Cheryl Klein, who serves as editorial director of Lee & Low Books, is also the author of several picture books. In her newest, A Year of Everyday Wonders, due out next month, a young girl marks a series of firsts, tackling breakfast on New Year’s Day (“first waffles”), spotting signs of spring (“first green in the gray”), managing a first (bungled) haircut (repaired at the barber shop), taking a first trip to the beach and more, her pleasures interleaved with passing frustrations and family squabbles (“Ninety-seventh fight with your brother”). Qin Leng’s pen-and-watercolor vignettes capture the action with expressive ink lines and gentle hues. Klein spoke with PW about looking for occasions to celebrate, what it’s like for an editor to be edited, and the growing spirit of collaboration among picture book creators.
Where did the story start?
This book came out of a practice that I had of noting small things: “This is the first time I’m going outside in short sleeves!” “This is the first time I’m eating ice cream in the summer!” It’s an occasion and a celebration, and that makes it joyful. There’s a quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ ” I tried to make that part of my life’s philosophy—a dinner with friends, walking outside on a beautiful fall evening, when my baby laughs. It’s what’s helping me get through work from home and the lockdown. And when readers read it, they might start to notice things as well.
You once wrote that being an editor who’s being edited is “pleasant and yet extremely weird.” Was that the case with this book, and with Emma Ledbetter [her editor at Abrams]?
Yes, absolutely. I completely understood what Emma was doing and admired it from a professional perspective. As an editor I always struggle with being edited. I accept the necessity of the editing process, and seeing other people’s visions of things. What I enjoy is having communication ironed out. If I write something, I see it one way because of my particular lens, and an editor might see it differently because of their particular lens. If they come back to me, it’s my opportunity to listen to that. “What part of what I want to say is not getting across, and how can we clarify it?”
If there’s a plot [to this book], it’s the relationship with the brother, as the number of fights ticks up and up and up. When we were first working on it, Emma did not get what was going on with the brother because it wasn’t clear in the text. She wrote to me, “What is the plot here?” I answered, “There’s supposed to be a conflict with the brother, which kind of gets resolved at Christmas.” [The two find exactly the right presents for each other.] Since that wasn’t coming through, I changed some of the references to build that in more clearly as a line throughout the book. The editing process gives you an opportunity to clarify and correct it.
On your website, you write about the story’s cultural particularity. Can you say more about that?
Representation has been important in my career editorially. I wanted it to be both universal and specific. There’s a good Junot Díaz quote: “The universal rises from the particular.” If you make something real enough, it will resonate, it will rise, and the reader will believe it, even if it’s not their personal experience. With this book, I knew that the illustrations would be filling in a ton of the specificity of it. I was setting up a middle-class family, they’re going to live in a house, they’re going to do these things. I wanted to leave room for it to be a multicultural family or a family of color, but I do not have the cultural background to write it that way—for example, as a Vietnamese writer might. I don’t have that experience. I could only write it as the person I was and am, as a middle-class, North American person. It would be wonderful to see someone from a different background writing the book. I’m going to have a virtual book launch, and I’ll have a little writing workshop. I should ask people to think about their personal firsts, for their contexts, the cultural specificity piece of it.
What was it like to collaborate with Qin Leng?
I deliberately wrote the story so that there was room for an illustrator to have a lot of fun with it. The text doesn’t specify age or gender or anything about the protagonist. I knew it had to be set in North America, because in the summer they go to the beach, and there’s snow in the wintertime, but all the other things were left for the illustrator to decide. When I sent it out, I wrote, “I am open to an illustrator playing with all of this and inventing this as a collaborative text.” I first sent the manuscript out in 2017, and in 2018 Emma Ledbetter got in touch with my agent [Brianne Johnson]. “I’ve been thinking about the story for six months,” she said, “and I think I’ve found a great illustrator for it, and now I think I can do it.” Qin was able to bring out rich characters in just a few lines, and encapsulate those emotions of frustration or humor, in the way the art portrays the character. I’ve been delighted by all the decisions that she made.
When we were in the sketch process, the haircut sequence—“first haircut,” “second haircut”—that was Qin’s idea, that the first one would be done at home and go badly, and the second, professional one would disappoint the protagonist because she liked the first haircut, and they would go get ice cream to smooth it over. I really appreciated Qin’s suggestions.
Picture book writers are all talking to each other, and writers have learned more about backing off. Writers have learned to let go and to recognize their place in the picture book ecosystem. I think we’re all in conversation these days, and I think that’s good. It’s an amazing age for picture books.
A Year of Everyday Wonders by Cheryl B. Klein. Abrams, $16.99 Dec. 8 ISBN 978-1-4197-4208-8