In Memory: Ann Durell

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Ann Durell (McCrory) “was a distinguished editor and publisher of children’s books and a Vice President of E.P. Dutton until her retirement in 1987.”

She died in her Manhattan home on May 6 at age 87.

From The New York Times, “Ann worked with many noted authors including Maurice Sendak, Ellen Raskin, Lloyd Alexander, Judy Blume, Norma Klein, Steven Kellogg, Daniel Pinkwater and Bill Sleator.”

She began her career in children’s literature by reviewing books for the Junior Literary Guild (now the Junior Library Guild) while still a student at Mount Holyoke College.

After graduation, she joined a Doubleday training program and worked as a bookseller before being hired as a secretary for Margaret Lesser, Doubleday’s children’s editor.

Durell took a class in writing for children from Phyllis Whitney at New York University and wrote a novel, Holly River Secret (Doubleday, 1956).

A few years later, she became editor of the Junior Library Guild. She told Publishers Weekly the job provided “a bird’s-eye view of the whole range of children’s publishing.”

In 1961, Durell joined the editing team at Holt before moving to Dutton in 1969. Her authors there received numerous awards, including Newbery and Caldecott medals.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) offers an audio recording of Ellen Raskin’s talk about writing and how Durell’s suggestion prompted her to become a novelist. (It also began with lunch.) Peek:

“I had done about 12 picture books when Ann Durell…took me to lunch and said she would like me to do a book for Dutton. Now I had done some books for Ann before, illustrated books for other authors.”

Raskin was writing picture books for Anthenum at the time and told Durell she wanted to continue doing that.

“Ann said, ‘Oh no, I want you to write a long book. 

“And I of course said, ‘I’m an illustrator’ and she said, figuring that everyone has one book in her, ‘Well, why don’t you write about your childhood in Milwaukee during the Depression….'”

She sat down to do that and wrote and wrote out came The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (Dutton, 1971).

CCBC also features Raskin’s original manuscript pages of The Westing Game (Dutton, 1978) with Durell’s editorial notes.

In Judy Blume by Elisa Ludwig and Dennis Abrams (Chelsea House, 2013), they quote Blume recalling how Durell’s guidance led to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Dutton, 1972):

“…my first agent submitted the story to Ann Durell…Ann invited me to lunch. I was so nervous I could hardly eat but she was so warm and friendly…Ann liked my story but she suggested, instead of a picture book, I consider writing a longer book about the Hatcher family…”

Judy Blume told Publishers Weekly about working with Ann Durell. Peek:

“We did five books together and disagreed just once. She thought spiders in an outhouse were scarier/funnier than green, gurgling gas. I fought for green, gurgling gas. She let me have my way.”

In her 1978 Newbery acceptance speech for Bridge to Terabithia (Crowell, 1977), Katherine Paterson said she was seated with Durell at a Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. luncheon. Those at the table started talking about their children and she shared that her young son’s best friend had died after being struck by lightening and her family was still grieving. Peek:

“No one interrupted me, but when I finally shut up, Ann Durell said very gently, ‘I know this sounds just like an editor, but you should write that story. Of course,’ she said, ‘the child can’t die by lightning. No editor would ever believe that.’”

Durell also edited The Chronicles of Prydain Series (Dutton, 1964) by Lloyd Alexander. In this trailer for a documentary on the author, Durell talks about her first impression of the manuscript.

Author & Editor Interview: Jessica Lee Anderson, Madeline Smoot on Uncertain Summer

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve always had a fascination with Bigfoot; the idea that an ape/human creature could be secretly living in the woods both intrigued and terrified me as a child.

So when I got the opportunity to chat with the author and editor of Uncertain Summer by Jessica Lee Anderson (CBAY, 2017), I couldn’t pass it up. First, the promotional copy:

For decades something has lurked in the swampy lakes of East Texas. Could it be the elusive Bigfoot?

Everdil Jackson thinks so. Her whole life she’s grown up listening to the stories of the Bigfoot sightings around Uncertain, Texas. 


When a TV show offers a million dollars to the person that can provide conclusive proof of Bigfoot, Everdil, her brother, and two friends form a team to snap a picture of the beast. 


