Diversity

Would your favorite childhood books get published today?

Writer friends often gripe that classic and modern classic children’s literature is rife with so many of the no-nos we are counseled to avoid. So much exposition! Too much description or flowery language! So episodic. Too much showing not telling. Not to mention the subtle or not so subtle references to dads reading Playboy magazine that I keep finding as I re-read some of my childhood favorites. (Although I’m sure they were all the kinds of dads who subscribed to the magazine because the articles were really good.)

As anyone who has been following my previous posts might guess, I have been caught up in the theme of old-fashioned vs modern and what still feels fresh no matter the decade or era. Continuing in this vein, this time the question I am asking is: would classics that are still in print and greatly enjoyed by young people today, actually get published today?

I posed the question to many different kinds of people in the children’s book publishing industry and in the writing community, both in the US and the UK, and have been having some really interesting conversations. Because my personal taste tends toward the character-driven quieter dramas of everyday life rather than the big action, adventure etc., and those are the kinds of books I want to write, I asked about mid-to-late-century books from authors like Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume, or older ones like Ballet Shoes and Anne of Green Gables, as well as ‘modern classic’ UK favorites like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.

I realized that this is a large question and might only be answerable on a case by case basis. And that one could think about it as both a philosophical exercise and as the basic question of ‘if x manuscript landed on an editor’s desk today would it be published?’ But I invited people to take the question in any direction that felt interesting to them and now I would like to share a few answers.

In Short: the answer is NO. And YES.

Kendra Levin, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, said: “Here’s the thing about this question, which is a good one: it’s very hard to imagine an alternate world where those classics you mentioned– Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, Roald Dahl, et al– weren’t already published in the past. …one reason I feel books like those don’t get published as much today is that these classics already exist, and are so enduring that anything similar will feel like an also-ran when compared with them.”

This answer both stopped me in my tracks and finally answered what has been bothering me enough to keep exploring it. It seems obvious now and perhaps I have been dense or obtuse because I so love some of these books of the past I was depressed that I couldn’t set out to write one myself. (Never mind personal talent or ability!) But Kendra’s answer reminded me of seeing Pulp Fiction when it first came out. I went to see it three times! I had never seen or experienced anything like it. But if it came out today it wouldn’t be so astounding and beloved because so many movies now look like it or have used its structure. It’s simply the difference between something being an original, done for the first time, and something being derivative. Indeed, we already have Judy Blume.

Wanted: More Mirrors

But Kendra added something that shifted the question and reframed it in an important way:

“What I think more and more people are recognizing is that, while we have many books that do live alongside Ramona, Fudge, and the Dahl catalog, the vast majority of those books continue to represent children who already have the privilege of seeing themselves and their lives reflected in many, many books. There are very few, if any, books about a black (or Latinx or indigenous or Asian-American or…or…or…) girl who does all the things Ramona does, in her own way that’s unique to her life and world– fight with her sister, worry about being creative enough, mishear song lyrics, get into trouble, and so on. Writers and publishers and booksellers have a responsibility to work together to present far more books reflecting the many experiences that have been held outside the gates of published literature, and those are the books that can become the classics of the next hundred years. And many writers and publishers and booksellers are working on this very project as we speak– and I predict that more will commit to it more deeply in the years to come.”

So Kendra thinks that on one hand, something exactly like Ramona or Fudge would not necessarily be published today, but on the other hand, a new Ramona or Fudge can–it just might not look like what some people may picture when they say “a book like Ramona” or “a book like Fudge.” To her, it’s about redefining what you consider a potential classic and expanding the way you create comparisons; resisting putting books into the same boxes they have been put into for the past decades. She said, “The books of Cleary and Blume and Dahl are often called ‘universal’ and we have to recognize that they are not truly universal– and also that a book about a character who is living a different experience than Ramona’s or Fudge’s or Matilda’s can be just as ‘universal’ as these characters are said to be.”

