More than a dozen children’s book editors describe what it’s like to work with writers whose books they loved as children.
Michelle Frey, executive editor, Knopf Books for Young Readers
When I was nine years old, I took a day trip with my parents. I have no memory at all of where we went, but a very vivid memory of what I was reading: The Phantom Tollbooth. I never wanted the drive to end.
I cherished the book—and all its humor and wisdom—from that moment on. I used a line from it as a quote in my high school yearbook. I gave it to my college roommate and every boyfriend I ever had. I ferried it from apartment to apartment, with a place of pride on each shelf. It’s the reason I became a children’s book editor. So when I came to Knopf in 2001 and was asked to be the tender of all things Phantom Tollbooth, it was both a dream come true and a full-circle moment.
I have known Norton for 15 years now, and working with him closely on the 50th anniversary edition and the Annotated Phantom Tollbooth (written by Leonard Marcus) in 2011 offered me valuable insights into the creation of the book and the brilliant mind of its creator—not to mention the crazy adventures of Norton’s youth! When I go to an event and see people lined up, clutching The Phantom Tollbooth to their chests and waiting for their moment to get the book signed and tell Norton how much his novel means to them, I think, I am you.
It will be no surprise to anyone that Norton Juster is kind and funny and wise. Sometimes when I sign off on a phone call with “Bye, Norty!” I have to pinch myself. It really is true that I am blessed to know and love the author of The Phantom Tollbooth, a story that will speak to each new generation of children forever.
Ginee Seo, children’s publishing director, Chronicle Books
What can I even say about working with Elaine Konigsburg? I have honestly never been intimidated about working with anyone, but the prospect of working with her scared the daylights out of me. And it wasn’t because I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a child, either—because I didn’t. It was read aloud to me when I was in sixth grade, and at the time it just didn’t speak to me. I couldn’t get past the fact that Claudia and Jamie ran away and worried their parents to death (yes, I was that kind of kid). And I didn’t get why Claudia was so obsessed with the angel. It wasn’t until many years later, when I was an adult, that I understood what Elaine was saying. But that is the beauty of great children’s literature, isn’t it? You respond to the work one way when you’re a kid and then you see other things when you’re an adult.
So I was an adult fan of Elaine’s work, but not a child fan, and this worried me and likely added to my feeling of intimidation. There was also the fact that she had lost her editor, the genius Jean Karl with whom she’d worked her entire brilliant career, to cancer, and shortly after that devastating loss she also lost her beloved partner and husband, David, to the same terrible disease. But Elaine had finished a manuscript and had decided she wanted to work with me, so I rolled up my sleeves and read her book, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place.
I must have had a reputation for bluntness, because I was advised to “be nice” by my then-boss at Atheneum, Brenda Bowen. What did that mean? Wasn’t I always nice? I started my editorial conversation with Elaine more nervous than ever, although I hoped my voice didn’t show it. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I do remember I started talking about the things I loved about the manuscript.
Elaine let me go on for a few minutes saying who knows what, and then she cut me off. “I’m glad to hear that, Ginee,” she said. “But you know, I’m not interested in hearing what you like. I want to hear about what you don’t like.” After that I knew we were going to get along just fine. Elaine worked harder and pushed herself more than I could ever have imagined. She was never content to let something go—she was always asking herself and me if it was still right. She was constantly perfecting her sentences and scenes and characters and ideas. She was an inspiration—a 70-something woman who was a legend, rightfully adored and worshipped by millions of readers, who treated herself and her books as if she were writing for the first time. Which, in a way, she was.
Liesa Abrams, v-p and editorial director, Simon Pulse
Setting the scene: the early ’90s. I’m a teenager with quotes from my favorite bands painted on my bedroom wall in black nail polish. Quotes like “I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside” —The Smiths. I’m reading Sassy magazine, and I’m discovering this author, Blake Nelson. Blake’s novel Girl speaks to me on levels both basic and molecular. It’s (genuine, earned) teen angst, and it’s that need to understand and to connect, and these sentences that just say so much more than the words alone.
