Acquiring the tools of the children's book trade is a process of give and take Passing It On

Publishing is a business largely based on apprenticeship, in which the role of a mentor is vital. In Homer's The Odyssey, Mentor was Odysseus's most trusted friend, not only charged with guarding the wayfarer's house-hold during his lengthy journey, but also with the education of his son Telemachus. Athena, too, held Mentor in high esteem, often addressing Telemachus and the people of Ithaca by "putting on Mentor's figure and his tone," writes Homer. For those who would go on to instruct apprentices, Mentor upholds the standard.

In the early days of publishing, apprenticeships looked very much like the tutorial between Mentor and Telemachus. Whether learning to set type in a printer's shop, or laying out a picture book dummy in a publishing house, novice sat alongside teacher and learned by watching and doing until he or she mastered the craft. Over time, student evolved into teacher.

In today's fast-paced, bottom-line -- oriented publishing arena, the process of learning from a mentor is dramatically different from the cozy practices of the past. Amidst the upheavals in the industry, faxes, e-mail, a plethora of meetings and cut-throat competition, how d s one learn to edit manuscripts, design picture books or meet and make lasting relationships with booksellers, librarians and teachers? To answer these questions, PW interviewed a wide range of veterans and novices in the field.

For the most part, people in children's books today are not afforded the kind of one-on-one relationships that were more common as recently as a decade ago. Yet, as Regina Hayes, president and publisher of Viking Children's Books, points out, even though the pace is faster, the internal learning structure should remain a priority. "Because publishing tends to be understaffed, it is also [necessarily] an apprenticeship business," she says.

This presents a contradictory situation. Donna Bray, now executive editor at Hyperion who started as an assistant in a small children's book department at Henry Holt, describes the situation for newcomers today: "Assistants have to be aggressive now. They have to go after the learning, whereas before it was a more organic process."

A Golden Age

In the late 1930s, when Charlotte Zolotow started as Ursula Nordstrom's secretary at what was then Harper Books for Boys and Girls, there were only three people in the department. "I learned so much from Ursula that carried through the rest of my career," says Zolotow, who went on to run the division in the mid-1970s and later had her own imprint at Harper. "Mostly people learn by watching and listening to how the people around them work." Zolotow not only typed Nordstrom's outgoing letters, but read all incoming correspondence as well. Most of her day was spent immersed in communications between editor and author or editor and artist; she was privy to an intimate view of the creative process.

Susan Hirschman, now head of Greenwillow Books, came to Harper in 1955. She, like Zolotow, was a first-hand witness to the Nordstrom style. "Ursula was enormously generous," Hirschman recalls. "We had adjunct offices with a swinging panel between them. She would say, `Miss Carr, won't you come in?' I watched her with Ruth Krauss, Maurice Sendak, Ludwig Bemelmans, Mary Stolz, Millicent Selsam. It was a wonderful way to learn." Sometimes mentoring is an unconscious process, as Hirschman points out: "I don't think [Ursula] thought she was teaching but she was."

Craig Virden, now head of the combined children's editorial group at Bantam Doubleday Dell and Random House, got a bird's-eye view of the children's books world in his first job, working for agent Marilyn Marlow at Curtis Brown in 1975. "Marilyn is a fabulous boss and mentor," Virden says. "She insisted that I read all the correspondence files. In that way, I got to know a lot of different publishers." Virden credits Marlow with helping him get his first position at a publishing house, and the two remain in close contact today.

But what if there is no one to lead the way? When children's departments were relatively new, editors such as Margaret K. McElderry had to educate themselves by trial and error. McElderry says that she had a broad background in reading but no idea what went into publishing a book and no one to teach her. She went straight from working as a librarian at the New York Public Library with Anne Carroll Moore and Frances Clarke Sayers to become head of children's books at Harcourt's newly formed children's department. Unlike McElderry, newcomers today are coming into fully formed structures with defined procedures. "Young people coming in learn by seeing the types of books that are done, the artwork that is selected, the correspondence," she says.

