SCBWI Bologna 2006 Editorial Director Interview: Shannon Barefield of Carolrhoda Books

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

Editorial Director Shannon Barefield will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006.

Other speakers include: Authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Sara Rojo Pérez (illustrator interview), Justine Larbalestier (author interview), Doug Cushman (author-illustrator interview). Editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury, Melanie Cecka/Bloomsbury, Judy Zylstra/Eerdmans, Anne McNeil/Hodder (publishing director interview). Agents: Rosemary Canter/PFD, Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary, Rosemary Stimola/Stimola Literary Studio (agent interview), Costanza Fabbri/Gabriella Ambrosioni Agency, and others. Hands-on workshops and roundtable discussions. See registration information. [Note: speaker list has been changed/updated.]

Shannon Barefield is the editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group. She primarily edits fiction and picture books, along with the occasional nonfiction title. Shannon has spent all of her 10-year editorial career at Lerner, including a number of years working on series nonfiction. For most of that time, she lived in Minneapolis, where Lerner is based. Last fall, she moved to New York City to open Carolrhoda’s new editorial office there. She holds a BA in English from Rice University and an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Florida. Shannon will be participating in the SCBWI Bologna 2007 panel discussion, “Where Craft and Acquisitions Meet.”

Erzsi Deàk interviewed Shannon in February 2006.

Erzsi Deàk: What is your official title and role at Carolrhoda?

Shannon Barefield: My title is editorial director, Carolrhoda Books. I develop, acquire, and edit books for the Carolrhoda list with the goal of creating high-quality trade books for all sorts of young readers, pre-K through teen. I also supervise an executive editor and an editorial assistant, my main partners in this mission.

ED: Please tell us a little about your background. (How and why you got into children’s books.)

SB: I came to editing as a way of being involved with books, which have always been my greatest love. When I began to look for a job in publishing, I targeted children’s books in particular because I felt most inspired by them. I felt and continue to feel that editing for children is an honorable and important profession.

ED: What is your all time personal favorite picture book? Why?

SB: As a child, my favorite picture book was called Katy No-Pocket by Emmy Payne and H.A. Rey (Houghton Mifflin, 1973). It’s about a mother kangaroo who has no pouch. She visits different animal mothers to learn how they carry their babies and eventually solves her problem by obtaining a carpenter’s apron full of pockets. I loved this story for its heartfelt portrayal of maternal love and for the facts it conveyed about different kinds of animal families.

My tastes as an adult are far less traditional and more oriented toward the humorous potential of the picture book format. I’m very enamored, for example, with a picture book from last year called Traction Man Is Here! by Mini Grey (Knopf, 2005). It’s visually innovative and has a wry sense of humor that both children and adults can appreciate.

ED: Is there a picture book you wish you had worked on? Why?

SB: I think it’s important to restrain editorial envy and not covet my competitors’ titles too wistfully – after all, the most important thing about the publication of a good book is the book itself, not the publisher or the editor!

ED: What book(s) are you proudest of having worked on and why?

SB: I’ve edited relatively few picture books, as my career has focused on fiction up until the past year or so. I’m very proud of our new novel Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You by Hanna Jansen, translated from the German by Elizabeth D. Crawford (Carolrhoda, 2006). This is a young adult novel based on the true story of Jansen’s adopted daughter, who survived the genocide in Rwanda but lost her entire family to the horrific violence of 1994. It’s an amazing, haunting, important book that deserves to be widely read.

ED: How would you describe the children’s publishing program at Carolrhoda?

SB: We believe that all types of readers–whether they enjoy so-called “literary” novels or genre books such as science fiction or sports–deserve the best possible writing and visuals. To this end, Carolrhoda focuses on both quality and appeal. We publish for all ages of children, and we’re open to many types of writing. Our list numbers about 18 books per year.

ED: What about the picture book publishing program? Do you have a specific brief? How many picture books do you produce each year? Do you handle board books as well as picture books? Handle non-fiction picture books? Poetry picture books?

SB: Lerner Publishing Group has three imprints that publish picture books. Carolrhoda Books publishes mainly trade-oriented titles with broad appeal and an occasional nonfiction title of particular distinction. Millbrook publishes nonfiction picture books that often have ties to the curriculum and applications in the classroom. Kar-Ben publishes picture books of Jewish interest. All three imprints publish poetry, though not in high numbers. Together, these imprints publish 15-20 picture books per year.

We don’t publish original board books; we have very occasionally published a board book version of a picture book already on our list.

Specifically, Carolrhoda’s mission as a picture book publisher is to offer children books of high appeal, quality, and originality. Some of our titles are highly focused on child appeal, while others also speak to the picture book as a work of art. An example of the former is I’m Not Afraid of This Haunted House by Laurie Friedman, illustrated by Teresa Murfin (Carolrhoda, 2005). An example of the latter is Noel by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Cheng-Khee Chee (Carolrhoda, 2005).

ED: What are you looking for? What grabs your attention in a picture book? What about a picture book text?

