The story goes that NY Public Library lioness Anne Carroll Moore confronted legendary Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom (no shrinking violet herself) challenging Nordstrom’s qualifications to produce children’s books when she was not a “former teacher or librarian.”
Nordstrom responded that she was a “former child.”
There is no formal internship or common background required for children’s book editors… or writers. But after talking to teachers and librarians, and based on my experience in the classroom, there are ways day to day combat…er contact with children helps when a teacher or librarian sits down to write a children’s books.
1 Kids say the darndest things
I don’t mean those wacky observations that end up in a Reader’s Digest sidebar. Kids at ease with their peers talk and act differently than they do at home around their parents. And teachers and school librarians get a private screening of the real life drama that goes on at school. Ask any teacher if a line of dialog in a middle grade novel sounds true. They’ll know the right answer.
2 Reading and Writing go together
Great writing is like great music… it has a natural rhythm that sounds good. Rhythm is a huge component of voice– that allusive element every editor begs to see. But how to develop an ear for language? Teachers and librarians have a secret recipe. Reading aloud.
California teacher and author Dianne White says “One of the things I’ve found I pay a lot more attention to in my writing is the sounds of words and sentences and the way those sounds affect the meaning of a paragraph or chapter.” Dianne’s new group blog Readerkidz focuses on books and readers from K to 5, with special emphasis on the classroom. It’s not to be missed.
Lori Steel, a writer and elementary school teacher in Washington D.C. describes it this way- “There was a point, some years ago, when I read Kate DiCamillo books throughout the year to my second graders. I can distinctly remember one student putting her hand up at the end of reading the first chapter from ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ and sharing her thoughts with the class. She said, ‘It was as if you had painted a picture before my eyes – like a movie – and I could see everything that was happening when you read.’ The rest of the students vigorously agreed with her. Wow. That really blew me away! I thought this was a great jumping off point for all the students to take out paper and draw what they ‘saw’ while I read. We did this throughout the book and compiled it at the end to our own class version of Despereaux.
I gleaned so much from this exercise in ‘seeing what we hear’ – what the students visualized as I read to them, how they interpreted what the author was trying to get across and what scenes inspired them most. I’m not sure how that has directly translated into my writing, but it is always at the back of my mind. Are my readers going to see what I see, are they right there with my main character, are they emotionally moved,inspired, affected in the way I mean through my writing? Does my prose also tell a story in its own way. When I read it aloud does it give the reader time to pause, to think, to imagine?”
Reading aloud and seeing children’s reactions first hand changed Lori’s approach to her own work in ways she never would have expected. So if you’re not a librarian or teacher how can you get this experience? Volunteer. Nearly every elementary school would love to have more committed volunteers helping in the classroom. Teachers are delighted to have writers- published or aspiring- visit with their students. Contact your local school and volunteer to read aloud on a regular basis. You’ll see a difference in your own writing in no time.
3 Everything old isn’t new again
The top advice for writers developing their craft is READ READ READ. But read what? Many new writers go to the old standbys – books they loved as children. But the fact is books change. And it’s not just a matter of trendy topics, like post-Harry Potter fantasy. Writing styles change too. Today’s middle grade books are much faster paced than books written in the 1960s and earlier. It pays to be on the cutting edge of literary trends and librarians and teachers keep it fresh.
Author Leda Schubert was a librarian in Vermont for over twenty years. When asked how working as a librarian influenced her as a writer she said it “definitely expanded knowledge. I see and review almost everything published for children in my capacity as school library consultant. We also have statewide book award committees that I serve on (the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award for grades 4-8 and the Red Clover award for grades K-4.), so I have to read even more for those committees.” For Leda, the greatest benefits of being a librarian have been “knowing the field so well; knowing what kids like; being committed to making children into readers and knowing people in the field.”
Leda’s reading list doesn’t begin and end with the classics (although she has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of everything written for children in the last fifty plus years!)
4 The best way to really understand something is to teach others to do it
Dianne White observes that teaching gives her new understanding of the writing process and all the elements that go into good writing. “As a teacher, I must break down the writing process into smaller parts so that students get a handle on how to approach their work and make it stronger. I tend to go back to the same phrases over and over. Things like, “Did you add specific details?” As writers we know that the right specific detail allows the reader to visualize a scene or character in a way that general description does not. Most writers are familiar with the Mark Twain quote, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word… it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Those words take on new meaning when you’re teaching students how to make their stories stronger. Another example of how teaching influences my own work happens when I teach students about summaries. We talk a lot about cause/effect in summary writing and those discussions help hone my own thoughts about keeping the throughline of a story clear and the action and dialogue moving the story forward. The phrases and ideas I end up sharing with students over and over are the ones that tend to play back in my own head as I write. So it goes both ways. What I learn from my own writing gets passed along to students. And what I learn from teaching students, often clarifies ideas I can apply to writing.”
Was Anne Carroll Moore right? Did Ursula Nordstrom lack the proper qualifications to edit children’s books? Certainly not. Nordstrom was one of the most influential editors of all time- producing books by Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, E. B. White… the list goes on and on.
But can writers take a lesson from teachers and librarians… not lessons learned at a blackboard or from a book but bits of wisdom gained from experience? Absolutely correct!
Tami Lewis Brown is a former child and a former elementary school librarian. She wrote much of her middle grade biography SOAR, ELINOR! with the help of second grade students at Sheridan School in Washington DC. SOAR, ELINOR! will be released on October 12, just in time for the new school year.