Similarly, editor Walter Lorraine, who now heads his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin, had to develop a routine and structure from the ground up. Having studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, Lorraine tried to bring a more aesthetic approach to picture-book production. "The field up to that point was literary, but children's books are largely a visual medium," he says. "It was learning by doing and experimenting."

Bill Morris, whom many people in the industry look to for support and guidance, had very little himself when he was first hired to replace Fred Wagner as head of library promotion at Harper in the 1960s. Wagner had recommended Morris, then a salesman for the children's books department, to Nordstrom but didn't stay to ease Morris's transition into his new position. "I remember the first Newbery dinner I hosted," Morris says. "I seated Ursula at table #1, thinking it must be the best table, and it was all the way to the far side of the room-it was the table where you had to watch the proceedings on TV."

A New Era

While McElderry, Lorraine and Morris flew solo out of necessity, many assistants today are going it alone because their supervisors' schedules allow little time for training. Many bemoan the fact that publishing companies that were once family businesses run by book lovers -- e.g., Charles Scribner's Sons, Harper &Brothers -- are now conglomerates run by businesspeople whose main concern is the bottom line.

As a result, the size of the departments and the pace of the work have increased dramatically in recent years, posing different challenges for those new on the scene. At one time, many children's departments created opportunities for assistants to work with a variety of editors and to learn a wide range of approaches to editing a manuscript; today such opportunities are rare.

When Joanna Cotler was hired as an editor by Marilyn Kriney at Harper in 1987, Zolotow approached her about working on two projects, Patricia Mac-Lachlan's The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt and Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat; both MacLachlan and Block continue to publish books with Cotler. At that time, there was a mentoring system in place in which editors could approach not only their own assistants, but a variety of junior people to back them up as readers or to help with other aspects of the process. From Zolotow, Cotler learned about getting an author's best work: "I don't think I've ever known anyone with such a capacity to make authors feel supported. She has a very light touch, yet she could send something back again and again until she got it right. She was always asking the best of them."

Charlotte Zolotow
"Learning is a two-way thing: you can't influence someone if you're not learning from them at the same time." -- Charlotte Zolotow

Cotler, now head of her own imprint at Harper, is committed to passing on what she knows to the people who work with her. "Isn't publishing about opening people's minds?" she asks. "So isn't part of our task to do that with others?"

Yet most assistants are exposed to the publishing process through meetings, rather than by working alongside their supervisors. DK Ink's Dick Jackson contrasts the current corporate climate with the easy exchange of ideas he witnessed at the beginning of his career. "At Macmillan in the '60s, there was no slew of meetings," he says. "There were a lot of interesting people working there at that time: Michael di Capua, Tom Lewis, Janet Schulman in marketing; upstairs there was Rosemary Wells, Susan Jeffers. We were all young kids together. We were batting ideas around, being playful, eating sandwiches at shared desks."

In today's climate, new staff members in relatively large departments don't often get to bat ideas around; they are frequently relegated to the sidelines. Virginia Duncan, an editor at Greenwillow Books who came from Simon &Schuster, contends that this is not a conscious decision: "At larger places, you're distracted by this form or that meeting, and move at such a clip that the junior people are left out," she says. "It's just the culture, not the plan." And lack of time is not a new consideration, as Laura Godwin, editor-in-chief at Holt Books for Young Readers, points out: "Publishing has never been a business in which time is a luxury. I learned a lot by keeping an eye out."

Since most people agree that one-on-one collaboration is largely a thing of the past, replaced by catch-as-catch-can conversations in the hallway or a weekly hour-long meeting with a supervisor, how is it that younger publishing professionals learn? Nearly everyone interviewed for this article mentioned reading correspondence files as a key to learning the history of the house, an author's working style or how to negotiate a contract.

"Filing was so interesting," Bray remembers of her early days as an assistant at Holt. "I read all the editorial letters, letters of apology and explanation and [book] estimates. You can get a lot out of the most mundane tasks if you're interested. Otherwise it's just administrative tasks and you may as well work with an insurance company."

