Children's Features

Would That It Were Mine...
-- 2/12/01
Children's editors share thoughts on books they wish they had published

The standard line in children's books is that it's a "bunny nibble bunny" world. Yet competition for authors or hot projects often gives way to admiration for a truly wonderful book, no matter who published it. We asked a variety of editors to tell us what children's book, published within the time they've been in the business, would they most like to have worked on, and why. Their answers speak to a passion for children's books that is alive and well in the publishing community.

The book that immediately springs to mind for me is The Goats by Brock Cole. I think it's a masterpiece--from the first sentence, it's a book that knocks you off your pins and makes you say, WOW. It shocks you with its honesty and clarity. The kids in The Goats are brave, stupid, petty, lovable, exasperating, pitiable and triumphant--in short, some of the best examples of unvarnished kid-ness I've ever read in children's books. If we could persuade teachers to stop torturing kids with that overrated chestnut Lord of the Flies and get them to replace it with The Goats, which is a much better-written, more thoughtful and subtle work altogether, the world would be a better place.
Ginee Seo, Associate Publisher
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Back before it merged with Penguin and moved to Hudson Street, Putnam had a small reading group that met every month to talk about whatever kids' book was getting the latest buzz. In 1994, we read Catherine Called Birdy, and I fell in love. What a terrific character. What a great book. The best book of the year, I was sure.

Then in January the Newberys were announced, and, although Catherine Called Birdy received an Honor, some unknown (to me) book won the Medal--Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons. I was so indignant--on our reading group's behalf and on Karen Cushman's. How could Catherine not have won the Medal? Obviously the Newbery committee knew nothing.

Of course the Putnam reading group picked Walk Two Moons as its next book. When I started reading it, the chip on my shoulder was huge, but by 50 pages into it, my prejudices were gone. And by the time I finished the book, I was blown away. I cried at the ending, which wouldn't have been so bad except that I was commuting home on a packed Northeast Corridor train at the time.

Forget prestige and commercial success--I would have wanted to publish Walk Two Moons because nothing could make an editor prouder than to be connected with such a powerful and wonderfully written book.

Jennifer Dussling, Senior Editor
Golden Books

The Blue Figurine books by John Bellairs are wonderful, and I only wish I could find the next John Bellairs one day soon. They stand the test of time, are fun to read, honest, emotionally involving and shivery enough to appeal to the 10-year-old in all of us. My mother, now 75, who's particular about what she reads, got hooked 15 years ago or so when, while visiting my parents, I happened to be reading the galleys (Toby Sherry, John’s editor, had asked me to read them when we worked together at Dial). My mother still asks me to get her the new books. My daughter, who's 10 and is also very particular about what she reads, loves the books in just the same way. And who can resist the Edward Gorey covers and frontispieces?

Paula Wiseman, Editorial Director
Silver Whistle Books

While I'm tempted to answer Louis Sachar's Holes (because it's genius, simply genius), I officially claim Peggy Rathmann's Good Night, Gorilla as the book I'd have most like to have published over all others. In my opinion, it's... well, it's genius, simply genius. While not strictly "wordless," its winsome illustrations communicate a story so charming that few books can match it.
Timothy Travaglini, Editor
Walker & Co. Books for Young Readers

I wish I'd published Ian Falconer's Olivia. What can I say? I have a thing for pigs, and I think--as we all do--that I was like Olivia when I was small, which is what makes it such a splendid book. I also wish I'd published Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan--mostly because it's such a word-perfect gem of a book. And because when I was little my sisters and I used to pretend we were pioneers, and my favorite movie back then was Westward Women (about a bunch of women pioneers who head West on a wagon train to marry men they've never met). So when I first read Sarah, it brought me back to the make-believe of my childhood in the most wonderful way.

Joanna Cotler, Publisher
Joanna Cotler Books

In March 1998, only a month or so after my mother died after a long battle with Lou Gehrig's disease, I read a set of galleys of Skellig by David Almond, which had been sent to me by the originating British publisher. I loved the book. I felt it was speaking to me in some way, assuring me and reminding me that the passage from life to death is a circle, with life coming again after death as surely as death comes after life. I connected with the characters in Skellig, completely believed the fantasy element of the story and had a feeling that David Almond was going to be a fabulous new find. If Skellig was his first novel, then I had no doubt his next novel would be just as good, if not better.