With any luck, they’ll prove the impossible and win the money Everdil’s family badly needs. But tracking a monster, especially one nobody’s been able to catch, proves trickier than Everdil expected. 

With each new adventure, Everdil seems to create more problems with her friends and family than she solves. In the end, she has to hope that her brave, foolish actions will ultimately make things right with everyone, including Bigfoot.


Jessica – author

Patterson-Gimlin Sasquatch image and Jessica’s dog, JoJo 

Jessica, what first sparked the idea for this book?


I’ve always been intrigued by cryptid tales, and it was after watching the Patterson-Gimlin film that I looked over and felt like Bigfoot was lurking in my living room.

It was just my old terrier, JoJo, staring at me—she resembles a mini-Sasquatch.

The experience fired up my imagination and I knew I wanted to write story featuring Bigfoot with a twist of course.

(As an aside, the Patterson-Gimlin film is now over 50 years old, and folks are still debating if it is real Bigfoot footage or not!)

Have you had a Bigfoot encounter?


I can now say that I’ve eaten Bigfoot!

The amazingly-talented Akiko White created a Bigfoot cake for the book release party.

Baby Bigfoot created by Akiko White
(see creation video at the bottom of this post)

I did spend some time out in Uncertain, Texas and searched for Bigfoot while hiking and exploring the area. I smelled some skunk-like odors in the air that made me think that there was certainly the possibility that Bigfoot was lurking around a woodsy corner.

Scenes from Uncertain, Texas

How do you navigate that fine line between spooky fun and too scary?

This seemed to come naturally for me because I tend to get spooked easily when it comes to scary books and movies. My imagination seems to run overtime (even while I’m sleeping)!

After writing the first draft, I layered in extra adventure and upped the stakes as well as the spooky fun aspects of the story. I enjoy writing, and I love the revision process…most of the time.


Do you have any writing tips to offer?


Gayleen & Jessica at Texas Library Association conference

My path from idea to publication took about seven years.

If I were to go through the whole process again, I would sit down and create a detailed outline that would offer direction yet still leave much room for creativity during the actual writing process. The story lacked much shape in the earlier drafts.

So, advice? I would say find a process that helps you as a writer to be the most efficient, and spend the time getting your manuscript in the best shape possible.

Keep fighting for your story even if there are some bumps along the path! I’m so glad I didn’t give up on this book.

I noticed you’ve done a lot of travel and school visits to promote this book. How do you balance promotion/writing/being a mom?

My background is in education, and before my full-time writing days and being a stay-at-home mom, I was a teacher. I love spending time in the classroom and in various libraries to get kids fired up about reading and writing!

It feels like such a gift to be able to travel around Texas as well as out of state to inspire and be inspired! When booking various events, I try to be as mindful of writing deadlines as possible as well as various happenings with my daughter, though life certainly happens.

I’ve learned to write on the go as much as possible, and I’ve gotten much better about asking for help when needed. I’m grateful for such caring family and friends as well as my understanding daughter!
 
Madeline Smoot – editor/publisher

Jessica (left) and Madeline at  BookPeople
for the launch of Uncertain Summer.

What appealed to you about this story?

There are so many wonderful aspects to Uncertain Summer.

I loved the adventure and mystery surrounding the cryptid. I liked how the characters were relatable.

I thought Jessica had crafted a dynamic book that would appeal to a large number of kids for various reasons.

Could you tell us a little about CBAY and how your acquisition process works?

Like most publishers, we are initially approached by authors or agents with a query.

In an effort to avoid becoming overwhelmed, CBAY is rarely open to unsolicited submissions. However, if authors have met me at a workshop, conference, SCBWI meeting, etc or if they are referred to me by a CBAY author or some other professional acquaintance, I am willing to consider their query.

If the query looks promising, I’ll request the full manuscript. From there I consider each season’s list and any holes I may have, and I will also look at the financial side for each potential title. 
If it is a book I wouldn’t mind reading at least eight times, and if the numbers work out, I’ll then make an offer and hopefully acquire it.

This is exactly how it worked for Uncertain Summer. Jessica is a veteran author, and her book was in excellent shape.

