Forty Years in Children’s Publishing

Credit: jdurham |

Credit: jdurham |

Forty years!  That’s how long it’s been since the publication of my first children’s book, a novel titled Shelter from the Wind.  The very roundness of the number prompts to take a look back.  What has happened to our industry since 1976?shelter from the wind

Lots, of course.  Far more than I have been privy to from my solitary writer’s desk.  But there is one thing in particular I can name:

When I began my career, selling a book was very much like stepping into marriage with someone you had never met.  There had been a phone call maybe.  An editorial letter certainly.  But you were committed for life without having a clue about how much the two of you might like one another!

It might even be more realistic to say that when your book was purchased, you were purchased along with it.  Your newly discovered editor owned you.

Now, there were good things about being owned.  That meant an editor didn’t just buy your book.  He invested in your career.  And if your next manuscript turned out to be a royal mess, he would probably work with you until you got it into shape.

Sometimes editors would even buy first novels that weren’t quite there.  Because they saw a spark, and they wanted the books they presumed would follow.  That could work for author and publisher alike.

On the bad side, however, as your career trundled on, if your editor really didn’t like something you showed him and didn’t want to work with it, you weren’t quite free to take it to another house.  I say not “quite free” because usually there was nothing in writing to circumscribe your freedom.  But if you did run off to another publishing house, and if that house was so indiscrete as to publish you, there was a name for you.  Whore.  (Remember, ethics are always defined by those in power.)

For more than fifteen years, every book I wrote passed through the hands of the same editor.  I was pretty content with this arrangement.  He and I worked well together, and he did truly develop my work as a novelist.  However, as much as I loved writing those novels, I wanted to explore other kinds of work.  So from time to time I submitted a picture-book manuscript to this, my only, editor.  His answer every time was the same.  “Marion, you are not a picture-book writer.”

Now, I don’t want to suggest that he was being mean or small minded.  Looking back, I can see that he could, very legitimately, have said, “Marion, this is not a picture book.”  Because it wasn’t.  I hadn’t yet figured out how to write a picture book.  The difference is that he was interested in developing me as a novelist, but he had no interest in supporting my learning curve with any other genre.

Which would have been fine if the unwritten, mostly unspoken rules hadn’t made the idea that I might approach another editor a betrayal of the first.

I didn’t begin to publish picture books and thus to have an opportunity to learn what the market wanted—and what it did not—until those rigid walls finally fell.  And when they did, they tumbled rather spectacularly.  Changes occurred in the industry.  Editors began playing musical chairs and taking their authors with them when they landed at another house.  And soon no one could enforce those old rules, not even with a glancing allusion to loyalty.

And so I discovered, to my delight, that I am a picture-book writer . . . only not for that first editor.

At the forty-year mark in my career, I have published with nearly a dozen different publishers, and that doesn’t count different imprints under the same publisher.

And the reality?  No one editor is committed to developing my career.  Each one cares primarily—probably exclusively—about the particular book that stands between us right now.  And that has to be enough.  We writers are free agents in charge of our own choices, and editors are free as well.  This new way of working is an improvement in some ways.  Those picture books again!  But it also comes with real losses.

When I find myself with questions that involve my career as a whole, I have no place to turn . . . unless I am working with a wise and truly committed agent, one who is interested in my dreams, not just my current book.

That’s why, after managing my own contracts, my own access to editors, my own career for a long, long time, I have, in recent years turned to an agent.

Which is what I’m going to talk about next.  Why agents?

Credit: Stokes

Credit: Stokes | Elbow Lake

[This blog was drawn from a talk I gave in September at LoonSong, a writers’ retreat in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.]

The natural warmth that emerges

Credit: indahoeditor |

Credit: indahoeditor |

The natural warmth that emerges when we experience pain includes all the heart qualities: love, compassion, gratitude, tenderness in any form. It also includes loneliness, sorrow, and the shakiness of fear.  . . . these generally unwanted feelings are pregnant with kindness, with openness and caring. These feelings that we’ve become so accomplished at avoiding can soften us, can transform us.

Pema Chodran

May the Wind

May the wind always be at your back.

(An Irish blessing)

Credit: Marinapriest |

Credit: Marinapriest |

I understand the blessing and the intent behind it.  “May you always have help along the way” is what it says.

And who could argue with that?  We all need help from time to time.  But when it comes to the real thing—wind, I mean—I prefer to feel it against my face, not to be pushed from behind.

I am a kayaker.  Now, don’t get too impressed.  I’m not a run-the-rapids kayaker.  I’m not even an explore-this-stream-to-see-where-it-goes kayaker.  I am someone who loves to settle into my twenty-year-old kayak and float sedately around the perimeter of small lakes, blessed by great blue herons, red-winged blackbirds singing in the reeds, leaping fish, blooming water lilies, the sun riding down the blue bowl of the sky.

