The truth is, I don’t know that many editors; they’re mostly a mystery to me. When they blog, it’s often done anonymously or they say things that drive me nuts (the Coretta Scott King Award is racist; black people are so blighted by racism they can’t produce literary fiction). So in an effort to understand what goes on inside an editor’s mind, I asked my friend, Laura Atkins, several questions about the children’s publishing industry. Laura is one of the few people I know who isn’t afraid to tell the truth about her experiences in the field; you can read more about her by visiting her website, and be sure to read her amazing essay, “What’s the Story: Reflections on White Privilege in the Publication of Children’s Books.”
1. Describe your relationship to children’s literature. What made you decide to pursue editing as a profession?
I was an avid reader as a child – one of those people who read under the covers with a flashlight and escaped to a secret bench to read for hours. My stepmother introduced me to many books including the fairy tales of George MacDonald (a Victorian author), which I loved. So when I went to university and became an English major, I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on his work. I was then torn between the academic track and the “real life” track, and ended up looking at how to get into publishing. I found Children’s Book Press in San Francisco, which is a non-profit publisher that produces multicultural and bilingual picture books; I applied first for an internship (which didn’t work out) and then for an Editorial Assistant position. I was drawn by the opportunity to work for a mission-driven publisher whose goal was to make books available for and about all children in the United States. So it was really a combined political/publishing draw that got me started.
2. What qualifications did you have and/or what training did you receive prior to becoming an editor?
Other than being an English major, I didn’t have much in the way of qualifications other than enthusiasm and a love of children’s books. I think my perseverance had a lot to do with getting the job! I had worked in a call center before going to Children’s Book Press, so didn’t have prior editing or publishing experience. All training took place on the job with a major learning curve in the first year.
3. It has been argued that “publishing = expensive curation.” Is the editing of children’s books comparable to the curation of fine art? What particular qualities does an editor look for in a manuscript?
I read this comparison in your recent blog posting and it made me think. Yes, editing is ultimately about selection, and then working with authors to shape and improve their work. So in the sense that a curator chooses artwork, this comparison rings true. On the other hand, curating is more obviously done within particular parameters (choosing for a theme or time period, for instance). Editing seems more open than that. It does take place within a particular context, so the expectations and pressures of the publisher will dictate much of what gets selected and why. I think it’s more about taste, about received ideas of what is “publishable,” and nowadays, it’s often following a trend to hope for big sales (such as paranormal vampire stories). And really, editing is so subjective, something I came to understand through my own experience. What speaks to you, what grabs you, the kind of voice that makes you take notice, the stories that won’t let you go…that will depend a great deal on your own experience. Most editors will say they are looking for concept, voice, a great story – and that’s true. But I think the subjectivity of the editor, along with the culture and demands of the publisher and the market, all play a huge part in editorial selection. And yes, it certainly is “expensive” as producing children’s books (especially picture books) is a very pricey business.
4. Do you think editors are still inclined or obligated to “nurture” talent in aspiring authors?
It’s difficult for me to speak for other editors as I haven’t worked in publishing since 2001. That said, my impression from speaking with editors is that they are always on the lookout for new talent. There’s nothing more satisfying than “discovering” a new and exciting voice and introducing her or his book to the world. My sense is that it’s harder and harder for editors to find the time to do this, as the workload and pressure to publish “marketable” books grows. So I actually think agents play more of a role here, as so many publishers now only look at work that comes from agents. So if agents are actively looking to seek and develop new talent, then that should make its way to the editors.
5. In your scholarly work, you’ve expressed concern that multicultural texts are often shaped according to the standards and values of the dominant culture. How/can white editors develop an awareness of their own biases? Why has the field of children’s literature remained so homogeneous for so long?
Ah, here’s the crux of the matter as far as I’m concerned. There can be this divide between publishers and authors and illustrators, on every level. I recently started a regional “children’s publishing network,” an informal gathering which I intended to include authors, illustrators, and people working in publishing. When mostly authors and illustrators came to the first meeting, they suggested that they would feel more comfortable if the group didn’t include people from publishing. It’s odd, as editors (and others in publishing) are almost all there because they love books and are passionate about their development. But there’s a divide between the creatives and those on the “inside” of the business. I felt this when I worked in publishing, that it was difficult to speak freely. And it’s mainly why I left, to get away from the politics and to feel more open to talk about books and the industry. That’s a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think the industry is that comfortable addressing these issues openly. Of course, talking about race, writing, and authenticity are tricky in most contexts. People are afraid of saying the wrong things, of offending people. So that makes these issues even harder to address.
