During her tenure as executive editor at Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine imprint, Klein has worked on some fairly influential books, from novels by Francisco X. Stork, Varian Johnson, and Lisa Yee, to acting as continuity editor for the final three Harry Potter volumes. This fall, however, she moves to the other side of the desk, with her own book, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults. Klein spoke with PW about the genesis of the book, her own career, and what she’s learned about her profession in teaching others.
How did you come to be an editor, and specifically of children’s books?
My grandfather, Philip Sadler, was a professor of children’s literature, and founded one of the nation’s first children’s literature festivals, at what is now the University of Central Missouri. I thus grew up around children’s authors and kids’ books, and so I kept reading children’s and YA books for pleasure long after the point when most of my peers moved on to adult material. In high school, I read a book called Careers for Bookworms and Other Literary Types, which introduced me to the idea of being an editor, and I decided that’s what I’d do when I grew up. After college, I attended the Denver Publishing Institute, where Susan Hirschman (the founder of Greenwillow Books) gave a wonderfully passionate talk about her work. Some of the books she discussed (and had published) were my favorite books ever, which reminded me how much I loved kids’ books in general, and she eventually put me in touch with Arthur Levine, who hired me as his editorial assistant.
I was eager to work in kids’ books because I love stories with strong action, through which characters change and grow, and those are two of the hallmarks of children’s and YA literature. Adult novels can get bogged down in their language (or their own importance) in a way that rarely happens in children’s and YA books; we keep our stories and people moving.
You’ve previously written a book on writing, Second Sight. What’s different in this book, and what’s new?
The first book was much more of a collection of various talks I’d given in the previous 10 years or so, and it was kind of a miscellany: a piece from here, a piece from there, and sometimes repeated material throughout. Here I wanted to take a writer all the way through the writing process. I’d call Second Sight a miscellany of essays on different aspects of the writing craft, while this book tries to address the whole scope of writing a novel in chronological order, from choosing and developing a saleable idea to finding a publisher for the book.
In your experience as an editor, is there a part of the process that writers generally struggle with the most, which you’re hoping to help?
The part of the process that I usually come in and help the most with is what I’ll call “rebalancing.” They’ll have a big idea or a big character or big plot that they’re in love with, but maybe the characters aren’t complex enough to carry off all the actions, or maybe if the voice is off, the characters might need to step in and shore up one of those discrepancies. [And a large part of the job is that] you have to figure out how to word it in terms [that the author will] relate to.
They say that you learn by teaching; did you learn anything in writing the lessons of this book down?
Absolutely. As an editor you often start from intuition. Something doesn’t feel quite right in a manuscript, and you try to put words to it. Here, from every step I had to try to articulate all those feelings. Where do I see red flags when authors are talking to me about plot ideas, for example? I specifically enjoyed thinking about voice a lot, where I received some excellent advice from [middle-grade novelist] Linda Urban, who’s a brilliant thinker on the subject. There are so many nuances to a voice – the person, the diction, the syntax, the tone – each of which can vastly shift a reader’s emotional reaction to the action being described, and it was fun to investigate those nuances in depth.
You may notice that a lot of the material in the book is lists, or rubrics. That for me is a very practical way of dealing with the whole multifarious nature of reality as it’s represented in a book. [Laughs]. My list says, “The voice does these 10 things,” then you can look at a novel, and see that while it’s got these particular qualities, it’s missing these three, for example.
And a bonus fifth question. Since you’ve worked on the Harry Potter books, what house would you be sorted in?
I am an official Pottermore Ravenclaw!
The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein. Norton, $18.95 Sept. ISBN 978-0-393-29224-4