If you haven’t already met Elizabeth Law, by way of her website, social media, a writers conference, or a webinar, I’m delighted to be the one to introduce you to her. She is a fount of knowledge about children’s books (and Broadway), and recently took the time to tell us about herself and her career in publishing. Enjoy!
Dorian: Welcome, Elizabeth! It’s great to have you here at the Mixed-Up Files. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your career in children’s publishing?
Elizabeth: I’ve heard publishing called “the accidental career,” but it was anything but accidental for me. I loved to read as a kid, and when I was in high school, the librarian in my hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts, and I founded a children’s book discussion group. That really encouraged my passion. Then when I went to college, I took legendary critic Zena Sutherland’s course in Children’s Literature. She told stories about her friends who were editors in New York City, and who had worked on books such as Harriet the Spy, and I thought, “Oh, please, let that happen to me!” So I moved to New York after college, got a job as an editorial assistant at Viking Children’s Books, and have been in the field my whole post-college life.
Dorian: What middle-grade books influenced you the most as you were growing up?
Elizabeth: My sister is five years younger than I, and we lived in a big house. I had the third floor all to myself, and I idealized books about big, chaotic families and adventures. (The opposite of my small, WASPy, organized, and stable family.) I read the Elizabeth Enright books about the Melendys and Cheaper By the Dozen over and over again. Today, Polly Horvath’s Pine Island Home and Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gaither sisters books still capture that feeling for me. Those are families I fantasize about being part of. So are the Penderwicks and Hilary McKay’s Cassons.
Still, that list barely scratches the surface of my childhood reading. I feel I need to give shout outs to Half Magic by Edward Eager, The Mixed-Up Files*, the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and anything by Beverly Cleary. Looking at this list now, I think, “Wow, that list is WHITE.” But that’s what we had in those days, and the books were great.
*Speaking of Mixed-Up Files, a kid asked me recently if there are more stories about Claudia and Jamie. These days Elaine Konigsburg would be under a lot of pressure from her fans and publisher to produce a sequel! I bet she would have resisted, though. But it shows how the business has changed.
Dorian: I know you’re one of Broadway’s biggest fans. What middle-grade novel or novels do you think would be great on Broadway?
Elizabeth: I love this question, Dorian! I would pick Jerry Craft’s New Kid because musicals set in high school are really trendy right now and it’s a great story. Also, I would love, LOVE to see Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven musicalized. It’s set in the sixties, and the music would be so hot, and Lilias White could play Big Ma and bring down the house with an 11 o’clock number. (Producers, are you paying attention?)
Dorian: What are some favorite middle-grade books you’ve worked on in the past? And what are some you’ve worked on recently that our readers should look out for?
Three I’m proud of in my past are No Talking by Andrew Clements, The False Princess by Eilis Oneal, and a book that might be hard to find by Christine McDonnell called Ballet Bug—it reminded me of a Scholastic paperback I had as a kid called On Your Toes, Suzie! (Why does ballet seem so magical to little girls?) I’m now working with an author named Polly Farquhar who is terrifically talented and whose characters are just so real. You can’t help but root for them as you read! Her debut novel is Itch, and she has a new novel next year called Lolo Weaver Swims upstream that I am really excited about.
Also, I’ve worked with Dan Gutman since his very first book for kids. I haven’t edited all his books—hardly—but one we just published, Houdini and Me, is super kid-pleasing—it’s the perfect, action-packed book for young middle graders.
Dorian: I’m sure you have a plethora of stories about publishing. Anything else you’d like to tell us about middle grade?
Elizabeth: I have a neat story. I became good friends with Ann Durell, the legendary editor who edited The Westing Game, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, and many others. She told me a story about my beloved Chronicles of Prydain, a Welsh fantasy series by Lloyd Alexander, that I read countless times as a kid. In those days, people said, “Fantasy doesn’t sell.” But she and Lloyd had dinner and she’d had a lot to drink so she signed the first book up! The series became a big hit, and a few years later Lloyd turned in the manuscript for the final book in the series, The High King. It wrapped up all the threads with a wonderfully satisfying conclusion and went on to win the Newbery Medal. Ann read the manuscript and said, “There’s a book missing.” Wow. She knew that we needed to know more about the main character’s origins to really appreciate, and get the full impact of, the final book. That “missing” book became Taran Wanderer, the penultimate book in the series. Of course, as a reader, I never knew any of that. I just read the books over and over. But boy, did that story teach me about the power of editorial collaboration. When an editor and a writer are really in sync, it’s magical.
Dorian: What genres, themes, etc. are you particularly looking for at Holiday House?
Elizabeth: I, personally, am looking hard for middle grade fiction, and your readers can submit to firstname.lastname@example.org and put my name in the subject heading. And since we have an open submissions policy, if you’re writing a different genre, just send it to the same address and someone smart will read it.
Dorian: You teach writing workshops all over the country. What are three top pieces of advice you have for writers?
Elizabeth: Write what you care about—don’t write for trends. That’s my first, second, and third piece of advice. I’ve learned again and again that trying to write something you don’t care about because you think there’s a demand for it never works. It’s the same with being an editor—when I’ve tried to publish something “popular” that I didn’t personally like, it bombed.
Also, it really IS about writing a good book, not about having the right contact or getting someone’s name to submit to. If you can get your book to a house that has an open submissions policy, that book will be read, and passed on to the right editor.
Finally, I’d add that it’s ok to let your manuscript rest. I so often get manuscripts re-submitted very quickly, and I think, “Did the author have time to digest my comments?” Step away for a bit and you’ll be surprised what you see when you come back to it.
Dorian: How can our readers follow you on social media?
Elizabeth: I’m @Elawreads on Twitter and Instagram. And I also have a side hustle and will work with you to help get your book stronger, or to get a query in shape, or to help you break through and get an agent. Or just anything you need, writing-wise. Check out my website, Elawreads.com. Thanks, Dorian!