SB: If I’m looking at a dummy by an author/illustrator, I’d like to see striking visuals paired with a text that is somehow original and surprising. A great picture book requires both the text and the visuals to work.

In an unillustrated text, I’m looking for a spark of some kind in the language and ideas, plus potential for intriguing, appealing illustrations. This market is so flooded that many perfectly adequate or “nice” picture book texts can’t compete. Only a work of true distinction can be published successfully.

ED: Anything you are definitely not looking for?

SB: We are not looking for overtly religious material or books whose main purpose is to preach or impart a lesson. We also aren’t interested in “me too” books that imitate successful titles already on the market.

ED: Is there such a thing as the perfect Carolrhoda picture book?

SB: I don’t believe there is. We recognize the rich breadth of possibility in many kinds of picture books.

ED: What do you see as the role of the editor in creating picture books?

SB: The editor has many roles. One is helping the author make the text as strong as possible through honest feedback. Another is working with the creative director to choose an appropriate artist for the book, then collaborating with the artist and design team throughout the illustration process. Finally, the editor plays a key role in helping the marketing department generate ideas for publicity efforts.

On the whole, the editor is an advocate for the reader, the publishing house, the author, and the illustrator, all at different moments in the process. It’s a bit of a juggling act!

ED: What do you see as the role of picture books in the lives of young children?

SB: Picture books play a critical role in helping children develop language and visual awareness as well as a love for stories and, eventually, reading itself. It’s been proven that the earlier children experience books, the more likely they are to grow into literate readers. So picture books are indispensable. Besides, the best of them are an awful lot of fun.

ED: Are you aware of any trends in picture book publishing at the moment? How do you feel about them?

SB: Picture book sales in general are flat in the United States. Many publishers have cut their lists because sales do not support a large picture book list. Because our list is purposefully small, we’ve been able to maintain the same number of titles–but we’re more selective than ever about which books we publish.

On the whole, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for picture books to have a flat cycle for a while. Many poorly made and unoriginal books have flooded bookstores over the past few years. If the current climate forces publishers to raise their standards, that will be a good thing for children–and eventually for those publishers who survive the downturn.

ED: What say if any does your sales/marketing department have in the look or type of book you produce?

SB: Our acquisitions are generated entirely by the editorial department, but our sales and marketing directors give input on each acquisition. If we lack sales/marketing support, it’s difficult to persuade the publisher to go forward with a project. The same directors provide input on the design, content, and appearance of covers. They are among several parties who approve covers in our company, the others being editorial, design, production, and the publisher himself.

ED: What are some of the common mistakes authors could AVOID making when submitting to you?

SB: Due to volume, we’re able to accept unsolicited submissions only in November. (Send full manuscript to Zelda Wagner, Fiction Submissions, Lerner Publishing Group, 241 1st Avenue North, Minneapolis, MN 55401 USA.)

The most common mistake we see is the submission of materials not appropriate for our list. I would encourage authors to target submissions to publishers whose books they have studied, with an eye toward compatibility. This is NOT to say that you should imitate books already published. But if you’ve written a quirky, humorous book, look for publishers who are putting out that type of book and target your submissions accordingly.

ED: Can you address the “co-edition” issue in regards to how Carolrhoda produces a picture book?

SB: We occasionally partner with other publishers on co-editions. In such cases, the other publisher is the originator of the book, and we publish the U.S. edition. However, such books generally comprise no more than 20% of our picture book list; most of our picture books are developed in house.

ED: Overall, are most of your picture books created by author/illustrators (one person) or by an author and an illustrator?

SB: It’s a mix. We do slightly more books with a separate author and illustrator, but that’s much more a matter of chance than design. Both processes can produce wonderful results.

ED: Will you look at projects created by two people (an author and an illustrator)?

SB: Yes. However, we suggest that authors be aware that most publishers strongly prefer to select an illustrator themselves. It may be that the story works for the publisher, but the art does not, and then there’s really no way to proceed.

ED: Should illustrators send samples to you directly?

SB: Illustrators should direct samples to: Creative Director; Lerner Publishing Group; 241 First Avenue North; Minneapolis, MN 55401 U.S.A.

Cynsational Notes

Erzsi Deàk, along with Kristin Litchman, was an editor of Period Pieces: Stories for Girls (HarperCollins, 2003)(co-editors interview), which included my short story, “The Gentleman Cowboy” as well as stories by Dian Curtis Regan; Linda Sue Park; Jane Kurtz; Rita Williams Garcia; Bobbi Katz; April Halprin Wayland; Johanna Hurwitz; Uma Krishnaswami; Carmen Bernier-Grand; Kristin Litchman; and Erzsi Deàk.

Cynsational News & Links

Juvenile Series and Sequels from the Mid-Continent Public Library. [My first public library was a Mid-Continent branch. My mama took me there every Saturday morning, and in the summer between second and third grade, I won the summer reading contest.]

Writing Rules: advice on the writing process, globally, from middle grade writers (PDF file), compiled by Cynthia Lord, author of Rules (Scholastic, 2006)(author interview).