However, I primarily work with debut authors, and often their books needs some revising before I’ll make an offer. I generally only make an offer on books that are ready (or very close to ready) for the market.

Uncertain Summer interior illustration by Jeff Crosby, used with permission.

Uncertain Summer has lovely interior illustrations that enhance the story, something we don’t always see in MG books. How do you decide if you’re going to include additional illustrations? Is this something you see as a developing trend in MG?

Younger middle grade often has some illustrations, and I personally have always been a fan of illustrations used in the chapter headers. A famous example of this would be all of the small spot illustrations at the beginning of each Harry Potter chapter.

I am more likely to have interior illustrations if I have hired an illustrator to produce the cover artwork than if I used stock illustrations for the cover.

Illustration by Jeff Crosby, used with permission.

How do you select an illustrator?


I rely more on stock images rather than illustrators for many of our projects, but I do enjoy getting to work with an illustrator when the project calls for it.

Every illustrator I have ever worked with is one that was referred to me by a trusted source. In each case I had a vague stylistic idea of what I wanted the book to convey, and then I hired the illustrator with a similar aesthetic.

What else do you have out/coming up?

In the spring we have our “Princess” season with two middle grade novels and one YA anthology where all the books feature a princess.

Once Upon a Princess by Christine Marciniak debuts in April and revolves around a princess forced into hiding with her family when their country experiences a revolution. 

The second book, Royal Trouble: The Sinister Regent by Hope Erica Schultz follows a princess and her royal cousins and friends as they try to thwart a plot against their respective crowns. 
Finally, Perilous Princesses is a 10-story anthology with contributions by various authors where the princesses aren’t in danger—they are the danger. Includes stories by Susan Bianculli, Lori Bond, Alison Ching, Steve DuBois, Jeanne Kramer-Smyth, Ameria Lewis, Christine Marciniak, Kath Boyd Marsh, Hope Erica Schultz, and Madeline Smoot.



Cynsational Notes

Jessica Lee Anderson is the author of Trudy (Milkweed, 2005), winner of the 2005 Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature, Border Crossing (Milkweed, 2009), a Quick Picks Nomination and Cynsational Book of 2009, as well as Calli (Milkweed Editions 2011),  a 2013 Rainbow List Final Nomination and 2011 YALSA’s Readers’ Choice Booklist Nomination.

She’s published multiple chapter books for Rourke Educational Media including Brownies with Benjamin Franklin, Case of Foul Play on a School Day, and Runaway Robot.

She’s published also fiction and nonfiction with Heinemann, Pearson, Seedling Publications, Six Red Marbles, and a variety of magazines including Highlights for Children.

Jessica graduated from Hollins University with a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature and previously instructed at the Institute of Children’s Literature and St. Edward’s University.

She is a member of The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels and hopes to be more sweetheart than scoundrel.

She lives near Austin, Texas with her husband, daughter, and two crazy dogs.

Madeline Smoot is the publisher of CBAY Books and former Editorial Director for Children’s Books of Blooming Tree Press. She blogs about writing at Buried in the Slush Pile and is the author of several writing guides, including Story Slices: How to Make Story Plotting a Piece of Cake. 

Madeline lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband, son, a cat, a dog, and more books than should fit in any normal person’s house.

See the Baby Bigfoot Cake by Akiko White

Authors, Editor & Illustrator Interview: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Fighting for Justice)

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi are the co-authors of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, illustrated by Yukata Houlette (Heyday, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. 


But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. 


This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.

Inspired by the award-winning book for adults Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California by Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi (Heyday, 2009), the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. 


The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.


Today we welcome the co-authors, editor and illustrator to share with Cynsations readers a glimpse into the creative process behind the book.

Stan, can you talk about the inspiration behind the book and series?

Fred Korematsu

I wish I could claim credit for initiating the book and series, but they are the brainchildren of Heyday’s founder and retired publisher, Malcolm Margolin.

He thought a children’s version of Wherever There’s a Fight, the book I co-wrote with Elaine Elinson about the history of civil rights in California, would inspire kids.

That initial idea morphed into a plan for a series of books about civil liberties heroes and heroines.

Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. So I’m delighted that the series is launching with his story.

