My cellphone is pressed to my ear and my shoulder is hunched to support it. That same shoulder is also bearing at least 15 pounds, or 400 double-spaced manuscript pages. My right hand holds that of my seven-year-old son. I have gone straight from my office to his school to take him to the doctor—he's had a nagging cough that has kept us both up these past few nights. But I am also trying to talk an author, who hates her book jacket, off a ledge; satiate the agent of said author; and reach my boss to explain why she might get a terse phone call or two. Did I mention that it is the week before Christmas and it is about 10 degrees out? I park my son in an alcove to protect him from the wind while I leave what I hope is a coherent message for my publisher.
The challenges of balancing work and motherhood are shared by many women. That same agent once told me how she literally tossed M&Ms to her children to keep them occupied in the middle of a big negotiation that she had to do at home. The compromises are inevitable: I have quizzed my son on the words for his spelling test while working late at my desk, and I've let my children play an extra hour of video games so I can finish an option novel. In both instances I've felt guilty.
But these compromises can also yield positive outcomes, as I learned one day a couple of years ago as I was leaving the office to take my eldest son, Ethan, to soccer practice. I had just received a proposal by Ian James Corlett, an award-winning children's television writer, for a book called E Is for Ethics. It was a collection of stories featuring a brother and a sister—Elliot and Lucy—who were very much like regular kids, and it was geared toward parents to help them discuss morals with their children.
I decided to test the stories out on my son, who was then five and a half. As we sat in a neighborhood deli waiting for his practice to begin, I read him the first story about honesty, in which Elliot finds a $5 bill and has to decide what to do with the money—pocket it or try and find the rightful owner? We discussed what Ethan would do if he found a $5 bill (I am proud to say he also claimed he would try and find the rightful owner). We went on to read about a dentist with bad breath, and how to handle a friend cheating. Ethan was riveted. I e-mailed the agent to tell him I loved the book—as did my son.
I have always evaluated submissions in a fairly instinctual way: if I like a novel or a proposal, I think others will, too. For the most part this has served me well, ensuring that I work on projects I'm truly passionate about (even if it means passing on books about cats and the afterlife that go on to become huge bestsellers). After seeing Ethan's reaction to E Is for Ethics, I figured I could apply the same principle to this children's book. I knew that if my son was responding to these stories, other children would.
Acquiring the book was only the beginning. Once it was delivered, I read the entire manuscript to Ethan and we discussed each story. Was it entertaining enough? Were the questions at the end of each chapter understandable? As we snuggled next to each other, I felt so lucky—not only was I spending time with my son, but our efforts were making this book better. There was nothing to feel guilty about.
In Ian's acknowledgments, he thanked Ethan Hendricks, "associate editor." When the book was published, Ian visited my son's school. The book went on to sell more than 35,000 copies, and I have acquired another book by Ian, E Is for Environment, which Ethan also helped edit. Now a few years older, and reading himself, he contributed even more.
I know that Ethan has loved working with me as much as I have with him. And like a true editor, his only grievance: that the books aren't bestsellers yet.
Greer Hendricks is vice-president, senior editor, of Atria Books.