming a full-time young-adult author.

Just as her journalism sought to untangle complex financial subjects for adults, many of her books tried to show young readers how certain hot-button issues — gun control, for example, or abortion rights — evolved from complex social forces.

Her books included “Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition” (2011), which explored how attempts to curb drinking led to other social ills; “Tommy: The Gun that Changed America” (2015), which tracked how the weapon favored by outlaws led to the national debate over gun control; and “Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend” (2018), which examined the cult of celebrity, even when the celebrities were murderers.


Credit…Ben Torres

Ms. Blumenthal died on May 18 in Dallas. She was 61. Her husband, Scott McCartney, a columnist at The Journal, said the cause was a heart attack.

From an early age, Ms. Blumenthal was drawn to reporting, inspired partly by her favorite book, “Harriet the Spy.”

Writing on her website about Harriet, Ms. Blumenthal said: “I’m pretty sure that her outsider’s view and her secret note-taking planted some seed that led me to journalism.”

Karen Frances Blumenthal was born on March 18, 1959, in Dallas. Her mother, Beverly (Brand) Blumenthal, was a social worker; her father, Robert, was a lawyer.

Karen grew up in Dallas and went to Duke University, where she majored in economics and graduated in 1981. She was editor of The Chronicle, the student newspaper, where she met Mr. McCartney. They married in 1983.

After college, she worked for The Dallas Morning News as a reporter before joining The Wall Street Journal’s Dallas bureau in 1984. She also took night business classes at Southern Methodist University while starting a family; she earned her M.B.A. there in 1990.

The Morning News hired her back in 1992 as business editor. This complicated things at home, because her husband by this time was working for The Journal’s Dallas bureau and they often competed on the same stories.

He found the situation untenable and eventually asked The Journal to move him to a different beat. But Paul Steiger, The Journal’s managing editor, had another idea: Rather than have Mr. McCartney cover something else, he hired Ms. Blumenthal back, making her deputy Dallas bureau chief.

In 1996 she became bureau chief, a job she held for eight years, overseeing a dozen reporters covering eight states. On Sept. 11, 2001, when The Journal’s main offices in Lower Manhattan were evacuated after the terrorist attacks, Ms. Blumenthal helped coordinate and edit the paper’s coverage, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.

She later wrote a personal finance column for The Journal called “Getting Going.”

She also started writing books for young adults. One of her daughters, then around 14, had become interested in the New Deal, and Ms. Blumenthal couldn’t find any good age-appropriate material about it. She saw this void as an opportunity to create nonfiction narratives about defining moments in modern American history for young teenagers.

Her first book was “Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929” (2002).

“Rapid, simply constructed sentences increase the drama and suspense while making difficult concepts easily understood,” wrote Booklist, the book review journal of the American Library Association, which praised the book’s “clear language that is both compelling and instructive.”

All told, she wrote a dozen young-adult books, many of which won awards. In addition to her biography of Mrs. Clinton, she wrote about Steve Jobs (her top seller) and Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart.

Perhaps her most ambitious work was her most recent: “Jane Against the World: Roe v. Wade and the Fight for Reproductive Rights,” published this year. With legalized abortion under threat from a conservative Supreme Court, it was written for teenagers who may lose rights their mothers had fought hard to attain.


Credit…via Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

“With its gripping account of the personalities, circumstances and drama behind Roe,” Elizabeth Rusch wrote in The New York Times Book Review, the book “offers those teenagers timely — and ever more necessary — insight into how we got here.”

It was not a polemic. Mr. McCartney said Ms. Blumenthal made clear that she supported abortion rights but sought to be fair to both sides.

Ms. Feinberg, who edited “Jane Against the World,” said Ms. Blumenthal “was most passionate about giving young readers tools they could use to be part of the conversation.”

“There was no ego to her writing,” she added. “If I said, ‘Can we liven this up?’ she’d say, ‘No, it wasn’t lively.’”

In addition to her husband, who writes “The Middle Seat” column, about airlines and travel, for The Journal, Ms. Blumenthal is survived by her mother; her daughters, Abby and Jen McCartney; and her brother, Brad Blumenthal.

Apart from her writing, Ms. Blumenthal was also an activist on behalf of Dallas’s public libraries. Disturbed by budget cuts, she collected data from around the country that showed Dallas libraries were among the most underfunded per capita in the nation. Her efforts helped funnel millions of dollars to the library system, allowing for longer hours and stronger collections.

She was an expert at needlepoint, winning at least 10 ribbons at the Texas State Fair, and an accomplished baker. The toffee oatmeal cookie was her pièce de résistance.

And she taught journalism. Throughout her career, Ms. Blumenthal guided a number of budding reporters, as an editor, a teacher and a mentor. If they were pokey, she would often tell them, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be right.”

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