Editor Interview: Christie Harkin of Fitzhenry & Whiteside

Meet editor Christie Harkin.

By Lena Coakley

This May, I had a chance to sit down with Christie Harkin, children’s book editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside Publishers in Canada.

Christie has been an editor at Fitzhenry & Whiteside for the past four years. 

In her former life, she produced and hosted a local cable access TV show called “Bookmarks,” a book report show for kids.

Lena: Christie, some people would call children’s book editor a dream job. How did you get into this field?

Christie: By a very long route! I started off as an in-house tutor at a private school for ten years, thinking I wanted to be a teacher. Then I started teaching English as a second language. I loved helping kids write their essays. I was really good at that—editing their short stories, teaching them how to write. I eventually did teach high school English, but I found I didn’t like it as much as I hoped I would. For a while I home schooled my children, but as they got older, I knew I wanted something more.

I decided to upgrade my BA, and I ended up in Deirdre Baker’s fourth year seminar course in Canadian children’s literature at the University of Toronto. This was a turning point for me.

Deirdre brought in some amazing people from the Canadian children’s publishing industry to speak—authors, editors, you name it. Paul Yee came into the class, Jean Little, Hadley Dyer, Shelley Tanaka. It was phenomenal.

It was also through this class that I heard about the Ryerson Publishing program and through Ryerson I got an internship at Fitzhenry & Whiteside. Things moved very quickly at this point: In September, I started at university; in January, I started at Ryerson; in April, I started at Fitzhenry as in intern; and in July, I had a full-time job. I was very lucky.

Lena: I posted the fact that I was interviewing you on Twitter and Facebook and of course the question people most wanted to know was: What do you look for in a submission?

F&W launch party!

Christie: First of all, it’s not just me. If a manuscript has been accepted, you can be sure it has been looked at and considered by a whole group of people.

The first person who will see it is an intern who goes through the slush pile and weeds out a lot. I do take a first glance at everything, but she’s the one who reads the slush in depth.

Lena: How does she know what to look for?

Christie: Fitzhenry & Whiteside has a painfully explicit submission guideline on our website that submitting authors and illustrators really, really, really should take a look at.

On my blog I have a whole rant about how to follow a submission guideline—editors tend to get very uptight about this. It’s also a good idea to take a look at our catalogues to see what we’ve been publishing over the last few seasons.

Once our intern has weeded the slush pile, then it’s my turn to go through—but I don’t make all the decisions. If I like a manuscript, I will give it to Cathy Sandusky, our publisher. If she likes it, she’ll give it to the company president, Sharon Fitzhenry, and perhaps a few other people in the office. We might end up with a shortlist of twenty manuscripts we’re interested in. That twenty must be whittled down even further based on how a manuscript might fit into our list.

It’s important to us to publish great stories with great characters that also fit into the curriculum. Schools and libraries are our bread and butter. The trade market is important too, but it’s very small right now—it’s difficult to get books on the shelves—but there is still a great need for books in schools and libraries.

Submitting authors need to read widely and be familiar with the children’s market. Something literary, original, child friendly, education friendly and not pedantic—that’s hard to do but that’s what we are looking for.

Lena: And an illustration submission? What do you look for there?

Christie: My tastes in art are pretty eclectic. Can I be totally unhelpful and just say that “I know it when I see it?”

That’s usually what happens. I get a postcard in the mail and it hits me between the eyes – “This would be perfect for that story we just signed!” That’s what happened with Jacqueline Hudon-Verrelli and Bye, Bye, Butterflies!

Lena: Have you ever published a first-time author out of the slush?

Christie: Tons of times! Lisa Dalrymple’s debut book is coming out in the fall with another publisher, but we signed her first for Skink on the Brink, a book that’s coming out with us in the spring, so I’m claiming her!

Lisa was very smart. She approached me at the Word on the Street festival and said, “I write picture books. What can I do for you? What do you need?”

I showed her my Tell Me More storybook line and said, “Well, you could try writing one of these.”

She said, “I’ve got something! I’ve got a book about a skink.” It turned out to be well-written and exactly what we were looking for.

We also publish quite a few first-time illustrators. Kiss Me! (I’m a Prince)!, which was up for a Blue Spruce award this year, was a first book for the author, Heather McLeod, and a first full book for the illustrator, Brooke Kerrrigan.

Skink on the Brink, which I mentioned, will be illustrated by a first-time illustrator, Suzanne Del Rizzo, who sent me a sample postcard.