Clever…But Racist

Indeed, I hope the paths toward books published today that will be tomorrow’s classics are wide and infinite. Candy Gourlay, a British-Filipina author, whose Costa-shortlisted book BONE TALK has just been released in the US, and who often speaks about how growing up she didn’t know that characters who looked like her could also be in books, responded to my question like this:

“My books at home as a child were not very contemporary as my parents bought those ‘Children’s classics’ collections sold by door to door salesmen and only discovered Enid Blyton when I moved schools. Nevertheless I loved Tom Sawyer and Heidi and Black Beauty etc. Recently someone on Twitter called me out when I mentioned how much I loved Tom Sawyer on a blog. Why, she asked, do you recommend a racist book? First of all I was not recommending it … I was just stating that this was a book I loved … but I guess she was right in that, saying I loved it was a recommendation. I was stung and terrified that she was right. I re-read Tom Sawyer. It was every bit as clever and well written as I remembered it. But yes, it was racist. Not about black people but about Native Americans. I wrote a blog about it.”

Recently, Candy was tagged on Twitter by teachers discussing how Bone Talk would be a good companion to studying Robinson Crusoe. She said: “I realised they would be studying it on the basis of the primitivism of my heroes, which seems dangerous to me. So I created resources for my website that responded to these issues.”

I highly recommend reading Candy’s thought-provoking and soul-searching post as she grapples with the complicated legacy of the books she loved as a child, and also watching the video she includes of Grace Lin’s PBS video about what to do when your beloved books are racist. Also check out the classroom resources she created for teaching today’s children a classic story alongside her own novel.

Separating the Author from the Book

Then there are the problems with the authors themselves. In 2018 there were several news stories revealing that plans to commemorate Roald Dahl in the UK with a special edition coin a couple of years before had been scrapped over concerns about his anti-semitic views. But during his lifetime, in both the UK and the US, Roald Dahl’s anti-semitic views were known but unremarked on in a way that I cannot imagine an author getting away with today without having their career shattered. Or perhaps I am being naive. Either way, the Dahl books are still staples in libraries, bookstores and homes—including ours—and they are still adored by both old and new generations of readers.

Conclusion: La-di-da-di, We Likes to Party

Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick: their 1984 song La-di-da-di has been sampled over 500 times

Fashions and styles change, but enduring stories do not. Reading Anne of Green Gables today, I am tempted to skip large swathes of description that might bog down or bore (fairly or unfairly) a child of today. It is also largely episodic. Then there is the uncomfortable bit where the bad guy who sells Anne the hair dye that turns her hair green is a German Jewish peddler. But the story itself, about an orphan with spunk who loves beauty and tugs on everyone’s heartstrings—characters’ and readers’ alike—is evergreen. Beyond the classic book that is still in print after more than a century, the story keeps undergoing artistic iterations in the form of plays, movies, graphic novels and TV series, including the latest one on Netflix Anne with an E.

For me personally, Kendra’s answer finally made me see that I was on a path that was taking me in the wrong direction. But also that all is not lost for future Ramonas and Fudges—as well as Toms and Annes—whatever they might look like, whatever their names might be, whatever their small and large dramas, and whatever is unique to their particular world.

Recently I have been obsessed by a TED Talk on originality given by famed musician, DJ, and producer Mark Ronson. He explains that when sampling first started 30 years ago, artists didn’t do it to “cash in on the familiarity.” But rather because they heard something in that music that spoke to them and “they instantly wanted to inject themselves into the narrative of that music.” He shows how one song, La-di-da-di by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick has been sampled over 500 times, by musicians as various as the Notorious B.I.G. to Miley Cyrus. But it’s not derivative because each time it is reimagined and used in a different way. Each musician, or creator, takes an idea—a sample—but makes it their own. He gives the example of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black album, which captures a long-lost sound, but without the very 21st century personality and firebrand that was Amy Winehouse, the project would have risked being pastiche. Instead, she brought the ingredients that made it urgent and of the time. Mark Ronson’s take is that you can’t “hijack nostalgia wholesale” because it leaves the listener feeling sickly. You have to take an element of those things and bring something fresh and new to it.