Wendy Lamb, now an editor at Delacorte, read the circulating file (the weekly correspondence, circulated in a folder to staff members) at both Harper and Viking at the start of her career. "I learned how to write good, thoughtful rejection letters, editorial letters, the nuts and bolts of how to communicate with authors in a supportive way -- the value of correspondence, how deep or full of personality a letter can be."

But these days many departments don't have a circulating correspondence file, or if they do, people don't take the time to read it. Much of the editorial or promotional work is often done via e-mail or over the phone, so assistants don't see the stages of how a manuscript evolves or a dummy is reworked. On a positive note, Leonard Marcus, author of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, speculates, "Ursula would have felt very comfortable in the world of e-mail, but she would have saved everything." E-mail is more conversational and relaxed, as were Nordstrom's letters, he says. "There is less of a tradition of letter writing now, but e-mail could be a revival of it," he suggests.

Reading a house's backlist titles is an excellent way to learn the history, many editors and designers suggest. Bray explains a kind of extracurricular "passive mentoring" that went on while she was at Holt: she went through Godwin's collection of backlist titles, and every weekend she'd take home books to read. "That's how I built my background in children's literature," she says. "I read the files for the manuscripts of the backlist titles. I encourage my assistant to do that as well."

When Harriett Barton, creative director at HarperCollins Children's Books, trains a new designer, they look together at backlist titles along with current titles to get a sense of the scope of design in children's books. Barton says, "We look at jackets, typography and front matter, and at how they are tied into the rest of the book."

Meeting Marathons

When assistants are included in discussions, it's often in large meetings. But the quality of interaction at those meetings has changed, says Zolotow. At the start of her career, she recalls casual conversations over coffee to talk about which manuscripts were ready to be illustrated and to suggest artists who might be right for a given project. By the end of the 1980s, those were replaced by lengthy and formal editorial meetings: "There was no connection between one editor and another; it was every man for himself," says Zolotow. "It was not what you worked on, but what you worked on that sold that mattered."

According to many of the people interviewed for this article, meetings today are more likely to concern P&L statements than which artist should illustrate which manuscript. DK Ink's Jackson says, "The more you're in meetings, the more you're in communal bunches, the more crowding and less intimacy there is. The things getting passed on are impersonal."

What kind of forum is there for a more informal, personal interaction in a larger house? "One thing we've tried at BDD," Virden says, "is to foster an atmosphere that's collegial and cooperative." In addition to encouraging editors to approach a second reader on a manuscript, Virden invites all members of the department, from art, production or editorial, to participate in the judging of the Delacorte Press Contest candidates.

Barton, too, keeps an ongoing apprenticeship atmosphere; she holds occasional design "workshops," for an hour at the end of the day, which are open to all designers. "We bring the problems we're working on as well as old and new books we like and tell why we like them."

Lauren Wohl, now director of library and educational marketing at Hyperion Books for Children, hired a group that functioned as a team while head of marketing for both Macmillan and Harper. For creative meetings, everyone knew the topic in advance -- a headline for an ad, a book promotion,

Young people coming in learn by seeing the types of books that are done, the artwork that is selected, the correspondence." -- Margaret K. McElderry

pre-sales conference, sales conference wrap-up. She'd have everyone there from copywriter to designer to freelancer, if there was one. Getting many points of view together on one issue was "bigger than the sum [of its parts]," Wohl says.The Need to Become Pro-active

Since many assistants now have fewer opportunities to participate in small informal gatherings, they have to take responsibility for their education, keeping track of their questions throughout the day, then seeking out someone to answer them.

"If you want something, you have to ask," says Jazan Higgins, marketing director for children's books at William Morrow. "For example, `How did you come up with that program?' Take the initiative, fill in the blanks that you need." Lamb, who recently taught a course for editorial assistants at the Children's Book Council, agrees. She said she could tell by the questions who was getting proper training and who wasn't.

