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The Editor as Reader

By Louise Jordan

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A note from Harold: Louise conducted an interview with me before a conference in North Carolina in the fall of 2002. She asked some wonderful questions, and the result, somewhat revised by me for presentation here, follows.

I've long believed that the books a children's book editor read as a child shape his or her tastes and interests as an adult. In the interview, I discuss a few books I loved as a child, and still do love as an adult. Other editors would certainly talk about different books if asked the same questions Louise asked, but all of us would be able to talk avidly and at length about books we care about.

And that's why this matters. Editors can come across as authority figures with impeccable taste and the frightening power to acquire or not acquire. But we are all readers first, and readers whose interests and insights continue to evolve throughout our lives. I hope this interview will cast some light on one part of the process that makes someone into a children's book's editor: their love of children's books.

Before the conference, I asked Harold Underdown to think about a children's book world he would like to live within and to tell us why. When we met, Harold spread three tattered paperback books on the table, their dark edges frayed white with use and time. These little books had survived thirty some years and traveled from Virginia, to England, to New York, to North Carolina (and who knows where else) with Harold.

Harold: These are books from my childhood--the actual books. I read all of them when I was between eight and ten years old, at least for the first time. I chose them because all of them put you in a very real detailed world. The Cricket in Times Square puts you in the Times Square subway station and various other scenes around New York. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen puts you in a particular location in the English countryside. Apparently you can still go there and see a lot of different places mentioned in the story. The Children of Green Knowe takes place in a very old manor house in another part of England.

I think, originally, I read all of these books in England. My father is an historian, and he went to England periodically to do research. We would go over with him. We went to New York once when I was a kid, but I'm pretty sure I didn't go to Times Square. All of these books are fantasy, in one way or another. The Cricket in Times Square is populated with talking animals. In The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, you find all kinds of characters out of British folklore, ranging from little local goblins all the way up to the legend of King Arthur and his knights. In The Children of Green Knowe, the children are actually ghosts who died three hundred years before in the great plague. The boy visiting the house gets to know them.

Louise: What appeals to you about these books?

Harold: They are real worlds, real places, but there's magic in them. Different kinds of magic, but magic. You go around the corner and meet a fairy, or you walk down the stairs and find a boy dressed in a seventeenth century outfit playing the flute. You poke your head under the newsstand, and there's a cat talking to a rat.

These books are a particular kind of fantasy. They are not about going off into a different world, an escape in that sense. They are set in this world, but this world with more possibilities. They are written about very specific places and give the flavor of those places.

Also, the structure appeals to me. The characters resolve problems, deal with scary things, meet challenges, and cause curses to be lifted.

I carried my love of them with me as an editor.

One place that love showed up is in my passion for multicultural books. I like books that come from someone's deeply personal experiences. I like being taken places by books. It could be Times Square in New York or Norfolk in England. Someone who has been there can show me that place. I love that. A multicultural book speaks to the fact that we live in a multicultural world. Someone who hadn't been to New York couldn't have written The Cricket in Times Square in this same way. Someone who hadn't lived in Norfolk couldn't have written The Children of Greene Knowe. They could have written fantasy in a similar setting, but it wouldn't have the same quality, the grit. It wouldn't have the same flavor and feeling. That's something I look for in a person's work. Not every book is set in a culture. But if it is, I want to feel that culture.

Louise: So you want the writer of a multicultural book to have lived in that culture?

Harold: That is a touchy point. Some writers say, "I live by my imagination. I can imagine myself anywhere." I kind of understand that. Certainly, there are worlds that are no longer available to us--for instance 13th century France. Nobody has been there. But someone who is essentially a tourist tends to write from a tourist's point of view, though there are degrees of tourism. There's someone who goes to India for two weeks and decides to write a novel about it. Then there's Paul Goble, an Englishman, who lives many years on the Great Plains (his whole adult life), is accepted into an American Indian nation, and writes a series of picture books based on Sioux and Lakota legends and folktales. The people in the tribes he is writing about are perfectly happy with his writing because he has made this his life. He's not a carpetbagger.

Louise: Did you consider living in a picture book world?