Two decades later, I’m an editor of YA novels and I see a submission in my in-box from Blake Nelson. I email the agent back with an unholy number of exclamation marks. I read the manuscript, and it speaks to me all over again, in new ways and familiar ways. The character’s voice and journey to seeing the world differently feels personal and universal, what I always look for. I finally get to meet Blake, geek out over music together, and find him to be as funny and irreverent as I would have hoped.
And now here we are, publishing Blake’s Boy and simultaneously repackaging Girl with a new cover look, for a whole new generation of readers to discover.
Stephanie Owens Lurie, editor-at-large, Disney-Hyperion
When I was at Dutton Children’s Books, I had the privilege of working with Judy Blume on her book Double Fudge. Judy’s book Forever had made me feel recognized and validated as a teen. During our first phone conversation I started fan-girling, and Judy immediately put a stop to that. She said—and rightly so—that we wouldn’t be able to work together effectively if we weren’t on equal footing. It was just what I needed to hear, and things went swimmingly after that, with the normal editorial give-and-take. Later, Judy threw a publication party at her lovely Manhattan apartment, and she was kind enough to acknowledge me. She is such a gracious and generous woman, and it’s a moment I still recall with joy.
Kat Brzozowski, editor, Feiwel and Friends
I grew up on a healthy diet of R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books, checking them out of the library in armfuls. His books are part of the reason I became an editor; they fostered an early love for reading at fast speed and in large quantities. When I found out that he wanted to write new Fear Street books, we connected over Twitter, and I met him and his wife for lunch. I thought, if all that comes out of this is that I get to eat lunch with R.L. Stine, I will be the happiest person alive. I even brought one of my favorite Fear Street books, Lights Out, for him to sign.
Working with R.L. Stine, or Bob, as his friends call him, has been a dream come true. Twelve-year-old me has never gotten over the fact that I even know R.L. Stine, never mind get the chance to edit him, and adult me is equally thrilled. The respect and kindness that Bob shows for his fans is unmatched, and he’s never once laughed at me for how much I love Fear Street. I am so happy that a new generation of teens and adults get to experience these terrifying books—and that I get to read them first.
Karen Lotz, president and publisher, Candlewick Press and managing director, Walker Books Group
As a child, I loved to dress up like the characters in my books. My grandmother sewed me a sunbonnet and calico dress in honor of Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, and for My Side of the Mountain, I had my leather chaps. What I really wanted, more than anything, was to hold a falcon, and I spent lots of time in the woods unsuccessfully looking for one. What I did get to hold, many years later, were the manuscripts for Jean Craighead George’s sequels, in particular Frightful’s Mountain, where she took the peregrine’s point of view. To be given those words to read and discuss with her before they were published blew my mind with the wonder of it all. To walk through different conferences and events by Jean’s side, listening to her amazing stories and wisdom about the natural world, and having her encourage me to join her—she was not one to take no for an answer—in such meals as alligator, roasted dandelion, turtle, and even rabbit was like having Sam come to life right next to us. It was magical. I miss her very much, and I feel incredibly lucky to have known her.
Chelsea Eberly, editor, Random House Books for Young Readers
Tamora Pierce was my favorite author growing up, and now I’m her editor at Random House. It’s one of those pinch-yourself situations. I still have my original—now falling apart—copies of her Tortall books. She was so important to me as a young reader: Alanna shaped my feminist worldview and Kel confirmed it. Because of Tamora Pierce, I knew that girls could do anything. Years later, you can imagine how incredibly honored and nervous I was when my publisher, Mallory Loehr, asked me to be her editor. Mallory knew that I was a die-hard fan, and our upcoming projects needed someone with a handle on the complex world of Tortall. Tammy also knows that I’m a fan, but I’ve tried to be professional about it. We’re working on three frontlist and nine backlist reissues right now, so our challenge is keeping all the plates spinning. I try to be objective in my edits, highlighting the bits that have the fan in me “squeeing” while still giving her the notes she needs to make each book as strong as possible. Tamora Pierce is a legend in the fantasy world, and I’m incredibly excited for these next few years as new books come out and new readers get to discover her.