Lamb also makes the point that editors have to be able to do "close detail thinking" and then back up "to see the whole structure and trajectory of what's going on in publishing for this age group." Lamb got both kinds of experience at Viking and BDD: with George Nicholson she learned to see the big picture; Olga Litowinsky taught her line editing and copyediting.Some assistants today resist this kind of structured apprenticeship. In Virden's words, "Many of the young people now are interested in making a lot of progress in a hurry; that's different from the past." In addition to supervisors who describe assistants as wanting to climb the ladder quickly, some feel that new assistants coming in aren't as receptive to suggestions or guidance as they have been previously. Cotler, too, has noticed "an arrogance now, a closing off from receiving generosity."

One of the most important things Lori Benton, associate director of marketing at Morrow, learned from her first boss, Jean Wilson at The Bookshop in Boise, Idaho, is that "I wouldn't ask anyone to do something that I'm unwilling to do or haven't done myself." Benton adds, "I've seen people come through saying, `I'm above that.' That d sn't play well."

Teaching by Example

But if assistants are eager to learn, most veterans said they would welcome questions. As Zolotow puts it, "Learning is a two-way thing: you can't influence someone if you're not learning from them at the same time." Assistants, then, must look for examples of the way they would like to work and choose their teachers for themselves; they may discover them within their own department, on a convention floor or by working in a variety of publishing houses.

"The way mentoring works in publishing is that people serve as role models," says Jean Feiwel, v-p and editor-in-chief of Scholastic Book Group. "I try to set standards of behavior and quality by returning phone calls, communicating and letting authors have a chance to make their contributions." Bray commends an interactive approach to learning: "I have my model in Laura [Godwin], who loved to philosophize and discuss things," Bray says.

Bill Morris has had a far-reaching impact, extending well beyond the walls of Harper, where he still works. Wohl, who worked with Morris in the 1970s, says he teaches by example: "He never sits down in a booth. You stand and you don't complain because Bill d sn't." And she adds, "He never left you alone for dinner at a convention; he always organized dinners with other authors and librarians. He taught you that the author's important."

Many longtime convention-g rs comment that people staffing the booths at recent conventions often sit down on the job, sometimes not even rising to greet visitors to the booth. Higgins at Morrow notes Bill's "personal touch," and cites Morris and Anita Silvey, her first boss at Houghton Mifflin, as her "two biggest influences." She explains that both of them introduced her to people and opened doors for her as a young professional. And now she sees librarians doing the same for their new colleagues: "At conventions, I've seen librarians bring young colleagues into the Harper booth, saying, `I'm now introducing you to Bill.' It's like the changing of the guard."

Barton says, "The best apprenticeship is moving around. It seemed important to me to work in a number of places." She encourages new designers to stay 12-18 months to learn the fundamentals, then move on to the next level, whether in-house or out of house. "I'll have them do mechanicals for all designers, not just for me, as my assistant; it's important to learn different approaches to the same kinds of problems."

Also recognizing the need for diverse experience, Virden says, "It's important to me to be particularly encouraging to those people I feel are doing terrific work. I've promoted people into jobs that got further away from me so as not to stand in the way of people ready to progress."

Long-Term Relationships

People who say they owe a debt to a veteran also report maintaining the association throughout their careers. For example, Jane O'Connor, president, Books for Young Readers Mass Merchandise Group at Penguin Putnam, described her working relationship and friendship with editor and author Judy Donnelly. O'Connor started her career at Hastings House, where Donnelly was editor-in-chief. Later, they worked together at Random House, and when O'Connor was hired to head up Grosset &Dunlap, she hired Judy as an editor. Donnelly also published O'Connor's first book for children.

Scholastic art director David Saylor's unusual career path demonstrates the value of having a supervisor who rewarded his interest and commitment. While working in production at FSG, Saylor, who was a history major in college, developed a passion for design. After taking some night courses, he found a position working with Barton at HarperCollins. "She took a huge chance on me and promoted me to other people," Saylor says. "She was willing to teach me everything she knew. I was inspired by her love of picture books and knowledge of the history of book making." Cecilia Yung, art director for Putnam and Philomel, began her career in a design studio and, 20 years later, is still discusses design issues with her first employer.

