TL: Tell us about your path to becoming a children’s book editor.
CK: My grandfather was a professor of children’s literature at a state university in Missouri As a result, I had a seemingly endless supply of children’s and YA books at my disposal while I was growing up, and I just never grew out of reading and loving them. By high school, I knew that I wanted to be a book editor, and I majored in English and went to the Denver Publishing Institute accordingly. Susan Hirschman, the retired founder of Greenwillow Books, talked about children’s books at DPI, and she both inspired me to pursue children’s editorial as a career and put me in touch with Arthur A. Levine, who gave me my first job as his editorial assistant.
TL: In your book, SECOND SIGHT, you begin with a manifesto: “What Makes a Good Book.” Give us some highlights.
CK: I always welcome opportunities to declaim my manifestos! (Though I think this is the only one I’ve written, alas.)
Anyway: I believe good fiction (good art in general) creates a deliberate emotion in the person experiencing it —“deliberate” meaning it’s the emotion the author of the book set out to create, so well as that intention can be discerned by the reader. This emotion is achieved authentically through immersing us in the character’s lived experience, not through cheap manipulation. And while every reader’s interaction with a text is different, in great books, the emotion the author intends — what I think of as the emotional point—is experienced by the vast majority of the people who come in meaningful contact with the work. Otherwise the author isn’t achieving what he or she set out to do.
In good children’s books, the emotional point of the book will speak to or expand on the child’s own emotional experience—usually at least partly through their identification with the main character—and will be appropriate to that particular stage of the child’s development.
TL: How can a writer create a story with strong child interest?
CK: You can come at this from an emotional direction or from a story-elements direction, though hopefully both directions end up in the same place! From an emotional direction, think about the key emotional experiences from your childhood — being lonely, being brave, being powerless or finding friends — and see if you can build a story to dramatize a journey into or through those experiences. From a story-elements direction, think about the elements of a story that most appealed to you as a child (or even appeal to you now): the heroes or heroines, the conflicts or relationships, the kinds of characters you loved then, and what about them appealed to you. . . Did you love elephants because you yourself were small? Adore pet stories because you didn’t have a pet of your own? Then consider how you can use those elements to tell a story that both pleases you and reflects a child’s emotional interests.
TL: Writers hear the terms “hook” and “high-concept” when being told what makes stories marketable. Could you define these?
CK: A hook is anything that makes a reader want to pick up a book in the first place, or, once said reader is in the story, want to keep reading. These can include plot elements (mysteries, romances), a connection with a character, particular character traits, humor, beautiful writing, an interesting setting . . . Whatever a reader might like in a book can be a hook.
A “high-concept” book is generally a book (a) with a strong central action plot that can be expressed in one sentence and (b) that includes highly commercial or action-oriented elements.
TL: What are the elements of a perfect picture book?
CK: A perfect picture book:
• Will speak to a child’s external and emotional concerns,
• Has a clear narrative through-line,
• Is tightly written, with no unnecessary dramatization or redundancies with the illustration.
• Has illustrations that vary in perspective, layout, size, position on the page, etc., as appropriate for the story.
• Allows you to follow the action simply by looking at the pictures — you don’t need to see the words.
• But also has words that add another level of depth and interest to the pictures,
• And the two of them work in harmony to create an emotional experience as well as an artistic one.
TL: What makes you stop reading a submission?
CK: As most writers find me through the submissions page on my website, I’m irritated by anything that violates the guidelines there — because really, if you’re going to go to the trouble of submitting to me, surely you’d want to read the whole page? But the number-one reason I stop reading a submission is that the voice or the characters aren’t resonating with me enough for me to spend much of the next two years of my life with them, as I’ll have to if I decide to publish the book.
TL: In your book you coined an acronym: TRUCK. What is it?
CK: TRUCK stands for “Techniques of Revision Used by Cheryl Klein,” and I use it in one talk to discuss a number of techniques that I use in analyzing manuscripts I edit — techniques that I hope writers might use and benefit from in turn. These include outlining the book; reading it aloud; and listing the first ten things each significant character says or does, the better to see who those characters are separate from the language in which they’re portrayed.
TL: Do you have advice for new writers who hope to publish a book?
CK: Read as much as you can. It both gives you a sense of what’s in the current market, and (assuming you’re reading good books), educates you in quality writing. Newbery winner Linda Sue Park said once that she tells aspiring children’s writers that they need to read 500 books in the age group they hope to write for before they touch pen to paper, and that sounds about right.
Here’s how you can buy Second Sight.