Editing for a Young Audience
April 19, 2005
Organized by Christine Freeman and Amy Tsaykel
Notes by Zipporah Collins & Amy Tsaykel
In theory, the forum on Editing for a Young Audience would
explore all types of children's literature: books, magazines,
educational materials, and more. Yet the conversation quickly
swung toward picture books, where it remained for the entire
evening. Children's books do have that certain irresistible
The seasoned panel was extremely generous as they dished out
insight into the genre. Suzanne Barchers, who worked at Weekly
Reader for many years, is editor-in-chief and vice president at
LeapFrog. Summer Laurie, formerly of Chronicle Books, is now
senior editor at Tricycle Press, the children's imprint of Ten
Speed Press. Amy Novesky, once a children's editor at Chronicle,
has recently founded a children's book packaging company, Pink
Moon Studio. Also an author, Amy's first picture book, Elephant
Prince: The Story of Ganesh, was released last fall.
Thinking like a Child
We started the forum with a look at what makes editing for
children different than editing for adults. Summer observed that
because half of the story is told through illustrations, a
picture book editor must work on two fronts: the verbal and the
visual. Finding the right combination of words and pictures is
important, Suzanne agreed, pointing out that because children
usually read with an adult, it's important to appeal to the
sensibilities of both. Using rhyme, repetition, and rhythm allow
both audiences to enjoy the book on some level.
Amy mentioned that when for adult audiences, the editor
essentially IS the audience. For kids, editors must set aside
their own preferences and think instead how, for example, a
seven-year-old girl might respond to the text. Voice becomes very
important, and requires the ability to think and talk like a
Every editor on the panel agreed that they probably would have
considered manuscripts for books like Everybody Poops and Captain
Underpants base and unsophisticated. And yet the books are huge
hits. Why? Because somewhere along the way, an editor was able to
shift into the mentality of a five-year-old. Bodily functions and
undergarments may have once been taboo, but now these books have
broken those barriers.
Still, what taboos do exist in children's literature? Suzanne
broke it down for us: No alcohol, tobacco, or firearms in books
for children under twelve.
Editors' individual standards of what is taboo will also come
into play, she said. She shared an example: An editor wanted to
use the phrase "insane asylum" but a colleague was vehemently
opposed. Eventually, the editor realized that her colleague's
daughter was schizophrenic, and that was the root of the issue.
The Versatility Factor
Children's book editors are expected to wear many hats, serving
as acquisitions editor, project manager, proofreader, and more. A
children's book editor must have broad yet sharp editorial
skills, instincts for what will sell, and an absolute passion for
children's literature. (You've got to love it, because the pay is
Summer pointed out that an editor must also be willing to "fight
for what's good." In other words, it's not enough to just know
what makes a good kids' book. You have to be willing to defend
good manuscripts to those who don't "get it."
Suzanne agreed, recalling a manuscript for a book called the
Search for the Perfect Pumpkin, which she absolutely loved. The
publisher had groaned at the prospect of publishing a Halloween
book, and wouldn't even read the manuscript. With some heavy-duty
persuasion from Suzanne, he read the book and signed it
The use of freelancers in the creation of a children's book
varies from house to house. Tricycle, for example, uses a large
stable of editors and proofreaders, while Chronicle relies more
on in-house workers.
Book packagers may actually be the best targets to investigate
for freelance opportunities. Book packagers exist to "fill the
holes" in publishers' upcoming lists. Because they must crank out
titles efficiently and sometimes with little notice, they often
need freelance support.
A foot in the door of the publishing industry is not always easy.
Amy started as an unpaid intern at Chronicle Books, temped there
for a year while completing her master's degree, then took a job
as a part-time editor in the children's department. Her advice
was to approach publishers whose books you admire and offer
yourself as an intern, even on a once-a-week basis. Do a good
job, Amy says, and slowly let the publisher come to know your
Before she was an editor, Suzanne taught for many years. On the
side, she began writing for educational magazines. Eventually she
submitted a book proposal and it was snapped up by a publisher
who also offered her a job.
Summer started as an intern at Chronicle, and then was offered a
full-time position. Simultaneously, she took classes at UC
Extension on editing, book design, and marketing. She also made
industry contacts by volunteering with the Bay Area Book Council.
For both aspiring and established children's book editors,
Suzanne emphasized that it's vital to reach out and make industry
connections. Attending conferences is a big part of that effort.
A short list:
For Authors and Illustrators
- International Reading Association
- Los Angeles Book Festival
- Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
- Book Expo America
- American Library Association
Many forum attendees were as interested in getting their
manuscript published as they were in becoming a children's book
Q: Must an author also have found an illustrator for the story
A: No. In fact, most editors prefer to analyze the text alone,
then choose an illustrator. It's part of the editorial function
to find the right images to complement a story, and the chances
that an author happens to personally know the perfect illustrator
are actually pretty slim.
Amy recommended a fantastic resource to answer more of these
types of questions: the Society of Children's Book Writers and
Illustrators, a professional organization offering support to
those interested in the genre.
Whether your interest is in writing or editing for children, it
definitely pays to know the market before approaching prospective
employers. Several trends on the horizon include:
Nonfiction: "Crossover" books are suitable for both casual
reading and classroom use. Finding a way to make history sound
appealing makes a book appeal to a wider audienceteachers,
parents, AND kidsand increases the sales prospects for the book.
Nonprint Media: Paper engineering that explores the pure artistry
of the book form is big these days. Books that involve pop-ups,
lift-the-flaps, and other interactive features are selling well.
Adults and kids have fun with these books.