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Directing, Plus Midwifery - interview with children's book editors
by Frieda Wishinsky

As a writer, I am enormously grateful for a good editor. An editor is my liaison to a publishing house, my book's champion, and my partner in rewriting. An editor helps me keep my words focused and clear, my characters strong and memorable, and my plot smooth and fast-paced. A good editor is a book's best friend, and often the author's friend as well. It's a relationship forged on common interests and trust.

My relationship with the editor of my first book began even before she accepted the story. I had met her at a writer's conference and felt an immediate rapport. Soon after, I submitted a manuscript to her. She rejected that story, but with a supportive letter, inviting me to try again.

For two years, I submitted other manuscripts and she rejected them, but her letters were always upbeat and encouraging. And then finally, I received the call all writers long for. "How would you like a contract?" she asked me. "I was just at an editorial meeting and it was unanimous. They want to publish Oonga Boonga. Everyone loves it!"

There are few lovelier moments than having your first book enthusiastically accepted by a respected publisher. It's a moment to savour, because there are sure to be many frustrating moments to follow.

With a picture-book, the frustration often begins with the editor's quest for an illustrator. That can take time-often months. Once an illustrator has been found, there is often a wait till the illustrator fits your book into her schedule. Then there are production delays, shipping delays-the list of snafus can be endless and endlessly frustrating. And all along the bumpy path to publication, your editor is your link to information, your support when things go awry, and your cheerleader when things go well.

Each editor brings a different perspective and personality to the job. It's not an easy job. Editors have to read mounds of manuscripts, many of which arrive unsolicited on their desks. They have to send out rejection letters, an unpleasant task at best. If they love a manuscript, they have to present it to an editorial committee and convince a variety of people of its literary merits and marketability. If the committee agrees to publish the book, the editor helps pick an illustrator or book designer, edits the manuscript, consults with the writer, and leads the book from one production stage to another. It's a complex, multi-faceted job-a cross between film director and midwife.

In addition, each book is a risk. Will this one be a success? Will the public and reviewers appreciate its merits? How will it survive in a very tight, competitive market?

One thing is clear to me, after speaking with five respected and seasoned children's book editors: despite the demands of their jobs, they all love their work and take pleasure in the process. They enjoy seeing a book take shape and flight.

Marie Campbell, the children's book editor at HarperCollins, has been at her job for a year and a half but her involvement with children's books began much earlier. Campbell, an avid reader as a child, loved the Anne of Green Gables books. "The Anne stories made me realize that it was okay to be drunk on big words," she says. "It was okay to get a thrill out of literature. It was okay to be me."

Campbell's love of Lucy Maud Montgomery's work persisted; she wrote her master's thesis on Montgomery. But it was a special librarian in Markham, Ontario, who spurred her to choose publishing as a career. Campbell had worked at the Markham library while she attended high school. When she finished her undergraduate studies in English at Queen's University and had to decide what she wanted to do, she wrote to the Markham librarian. The librarian suggested that she take the Banff publishing course and pursue her love of books. That's just what she did, and subsequently began her career in children's books in England, selling foreign rights. On her return to Canada, Campbell worked in publicity at Penguin, then became the Books for Young People and managing editor at Quill & Quire, a position she held for four years.

From there, she began working on children's books at HarperCollins. Campbell loves being involved with them: "I don't think any books matter more to people than those they read as a child." She also thrives on the challenges and variety of roles she plays. "It's exciting to make something the best it can be," she explains. She feels that she has to feel passionately about anything she promotes. "I don't have the luxury to publish something I don't love. I have to sell it to an editorial meeting. But once the editorial meeting gives its approval, I know I have the full support of everybody."

Like Campbell, Stoddart's children's books publisher and editor, Leona Trainer, had an early link to libraries, a varied career in all aspects of publishing, and an abiding passion for her work and her authors.

Trainer, who grew up in Winnipeg, "devoured books" from an early age and worked as a library page in high school. After graduation, she began working in a Winnipeg library. "We took books from the public library to schools and spent two to three days a week at a school," she says. That position came to an end, when schools themselves established libraries. But Trainer's professional involvement with books didn't end. It just took a new twist.

By 1963, Trainer had become the first woman manager at Britannica, earning top sales in the educational division and travelling through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.

Her next job was at Penguin, where she established another "first": as the first woman on Penguin's sales force. In 1975, her family moved to Toronto and Trainer set up the educational library division for Penguin. Then wanting to learn more about mass marketing, she worked at Bantam, and later at Scholastic Canada. At Scholastic, she set up its first trade division for children's books and became involved in acquisitions.

