Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Valentine Chat with Three Fab Children's Book Editors

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Book Love

By Susan Hughes

Ah, February, month of Valentines! And what better to set aflutter the hearts of children’s book writers and readers than an assortment of insights and tips from three of Canada’s top children’s book editors?

Seriously. Editors, we who are writers and readers love you.

You bring your sharp, appreciative, and evaluative gaze to words on the page. You express clearly, cleverly, and creatively what is there and what isn’t, and then suggest where and how it can be improved. You help make good books better You are the best.

Today, I’m pleased to chat with Stacey Roderick, Senior Editor at Kids Can Press; Ann Featherstone, Senior Editor at Pajama Press and Lynne Missen, Publishing Director, Young Readers Group at Penguin Canada.

Susan Hughes:

How did each of you come to be a children's book editor?

Stacey Roderick:

I hate to say it but luck and good timing had a lot to do with it. After finishing the Publishing Program at Centennial College, I managed to land at Harcourt Brace Canada, where I eventually became a Production Editor in the College Division. I’d always wanted to work in children’s publishing, though, so when I saw an ad for a Production Assistant at KCP, I applied. I heard nothing back, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when a few months later I got a call inviting me to interview for a newly created Production Editor position at KCP. Luckily for me, the Production Manager had passed my resume on to the Managing Editor. I loved being the Production Editor, but after a few years, I was given the chance to start editing. My first projects were shadowing wonderful editors like Val Wyatt and Laurie Wark on well-established non-fiction series, which KCP was known for then. Eventually I was given my own projects, and the rest is history.

Ann Featherstone:

I worked for a number of years as a buyer at a large independent bookstore in Victoria. In 1989, I was offered a position as editor for a fledgling publishing house called Orca Book Publishers. In some ways it was a fluke, but I had been thinking for a long time about becoming more involved in the production end of the book business. There weren’t a lot of options in Victoria, so I was lucky to get a start in the first place. All my training had been at university, where I majored in Literature and specialized in the development of the novel.

Lynne Missen:

My becoming a children’s book editor is actually linked to the birth of my first child, though not intentionally. I had been senior editor at Stoddart Publishing in the mid-nineties – Kathryn Cole was the children’s publisher, and when I first started at Stoddart, I helped edit two books for young adults, and although the rest of my time there was focused on the adult list, when I announced that I wasn’t coming back after maternity leave, but was going to start freelancing instead, Kathryn started sending me young adult manuscripts to work on. I freelanced for about three and a half years and then joined HarperCollins as children’s editor in 2002, then came to Penguin as publishing director of the young readers’ group in 2011.




SH:

What do you most enjoy about editing children's books?

SR:

I’m not sure this is specific to editing children’s books, but with every project there is at least one “aha!” moment when something you’ve been struggling with suddenly becomes clear. And the revelation often comes from someone asking just the right question or throwing out a totally “pie in the sky” idea. It’s really a kind of magic, and it happens because I work with amazing, creative people (both creators and here in-house).

AF:

I love the challenge of taking something that is promising and helping to turn it into something publishable. So many submissions miss the mark by a wide margin, but many more just need a little help to break in. And if the subject matter and story is strong enough for our line, I’m always eager to get going on those first substantive notes, hoping to inspire the kind of work that will make a project stand out and become the backbone of the spring or fall list.

LM:

Working with talented authors on their stories – Canada has so many talented writers, and I feel very lucky to be able to work on books I love. No matter what the story is, whether contemporary or historical or fantastical, there is that moment of truth, when young protagonists realize something about themselves or the world about them, and I think that is so powerful.

SH:

What is the greatest challenge for you as a children's book editor?

SR:

Well, I guess the greatest challenge for me is also what keeps things so interesting and exciting – editing different genres and for different ages. For example, in one (particularly busy) day I might work on a graphic novel for ages 10 to 14, then move on to a non-fiction project for ages 8 to 12 and then finally I might turn my attention to a picture book for an audience of ages 3 to 7. And as you can imagine, each of those genres and audiences have very specific editorial requirements that I need to be attentive to.

AF:

The greatest challenge is finding the right projects. The Canadian market is pretty weak right now in children’s books. Projects need to have equal appeal in both the trade and educational markets if they are to succeed, as neither market is strong enough in Canada to stand on its own. It’s confusing for authors. At Pajama Press, one of our greatest successes in the past season is A Brush Full of Colour: The World of Ted Harrison. This biography of Ted Harrison has managed to straddle both the educational and trade markets equally well, and I am proud that it is the first in my own imprint, Ann Featherstone Books.

LM:

The greatest challenge for me as an editor is to keep the age of the intended young reader always in mind – it can be too easy to filter things through my adult mind-set, and I have to remember that young readers can see things differently.

SH:

What types of manuscripts are you currently looking for?

SR:

Right now at Kids Can we are looking for:
• Original, fresh-voiced stories featuring unforgettable characters whose backgrounds and experiences are as diverse as our audience’s. This goes for picture books, early chapter books, middle grade and graphic novels.
• Curriculum-based nonfiction for ages 4-7 and 8-12 that takes a creative and innovative approach to the topic.

And maybe just as helpful, we are not currently looking for picture books told in verse (unless the story absolutely demands it and cannot be told in prose); and high fantasy or high-interest/low-vocabulary fiction.

AF:

At Pajama Press, we are looking for stories with a strong literary voice, even in nonfiction. We are looking at a wide range of titles, from board books to juvenile novels to young adult novels. Right now we are also finding strong interest in literary nonfiction and are working on fulfilling that need in the marketplace. Fantasy and dystopian fiction is a particularly competitive field in the United States, so we tend to steer clear of it, except for the occasional reality-based work of fantasy.

LM:

I am always on the lookout for the story that grabs me and just won’t let go – especially for characters that appeal to both boys and girls, and represent different backgrounds. We publish a range of titles on our list here at Penguin Canada – our current list features three novels that are very different from each other, yet all share the same feature: they are funny!

SH:

What tips would you offer aspiring writers of children's books?

SR:

This is something I hear a lot of people say but I think it bears repeating: read, read, read. It’s a great way to develop your ear, as well as help keep you up-to-date on what’s being published. Another thing I would suggest is that you join or start a writing group – there’s much to learn from critiquing the work of others, as well as having your work critiqued. And being surrounded by your people will help keep you motivated.

AF:

Too many writers choose a genre based on their perception of what publishers say they want instead of finding a genre that speaks to them personally. The most important piece of advice I can give is to stick with a genre that you enjoy reading. Keep abreast of award shortlists and read as many award-nominated and winning titles as you can, along with bestsellers. You are more likely to find a voice through reading what you love than anticipating the market’s needs. Once a trend has been identified, it is probably on the way out or getting stale, so steer clear of trends as a starting point for your own writing.

But most important of all, you must read and keep on reading children’s books. If you don’t particularly enjoy reading children’s books, chances are slim that you will find success here; children’s books are not starting points for careers in adult publishing. Do yourself a favour and stick to reading the kinds of books you want to write one day. And enjoy that process. This is no place for dabblers.

LM:

Know the market – know what’s out there, what books are popular with what ages, talk to your local bookseller or librarian. But having said this, I would caution against trying to just imitate what is out there – write the story that means something to you.

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author of children's books — both fiction and non-fiction — including The Island Horse, Off to Class, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed and Earth to Audrey. She is also an editor, journalist and manuscript evaluator. Susan lives in Toronto. Visit her website, www.susanhughes.ca.

 

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