Champions of children’s and YA literature gathered for a lively panel discussion at Strand Bookstore in Manhattan on September 7. The speakers were Brooks Sherman, agent, the Bent Agency; Kass Morgan, YA and middle grade editor and author of The 100 trilogy; Alvina Ling, v-p and editor-in-chief, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; and Cheryl B. Klein, executive editor of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic, and author of The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults. Eliot Schrefer, author of Endangered and Threatened, moderated. The event was in part a celebration of the release of Klein’s The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults (Norton, Sept. 6), as well as a springboard for a broader discussion on the panelists’ roles in shepherding in new children’s and YA titles.
While the presenters routinely seek out books that represent many different voices and experiences, Schrefer asked whether there are certain consistencies in theme or content that they notice among the books they love. As an editor, Morgan shared that she tends to have an affinity for “sweet, magical middle grade” as well as work that conjures a “really strong sense of place, with a twist” of the fantastical or uncanny. She also joked that she has a certain weakness for dark young adult books that feature girls who have powers enabling them to kill people. For Ling, the books she looks for tend to fall into one of three categories: “books that are similar to what I read as a child; those that reflect my life now; and those books I wish I’d read as a child.” For Klein, she has observed that many of her favorite titles happen to feature “uptight young women who need to learn how to relax.” She is also drawn toward stories with fairy tale elements, stories with a meta component, and stories that feature diverse characters.
Sherman, meanwhile, has been somewhat surprised by the books that have moved him and which he has chosen to represent throughout his career. “I thought I’d work exclusively in fantasy,” he said, because that’s predominately what he read as a child. Yet, increasingly, he said he is drawn toward books featuring “characters and environments different from my own” – for example, books with queer themes or featuring non-white protagonists.
Since a book may evolve in significant ways once it has been acquired, coming into its own through rewrites and reshaping, Schrefer turned the conversation to the editing process. The panelists shared their experiences of working with authors to prepare a book for publication. Klein has a “plot checklist” that she keeps in mind when reading through a manuscript. For example, she identifies a story’s central plot, its “emotional plot,” and its most pivotal “exciting incident,” so as to have a clear idea about what essential ingredients might be missing. She will also often ask an author to write an outline of the book, and to send a letter to her that addresses what the author believes needs fixing. This way, she can see what the author already knows isn’t working and to use that awareness as a motivating force. She also commented how, when the tables turned and she was the writer instead of the editor, she took it upon herself to send her editor an author letter detailing what she thought she should fix in The Magic Words.
Morgan also touched on the experience of transitioning from being an editor to becoming an author for The 100 series. She described it as being like “leading people through basic training but never doing the obstacle course myself. I thought I’d have the muscle memory – but I do not.” Using a second analogy, Morgan suggested that, if editing a book is like building a house and turning it into a home, writing a novel is like “planting a tree.” She added that, when her first novel was being edited, she went through the same emotions and degree of defensiveness that the writers she has worked with go through. In short, she said with a laugh, “My experience with editing didn’t help at all.”
Through his career as an agent, Sherman has learned that even the most experienced authors – not to mention editors – can be sensitive when it comes to revision. He added that he makes a point to convey to authors that “I am working with them to find the strongest version of their vision,” and not to change it unnecessarily. In keeping with Morgan’s tree analogy: “I’m trimming the tree,” Sherman said. With the subjective nature of writing, he also likes to think about his constructive notes to an author as being a “creative springboard” that can help the author to further develop their vision.
For Ling, she likes to read a book for the first time as a reader, rather than as an editor. After that “fresh read,” she’ll put the story away for days or weeks, allowing the story to “percolate” through her brain. Even if her first reaction to a story is very positive, she finds that allowing this breathing room between reads gives her a stronger sense of the work’s strengths, shortcomings, and potential.
The quality of writing may indeed be subjective, but Schrefer asked the panelists to reflect on what they see as the ingredients that go into “good writing?” As Klein wrote about in The Magic Words, good writing often means that an author has to “get out of the way” of the story. Good writing, she believes, avoids what she calls “author-splaining,” or when an author over-explains circumstances rather than unveiling them naturally through characters’ emotions.
Morgan said that, while “I don’t spend a lot of time explaining what makes good writing,” she’ll know it when she sees it – or, more specifically, when she feels it. To Morgan, good writing makes her “remember what it’s like to be human.” She shared a quote from Franz Kafka, who said: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
For Ling, the publishing world is “a subjective business and a passion business.” Defining good writing so often boils down to personal taste that concretely defining what makes a story “good” is very difficult, if not unfeasible.
But there are aspects of writing that tend to work well. As way of example, Sherman pointed to a book’s all-important opening pages. He said he’s observed that when three elements of a story – world-building, character, and plot development – work in tandem with one another, rather than being introduced in an arbitrary order, writing comes across as more organic and immersive. In a similar vein, Morgan believes that descriptions of setting are often most effective when they simultaneously work toward developing the story’s characters. In other words – and though it may be easier said than done – Morgan sees good writing as taking a more holistic approach to its storytelling, rather than a piecemeal one.
Bringing International Books Home
Questions from the audience yielded a discussion of what gatekeepers can do to introduce more books from international authors. Klein strongly emphasizes the importance of publishing books that feature characters from many different backgrounds. If readers only see books with characters that are similar to them, she lamented, they are seeing such a sadly “small fraction” of the world and of human experience as a whole. Speaking of multicultural stories, Sherman once spoke on a panel of publishing personnel in Amsterdam, where he was the only American and was asked, somewhat awkwardly, to address the “myopia that Americans have” when it comes to appreciating literature from other cultures.
Sherman acknowledged that American readers don’t have a tendency to seek out international literature, and that in order for foreign books to be embraced by Americans, “You have to spoon feed us.” He also believes that American readers should gain more exposure to different types of stories, and that those who work in publishing can also benefit enormously by reading broadly themselves. And he feels that his own perspective has changed as a result of widening the scope of his reading. This became particularly clear to him when, recently, a colleague showed him a submission that he recognized had “problematic elements” of misogyny. He realized that, while those elements are clear to him now, he very likely “wouldn’t have noticed these things five years ago,” had he not made a conscious effort to read more books that don’t directly reflect his personal experiences.
Klein also commented on the phenomenon of American myopia, pointing out that, while it is critical that American audiences do expand their readership to include books that feature different cultures, belief systems, and storytelling styles, publishing is a business with a bottom line. When translating or adapting an international book for American readers, some adjustments might need to be made to the American edition. Ideally, Klein commented that there is a balance to be achieved between broadening awareness by exposing Americans to new things while also providing a satisfying experience. “We can both meet readers where they are and pull them further,” she said.