He stood virtually alone against a powerful government he knew was violating the rights of Japanese Americans. His fight for justice was difficult. But he ultimately prevailed.

He dedicated the final decades of his life to ensuring that others would not suffer the same unfair discrimination Japanese Americans endured during World War II.

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice.

Laura, white headband, seated far end of line, blockading
Lawrence Livermore Lab. She was arrested soon after. 

Laura, what inspired you to work on this project?

I was delighted to be asked to come on board!

Molly, our editor at Heyday, approached me and asked if I could get involved as a person with children’s book experience, to help Stan create a story pitched at our middle grade readership. It was a dream project for me.

I love that the book, and the series, focus on people who have fought for social justice and civil liberties in California history.

I grew up as the child of activist parents, and got involved in activism myself in middle school and high school, including getting arrested as part of anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid protests.

I learned from my family and from my peers, that my own happiness and well-being is connected to other people’s, and that when we fight for everyone’s rights, we make the whole world better.

I am so excited that we were able to create a book that will hopefully inspire young people today to feel like they can have a voice, and the power to speak up when they see something unfair.

We are in a time when basic civil liberties are being threatened and undermined.

I hope that our story will help kids to understand more about what happened to Fred Korematsu, and how 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were put in jail during WWII just for looking like the enemy.

This can help them to reflect on issues today — a potential registry of Muslim Americans along with the travel ban for people from predominently Muslim countries, anti-immigrant attitudes, and other forms of discrimination — and consider how they can have the power, and the ability, to speak up themselves.

Molly, how did the editorial process for this book work? Was it similar to other books you’d worked on or different?

I feel very fortunate to have been part of this project, working with a group of such thoughtful and caring creative people to share Fred Korematsu’s story.

As we built the book from the ground up, the editorial process was more collaborative than that of any other project I’ve worked on.

We spent many afternoons together talking about Fred’s experiences and how to best convey them to young readers, and it was nice that we all lived in the Bay Area and could brainstorm in person.

Stan and Laura did amazing work collaborating on the writing front, melding their different strengths, and Yutaka thought about illustrations that would complement the themes of each chapter, then beautifully realized them.

Meanwhile, we gathered photos, art works, news headlines, and other documents to help extend Fred’s story.

On a basic level, the challenge was helping readers understand and relate to Fred’s story, which
involves a complicated legal fight.

There was a constant balancing act of keeping things simple enough for our audience while presenting the complexity of topics accurately. Our conversations ranged from discussing how to talk about racism with this age group to how to present the fact that the U.S. government lied during Fred’s trial.

Through the lens of his story, we talked about many important and difficult subjects that are increasingly relevant today.

From the text to the visuals, our process involved discussing possibilities, trying out ideas and approaches, and gathering input.

We were grateful to have had the help and guidance of Fred’s children Karen and Ken Korematsu, local teachers and librarians, a focus group of fourth-grade students, and staff at several nonprofits and historical societies.

Slowly, the book began to take shape, coalescing more and more until it “came into its own” as the book it is today, a book that feels, to me, like a real community project, and one that will continue to expand beyond its covers as kids start to read and interact with it.

I hope readers are moved to have the same kinds of important conversations that we had while making the book, and that Fred’s example moves all of us to act when we see others treated unfairly.


Yutaka, what was your process for thinking about and creating the artwork?

I had never worked on a narrative project that involved so many drawings before, and honestly, I was a bit overwhelmed at first.

To try to make the project less daunting, I tried to plan as much as I could before diving too deep into any one drawing. Planning involved things like creating a color-palette, gathering reference images and trying to work out the compositions for as many of the rough sketches as I could.

The color-palette was inspired by kamishibai illustrations from the 40s and 50s.

Kamishibai, or ‘paper-theater’ was a popular Japanese form of storytelling for kids that took place outdoors. The illustrations for ‘kamishibai’ were intended to be eye-catching even from afar, so the colors often have a bright, pop-art feel to them. But many of the remaining ‘kamishibai’ from the 40s and 50s are a faded and worn out from heavy use in the outdoors. I was hoping this mix of bright and faded colors would subtly evoke an older time without feeling musty.

Because the story takes place in specific times and places, there were many reference images to find, like Fred’s old high school, barbershops from the 40s, and Tanforan. 