I love this idea and would argue that this is a good metaphor for any art or artist. And in particular for children’s book writers. For me it is personally a productive way to think about the classics, and what we—any of us, from any background—might choose to create for the children of today, and the future. What do you think?

 

Book Gratitude: 18 MG Authors Share Their Favorites

I was eight, or maybe nine, when I discovered a mysterious blue box in my parents’ medicine cabinet. The box was labeled “Tampax,” and I had no idea what it was. Curious, I asked my mom.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” she said, moving the box to a higher shelf. “You don’t need to worry about this now.”

I wasn’t worried… just intrigued. So as soon my mom left to make dinner, I peeked inside the Tampax box and discovered an army of tubular, paper-wrapped soldiers. What on earth were these things? And how was I going to find out?

Luckily Judy Blume had the answer. Okay, not Judy Blume herself, but her classic MG novel, Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which explores puberty and periods, with candor and care. The book wasn’t a replacement for a much-needed talk with my mom (that would come later), but for the moment, Margaret was the next best thing. I was grateful for this honest, informative, and true-to-life novel. I still am.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, and giving thanks to great books, I asked 18 middle-grade authors to share a book they’re most grateful for. Here’s what they had to say…

SUPRIYA KELKAR, author of Ahimsa, The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh, and the upcoming American as Paneer Pie (5/12/20).

“The one book I’m most thankful for is Hot, Hot, Roti for Dada-Ji (Lee and Low Books) by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min because it was the first time my kids saw themselves in a book.”

CHRIS BARON, author of the MG debut novel in verse, All of Me.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson taught me that it was completely okay for me to be friends with a girl, something so important for the environment I was in. Even more deeply, it helped make a little more sense of the complex and difficult world I experienced at that age. It taught me that grief and hope are not enemies; that challenges are an important part of life, and that we are never alone.”

JANAE MARKS, author of the soon-to-be-released MG debut, From the Desk of Zoe Washington (1/14/20).

“I loved The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin as a kid, and in elementary school wrote Ann M. Martin a letter! I got a very nice form reply back, which made me so happy. What I loved most about these books was the friendships. I’m an only child, so friendships were really important to me. Reading about the books’ characters and their close relationships with each other was both entertaining and comforting. One of my best friends at the time was also into the books, and we bonded over our love for them.”

DEBBI MICHIKO FLORENCE, author of the Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series and the upcoming Keep It Together, Keiko Carter (5/5/20).

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee was one of the first books my daughter and I read together that had a contemporary Asian-American character. I had craved books like that when I was in middle school, and  it gave me hope that the stories I wanted to write might find a publishing home some day. And my dreams came true!”

RONALD L. SMITH, author of HoodooThe Mesmerist, and Black Panther: The Young Prince.

“The book I’m thankful for is The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by British writer Eleanor Cameron. I think I discovered it in middle school, and it swept me away to Mars, with two kids who build a spaceship in their basement. When I do school visits, I like to show a slide of the cover and point out how old I am by the price being only fifty cents. I have a vague memory of being home from school one day, perhaps I was sick or just feigning. Rain was pattering on the window. The book put me in a state of mind I had never experienced before. I now know that experience as “falling into the page,” something I try to do today with my own writing. Over the years, I have found readers of a certain age who still have fond memories of the book. It’s a timeless classic!”

SANDY STARK-McGINNIS author of Extraordinary Birds and the The Space Between Lost and Found (4/28/20).

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros was the first book I read where I said to myself, ‘I want to write like that.’ For me, it’s the perfect balance of accessible but layered, lyrical prose. When I need a reminder of why I love to write, I always come back to this book.”

JONATHAN ROSEN, author of Night of the Cuddle Bunnies and From Sunset Till Sunrise.

“I devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure series as a kid, because the hero was always me. The books were written in second person: “You did this,” and “You thought that,” making it easier for me to picture myself in the various situations. Plus, my dad would always buy me the next one in the series whenever we went to the bookstore, so it makes me think of him and that time in my life.”