In terms of the homogeneity of the industry, my sense is that publishing has developed as a mainly white, middle class arena. Children’s publishing can also be quite female-dominated, especially at middle management and below. And people tend to hire those who are familiar and come from similar backgrounds. There’s huge pressure to get publishing jobs. At a conference in London in 2006, a woman from one of the big publishers said they get 1,000 applicants for an editorial assistant position when they post it in a national newspaper. Imagine, 1,000 applicants! So people who know people, people who have gone to prestigious colleges, people who can afford to attend training courses – they will all have an advantage.
Finally, how do I think white editors can develop awareness of their own biases? By actively engaging with these questions, talking to people like you, reading blogs like Neesha Meminger’s and Justine Larbalastier’s. By publicly pushing themselves to ask uncomfortable questions, to express their lack of experience with a particular culture/background. I had to try to do this because I worked at two “multicultural” children’s publishers: Children’s Book Press and Lee & Low. And it took me many years to really start recognizing or thinking about these questions. Workshops would be good, inviting speakers in to raise discussions. More lectures on the issue, more industry attention. The Liar cover got a lot of people thinking, and I hope that will push people to go beyond their comfort zones.
6. Some editors lament the limited availability of viable manuscripts by people of color. As an editor at a multicultural press, what steps did you take to actively discover new voices?
An excellent question! Here’s what I learned to do.
· seek out published authors for adults (fiction and non-fiction) who I thought could write for young readers;
· contact editors of anthologies (especially those featuring diverse authors, or, for instance, Native American stories) and ask for suggestions of new talent;
· post on listservs and bulletin boards for writing groups featuring authors of color – sometimes saying I was looking for something in particular (such as contemporary Native American or Filipino American stories – anywhere I saw a hole in the market)
· contact journalists who wrote in relevant areas to see if they had considered writing for young people
· talk to curators from museums representing diverse communities to have them tell me about artists or concepts that might work for children’s books
These days, you could post on blogs saying you are actively seeking diverse new authors and illustrators and the word would certainly spread. I get frustrated when I hear editors say they would love to publish more diverse authors if their stories would only come across their desks. Getting through all the steps it takes to get published is a huge obstacle, so this really needs intentional efforts from editors.
When I managed the New Voices Award at Lee & Low in its first year (an award for a children’s book written by an author of color who has not previously published a picture book), I made a major effort to spread the announcement far and wide (following some of the steps above). We ended up getting over 300 submissions, which says a lot about the number of aspiring authors of color who are actively looking to get published. That’s an incredible resource for publishers to tap into, if they go actively seeking.
Here’s a particular example from the UK that I think shows how the industry has changed over the years. I interviewed Indian-born British author Farrukh Dhondy who was a teacher in the 1970s at an inner-London school. He also wrote a column for a Marxist newspaper where he described some of the scenes in his classroom. An editor from a publisher read this newspaper during his commute, and one day asked the young man selling the paper how to find the author of this column. The kid directed the editor to Farrukh’s school, and when the editor came and asked if he was “Farrukh Dhondy,” Farrukh wondered if he was a policeman. This led to the publication of his first two collections of short stories, which are amazing and beautifully written books. It’s difficult for me to imagine something like this happening today.
Many thanks to Laura for being so candid and sharing her perspective with us! If you missed it, be sure to read Laura’s contribution to the Writers Against Racism series at Amy Bodden Bowllan’s blog.
Laura Atkins worked for seven years in the children’s publishing industry in the United States, mainly developing multicultural picture books. Books on which she worked have won a variety of honors, including the Coretta Scott King Award and a Bank Street Book of the Year Award. She is currently a Lecturer at Roehampton University in London at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature NCRCL), and a freelance Children’s Literature Specialist. Her publications include “A Publisher’s Dilemma: The Place of the Child in the Publication of Children’s Books” in New Voices in Children’s Literature Criticism (2004) and “Editorial Reflections: Cultural Expression and the Children’s Publication Process in the USA,” in Expectations and Experiences: Children, Childhood and Children’s Literature (2007).