Molly and Diane from Heyday helped out a lot by giving me some reference books about life in the
internment camps. I was also inspired by the artworks of Miné Okubo and Chiura Obata, who were both imprisoned at Topaz.

I think that in any art-form, once you introduce more than one element, the relationship between the elements becomes impossible not to think about.

So it was important for me that the drawings worked well individually but also in relation to each other. When creating rough sketches, I tried to vary the compositions from one drawing to the next to try to make them flow together but also to not be too redundant.

Once most of the planning was done, I started work on the final drawings, which is the most fun. I used a drawing tablet for the line work and a combination of watercolors, color-pencil and Photoshop for coloring.


Cynsational Notes

Yutaka, Laura, Molly and Stan

Fred Korematsu Speaks Up received a starred review from Kirkus. “Written in free verse, Fred’s story engages in powerful bursts and shows how speaking out brings complex consequences. Enhanced with pictures and archival materials, well-researched and approachable historical essays interspersed throughout Fred’s account offer context, while Houlette’s reverent illustrations give humanity to Fred’s plight.”

Laura Atkins is an author, teacher and independent children’s book editor with more than 20 years editorial experience. She recently completed an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and also holds an MA in children’s literature from Roehampton University.

Stan Yogi managed development programs for the ACLU of Northern California for 14 years. In addition to Wherever There’s a Fight, he also coedited two literary anthologies. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, MELUS, Los Angeles Daily Journal and several anthologies.

Yutaka Houlette is a Japanese-American illustrator and front-end engineer based in Oakland, California. He designs and builds user interfaces for CommitChange, a fundraising platform for nonprofits and social good companies. His illustrations have also appeared in Smithsonian Magazine and Orion Magazine.

Molly Woodward is a freelance editor and the former children’s acquisitions editor at Heyday, an independent, nonprofit publisher. Heyday promotes widespread awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas.

Insets in the book provide broader historical context, timelines, definitions
and questions for readers to reflect on their own contexts.

Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Editor Alexandra Penfold of Simon & Schuster

Alexandra Penfold is an assistant editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books?

I was an obsessive reader as a kid. I read everything I could get my hands on and bankrolled the public library with my allowance because I always wanted to read books one more time before I returned them.

Some of my favorite books growing up were Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, The Knight and the Dragon by Tommie dePaola, The Pirates Mixed-Up Voyage by Margaret Mahy, Matilda by Roald Dahl, The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, That Dreadful Day by James Stevenson; I could go on and on.

I can probably attribute my living in New York today, at least in part to my love for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, Eloise by Kay Thompson, and The Babysitter’s Club Super Special #6: New York, New York!

What inspired you to become a children’s/YA book editor?

My mother is a writer and growing up I always wanted to be just like her. My parents always made sure our home was filled with books and when it came time to choose a career path it all came back to the books that inspired me as a kid and wanting to be part of the publishing process that brings great books to children.

How did you prepare for this career?

I graduated from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which is a specialized school at NYU that allows self directed students to create their own majors. My concentration in school was Entertainment Business and Marketing, so I basically did a marketing major with lots of writing and entertainment and media classes thrown in.

I actually started out on the marketing side of things as a summer intern and then got my first job as a publicity assistant for Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing. After a couple years in publicity, I transitioned to the editorial side of things. But honestly I’m still learning new things every day–it’s a lifelong learning process.

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

Throughout the publishing process the editor wears many hats, but first and foremost I think of the editor as a book’s champion. From the moment an editor reads a manuscript and has that gut feeling that “this is it” they are cheering on the author and illustrator every step of the way.

What are its challenges?

I honestly wish that there were more hours in the day. As an editor you’re always on the look out for new talent, and it’s difficult to find the time to read as much as I would like. We get a lot of unsolicited submissions from authors that aren’t totally polished, but have promise and it’s hard when you don’t have the time to give a lot of individual feedback

What do you love about it?

I love working with the authors and illustrators, of course!

Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of books you’re looking to acquire?

I’m particularly interested in young humorous picture books that work on multiple levels. The kind of books that both parents and kids will want to read again and again.