My old kayak lives at a friend’s house about thirty minutes from my city home, and all through the warm weather I go there about once a week.  I settle onto the water—that’s what it feels like in a kayak, like sitting right down on top of the water—pick up my paddle and glide into bliss.

Occasionally I take a friend to use the second kayak I store at the same place, and I love sharing my love.  But the best times, I find, are when I set out on the water alone with nothing and no one to think about but the water and the clouds and the steady rhythm of my paddle, dipping, dipping.

Some days the lake is glass-still, especially when I go out around sunset, the time when

sunset kayak

Credit: |

day-breezes usually subside.  And glassy water and utter stillness have their own charm.  But the times I love best are those when there is a brisk breeze, just below the level to create white caps.  (White caps signal more effort than pleasure.)  And when there is such a breeze, I don’t want it at my back, for all the push it gives me.  I like feeling it in my face.

Curiously, when the wind comes from behind me, it may be helping, but the blank it leaves in front of me makes the paddling feel like great effort for small progress.  My arms grow heavy.  When the wind caresses my face, I seem to be paddling that fine wind into existence.  I fly across the surface of the lake.

It’s an illusion, I know.  I am, no doubt, moving faster when the wind is behind, giving me a push.  But especially because I don’t have to arrive anyplace when I’m out there, because all I have to do is to be there in the deepest possible way, I prefer the illusion of progress to progress itself.

There are, I assume, life lessons to be found in this dichotomy, but I have no particular desire to tease them out.

I think instead I’ll go kayaking and hope for a good wind in my face.

Life’s most painful event also its greatest?

sadness, tear

Credit: Ariadna |

What you say of your life—that its most painful event was also its greatest—that is, so to speak, the secret theme of these pages, indeed the inner belief that gave rise to them.  It is the conviction that what is greatest in our existence, what makes it precious beyond words, has the modesty to use sorrow in order to penetrate our soul.

     Rainer Maria Rilke


Serendipity began my career as a writer for children and young-adults.

shelter from the windMy first novel was published in 1976, and in 1976 the young-adult field wanted what was being called “the new realism in children’s literature.”  What can it be called but serendipity that new realism was exactly what I needed to write?

(I’ll pause to clarify that what was called “young adult” in 1976 would now be called middle grade.  Our stories were aimed at 11 to 13-year-olds, because it was 11 to 13-year-olds reading our books, one of those self-perpetuating systems.  Only later, when publishers began to dare to put out books about older characters and more complex issues, did the readership become truly young adult.)

I knew nothing about “the new realism” when I began writing with the dream of publication.  In fact, I knew little about the field I was trying to enter except that I had read a handful of Newbery medal books and fallen in love with their fierce truth-telling.

Truth-telling was the passion that brought me to write for youth.  I had been persistently lied to as a child.  It was presumably innocuous lying, the same lying that most other children of my generation were subjected to, but my mother was, I suspect, better at it than most.  The lying was intended to protect us, but actually protected adults from their own discomfort about difficult topics.  And once I parsed the silences, the outright lies, I felt betrayed.

So when I sat down for the first time to write for young readers, I was ready to whip back the curtain of protective silence that had so infuriated me.  I began with a story about a girl in a foster home, sexually abused in the name of Jesus.

That story was in my heart because I had a foster child at the time, one of several who shared my home at different times, and I had come to be aware of—and angry about—the sexual abuse such children too often encountered.  It was in my heart, also, because I happened to be a clergy wife, and I was equally angry about the way religion could be used to support and hide abuse.

7_29FosterChildIf I had written Foster Child ten years earlier, it probably would have gone unpublished.  As it was, even though the field was opening up, I may have stumbled onto the only editor in town—James Cross Giblin at Clarion Books—with the courage to take on such a loaded topic.  (Foster Child was published as my second novel, because by the time I found Jim, I had another less problematic manuscript, Shelter from the Wind, completed, and so he began with that one.)

So . . . serendipity launched my career.  Editors in the 1970’s happened to want to publish what I needed to write.  If my heart had instead been invested in a story about a boy attending a school for magicians, I would have had a much harder time getting published and a much harder time getting noticed if I’d been published at all.

My point?  Sometimes it helps to know that the field goes through cycles and that what you’re doing may simply stand outside the current cycle.

Before the unlikely success of the Harry Potter stories, fantasy was poison to most editors.  After Harry, they were starving for it.

I had a student many years ago who wrote adult horror novels.  They were well written, well plotted, could make your hair stand up.  But at that time editors simply weren’t buying horror.  I could do little but tell her how good her work was . . . and commiserate with her for her inability to sell it.  (I lost contact with her after that class and have always wondered if she managed to catch the publishing merry-go-round on a later revolution.)

My advice?  Write what you need to write.  It’s probably the only thing you can write well anyway.  But if you want to publish, be aware of trends.  And learn patience!

And trust to serendipity.