Editing for a Young Audience

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 magic…

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 child does.

Taboos

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 awful.)

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 immediately.

Freelancing

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.

Getting Started

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 abilities.

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.

Making Connections

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:

  • International Reading Association
  • Los Angeles Book Festival
  • Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators
  • Book Expo America
  • American Library Association
For Authors and Illustrators

Many forum attendees were as interested in getting their manuscript published as they were in becoming a children's book editor.

Q: Must an author also have found an illustrator for the story before submitting?

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.

Market Trends

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 audience—teachers, parents, AND kids—and 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.

 

 

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