I’m also interested in middle grade and YA novels with strong central characters and unique voices. Those pre-teen and teen years are such a defining time in a person’s life, a time where you really discover who you are and what you stand for. I remember reading a lot at that age and finding comfort in books–discovering I wasn’t alone in my confusion and frustration at the world.

Above all, voice and strong characters are what grab me.

Could you suggest some of your previous titles for study and/or those by other editors that you particularly admire (noting which are your own)?

Some of my favorite picture books include: Double Pink by Kate Feiffer, illustrated by Bruce Ingman; Cowboy Ned and Andy by David Ezra Stein; Wolves and Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett; Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and the Gossie books by Olivier Dunrea.

I love the humor in these books. The text of each book is short and young, the characters have a great deal of personality, the stories are fun, and once you’ve finished reading them you can’t wait to go back to the beginning and read them again.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Meghan McCarthy on City Hawk: The True Story of Pale Male (Fall 2007), which is a really great engaging non-fiction picture book about Pale Male, the hawk who makes his home on the ledge of a swanky 5th Avenue co-op in New York City. As with all of her books, Meghan does a great job making the characters really come to life for the reader.

I would also say the same for Marissa Moss‘ Amelia series, which I’ve also had the opportunity to work on. Moss’ Amelia books cut right to the heart of what it is to be a middle-schooler. Amelia’s voice is authentic and her hopes, dreams, troubles and struggles are real. I can’t tell you how many readers write in saying that Amelia is just like them

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson, Private by Kate Brian, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak are three very different young adult novels that I’ve enjoyed recently. Each has terrific characters, a great voice, and I couldn’t put them down.

Along with Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, you’ll be joining Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts as an editor speaker. Could you give us some insight into your program?

I’m excited to be doing this retreat with Rebecca Sherman, not only because we’re good friends, but also we’ve also worked together. We hope to give participants some insight into the editor/agent relationship, how we negotiate and communicate, both with each other and with our authors and illustrators, as well as run workshops on the steps to preparing manuscripts for submissions

What is one thing you wish every beginning writer knew?

You never stop learning as a writer. There’s always something more that each of us can learn. I truly believe that writing is a skill in addition to being a craft, and in order to improve you really need to write and write and write. Keep believing and keep writing!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Many thanks go out to Nancy Wagner for putting together this great retreat program! Retreats are a terrific opportunity to really focus on your writing, get targeted constructive feedback, solve those seemingly unsolvable dilemmas, and get things into great shape for submission. And personally, I love the opportunities it affords me to get to know participants one-on-one.

I hope to see you in Nebraska!

Cynsational Notes

See previous interviews in this series with authors Darcy Pattison, Elaine M. Alphin, and N.L. Sharp as well as agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House.

Author-Editor Interview: Harold Underdown on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books

Harold Underdown on Harold Underdown: “I was born in Sewanee, Tennessee, home of the University of the South, and my family moved around on the East Coast as my dad moved into different jobs in his field–English History. I’m the oldest of three boys.

“We also spent one year and some summers in England, and I read a lot, both US and UK authors. See The Editor as Reader, on my site, which goes into my childhood reading in more detail.

“I was an English major in college, but did not go straight into publishing, unlike many editors. I taught and did social work before deciding that being involved in making books was something that appealed to me.”

Could you fill us in on your experience as a children’s book editor?

I started out at Macmillan Children’s Books, nearly twenty years ago, as an assistant. Macmillan at that time was a large, general-purpose imprint with a long history, that published everything from reference books for children to the youngest picture books. Good mentors there–Neal Porter, Judith Whipple, Beverly Reingold. I worked there for a few years, and then at Orchard, got downsized, freelanced for a while, and then had a great job at Charlesbridge as senior editor and then editorial director.

The only problem with that wonderful job at Charlesbridge was that I was commuting to Boston from Brooklyn, and I left that job so that my wife and I could start a family. I worked for a start-up children’s ebook company until it went bankrupt, and since then have returned to freelancing, doing projects both for individuals and publishing companies.

See a list, somewhat out-of-date, of some of the books I’ve edited.

You’re also the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books (Second Edition)(Alpha, 2004)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this title?

