Shana Corey on Shana Corey: “I grew up in North Carolina and moved to New York after graduating from Smith College. I got my first job working as an editorial assistant at Random House Children’s Books and fell so in love with the industry, that I never left.
“I was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for my first picture book, You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer!, illustrated by Chesley McLaren (Scholastic, 2000), which was also selected as a Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of 2000, a Booklist Editors’ Choice, and an Orbis Pictus Recommended Book.
“My other picture books include Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic, 2009), Milly and the Macy’s Parade by Brett Helquist (Scholastic, 2002), Players in Pigtails, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Scholastic, 2003), and the First Graders From Mars Series, illustrated by Mark Teague (Scholastic, 2001-).
“I currently live in Brooklyn with my husband and two little boys.
“When not writing or hanging out with my family, I’m an editor at Random House where I enjoy reading and editing series like Babymouse by Matt and Jenni Holm and Junie B. Jones by Barbara Park, as well as middle grade and young adult novels.”
What kind of young reader were you?
How did the writing life first call to you? Did you shout “yes!” or run the other way?
I kind of ran back and forth. I always loved writing and telling stories to myself and kids I babysat for (and at 12 I was pretty adamant that I was going to be the one to write the sequel to Gone With the Wind [by Margaret Mitchell (1936)]), but I was shy about sharing my writing with peers and had a pattern of running from that. I joined the high school newspaper, and then quit when I heard there were going to be try outs. I’d sign up for writing classes and then panic and drop out. I had complete performance anxiety.
Writing professionally grew naturally out of editing though. When I started at Random House, editorial assistants were often given licensed writing projects. For me, that was absolute, total bliss. I’m not exaggerating a bit when I say I would have paid them to let me write–and the more I wrote, the less shy I became about sharing.
What inspired you to make youth literature in particular your career focus?
I’ve always been a kid person and kid’s books are the books that have meant the most to me over the years. They’re the books I return to again and again, the books that my college roommate and I first bonded over, the books that most often make me teary, and the books that when I lend, I really, really want back.
I took a children’s literature class in college and that was the first time I realized that perhaps I could turn my love of kids books into a job.
(I was a government major, and until that point, my career plan involved becoming the president of the United States. So it’s good that I found a backup plan.)
Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles?
Once I started writing, I found it much easier to send out my writing to someone I didn’t know (at least in the beginning) rather than to face live readers in a class or writing group, and that was enormously freeing. I figured, what’s the worst that could happen?
And I got very, very lucky by finding exactly the right editor at the right time—an editor who is not only immensely smart and talented, but who also shares many of my interests.
I wrote fast and furiously for a few years, and then slowed down quite a bit in the past five years as my day job has become more and more interesting and satisfying to me (I’m kind of an all-or-nothing sort of girl, I tend to seesaw back and forth between where I’m focusing my creative energy-writing or editing).
And then I had my kids, and since they’re still young, my focus is really on them. I know many people who manage to balance work and kids and writing brilliantly, and I’m in complete and utter awe of them. I do still write, but very slowly now-like watching paint dry slow. My process is: type a word-now maybe I better take a break to go make some playdough or join the PTA or redecorate the kids room-type the another word.
Could you update us on your back-list books, highlighting as you see fit?
My childhood Little House obsession grew into a passion for women’s history which has inspired most of books. My first book, You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer!, is a lighthearted look at Amelia Bloomer, a real life early feminist and the woman bloomers are named after.
Players in Pigtails is about the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. In that story, I’d done all the research, interviewed players, etc. and had all sorts of wonderful facts I couldn’t wait to include (in order to make female athletes palatable to 1940s America, the players were actually required to go to charm school and to wear lipstick–I couldn’t make up such fun details!).
I was stuck though on which player to focus the story on–there were just so many admirable women in the league, picking one didn’t seem fair.
In the end, I happened to come across the lyrics to the song “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” (1908). And I found something that completely amazed me. There’s a little known first verse that begins “Katie Casey was baseball mad, had the fever and had it bad.”
I couldn’t believe it. The song that everyone associates with baseball is about a girl! I decided instead of focusing on a single woman, to make a fictional main character–a composite of the many cool women in the league–and I named her Katie Casey.