I love getting books out of the slush—I really do. That’s where The Dewpoint Show by Barb Howard came from; that’s where Yellow Mini by Lori Weber came from; that’s where Brian Cretney’s book Tooter’s Stinky Wish came from. Discovering these books is one of my favourite things about the job.

Lena: So, once you’ve accepted the book, what is the editing process with you like?

Christie: Before I even sign a book, I will write up a detailed set of notes for the author so that he or she knows where I want to go with it. Any major changes that I foresee, I want to be sure the author is on board with before signing. It’s a good way to find out if this is an author and a project I can work with – and vise versa.

I do a substantive edit first with about two pages of notes and further notes to the author using “track changes.” As a rule, I try not to point out a problem without giving a solution. I want to give an author a few options. If they come up with something else that is better, fantastic! But I try not to leave somebody with a dead end.

Sometimes it will take an author two or three substantive revisions to get it right, which is absolutely fine. I encourage phone and Skype conversations. I’d rather an author call me on a Sunday afternoon in a panic than live with the panic until Monday. 

Lena: Really? I’m not sure my editor would say that!

More fun at the launch!

Christie: Well, let’s say, email me. There’s no point in an author or illustrator freaking out about something if it’s something that can be fixed with a two-sentence email.

Many of my authors have gotten phone calls from me at the ballpark or the hockey arena—that’s where I do quite a bit of editing.

I will also show our publisher, Cathy Sandusky, a manuscript a few times during its development both for her editing input and for her knowledge of curriculum, grade levels etc.—she’s a big part of the process.

Usually I work from home one day a week, and I spend that whole day—twelve hours—on one book because so much of my time in the office is taken up with other things. 

Lena: Other things? What else do you do besides editing and acquiring?

Christie: I write back cover copy, oversee design, do cover mock ups, create tip sheets, deal with contracts—negotiating them and settling some contract issues; I help art direct the picture books.

I also have two sales accounts, so I sell as well. I sell rights when I go to Bologna; I oversee my intern who submits to awards, which is a huge job for her. I do a lot of liaising with different departments like the marketing department.

Nonfiction is something we haven’t talked much about, but Cathy and I also oversee the stuff that needs to get done there, like getting permissions for photographs and writing indices and so on. Nonfiction is very time consuming.

 I’m awfully lucky. My last intern turned out to be a really good non fiction editor so she was a tremendous help. We really love our interns, and I’ve been very lucky with them. 

Lena: When I think of Fitzhenry and Whiteside I think mostly of realistic fiction or of historical fiction like Glory Wind by Valerie Sherrard, which was a multiple award winner for you. But the message many unpublished authors are getting these days is that fantasy is the hot genre that everyone wants. Why don’t you think that Fitzhenry has jumped on the bandwagon?

Christie: For one thing, we have a reputation for publishing excellent, literary realistic and historical novels. We don’t actively seek other genres out.

There is a whole different marketing scheme required for publishing fantasy, paranormal, and to some extent mystery novels. It requires a different set of marketing skills and resources. When you’re always marketing in a certain direction, doing something different requires a new approach.

We will and can do it, though, and Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted is an example. The dystopian/paranormal aspect wasn’t the reason we picked it up, really. Cheryl is such a great writer and we were so happy to be able to bring her to Canada that we decided we were willing to do what we had to do for that book.

Lena: I think readers would love to get a better idea of your personal tastes. What are some of your favourites?

Christie: Would it seem like sucking up if I said yours? Witchlanders really was one of the best things I read last year. 

Lena: *smiles demurely*

Christie: Sometimes I read a book that’s so good, I get depressed that I didn’t get to publish it.

The last one I read like that was Catherine Austen’s All Good Children.

Some all-time favourites are Johnny Kellock Died Today by Hadley Dyer and The Gravesavers by Sheree Fitch.

Deirdre Baker introduced me to so many great books: Mistik Lake by Martha Brooks and the Rex Zero series by Tim Wynne-Jones.

I also absolutely loved Skim, the graphic novel by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, just to name a few.

Lena: This question is one that was suggested on Facebook: “I’d like to know how Fitzhenry & Whiteside plans to improve the abysmal state of Canadian publishing.” First of all, is it abysmal?

Christie: Oh my goodness, no! Canadian publishers are publishing incredible books and have been for a long, long time. The publishing industry is going through a sort of metamorphosis, perhaps.