CELIA C. PEREZ, author of  The First Rule of Punk and Strange Birds.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton came into my life when I was a seventh grader. Friendships were changing, and I was beginning to think about myself on a deeper level, to think about identity, about how others saw me and how I saw myself. Pony Boy was the first fictional character I remember identifying with. Like him, I felt that the world labeled me and made decisions about who I was without knowing me. I was a dreamer and lived in my head, like Pony Boy did. And like Pony Boy, I appreciated the power of writing; of the stories I read and of the stories I could someday write. I’ve read the book many times since I first read it decades ago, most recently to my eighth grader. The story is timeless, and I’m grateful for its lasting impact on my life as a reader and writer.”

HENRY LIEN, author of Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword and Peasprout Chen: A Battle of Champions.

“There are few books that make me feel true joy, wonder, and peace like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s a wordless, illustrated book done in beautiful, sepia-toned drawings and paintings that echo vintage photographs. It starts out looking like it’s going to be a historical piece, and that the main character is leaving some European country in the early twentieth century and emigrating to a new country. But when he arrives in the new country, you realize this place is like nothing you’ve seen before.  It’s like stepping into Oz, except Oz stays gloriously sepia-toned.

What Tan has done is given every reader the experience of being an immigrant, because everyone feels bewildered and lost. But it’s also a bright, warm immigration story because for every intimidating or strange encounter, there is an act of kindness and gentleness to remind the viewer that they might not be from here, but that they are welcome here. And here’s my greatest testament to the book’s power: I gave it to my father who came to America by himself, before the rest of our family followed. When he finished the book, he simply said, ‘This is exactly how it was for me.'”

SALLY J. PLA, author of The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine.

“My elementary school library had this biography series, sort of a prehistoric version of today’s “Who Was” books (I was a kid in the 60s/70s, so yes, prehistoric). Marie Curie. Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosa Parks. Helen Keller. Thomas Alva Edison. I lived for these books. Not because of the fame of the people, but because they were people, explained. Their struggles laid open, thoughts, actions and experiences illuminated. Their stories gave me hope, because I felt as if I were struggling all the time. When I found them on the shelf in room 5B, I felt like I’d stumbled on this treasure trove of field guides into the mystery of how humans worked (or should work). I know that sounds weird, like I was some kind of robot alien child. Maybe I sort of was!”

ALICIA D. WILLIAMS, author of the MG debut, Genesis Begins Again.

Blubber by Judy Blume was one of my favorite childhood books. Not only is Ms. Blume’s writing very funny, but that book spoke to me simply because I was Blubber. I was rather chunky, and horribly teased, and reading that story made me know that I wasn’t alone. I so identified with the characters and how bullying affects friendships. You can say that I’m both Linda and Jill.”

WENDY McLEOD MacKNIGHT, author of It’s a Mystery, Pig-FaceThe Frame-Up and The Copy Cat (3/10/20).

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery entered my life when I was nine years old, and sick with a nasty cold. My mother, anxious to get me away from the clutches of Midday Matinee, a local program that aired exquisitely bad movies, passed me a green hardbound book that would forever change my life.

Why am I thankful for Anne? Anne gave me permission to let my spunk flag fly. She was eccentric, romantic, brilliant, all the things that I either was or desired to be. She loved her friends and family unabashedly. She loved her community. She loved her books. She made mistakes and owned up to them, even if they weren’t hers (hello, amethyst brooch). She wasn’t beautiful, but she was better than beautiful: she was interesting and clever, a beacon for every interesting and clever girl.

A confession: I wasn’t sick the next day, but I faked sick, because I couldn’t bear not to know what happened. As I sobbed uncontrollably during that awful scene toward the end, Anne taught how important it is to love and be loved, whatever the cost. So thank you, Anne. You continue to be my north star, the literary light that reminds me that being different is a pretty swell thing to be.”

MELISSA SARNO, author of Just Under the Clouds and A Swirl of Ocean.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett taught me that there is magic in the natural world and magic within myself. Its message is one I take with me every day: we can help one another grow.”

GREG HOWARD, author of The Whispers and the upcoming Middle School’s a Drag, You Better Werk! (2/11/20).