Higgins, who has monthly dinners with Morris, points out the importance of such long-term connections with people in an age of merging companies and changing personnel: "You learn by proximity. You apprentice yourself to [a company's] vision and program, and with mergers, that changes. Bill has been able to express his vision and remain true to his principles no matter how many changes there have been."


Aside from a personal desire to continue educating oneself, anyone aiming to succeed in today's publishing world benefits from relationships outside their particular departments. Tracy Mack, a senior editor at Scholastic, said that working with designer Marijka Kostiw was an important stepping stone for her. Mack says that Kostiw went through the nuts and bolts of designing a picture book with her, giving her the background she needed for future projects.

Emma Dryden, senior editor and director of Margaret McElderry Books, had access to people in both editorial and design early on in her career. Dryden started out at Random House, where she worked with Ole Risom and Linda Hayward. "Ole had a design background, and Linda was strictly editorial," Dryden says. "I learned a lot from both of them." Even though Dryden knew she would eventually switch over to trade books, working on mass market titles with Risom and Hayward later helped her navigate between the demands of a corporation and her desire to publish good books. Having worked side-by-side with McElderry for eight years and absorbed her approach to publishing, Dryden says she feels confident in carrying on the McElderry imprint.

Editors also learn from authors, designers learn from artists and marketing directors learn from booksellers, teachers and librarians. The editorial process itself is an education, and authors and illustrators new to publishing need to be initiated into the ways of bookmaking.

Establishing trust is a key element in the author-editor relationship, according to McElderry. "One of the richest parts of my career is the friendships that develop with authors," she says. "It's a tremendous learning experience. When there is mutual respect and trust you can make suggestions to authors and they will be receptive."

Benton gathers new ideas by keeping in touch with people via e-mail and at conferences. But she recently took it a step further and spent four days with Betty Carter, a professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, covering every market: Benton sat in on Carter's library classes, went to all the bookstores in Dallas, five school libraries, two public libraries, and says she "saw what's going on on the front lines. I felt completely renewed and much clearer about what I wanted to do."

Although there are still instances of one-on-one mentoring, these are becoming more and more rare. The situation that DK Ink editor Melanie Kroupa describes has now become an ideal seldom achieved. "I work in a pretty insular way, working at home with an intern from Simmons College, and we work at my kitchen table." But Godwin at Holt says that while "there isn't much mentoring in the traditional sense of the word," she believes there are actually greater opportunities to learn from the rapid changes and growth in children's book publishing.

The role of the mentor today is no longer teacher to pupil -- as Mentor was to Telemachus -- but perhaps is more akin to advisor and coach, as Mentor was to Odysseus. For those starting out on their journey in publishing today must chart their own course, deciding when to anchor and when to set sail, when to ask for direction and when to stay their course-and look for a mentor or two along the way.

Beyond Nine to Five
Within the children's book community, opportunities abound to stretch oneself beyond the work week schedule. Here are just a few ways novices say they are increasing their publishing know-how:

  • Round Robins. Many publishers maintain exchanges of children's book titles with other houses so employees can see what is happening outside their own companies.

  • Book groups. Both in-house and extracurricular groups have formed to discuss noteworthy titles that help to keep people informed of books on other lists. Putnam editor Susan Kochan has been a member of one such in-house group led by Philomel editorial director Patricia Lee Gauch for about four years. People from all areas -- editorial, marketing, design -- come. "I learn a lot from seeing how different people analyze books and think about them," says Kochan.

  • Classes. The Children's Book Council offers classes and seminars on a variety of topics led by people from publishing's highest ranks. Some colleges and universities also offer writing and copyediting classes, and companies will often pay for instruction that is directly related to one's responsibilities. Holt editor-in-chief Laura Godwin, describing the "strong assistants network" that existed during her formative years at HarperCollins, said "we all took classes together. With the CBC sponsoring classes and events and editors speaking and writing articles, there are many resources accessible to people at every level."

  • Networking. Conferences and industry events (such as open houses sponsored by the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators) provide an ideal way to meet people from every corner of the children's book community, including publishers, booksellers and librarians.