The inspiration wasn’t mine, actually! I was contacted by an editor from the company that publishes the Idiot’s Guides. They had done a guide on publishing in general, and after they succeed with a broad subject they often publish guides on smaller parts of that wider topic. Once they come up with a subject, the find someone who they think can write about it. I believe that they found me through The Purple Crayon, saw that I was already providing basic information about children’s publishing, and thought I’d be a good match.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

By the time the Idiot’s editor contacted me, they were already running late–the book was on their schedule for early spring 2001 and she first emailed me in late March of 2000!

Once we sorted out the contract, the first major event was the outline. This is standard procedure for these guides. The author does a detailed outline–in my case over ten pages long–which becomes the blueprint for the book. And then my coauthor and I just wrote. it was all done electronically. We started writing in May, and finished the manuscript by the beginning of November. And the book was on sale by February 2001.

The second edition was not quite as hectic.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

One big challenge for me was just finding time to write! I was working at Charlesbridge at the time. I wrote in the evenings. I wrote all weekend.

Writing fast was also a challenge for me. I don’t write fast, usually. But having the outline helped. Some of the chapters were about things I do every day, and I could almost write them straight from the outline. Others did require research and anecdote gathering but I knew where to go to gather the information I needed.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, was believing that I could write a 300-page book, since I’d never written anything anywhere near that length before. The Idiots provided a co-author, who drafted some of the chapters, and that did help, but since she wasn’t as familiar with the field as I am I still had to review everything.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s book writers?

Well, they’ll find a lot on The Purple Crayon, but here are a few key points:

–Understand that it will take time and persistence to get anywhere. Be ready to stick it out.

–Join the SCBWI. Go to a local conference. Get to know other writers. It helps enormously to have a support network.

–Write, write, and write some more. Don’t accept “good enough.” Get your writing critiqued by a pro at a conference or elsewhere before deciding it’s ready to be sent in.

–Get three books to start your writing shelf: a market guide, a writer’s “how-to,” and a guide to the business such as my book.

–Read lots of recently published books to get a sense of what’s being published today in the market.

How about those authors building a career?

Now, that’s hard. I don’t think there’s even one piece of advice that will apply to everyone in that situation. But here is something worth keeping in mind: you’re a professional writer, and don’t let anyone treat you as anything less.

You’re the creator of The Purple Crayon, a site dedicated to writing, illustrating, and publishing children’s books. For those new to it, could you give us an overview?

The site consists mostly of articles I’ve written or that have been contributed. These are organized by subject matter, from Basics to Writing, on about a dozen index pages (all listed here: http://www.underdown.org/articles.htm). I also have a blog, a publishing glossary (from my Idiot’s Guide), some interviews, some book reviews, a section about award-winning children’s books, information about my editorial services, and some links pages, but the articles are the core of the site.

How did the site evolve?

That’s a long story. It’s been around since the early years of the Web. I started it with some links and a few articles and presentations that I converted to HTML, and it’s just grown since then. People ask questions, and sometimes an article comes out of that, or someone sends me an article on a topic that the site doesn’t cover. So I’ve just kept adding, and occasionally reorganizing.

As a children’s literature person, what else do you do? Other hats do you wear?

Gee, isn’t three hats enough? Well, I haven’t said much about my work as an editorial freelancer and consultant, actually. The Purple Crayon and The Idiot’s Guide are not my full-time work. Editing is. I do everything from picture book critiques to editing and project managing teacher’s editions of textbooks.

Also, I speak at conferences, which I enjoy.

What do you do outside of the book world?

I try to make sure my family is happy. We have a child in kindergarten, who over the past several months has learned to read, mostly on her own initiative. I stay involved with that. It’s satisfying and challenging and nothing at all like any job I’ve ever had.

In case you’re wondering, being a father hasn’t changed how I approach my work as an editor. I’ve greatly enjoyed discovering books I didn’t know about, though, and re-discovering favorites from my childhood. The Editor as Reader, which I mentioned earlier, goes into some of the discoveries.

What can we expect from you next?

Eventually, I’ll be back in an acquiring position at a publisher. That could happen tomorrow or five years from now.

And you can expect a new edition of my Idiot’s Guide. I’ll announce details on my web site and via an email newsletter I put out occasionally.