Kait Feldmann, assistant editor, Scholastic Press
I devoured Pam Muñoz Ryan’s books growing up, and revisited them in college when it became my ambition to pursue a career as a children’s book editor. My mother suggested I write to Pam to tell her how much I loved her work (I think, perhaps, she was tired of me yelling my feelings aloud as I read Riding Freedom). I didn’t write. What could I possibly say?
Then I got lucky enough to land an internship with Pam’s editor, Tracy Mack, which led to a job as her assistant. On my first day I found a care package at my desk from Pam herself that said, “Welcome to the team!” and, get this: I was asked to read her newest manuscript and provide feedback. At first, it took me about an hour to craft a single sentence, I was so nervous. But Pam is so warm, so engaging, that I became more comfortable talking to her, and now I look forward to every opportunity to send her a line. That manuscript became the Newbery Honor–winning Echo, and I couldn’t be more proud and grateful to have been a part of the team. It has been an incredible privilege writing to Pam and learning from this legend. One of my favorite takeaways? She’s a sucker for Cocoa Puffs.
Kate Harrison, executive editor, Dial Books for Young Readers
I was a big reader as a kid, but the first book that I read again and again and again and again was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. I still have an inscribed, dog-eared copy that my best friend gave me in second grade. That book woke something up in me, made me want to be a better friend, made me realize that people I loved might not be there forever. Bridge to Terabithia is one of the books I most associate with childhood. So when I got the opportunity a few years ago to work with Katherine on her memoir, Stories of My Life, I felt like a nervous, giggling, starstruck kid. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt nervous giving notes on a manuscript—me, giving edits to a legend! I tend to ramble when I’m nervous, and I’m pretty sure I totally embarrassed myself the first time we talked, going on about what a fan I was and how much I loved her books. She talked me down in her lovely, gracious, Katherine Paterson way, and then promptly launched into talking about the book. Honestly, the best part about working with her was discovering that she truly is as warm and wonderful as her books. I continue to be a fangirl—I just don’t tell her, because she’d say I was being silly.
Frances Gilbert, associate publishing director, Random House Books for Young Readers
I am working with the estates of Russell and Lillian Hoban to reissue Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas next fall, the book that was the inspiration for the 1977 Jim Henson film of the same name. The Hobans’ Bread and Jam for Frances was the first book I remember reading, at age four. I was a picky eater, too (and shared the character’s first name), and I remember looking at my mom and saying, “This is me!” A few years later, I was eight when Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas was made into a film. I was a massive Muppets fan, and my mom was a huge fan of Paul Williams, who wrote the incredible score, and this film was instantly blazed into my consciousness. In those pre-VCR days you never knew when you’d see a TV show again, but years later it made it to DVD. It was only then that I realized the Hobans had created the original book, and I felt like a loop from my early childhood had been made. I can’t begin to tell you what Emmet Otter and the Hobans’ work has meant to me at so many different times in my life. Suffice to say that I’m the person I am today because of their work and the Henson film they inspired. The Hobans have followed me in mysterious ways throughout my life, and continue to surprise me.
Bonnie Verburg, v-p and editorial director, Blue Sky Press, Scholastic
More than 20 years ago I signed up singer-songwriter John Sebastian to write a children’s book. He gave me the manuscript over lunch and casually mentioned that Garth Williams was his godfather. Ha! Small detail! Garth was nearing the end of his life, but agreed to illustrate the book: J.B.’s Harmonica. Garth did the book exactly the way he wanted to do it, without making a single change. Period. He was as warm and charming as the art I adored as a child (Charlotte’s Web, among so many others), and I loved the man. He overflowed with colorful stories, most of them about John, his parents (John’s dad played classical harmonica at Carnegie Hall), and their circle of Greenwich Village friends, including legendary musicians, artists, and Hollywood stars. Garth Williams! Wow!
Susan Van Metre, v-p and editor-in-chief, Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet Books
I had the honor of editing William Sleator for many years before his death. I had read his classic House of Stairs at a slumber party when I was 11 and hated it. It’s the only time in my life I’ve defaced a book—after a nightmare-filled night, I attempted to scribble over the creepy cover. Of course, as an adult I realized the book’s intent was to upset. I made the mistake of conveying this anecdote to Bill when we first started working together. He was, appropriately, horrified—that his new editor was 11 when he’d published his seminal work.
