Editor Interview: Jessie Ruffenach of Salina Bookshelf

Jessie Ruffenach on Jessie Ruffenach: “Salina Bookshelf is the first publishing company I have worked for, and I have been with them for four years. I started as an editorial intern during the summer of my freshman year in college, and once the semester began I was offered the job as editor. It was a definite challenge at times, starting so young and having no previous experience–and, especially, having no other editor in the company to learn from. I worked part-time until I graduated with my BSBA from Northern Arizona University in December of 2005. Since then, I’ve been working full-time.

What inspired you to make children’s books part of your career focus?

My love of books. Growing up, I read constantly and enjoyed writing my own stories; when I was in fourth grade, I lived on the same block as the city library and went there almost every day after school. One of my greatest pleasures was being drawn into other worlds created by the skilled, clear words of a writer. My favorite books were those that moved me in some way–made me laugh or cry or think about the world differently–and I would continue thinking about those books long after I finished reading them. I would replay the stories over in my mind, and little by little I would make changes (“improvements,” as I liked to think) to them. Before long, I would have an entirely different book on my hands, just barely recognizable as an offshoot of the original story.

This habitual thinking of stories made me adept at manipulating words, and I eventually recognized that as one of my strongest skills. By the time I was fourteen, I knew that I wanted to be in publishing. I wanted to be able to share the pleasure of a great story with other people.

How did you prepare for this career?

I prepared for my career in editing by extensive reading and regular writing. When reading, I paid careful attention to the structure of books, how the stories developed, the flow of dialogue, and what made the characters and situations believable. When writing, I was very attentive to the mechanics–grammar, spelling, and word choice. I loved grammar, and read books like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White just for fun.

As I began my job with Salina while I was still in college, I didn’t have any professional experience that recommended me for the position. But I was enthusiastic, I could write well, and I knew–just from reading so much–what made a great story.

What do you see as the job(s) of the editor in the publishing process?

Salina is a small company with only six employees, so what I do as editor is doubtlessly very different from what editors at other companies may do. At Salina, though, I’m involved in every stage of the publishing process–I sort through the unsolicited manuscripts that come in the mail, edit the stories, provide illustration notes for the artist, write the book descriptions for the catalog, send out books to reviewing journals, and submit the books for any awards and/or reading lists for which I think they would be appropriate.

The most important part of my job, however, is working with the author on revising the manuscript. Some stories arrive with very little editing necessary; others, however, need to go through several rewrites. For example, in March 2005, Salina published Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, illustrated by Irving Toddy. The story is about the Navajo Long Walk, the period from 1864-1868 when the Navajos were forced to leave their homeland and live in captivity at Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner).

The manuscript was originally submitted to us in 2003. As soon as I saw the story, I knew we would want to publish it; however, the manuscript was twice as long as I wanted it to be, and it contained information that would be upsetting to young readers. Over the next several months, I worked closely with Evangeline to shorten the story and revise the content. We weren’t “sugarcoating” the story, taking out disturbing but true details; rather, we were changing how those facts were presented. The result is a compelling, historically accurate book that has received national recognition. Little Woman Warrior has been named a Children’s Choices Book for 2006, a Notable Children’s Social Studies Trade Book for 2006, and has won the 2006 IPPY Award for best Multicultural, Nonfiction Juvenile Book. I think this example shows the importance of the editing process.

Could you describe Salina Bookshelf? Its history, mission, and goals?

Salina Bookshelf was founded in 1994 by Eric and Kenneth Lockard, twin brothers who grew up on the Navajo Reservation. Their mother was an elementary school teacher in a small, rural community named Pinon, and Eric and Ken quickly picked up the Navajo language from their classmates. However, even as elementary students, they were struck by the poor variety of books available in their school library. There were almost no books featuring Native American, much less Navajo, characters, and there were even fewer books written in the Navajo language.

Eric and Ken began Salina Bookshelf when they were sixteen, still students in high school, and they have been continuing with their work ever since. The mission of Salina Bookshelf is to publish stories of the Navajo people in the Navajo language, and its goal is to make those stories available to a wide variety of curious minds–to readers both on and off the Navajo Reservation.

Beyond the description above, could you offer some specifics about the list? What kind of manuscripts should writers be sending? What kind of books can teachers, librarians, and young readers hope to find?