Milly and the Macy’s Parade is a holiday story, but it’s really an ode to my Jewish grandmothers both of whom were the daughters of immigrants and who are about the same age as Milly is in the story. Most of the story is fiction, but it’s rooted in a fact about the parade’s beginnings.
The parade was started by immigrants who worked at Macy’s and who were homesick for the holiday traditions of their homelands–I read that and was intrigued. I wondered who actually started it? And I loved how quintessentially American it was that the parade began with immigrants and the traditions they brought with them.
Congratulations on the success of Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune & Swimsuit History!, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham (Scholastic, 2009). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
I tend to be inspired by people who are brave enough to buck convention, and Annette (a record-setting athlete who scandalized Boston by wearing a one-piece bathing suit in 1908) certainly did that.
I loved that Annette was confident enough to be herself and to do what she knew to be right–even if it meant going against the prevailing fashion (as anyone who’s ever gone to high school knows, it doesn’t get much braver than that!).
I think as children, we all believe that we’re special, that we have it in us to change the world. We start out wanting to be artists or astronauts or rock stars, but then somewhere along the way, most of us lose that absolute, unconditional belief in ourselves.
Well, Annette never lost it. And when the whole world told her her clothing choices were wrong, she wore them anyway and went on to write books about why the rest of the world should change. How can you not love that they kind of chutzpah?! I wish I had it!
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?
Researching Annette was a challenge. There’s very little out about her, and most of what I originally found included discrepancies that made the research a bit like a treasure hunt.
I spent weeks pouring over microfilm from 1907, which is when all the secondary accounts said she’d been in Boston, and I couldn’t find a single mention of her in any of the Boston papers. I finally started looking for her in the surrounding years and had an ‘aha!’ moment when she showed up in Boston papers in 1908.
You have published a number of easy readers. What attracts you to this format/age-level? What are its special challenges?
I think early readers are a great training ground for picture books because they force you to be very concise and not to rely on flowery language (which can be lovely to read, but is probably not going to hook a kid anyway). Early readers also have very precise word counts and rules and when you learn that rhythm, they can be hugely fun to write, like figuring out a puzzle. They also make great read-alouds.
My kids love Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto by Natalie Standiford, illustrated by Donald Cook (Random House, 2005), Eat My Dust! Henry Ford’s First Race by Monica Kulling, illustrated by Richard Walz (Random House, 2004), and George Washington and the General’s Dog by Frank Murphy, illustrated by Richard Walz (Random House, 2002).
What advice do you have–both creatively and professionally–for writers interested in creating books of this kind?
Read everything you can, research what’s already out there and find something that hasn’t already been done, and write the publishers to find out what their guidelines are and who the editor is for that format. The biggest mistake writers make is to submit to the wrong editor–find someone who edits books like the one you’re writing.
Let’s shift gears! You’re also an editor at Random House! How did you prepare for this career?
As with writing, I think the best and really the only preparation for an editing career is to read everything you can.
What do you see as the job(s) of an editor in the publishing process?
As an editor, it’s my job to help an author make their book the best it can possibly be and then position that book to sales and marketing in a way that gets them as excited about the book as I am and that gives them the tools they need to spread that excitement outside of the house to the rest of the world. I also want to make it as smooth and as positive a process as I possibly can for all involved.
What are its challenges?
The economy. It’s hard to have a book you love, a book you know is really good and that deserves readership, that may even have the reviews to support that–and then not to have it sell well.
It can also be a challenge at times to manage expectations. The truth is that it’s not standard or even necessarily helpful to tour first-time authors, and it’s my job to make sure an author understands that and knows that it’s not for lack of enthusiasm; we’re just spending our marketing dollars very strategically, and a well-placed ad, or an ARC giveaway at conferences may actually help them and their book more than sending them on the road.
What do you love about it?
Really, just about everything (except the above)!
If you could make a change for the better in the publishing world, what would it be? Why?
Lately, I’ve noticed in certain forums there seems to be an “us against them” mentality—i.e. publishers are making a killing on eBooks or authors should wrest cover control away from evil publishers. I find it very disheartening. I think we’re all book people, we’re all trying to do the best we can by these stories.