Liz Bicknell, executive editorial director and associate publisher, Candlewick Press
In 1961, my younger sister Caroline was born. I was four. My grandmother (a librarian in Birmingham, England) gave me the My Naughty Little Sister books by Dorothy Edwards, illustrated by Shirley Hughes. I had forgotten all about the series by the time I left college, hoping to be a foreign correspondent and cover war zones. But I got a job in publishing, moved to the U.S.A., got another publishing job, and then in 1997, started work at Candlewick Press, where I’ve been overjoyed to publish several picture books by, guess who, Shirley Hughes.
Shirley Hughes—important to generations of children for her insightful depictions of family life, with its sticky toddlers and naughty siblings—is now 89 years old, and I am 59. Reading and now editing her work has connected the dots of my life into a continuous story, and I am grateful to her and inspired by her.
Lauri Hornik, president and publisher, Dial Books for Young Readers
Richard Peck’s Are You in the House Alone? was one of my absolute favorites when I was in middle school. But he and I had worked together on quite a few novels before I got up the courage to share that fact with him. I didn’t want him to know how young I was, and so I waited until I didn’t feel young anymore. The truth was, though, that Richard was well aware of my naïveté, and he was gently, generously guiding me through the process of being his editor. He would come into the office to go over edits page-by-page—still does, actually—and I would learn so much each time about the proper use of a blue pencil.
If I was lucky, Richard would read a selection aloud to me. He did this during the work on his most recent novel, The Best Man. In his final revision of the book, Richard added a three-page last chapter that brings out all of the great, gorgeous heart of the story. When he came into the office after writing that perfect finale, he read it out loud to me, and watched me cry. I got up from my chair at the end and rushed over to hug him, this friend who had once been a childhood idol. He told me that this hug was the best editorial note he’d ever received.
Katie Cunningham, senior editor, Candlewick Press
I read and loved James Howe’s Bunnicula in second grade and it was a formative experience, for sure. The idea of accepting members of your family (even the lapine ones) for exactly who they are sang for me as a child. As an editor, one of the very first books I worked on at Candlewick was Brontorina, which is about a dinosaur who wants to dance, even though she is quite large. My favorite line in that book is, “The problem is not that you are too big. The problem is that my studio is too small.” It’s hard for me to imagine something that a child needs to hear more: people (or rabbits, or dinosaurs) are not problems, they are exactly how they should be just exactly as they are. That is an idea that, in many ways, has made my life possible. I am truly honored to work with the man who articulated that lesson on the page so well for me and am so proud to have a part in bringing it to a new audience.
Melissa Manlove, senior editor, Chronicle Books
I grew up loving the smart, unusual stories of Florence Parry Heide: Treehorn Shrinks (and its sequels, illustrated by Edward Gorey), Benjamin Budge and Barnaby Ball, Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To, and Tales for the Perfect Child. So when, in the fall of 2011, a manuscript by Florence arrived in my in-box, I could not imagine what I’d done to deserve this stroke of luck. We started talking about her manuscript, How to Be a Hero, and what would make the story arc satisfying while accomplishing the wry, subversive thing that Florence was offering the reader. I found Florence wonderfully kind, thoughtful, and funny, which was no surprise. We exchanged a few emails about How to Be a Hero, and then, a month later and before we had a contract, Florence Parry Heide went to bed and never woke up. Her daughter Judith told me later that she’d spoken to her mother that evening, and Florence had said she was going to go to bed to think about heroes.
A year later, I reached out to Florence’s agent to see if I might still publish the book. Thank goodness, the answer was yes, and with the brilliant and truly invaluable Chuck Groenink (the book’s illustrator) and the indefatigable Kristine Brogno (the book’s designer), Florence’s last book became a reality this fall. And it’s turned out to be an even more relevant and powerful reflection on how we choose our heroes, and what heroism really is, than any of us expected it to be. Now more than ever we must ask children to think for themselves—the thing that Florence fought for in one way or another her whole life.