Salina Bookshelf publishes stories about the Navajo people. Most of our titles are children’s picture books, and these may be anything from historical fiction (Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home), to retellings of folktales (Frog Brings Rain by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Kendrick Benally), to stories about Navajo characters involved in everyday activities, historical or contemporary (Proud to Be a Blacksheep by Roberta John, illustrated by Keith Smith). We also publish textbooks and reference materials for learning the Navajo language, as well as biographies of outstanding Navajos (Keeping the Rope Straight: Annie Dodge Wauneka’s Life of Service to the Navajo by Carolyn Niethammer).

What are the challenges (editorial, logistical, marketing, translation, etc.) in publishing bilingual books?

All languages are very different from one another, so telling the same story in two (or more) different languages is going to present some challenges. For example, there is not a one-to-one correlation between English and Navajo; oftentimes, a word in English will not have an equivalent counterpart in Navajo, and vice versa. In such cases, concepts rather than words must be translated. To minimize problems in translation, we are careful in how we tell the story in English. For instance, if we know that a particular paragraph will not translate well, we will rewrite it.

Also, Navajo has several different dialects. When we do our translations, we try to use the most commonly accepted form of the language; however, we still get people coming to us and saying we should have used one form over another. This can be stressful, but at the same time we recognize that it’s impossible to please everyone.

How about those in Navajo-English specifically?

Marketing Navajo-English books is difficult. The primary reason for this is that book buyers often have the perception that since our books are in Navajo and English, only Navajos would be interested in reading them. This is very wrong, of course–our books treat universal themes, and our Navajo focus is simply one of the factors that make our titles unique. However, it is often a challenge to convince distributors and bookstore owners that our books have general interest appeal.

Who are your authors and illustrators? Native speakers, tribal members, urban Indians, southwesterners, etc.? What kinds of knowledge and insights to do they bring to the fold?

Our authors are anyone who can tell authentic stories of the Navajo people. Most often, they are tribal members and native speakers; however, we also publish stories of writers who have lived on the reservation or who have done significant research on the Navajo people and culture. Our illustrators, on the other hand, are all tribal members. We don’t have a policy against using other artists, but we’ve never looked elsewhere because we’ve never had to. Several Navajos are incredibly talented artists, so we are always able to find just the right illustrator for a project.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from authors/author-illustrators or agents?

Most of our manuscripts come from authors. We have done a few projects with author-illustrators, and have never worked with agents.

What recommendations do you have for writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Before submitting work, writers should always study the publishing company, get a feel for the types of books that have been published, and request a copy of the manuscript guidelines. I am always impressed by writers who show some knowledge of our company in their cover letter, because it indicates that they have done their research and that they know we have very specific needs.

How about illustrators? What is the best way for them to connect with the house?

We find our illustrators by attending art shows, such as the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market. We do this because we want serious artists with authentic Native American art.

If you had to highlight four titles that could give us a feel for the list, which ones would you suggest for study and why?

The first book I would like to mention is Zinnia, How the Corn Was Saved, written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Kendrick Benally (Salina Bookshelf, 2003). This is a retelling of a Navajo folktale, and both the language and the artwork are stunning. Zinnia is a perfect example of how we take traditional stories and present them in a manner that is appealing to contemporary audiences.

Secondly, I’d like to mention Little Woman Warrior Who Came Home by Evangeline parsons Yazzie and illustrated by Irving Toddy (Salina Bookshelf, 2005). This book is about the widely known story of the Navajo Long Walk, and it is significant because it is the first time the story has been told from the Navajo perspective. When writing the book, Evangeline drew on the stories that had been passed down to her from her elders.

The third book I’d like to mention is Diné Bizaad: Speak, Read, Write Navajo by Irvy Goossen (Salina Bookshelf, 1995). This is our language textbook, and has been a consistent best-seller. Diné Bizaad is used in high school and universities wherever the Navajo language is taught, and is an example of Salina’s efforts to encourage students to learn their native language.

Finally, I would like to mention Keeping the Rope Straight: Annie Dodge Wauneka’s Life of Service to the Navajo by Carolyn Niethammer (Salina Bookshelf, 2006). This is the biography of Annie Dodge Wauneka, a Navajo leader and activist who brought about unprecedented improvements in the health care and education available to her people. An inspiring story, Keeping the Rope Straight is an example of the type of biography Salina would like to do more of.

What can we expect from Salina Bookshelf in the future?

More great bilingual books! We will continue publishing children’s books, we have a new language textbook in the works, and we hope to do more biographies of Navajo leaders. We also have plans for a Navajo board game and a book of Navajo songs. This November, we’re releasing Little Black, A Pony–a Navajo version of the popular book by Walter Farley, originally published in 1961. We’re expecting this book to be a great hit with horse lovers.