Changes are afoot, to be sure. And Fitzhenry & Whiteside is sorting through all those changes just as everyone else is. But we know that the important part—enabling authors and illustrators to create great books that people will want to read and share—is at the centre of what we do.

We need to keep publishing Canadian authors, Canadian illustrators and Canadian stories—especially Canadian stories with international appeal. Canada is such a multicultural society. Nothing brings that home to me more than when I travel outside of Canada and look at what other people are publishing. Often I think: We can do that, too, because we have those voices.

For instance, Kari-Lynn Winters has written a book called Gift Days about a girl in Uganda that I think will appeal both to Canadians and to a broader audience.

The Stamp Collector by Jennifer Lanthier is another picture book I’m excited about. It’s about an imprisoned writer, and part of the proceeds will be going to PEN Canada. We can take that story to the world.

I love that Canadian publishing can be—and is—going in that direction. Our school system is looking for books that are outward looking.

 Stories that take place in Canada are very important to us—after all, we’ve got Hockey Girl; we’ve got The Dewpoint Show— but it’s also important to look outside and put a Canadian perspective on the world. That’s one thing I think we are doing.

Lena: What’s coming out at Fitz that you particularly want us to keep an eye out for?

Christie: Hockey Girl by Natalie Hyde is so much fun. It’s about a bet between a girls’ hockey team and a boys’ hockey team, and it deals in a humerous way with inequalities in the sports world.

Award-winning author Valerie Sherrard has a new free verse novel coming out—that’s my Wednesday work tomorrow. In nonfiction, Kari-Lynn Winters has a book about bees coming out—a hot topic. And Helaine Becker’s new teen novel How To Survive Absolutely Everything has just gone to the printers.

There are so many! I love my books. They’re all my babies.

Remember when you asked me earlier what I’m looking for?

I’m looking for a book that I feel that way about—like it’s my baby. If I accept a manuscript, I will be spending a lot of time with it. I have to know I’ll keep loving it throughout the whole process.

Cynsational Notes

Lena Coakley
was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high
school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was
ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study
writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.

Witchlanders, her debut novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and an ABC new voices selection.

See also New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders and Author Lena Coakley Interviews Editor Hadley Dyer of HarperCollins Canada, both from Cynsations. 

11 thoughts on “Editor Interview: Christie Harkin of Fitzhenry & Whiteside

  1. SO many of my favourite friends and authors listed here… and Christie – a fantastic editor to work with. Thanks for the info Lena and Cynthia!

  2. Christie and Lena,
    As a reader, your interview encourages me to read, research, and buy more books. As an author, your interview inspires me to keep creating.
    And as a Canadian, your interview makes me appreciate this amazing country and proud of the authors this country has.
    To both of you, I send my gratitude!

  3. Thanks for this fantastic interview, Lena and Christie!

    It's wonderful and inspiring to see so many fabulous books coming out. Keep 'em coming!

  4. Great interview! We hear so often from agents on blogs, it's really interesting to peek inside an editor's day. I imagine it's a job that is equally exhausting and rewarding. Thanks also for all the book tips–looking forward to adding some new ones to my list, including Witchlanders!

  5. What a great interview. So many books to look forward to! I love to hear editors say positive things about "the slush" (having spent so much time there). And thanks, Christie, for the kind words about All Good Children.

  6. So nice to read all these lovely comments! Kari-Lynn, the two editors I've interviewed for this blog have really given me a greater appreciation of everything Canadian publishers are doing to support Canadian stories and culture. We really are very lucky.

    Thanks Christie and Cynthia! It was so nice to have an excuse to go for coffee with one of our great editors & get to know her better.

  7. Thank you Lena and Cynthia for inviting me to talk about what I (LOVE to) do. I am so proud of all my authors and illustrators, and I deeply admire people who create, and then have the courage to send out and entrust their work to us editors. And thank you to everyone for all the kind responses! It's been a really uplifting 24 hours 🙂

  8. My pleasure, Peggy! All the credit goes to Lena & Christie.

    Thanks for surfing by, Maureen, Chrissie, Ann and Ishta!

    Kari-Lynn, I'm glad you enjoyed the coverage. Here at Cynsations, Lena is really helping me to shine a light on Canadian children's/YA lit news.

    Happy reading, Melanie and Catherine!

    Thanks again to Lena & Christie! Brava on a great job!

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