This is my second interview with children’s literature specialist (and my good friend) Laura Atkins. If you missed my first interview with her, be sure to check it out—and stop by Laura’s new blog. Most importantly, read her essay on white privilege in the children’s publishing industry. And now, without further ado…
1. Many times I’ve told friends that I wish I could somehow “clone” you! I think you’re an exceptional editor–can you tell us how you entered the publishing world and how your role has changed over time?
I got into publishing soon after graduating from college in 1992. I was in the Bay Area and found out about Children’s Book Press, a non-profit publisher of multicultural picture books. I was drawn to their political aims (inclusion and producing bilingual books) as well as the idea of working in children’s publishing. I initially contacted them about becoming an intern, but they weren’t looking at the time. A year later they got in touch with me when they were looking for an editorial assistant.
I started doing a whole lot of things – mainly going through the slush pile and supporting the then-publisher, Harriet Rohmer. It was great working at a small press, as I eventually got involved in working with designers on art direction, overseeing production (getting books printed), and had more of a role in the editorial process. I was at Children’s Book Press for four years, and worked on amazing books such as In My Family by Carmen Lomas Garza, Home to Medicine Mountain by Chiori Santiago and Judith Lowry, and i see the rhythm by Toyomi Igus and Michelle Wood (which won the Coretta Scott King Award).
After that I moved to New York City where I worked as an Assistant Editor at Orchard Books for a year (working primarily on imports), and then as an Editor at Lee & Low Books for two years. At Lee & Low I managed the New Voices Award in its first year, which as you know is an award for an author of color who has not previously published a picture book. We had over 300 submissions, which to me showed the large number of authors of color out there who are trying to get published. My first book at Lee & Low was DeShawn Days by Tony Medina and Greg Christie. I really enjoyed the editorial process on all of the books I worked on. The best authors were those who enthusiastically engaged in the editorial back and forth. Ginger and Frances Park were a great example. They are sisters who run a chocolate shop in DC, but they also write books together. They wrote Where on Earth Is My Bagel?, illustrated by Grace Lin.
I eventually left publishing to come to England and study for a Masters in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University, where I am now a part-time lecturer. While I loved helping to publish children’s books, I got tired of the politics of the industry. Now I can work with aspiring authors, and even continue to edit children’s books, but as a freelancer. I have been editing children’s books for Cassava Republic Press based in Nigeria, which has been fascinating. Their aim is to publish books by African authors, and I have had to be particularly aware of how my background and experience influence my response to manuscripts. I also offer manuscript critiquing to aspiring authors, and mentor a few individuals on an on-going basis. And I run a monthly writing group. I am enjoying the opportunity to continue to work with authors and illustrators, but without the restrictions of being based at one publishing house.
2. Jacqueline Woodson (in an interview with Rhapsody in Books) recently talked about aspiring authors who submit unpolished manuscripts. How important is the revision process, and does “polishing” diminish a manuscript’s originality? I think of editors who want “universal” stories and so dismiss or distort ethnically-specific narratives.
This is an interesting question. I think the revision process is crucial, and it does not necessarily require losing ethnic and cultural specificity or nuance. Part of this depends on whether you are just trying to write the best book you can, or if your main goal is to get published by a mainstream publisher.
We both know there are problems within the publishing industry, and a tendency to privilege more comfortable and so-called “universal” stories. But there are talented diverse authors being published on both sides of the pond. I would always encourage aspiring authors to revise their stories, but they should do this based on their own aims and goals. I see my job as helping people to tell the best story they want to tell, not to change it to something more universal or commercial (unless they ask me to). Perhaps the best advice would be to revise, to make the story work as well as you can, and then to try to find agents or publishers who seem open to the type of story you are trying to tell – in terms of voice, style, narrative form, etc. But I’m not going to lie. Getting published is enormously difficult, and even more so these days if you aren’t submitting a book that is perceived as having large commercial appeal. Which leads to your next question about self-publishing…
3. Your clients have achieved great success so far! Why do you think this is? And what is your vision in terms of the future of publishing? I’ve shied away from self-publishing picture books–is that a viable option for aspiring writers?
I have been so impressed with my clients’ recent achievements (though feel strange about the term client, as many have become more like friends). Two people I’ve worked with have been long- and shortlisted for the prestigious Chicken House Award, another shortlisted for the Brit Writers Award last year, another recently signed up with an agent, and another has had her work requested by OUP. This is because they are talented writers, and because they have put an enormous amount of work into developing their craft. They have also done their research and gotten their work out there – joining SCBWI, attending conferences, submitting for competitions (you’ve got to be in it to win it), submitting to agents, revising their work again and again. All but one of these people is part of my monthly writing group, so they are critiquing other people’s stories as well as their own. This process is invaluable, and I would highly recommend joining a group to aspiring authors.
The future of publishing? Publishers are having to do lots of catch up on the digital front, figuring out how to get work off the printed page and use the array of new digital platforms. I think there’s going to be much more room out there for people to self publish, though they will need to do a lot to be heard among the scads of other people doing the same thing. I’ve worked with a few people who have self published picture books. One is Navjot Kaur who set up her own publishing house in Canada, Saffron Press. She is interested in representing Sikh culture in children’s books, and has done a lot of work with educators in particular to spread the word. Selu Mdlalose set up Vezani Publishing to produce books in South African languages in the UK. They have printed a high-quality board book about a zebra who loses in stripes.
Self publishing picture books used to be cost prohibitive, but I think prices have become more reasonable and people more ambitious. But you have to be fearless. You will need to do an enormous work to promote your books. Publishing in a niche is helpful here, so you can target particular people who will be interested in what you are selling.