Guest Post: Yvonne Pearson on Publishing with Historical Society Presses

By Yvonne Pearson

In a stroke of good fortune, I published my first trade picture book with a regional publisher—Minnesota Historical Society Press (MNHS).

I had attended a gathering of our local Picture Book Salon to hear MNHS’ Managing Editor Shannon Pennefeather talk about the press’ relatively new focus on publishing children’s books. They had begun that effort in 2010 and continued to look for stories with a Minnesota slant.

Fortunately, I had a manuscript ready. Sadie Braves the Wilderness was set in one of Minnesota’s most iconic and celebrated places: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Sadie Braves the Wilderness (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017)

My husband and I had taken our children to the Boundary Waters many times, and we cherished the adventures we had shared there. We loved to spot wildlife such as moose, beavers, bear and loons, to scout blueberries, and to swim in waterfalls. This particular wilderness was in my heart and bones.

Three weeks after I submitted my manuscript, Shannon emailed me to let me know the press wanted to acquire it.

Publishing just two picture books a year, the press tends to have a backlog of manuscripts, so a lot of patience was required— three and a half years from acceptance to publication.

However, unlike some mainstream publishers, they invited me into the publication process.

I was able to meet face-to-face with Shannon, my editor. She asked for my ideas on possible illustrators and sought my feedback on initial sketches. Later, they also invited me to a publicity planning meeting and arranged a book launch for illustrator Karen Ritz and me at a local independent bookstore, along with other appearances and book signings.

Yvonne’s family canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

After talking with other MNHS Press authors, I’ve learned this level of engagement is standard.

Molly Beth Griffin, who wrote Rhoda’s Rock Hunt, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell (MNHS Press, 2014) and has another book coming out in 2021, said she loves working with them. They “really invest a lot of time and energy in each book,” and are “really involved in the local literary community.”

Staff members are familiar faces at local book festivals and are involved with events such as the state fair’s literacy activities and the annual Books for Breakfast event.

Yvonne at Alphabet Forest, a literary event at the Minnesota State Fair.

Cheryl Blackford echoed Molly’s comments. Cheryl, who wrote Hungry Coyote, illustrated by Laurie Caple (MNHS press, 2015), said that, along with the books’ high quality, she especially appreciated the personal relationship with the editor and others at the press. “You feel like you’re part of the same community,” she said.

While the advances are smaller with such a regional press, they are 100 percent committed to each book and to keeping them in print.

MNHS Press is newly open to submission again after having been closed for some time to reduce their backlog. Shannon cautioned that the acceptance rate remains limited. She receives about two manuscripts a week, but they only publish two children’s books a year.

Minnesota’s Historical Society Press appears to be one of the few historical societies that have a regular program of publishing children’s books. While the stories do not have to be historical, they must have a particular connection to the state.

I asked Shannon to elaborate on this. “You know it when you see it,” she said. “It must be a book that clearly belongs with a midwestern publisher.”

She is especially interested in own voices. The press recently published BowWow PowWow by a Native American team (Brenda Child and Jonathan Thunder), a natural for MNHS Press since it has a strong Native American list. (See a Cynsations interview with Jonathan.)

Other historical society presses also publish children’s books.

The Wisconsin Historical Society Press publishes “about two or three” nonfiction children’s books a year, according to Press Director Kate Thompson. Their program focuses on the fourth-grade level because that’s the year students study state history. Kate said the books must be about Wisconsin history and culture. While it has to be a Wisconsin story at heart, the authors do not have to be residents.

Like Wisconsin, the Indiana Historical Society Press is focused on education. It publishes at least one nonfiction children’s books a year for students in grades kindergarten through twelve—and for their educators and media specialists.

If you have a manuscript with a regional focus, check with state historical societies to see if they publish books for children. Even if they don’t, their gift shop may lead you to regional or university presses that accept submissions for young readers.

Cynsational Notes

Yvonne Pearson has published fifteen books for young children and is currently working on a young adult verse novel. She has won two Minnesota Arts Board grants and is a 2018 Loft-McKnight Writing Fellow.