Harold: I didn't think of picture books for a couple of reasons. The world in picture books is smaller, unless you extend it through your imagination. Also, I have a personal theory, which may or may not be true. Children's book editors tend to have a sweet spot. They tend to connect to a particular time in their own childhoods. That doesn't mean they can't edit books for children of all ages. But my sweet spot--where I feel the most personally connected to, both as a reader and as an editor--tend to be books for an eight- to ten-year-old , in both fiction and nonfiction. There are certainly picture books that I love, nonfiction that I love, and young adult books that I love, but there's something about the inner child in me that is always a nine-year-old.

Louise: You said in your presentation that this is the Golden Age of picture books. Do you think today's picture books are as good as, or better than, the classics?

Harold: It's very hard to make a judgment, and it takes time for a book to become a classic, but as I said in my presentation, I certainly don't accept the common belief that the Golden Age was, say, back in the '50's. For technological and cultural reasons, there is a much greater range of picture books available today than ever before.

For example, I'm looking at books for our eleven-month old daughter. We've been reading very early picture books to her. She loves books, and the experience of having them read to her (she also likes to sit and look at them on her own).

She does not like Good Night Moon. The illustrations are a little dark, and it's hard to pick out the details. She responds better to brighter, somewhat higher-contrast illustrations. And the story of that book does not grab her the way simpler, more repetitive stories do. When she is a toddler starting to identify objects, then she will get that story. For now, she responds to books like Denise Fleming's Lunch in which a little mouse comes out of a mouse hole (sniff, sniff, sniff) and climbs onto a table and eats a series of fruits and vegetables. Fleming actually makes handmade paper, and the colors are bright and saturated. The story is from the mouse's perspective so the fruits are brilliantly colored and large. There's a slice of watermelon that spreads across two entire pages.

Until four-color printing became fairly routine, there was nothing like Fleming's book done for the youngest children. I can't think of any books at all before about 1970. Most of the books we have been reading to Simone were written in the last ten years. The technology to produce these books inexpensively, working from unusual illustration media, didn't exist before.

Louise: Has reading to Simone influenced how you think about picture books?

Harold: I have certainly learned about the board book age and the young picture book age, though the books we've looked at that I Simone likes the most are also the ones that I like the most. Getting an objective look at what she likes is difficult, because she may like the books we do because we present them with more excitement.

But for example, as parents, we have been frustrated because there aren't many books that feature people. They mostly have animals. All the Eric Carle books, all the Eric Carle imitators, so many books for the youngest child, have animals. We wanted some books that have people in them. The naming object books are fine for when she's older and actually identifying objects. At her age we want to read her something that is a little more substantial because it's the sequencing, the experience of it, and our voices that she responds to (this runs counter to the advice we've been given but we have found that overly simple books just don't hold her attention).

She enjoys Carle's The Very Busy Spider. We have a good time with her when we make the noises of the animals. She likes rhythm, repetition, and bright colors. Rhyme isn't necessary.

But we've really only found two books that seem to be for her and that are entirely about people. One of them is More More More Said the Baby by Vera Williams, which I think is a work of genius. I have never seen anything like it. There are three very simple stories with similar structures, and strong, rhythmic language. They show a baby and a parent or grandparent interacting. The subtitle is "3 Love Stories," which they are, but the word love is never used. They simply show love. They are not telling the reader that it's there. I like this so much more than all those other books, like Guess How Much I Love You, which are sappy and keep declaring how much I love you. What's wonderful about More More More is seeing the story of two people-- a baby and an adult--acting out their love. It's enormously warm and comforting. There's nothing else like it.

We also have Nola Buck's book How a Baby Grows. It has people in it and is very simple. It runs through the parts of a baby's world--the sounds, the people, the objects. There aren't many books like that. I would have my eyes open for a book like that when I'm back looking to acquire children's books as an editor.

Added: Publishers Weekly did a great article in which various editors were asked how having children had affected what they do--an interesting counterpoint to this interview.

In conclusion. . . . Being a reader is to be engaged in a continuing process, so my central conclusion to the thinking sparked by Louise's interview is that I am, as an editor, influenced by what I have read and am reading. Seems obvious, but it's easy to assume that our taste is fixed. It isn't, and I wouldn't want it to be.

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