Now, along with Kathryn Cole, Trainer publishes and edits children's books for Stoddart. They have a successful and satisfying collaboration. "We're one head on two bodies," says Trainer smiling.

What excites her about her job, is her continuing relationships with authors and the discoveries of new talent.

How does new talent get noticed amidst the plethora of manuscripts arriving each week? It all revolves around the writer's "voice": a distinctive combination of personality and experience reflected through words. "There is an empathy in the work that is deep-rooted," Trainer says. "Most books have people's experiences and the essence of the person comes through in good writing."

And how quickly does an editor know that those special qualities exist in a manuscript she's reading? "With some books," says Trainer, "It's the first page. With other books, you sense that with some tender loving care it will happen. Kathryn Cole, an artist herself, has a special talent to see the visual aspect of a picture-book. She can tell what's going to work."

And Trainer is aware how crucial it is to have people who are passionately committed to good books promoting a book all the way. "You need hands-on enthusiastic selling," she says.

Diane Kerner, the children's book editor at Scholastic Canada, also appreciates the "shared process" of being an editor. She enjoys the give-and-take of working with authors and recognizes that "as an editor you're also a marketer. You're always selling a book internally. You need to show its market potential."

Kerner arrived at the publishing world very directly. Both her parents are in publishing. "I grew up in a publishing family," she relates. "The making of books was always discussed at my house. In my family," she laughs, "we didn't fight about money but where to place commas. "

Kerner, whose B.A. is in psycho-linguistics, started working in the education department of McGraw-Hill. Although almost fated to work in publishing, for a while she didn't realize that was her career direction. "At the time," she explains, "I thought I'd do this for a couple of years before graduate school."

But fate, choice, or both had other plans for her. Soon Kerner was editing Canadian Author & Bookman magazine and, by 1989, she'd been offered a job at Scholastic, where she still works.

Sheba Meland, the editor for Owl Books, didn't set out to become a children's book editor either. She studied English at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and had pictured herself "on the university lecturer, professor path," she says.

But after four years studying in Israel, she and her husband moved to England. "I was looking for a job," Meland recounts, "and saw an ad in the paper for one in publishing. I didn't know what kind of publishing it was. It could have been anything-even an agricultural magazine. It turned out to be a children's publishing house."

Despite the accidental beginning of her employment, Meland soon grew to love the work. She was quickly catapulted not only into editing but also into writing children's books: "My first assignment was to write a version of Cinderella. Then I was asked to research and write a book of international folk-tales for children."

Meland learned about all ends of the publishing industry from that first position. "I learned the basics of editing. We all worked in the same room. It was such a small publishing house, I got to do everything. I went to the printers and the typesetters. I had to check if words were lined up straight. I learned the craft as well as the editorial skills of making a book. To this day, I have a strong feeling about the unity of a book."

Meland believes that an editor's job requires unique skills. "You need to be detailed-oriented, open, and have great patience," she says. And which aspects of her job give her the greatest pleasure? "Much of my excitement comes from working with an author and feeling part of the event of seeing a book through."

Like her fellow editors, Ann Featherstone, the children's editor at Orca Books, was a "voracious reader as a child." What books impressed her then? "The books that stood out then and now," she replies, "all have one thing in common: unforgettable characters."

Like many editors, Featherstone obtained an undergraduate degree in English and left school unsure of her professional direction. "I didn't start out with any intention other than avoiding becoming a teacher," she reflects. Instead, she accepted a position in an independent bookstore, where she soon became a buyer. She also joined a writers' group and found herself drawn to children's books.

When she became acquainted with Bob Tyrell, who was starting his new publishing house, Orca, her career suddenly took another path. "We often talked about `holes' in the market, as well as the best book covers, designs, etc." she says of her conversations with Tyrell. Then when he began to expand his publishing venture, Featherstone joined his company. "As the managing editor, copy editor, head of promotions, and packer, I learned the publishing business from the inside," she recalls. After eighteen months, the Orca children's line expanded and Featherstone gave up her other duties to concentrate on running and shaping it.

Despite her circuitous route to editing, Featherstone enjoys the work immensely. "The greatest bonus still remains the friendships that have come out of my professional relationships," she says. "The biggest downside is the necessity of turning down work. Even if the work is truly terrible, I don't enjoy sending out form letters."

For all these editors, despite the demands on their time and patience, the final result makes the long hours and efforts worthwhile. "Editing a book really is like giving birth," says Featherstone. "The moment you take that finished book in your hands, all labour pains are forgotten. It just takes longer than producing a human baby." 

Frieda Wishinsky is a freelance writer whose most recent book is Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone (HarperCollins).


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