I made an offer for U.S. rights, but it turned out that an offer from Delacorte was bigger. They "won" the U.S. rights to Skellig and Almond's other books. Almond has since been published in the U.S. to much critical acclaim, and while of course I wish I could be known as the smart publisher who introduced a new award-winning star author to the U.S., I wish I could have published the book for the deeper reason that it would have brought me great personal pleasure to be closely affiliated with the book, to be its advocate and champion. And whether it got awards and good reviews or not, I would have been proud to publish it.

Emma D. Dryden, Editorial Director
Margaret K. McElderry Books

Although this book was published several years before I entered the field, I just have to choose The Amazing Bone by William Steig. What other author could write such a wonderful book about a bone that talks? William Steig's language is so elegant, each word is so well chosen and the illustrations are marvelous. Here is an author who is not afraid to use the phrase "odoriferous wretch" in a picture book for young children--and children just eat that up. They love the way he challenges them, and, besides, a phrase like this comes in handy on the playground. Our copy at home is almost completely worn out--a sign of a wonderful book.

Rosemary Brosnan, Executive Editor
HarperCollins Children's Books

I would love to have worked with Edward Bloor on Tangerine. The book defies categorization. It's a mystery, a sports novel, a family drama, an ecological exposé, a study of racial tension, a wicked social satire. And it's funny! Tangerine has a deliciously twisted, subversive sensibility that I hadn't seen before in a children's book--and that I would like to see more of.

Nancy Sisco Senior Editor
Knopf & Crown Books for Young Readers

The book I wish I had published is Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. Why? It's not that Kevin Henkes sails uncharted waters, but that the ordinary world he inhabits rings so true that I just want to jump up and down and say, "I know! I know!"
My purple plastic purse was in fact my treasured, humongous Reader's Digest edition of Scenic Wonders of America. Every night I scrutinized the pictures of Death Valley and the Redwood Forest, and I just couldn't wait to show it to Mrs. Collinsworth, my Mr. Slinger. When I thought I would burst, I ran to the front of the classroom to show off the book, interrupting our penmanship lesson. I was sent back to my seat abruptly, feeling angry and humiliated.

Twenty-some years later, I discovered Lilly, and this long-forgotten memory marched triumphantly back, clear as day. This book that makes me feel like I am eight years old again, that allows me relive my childhood with the wisdom of years, is my pick.

Holly McGhee, Agent
Pippin Properties

If I must pick one beyond the obvious (the Newbery winners, the bestsellers), I'd say Owl in Love by Patrice Kindl. The book is surprising in its fresh and humorous reinvention of the teen-identity fiction. The voice of Owl, the narrator, is completely believable as that of a shape-shifting girl who spends her nights as an owl. I was impressed by Kindl's imaginative grafting of the protagonist's owl identity onto typical teen issues such as alienation and unrequited love. It's not a perfect book, but it is the promise it holds that excited me. Discovering such an original and striking writer is a great gift.

Donna Bray, Executive Editor
Hyperion Books for Children

The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell impressed me enormously in 1965 when it was originally published by Pantheon (and I was working at Macmillan), and it continues to be one of the few books for either adults or children that I re-read every year or so. I've probably given more copies of it to friends, adult and children, than any other book. I wish I had published it!

In this fantasy novel a lonely man, shipwrecked on a deserted island since a boy, takes as his housemate a mermaid and they create their own family by adopting a bear, a lynx, and ultimately a real boy. It speaks of loneliness and the true meaning of family more eloquently, more memorably, more simply, and more helpfully than anything I've ever read. Having grown up in a family of dysfunctional humans, I was thrilled to discover The Animal Family and I still feel that way 36 years later.

Janet Schulman, Editor at Large
Random House Books for Young Readers

My choice is The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. It took me a long time to crack the binding of this book, despite its Newbery Honor and raves from colleagues. The hardcover jacket just didn't appeal to me. But once I started reading I couldn't stop, and as soon as I finished, I turned to page one and started (eagerly!) all over again.