I may be naïve, but as someone who’s been on both sides of the industry for almost 14 years now, what I almost always see are editors and publishers and authors working really hard for their books. Could we do better? Absolutely. Are mistakes sometimes made? Sure.
But I don’t think it’s systematic or the norm, and I definitely don’t think it’s constructive to approach it as a battle between publishers and readers/authors. We’re all on the same side and I’d love for people to start off with that assumption. (I know, I know, cue “It’s a Small World”).
What are a few of your favorite books (of those you edited) and why?
I’m a huge fan of C.K. Kelly Martin and am so excited for more and more people to discover her. Her writing is just mind-blowingly gorgeous, and her characters are people I recognize and connect with and care about every time–even the minor characters.
C. K.’s newest book The Lighter Side of Life and Death [releases May 25] is my favorite yet. It’s one of the sexiest, most soulful books I’ve ever read.
I also have the pleasure of editing the incredibly talented brother-sister duo Matt and Jenni Holm and am always happy when a new Babymouse comes out (in part because I’ll get a 24-hour break from my five-year-old begging me for the next Babymouse!) They’re such smart, laugh-out-loud funny books. Cupcake Tycoon is coming out this fall.
And this is an extra busy year for Jenni because she has a new novel out as well–her first since her Newbery Honor winning Penny From Heaven (2006).
Jenni’s new novel Turtle in Paradise (May 10) is a book the whole family can enjoy together. It was inspired by Jenni’s family history and is set in depression era Key West, and reading it, you’re just transported–the local color and characters, the voice. It has everything from a gang of ragtag kids, to Little Orphan Annie, to Ernest Hemingway to buried pirate treasure—and it’s incredibly vivid and beautifully written.
Audrey Couloumbis is one of my favorite all time authors. Her Misadventures of Maude March is a book I would have loved growing up and am very proud to have been a part of–it’s a wild, rollicking western about two orphaned sisters who become inadvertent outlaws and it stars the most endearing narrator I’ve ever met. And Audrey has another book coming out this fall, Jake (Sept. 2010), that I think is really special.
And I have two middle grade debuts this spring I’m really excited about, The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone (a story with magic, miniatures, mystery and adventure and perfect for fans of From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg (Atheneum, 1967) and The Doll People by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin (Hyperion, 2000)) and Nature Girl by Jane Kelley (a wonderfully funny, feel-good, girl power twist on a survival story that I want to give to every 9-12 year-old girl I know!).
Mostly through agents–Random House officially doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, though if I’ve met an author and connected with their voice, then I usually welcome submissions from them.
What recommendations do you have for writers interested in working with you? With your house?
Join SCBWI. Get a good agent, and I’d really recommend an editor-friendly agent. Yes, you want your agent to get you a good deal, but you also want them to be someone editors enjoy working with.
What makes Random House special?
We have an amazing, unparalleled sales force made up of the smartest and most enthusiastic book people I’ve ever met. We have a President who genuinely cares about creating a fun place to work. We’re a great place for authors and a great place to work (though as a writer, I want to say Scholastic’s pretty special as well).
How does your writer self inform your editor self and vise versa?
They’re so intertwined it’s hard to separate. My writer self reminds my editor self to be very gentle and encouraging. It’s easy to write a ten-page editorial letter, but I know that it can be overwhelming to read on the other end.
My writer self also reminds me editor self that it’s not my story, and so I work hard to make sure that I’m never encouraging an author to take a story in a direction that doesn’t feel right to them.
On the other side, my editor self reminds my writer self that this is a tough market and there are a lot of books out there. That I shouldn’t get my hopes up for “Oprah” or a 12-city book tour. And that I should never, ever be a diva to my editor or to any of the talented folks graciously working on my books.
What do you do outside the world of youth literature?
I read grownups books, I go to yoga and wait for the snow to melt and the sunshine to come back out (update: it’s melted! the sun’s out! I’m dizzy with vitamin D!), I hang out with my family and laugh over the things my kids say and bore my friends and family by repeating them excessively, I surf the internet way too much and watch way too much bad television (and some good television–though I tend to prefer the bad).