“I’m grateful to have discovered Sounder by William H. Armstrong at a young age. It taught me empathy, and helped me better understand a culture I was completely unfamiliar with. Not only that of a different race, but of a level of poverty for which I had no concept because of my privileged upbringing.”

MELANIE SUMROW, author of The Prophet Calls and The Inside Battle (3/3/20).

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen is probably the first example of a middle-grade book that felt edgy to me in the best way possible. A true coming of age story, Brian is forced to cross the precipice from childhood to adulthood in order to survive. I adore Brian’s story because, in spite of his fear, self-pity and doubt, he discovers his own resilience—an important lesson for all of us.”

RYAN CALEJO, author of Charlie Hernandez and the League of Shadows and Charle Hernandez and the Castle of Bones.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is the first book I remember reading in school, and the first book I fell in love with. It’s a story about friendship, compassion, and accepting one another. I can’t think of a book more in the spirit of Thanksgiving than this gem.”

ROB VLOCK, author of Sven Carter & the Trashmouth Effect and Sven Carter & the Android Army.

“Having just lost my dad, who taught me to love reading and books, I’d say I’m grateful for every single book he read to me at bedtime. These were those magical moments that made me realize how amazing the experience of reading books could be. Among the hundreds of titles we loved together: The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, Treasure IslandThe HobbitAlice in WonderlandWar of the Worlds20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and David Copperfield. Without these experiences, I wouldn’t be an author today. Thanks, Dad! I’m more grateful than I can express.”

JESSICA KIM, author of the upcoming MG debut, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (3/17/20).

“I am also so thankful for Lisa Yee’s Millicent Min, Girl Genius because it was the first middle-grade book cover I ever saw that featured a contemporary Asian-American character! I also appreciated that it was a hilarious, heartwarming story about friendship, and the plot did not have to revolve around her “other” identity.”

Interview with Editor Jonah Heller – Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

We are delighted to have with us, Jonah Heller, associate editor at Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

Welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Jonah!

Hey, thanks for having me!

 

Could you share your editorial journey at Peachtree with us?

My editorial journey with Peachtree started shortly after I graduated with my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. I was fortunate enough to have a network of peers connected to Peachtree who helped advocate my intern application, and I did my internship with Peachtree in the summer of 2016. Through hard work, careful attention to detail, and routinely showering everyone with baked goods, I left enough of a positive impression that I was hired on as a publisher’s assistant on January 1, 2017.

From there, I was entering orders for sales, organizing mailings, proofing our catalog, and doing just about anything that needed an extra pair of hands while also training into editorial assistant work. As my supervisor left for other horizons—I eventually did take on more editorial work and started dipping into acquisitions by examining imports from Frankfurt and Bologna. It was great exposure to literature abroad and an excellent opportunity to develop my own taste and direction. Of course, the reward for work done well is—more work! So lots of paperbacks and reprints and editorial outreach as an assistant editor. And now I’ve been upgraded to an associate editor, so I’ve been set loose into the wilderness to go find exciting things and build my list. Woo!

 

What are some books you’ve worked on?

Peachtree is very well established in the picture book arena, so plenty of those!

In terms of middle grade: Peachtree is a smaller house, so that means it’s an all-hands-on-deck environment and everyone’s got their hand in the cookie jar at some point. I’ve helped proof various stages of our Charlie Bumpers and Nina Soni series. I’ve also overseen the paperback adaptation process for quite a number of our middle grade titles, which can involve anything from a new cover and revised back matter to substantial text edits and updates with the author.

                                               

Working on imports as an assistant, I adapted The Bookshop Girl from Scholastic UK and oversaw the illustration process from sketches to final art and cover. It’s a fun mystery about a girl who can’t read and has to save her family’s recently acquired bookstore from a shady con man. A good choice if you love whimsy and the idea of a mechanical wonder bookstore with rooms dedicated to rocket ships or pirate treasure aquariums.

What are some subjects you’d like to see authors tackle in middle grade?