Reasons I wish I'd published it? What can I say, I fell in love with sly, irreverent, beguiling Gen-the thief of the title. And like Attolia's courting in the sequel, The Queen of Attolia, it was a slow, teasing seduction, the best kind. Editors publish stories because they love them, and I would have loved to have spent lots of time with Gen and his fascinating, intricate web of a tale. For that I envy The Thief's editor!

Tracy Gates, Senior Editor
Random House

There are many books every season that make me think, "What a wonderful book, I wish I'd published it!" But Barbara Berger's Grandfather Twilight is one of my enduring favorites. Text, art and design work so perfectly together, with each aspect supporting the other, and no one element overstepping its role or calling undue attention to itself. Yet each part of the whole has impressive qualities: the text is lyrical and graceful, the art is genuinely lovely and the design is open and spacious. I can't read the book without physically feeling the gathering calm of twilight. The wordless sequence still gives me chills, as d s the line, "he gives the pearl to the silence above the sea." A tribute to Grandfather Twilight that uses only words, as I'm doing here, is doomed to fall short, as this book to me is such a fine example of an author-illustrator's tour de force. I do wish I'd published it. But I'm glad to buy it for each new child who comes into my life.

Arthur A. Levine, Editorial Director
Arthur A. Levine Books

I would like to have published The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper. My favorite title was The Dark Is Rising, which became a Newbery Honor Book. I was mesmerized by this novel, drawn into a magical world where children must overcome evil. In this fantasy it is a child, Will, who discovers that he is the last of the immortal "Old Ones" and has a pivotal role to play in overcoming the Dark. There are wonderful, exciting adventures and captivating characters that grow and change. The writing style is of a high, literary quality, but perhaps what I like most about the story is its essential, inspiring belief in the power of good and the possibilities that life can hold for all of us.

Patricia MacDonald, Editorial Director
Archway Paperbacks/Minstrel Books/Pocket Pulse

I loved Love Among the Walnuts by Jean Ferris. It's a quirky, vaguely absurd book filled with both endearing characters and gently sinister ones (though entirely evil, let there be no mistake, they poison with a birthday cake--strangely civilized). Along with throwbacks to American times long gone, a comatose pet chicken (named Attila the Hen!), and tough love, there's also a good dose of dry humor that slips past if you're not paying attention. The book's got great writing, original ideas, and real style; I admire everything about it.

Nancy Hinkel, Associate Editor
Alfred A. Knopf and Crown Books for Young Readers

In 1985, while editorial director of kids' books at Crown, I met Ron Wegen. He was an author-illustrator of growing reputation who wanted to do a new Gingerbread Boy. I jumped at it. I wasn't really keen on yet another retelling of the story, but I was deeply struck by Ron's talent. His was a great and kindly spirit. He had a thoughtful sunniness that had only begun to shine within his books. The manuscript was finished, and the art just begun, when his agent, Shelly Fogelman, called. Ron was dead. It was AIDS. For me, it was the start of the terrible plague that has taken so many bright lights and good souls. I'll always wish I had published Ron's Gingerbread Boy and, even more, that he'd lived to fulfill the promise of his youthful joy.

David Allender, Editorial Director
Children's Book-of-the-Month Club

When A Taste of Blackberries was published in 1973, it was an act of courage. No one had ever written a middle-grade novel about the death of a child from the point of view of another child. It was Doris Buchanan Smith's first book, and I can still see her as an overwhelmed young woman from Georgia, dangling a white pocketbook by its strap, when she came to the big city to accept an award from the Child Study Association. Doris went on to publish many other books with various publishers, and I've had the pleasure of working with her on several, yet I never forgot her impressive debut.
Near the end of the book, when Jamie's mother accepts the basket of blackberries his friend has picked, acknowledging and diffusing their shared grief, she says, "I'll bake a pie. And you be sure to come slam the door for me now and then." The slam of that door reverberates still.

Let's hope that all of us, large publisher or small, still have the insight to publish controversial and groundbreaking works of our own.

Deborah Brodie, Executive Editor
Roaring Brook Press