Today, we have a treat for readers who are especially interested in history and historical fiction for kids. Recently, I was delighted to interview Thalia Leaf, who is an associate editor at Calkins Creek. Thalia offered several insights into her publishing imprint and what she looks for in submissions. So let’s get started!
Dorian: How did you get involved in children’s publishing?
Thalia: I always wanted to work in children’s publishing, but I got here in a roundabout way. Before I worked in publishing, I taught English abroad. It was so fascinating to see the way kids responded (or didn’t respond) to certain books—it’s so important for kids to have books that are interesting and relevant to them. When I came back to the U.S., I interned at a literary agency where I worked on a pretty wide range of children’s books, which I loved. My first job in publishing was in adult books though—I worked on very serious history books for a handful of years. I was really delighted when an opportunity came up to work on U.S. history-focused fiction and nonfiction at Calkins Creek. It combined the work I’d been doing on history books for adults and my dream of working on children’s books.
Dorian: Can you tell us a little bit about Calkins Creek?
Thalia: Calkins Creek is an imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers. Our list includes fiction and nonfiction for kids and teens. We focus on publishing books about American history, which might sound sort of narrow, but within it there’s potential for books on a huge range of topics from science and art to racial justice and political activism. We love books that highlight an untold story about a person or an event that kids really ought to know about. Of course, it’s most important that our books are exciting, kid-friendly, and beautifully produced. Some of my favorite Calkins Creek books are Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 by Alice Fay Duncan; Dorothea’s Eyes: Dorothea Lange Photographs the Truth by Barb Rosenstock; Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez by Larry Dane Brimner; Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles Henry Turner by Janice N. Harrington; Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men by Sandra Neil Wallace and Rich Wallace; and Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease by Gail Jarrow.
Dorian: They all sound fascinating. Have you always been interested in books about history and historical fiction, and what books sparked your interest in the genres?
Thalia: Yes, I have! What I love about historical fiction is that it has same escapist appeal of sci-fi and fantasy, but you also get to learn something! As a little kid, I was pretty obsessed with the 19th century thanks to the Little House books and Caddie Woodlawn, which my mother read to me starting in kindergarten. I was very into dressing up in 19th century clothes and was always asking my parents to take me to living history museums like Old Sturbridge Village. When I got a bit older, I read historical fiction on my own; in middle school my friend Ana and I read every book we could find on the Tudors. Some of my favorite middle grade and YA historical fiction books were The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Sally Lockhart series, All of a Kind Family, and The Devil’s Arithmetic. I wish I’d had books like Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte and Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park when I was a kid.
Dorian: With so much misinformation in various media, it must be challenging to edit books that deal with history. How do you meet that challenge?
Thalia: The prevalence of misinformation is exactly why I think publishing great children’s books on historical subjects is so important. Our understanding of history affects our understanding of the present. Much of American history is difficult and ugly and uncomfortable. But we don’t make things better by avoiding talking about them. Kids don’t need things sugarcoated for them—and they’re pretty good at detecting BS.
Dorian: What are some of your favorite middle-grade books you’ve worked on and why?
View from Pagoda Hill by Michaela MacColl is probably my favorite Calkins Creek middle-grade book. It’s based on the author’s family history. I’m relatively new to the imprint, so the books I’ve actually worked on have yet to come out.
Dorian: What middle-grade books do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
Thalia: They’re still in the early stages, so I can’t say too much. I’m especially excited about a book we have on a woman who worked as a spy during World War II and another about a young girl who solves the mystery of a Revolutionary War-era diary she finds.
Dorian: Very intriguing! What subjects or historical time periods are you particularly interested in seeing in your submissions box from agents?
Thalia: I want to find untold stories that urgently need to be told, and these come from all historical periods and are about all topics. At the moment, though, I’m especially interested in stories of immigrants, as well as books that deal with more recent history (1975-2008). I’d also love to see manuscripts on Jewish topics that break the mold a bit. Manuscripts that deal with LGBTQ+ themes would be especially welcome, as I think there’s a massive amount of untold history there. Graphic novel submissions would be especially welcome. I’m constantly updating my manuscript wishlist, which you can find here.
Dorian: What advice do you have for authors who’d like to write about historical events (nonfiction or fiction)?
Thalia: First, do your research! The best books come from discovering a person or an event that no one knows about but everyone ought to know about. Sometimes you’ll read a newspaper article or see something on social media that intrigues you and makes you want to dig deeper and find out if there’s a good story there. Second, make sure your story has a proper narrative arc, even if you’re writing nonfiction. When writing history, it’s hard not to make a book just a recitation of the facts, but it’s so important that you shape the story you’re telling. Even in nonfiction, your characters need to have “wants” or goals, encounter obstacles, and succeed or fail in a way that changes them or their world.
Dorian: Great advice! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thalia: Calkins Creek only accepts agented submissions and all submissions must include a bibliography.
This has been wonderful. Thanks so much for taking the time out to give our readers such great information about you and Calkins Creek.
Find Thalia’s wishlist and more about Calkins Creek by following her on twitter.