Ultimately, I’d like to see them tackle whatever interests them. That’s the best place to start. But as far as my wish list for this group…

Themes: adventure, animal points of view, comedy, coming of age, contemporary, magical realism, mystery, wilderness survival,

Craft: character driven; compelling voice; page-turning digestible plot; 3-dimensional protagonist & antagonist

It’s one of those things, where I’ll know it when I see it and get into the first ten pages. So I try to keep a wide net cast. I would, however, especially LOVE ownvoices LGBTQ+ stories.

Could you share with us your ideas and goals when it comes to the representation of diversity in the books you publish?

Everyone should be able to reach out to literature and see themselves. That’s critical not only to a sense of belonging but also to establishing empathy for other walks of life outside of our own experience. I strive to be mindful and thoughtful in my acquisitions, because I don’t want a one-note list. I’d be very bored and disappointed with that and, ultimately, so would my publisher and our readers.

Putting that into practice: I don’t ever actively look to check off a box and then move on to something else. I don’t think that’s a good approach, nor a sincere one. My goal is to ultimately acquire talent from all walks of life, who can deliver an excellently crafted story while also offering authentic mirrors and varied experiences. I don’t want to just acquire you and your one book and then be done with it:  I want to build a long-lasting relationship with you and work on lots of cool things for years to come.

What are some common reasons for a manuscript to make it to acquisitions at Peachtree Publishing?

For middle grade fiction, it’s usually character- or voice-driven. You can really latch onto someone’s journey and empathize with their trials and triumphs if the writing lets you step close enough. It’s not really theme or topic that drives fiction for us; it’s a fully satisfying story and arc of growth. You walk away from the book, having had some sort of raw emotional experience that sticks to you and you carry around for a while.

Nonfiction: it’s not my area of expertise, admittedly. But this can be topic or theme driven at first and then develop into something that will ultimately be more for the institutional market. So, we’ll ask: how can this be used in the classroom? What makes it different and specialized from everything else already out there? How can we grow it further from this one book? Etc.

What advice do you have for writers who want to query you?

So if you’re unagented, I’m on snail mail at the moment. It’s not everyone’s favorite method, but it’s mine and it keeps me organized! You can find Peachtree’s address and submissions guidelines on our website, and if you were dutiful enough to read this then you’ll now discover that if you don’t put my name on the envelope, it won’t ever come to my desk.

My general wish list is above, but it’s always a good idea to check out a publisher’s catalog and see what kind of stuff they’ve done. That’s always step one. Ask yourself: does it feel like they’re a good fit for my work, or am I going to be an odd duck out here? Or, if they’ve done something similar: how is my work going to stand out?

As I’ve said, nonfiction isn’t generally my cup of tea. But maybe I’ll surprise myself one day.

I’m also probably not the right editor for a divorce or abuse story, unless it culminates in healing and/or some type of cathartic and triumphant resolution. Additionally, fantasy and science fiction haven’t been as prominent at Peachtree, so the pacing, world building, and character work has to be top-of-the-line.

Other tips:

  • Spelling the editor’s name right is cool
  • Showing up at their office in-person is not cool
  • Neither are frequent phone calls
  • Explore resources on writing query letters

What’s going on in Middle Grade at Peachtree right now?

I’ve been Americanizing an illustrated adventure from the UK, called Mr. Penguin. It’s Indiana Jones meets Sherlock, but with a penguin and a kung fu spider. So basically loads of fun.

                                         

 

Our Nina Soni series continues, and upcoming for 2020: we’ve bought the US text rights to Lavie Tidhar’s Candy from Scholastic UK. It’s an awesome film noir-like mystery following young detective Nelle Faulkner as she uncovers the shady underworld of candy smuggling in a town that’s outlawed sugar. We will be re-illustrating, so expect a fun story and a fresh American package!

Domestically, I’m on the verge of some exciting things I can’t share just yet. So stay tuned and be on the lookout for Peachtree’s middle grade!

 

Jonah Heller is an Associate Editor at Peachtree Publishing Company Inc. in Atlanta, GA. He graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and earned his BFA in Dramatic Writing for Film and TV at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His editorial focus ranges from board book to young adult. Say hello on Twitter @jrheller87