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My Goodreads account is making me feel guilty.

At the beginning of this year, I made a goal to read 52 books and, well, it is letting me know in its calm yet non-confrontational way that I am “21 books behind schedule.”

Yikes.

I could chalk it up to, I don’t know … writing my own book, finishing my thesis, reading the thesis submissions from my cohorts in the MFA program, and moving ourselves to a new house.

Or maybe I was just lazy.

That’s sad news for someone who regularly lists her favorite hobby as “reading.”

So now I’m attempting to make amends, although since we’re a third of the way through September, I’m not sure I’ll reach my 2017 goal. And it certainly isn’t for lack of books to read. In fact, as I mentioned, we moved ourselves to a house in a new town. That of course meant packing up our many shelves of books. As we packed, I attempted to organize the books into boxes so that unpacking and placing them on new bookshelves would be an easier categorizing process.

We purchased 5 new bookshelves. A few of them are here on our sunny landing where I also have my work office and an old library table that doubles as my desk.

sunny landing

Then we bought a couple more shelves for our entryway:

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And we have shelves in our bedroom. I have one shelf that is now dedicated to my “to reads.” In other words, as I shelved the books from the boxes, I set aside all the books that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time — books that were purchased and then made their way to various nooks and crannies and promptly were forgotten.

Now, this way, I always have my “to reads” right in front of me. Here’s a picture of my shelf.

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It’s an eclectic mix of fiction and fantasy and memoir and nonfiction. There are 40 books on the shelf; reading half this shelf will get me to my reading goal.

But more than just meeting a goal, I’m excited to finally get through each of these books. They sit there in all their glory, promising so much.

Right now, I’m reading a book written by one of our Professional Writing graduates — a debut novel that won a prize from Simon & Schuster, was first an ebook, and then was released in paperback. I’m so proud of Chandler and what he has accomplished in his young life as a writer. It’s fantasy, so a new genre to me. I’m diving into The Facefaker’s Game.

After I finish that, then I’m on to another book on my shelf. No more looking around wondering what to read next. No more feeling at a loss. The shelf is there. When I finish one and move it upstairs to the other categorized shelves, I’ll have space to add another that I will inevitably purchase.

Because, no matter how far behind I get, I’ll just keep on reading.

What are you reading right now?

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We’re at it again. Last year, I taught a class in our Professional Writing program that exposed our students to the entire publishing process, “from manuscript to book.” We read and edited real manuscripts written by real people; the students took them through the content editing phase, the copyediting phase, and the typesetting and proofreading phase. We also worked with the layout and design class, which created cover designs for us.

This semester, we again have five manuscripts and four authors.

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Here’s our semester schedule.

You can read about the actual process on last year’s manuscripts through the hyperlinks above. This time around, we have three fantasy manuscripts and two nonfiction.

I want to tell you about this experience from the viewpoint of an author. One group of this class gamely took on my MFA thesis and my new editing book for Bold Vision Books, titled Word by Word, coming out this summer

I had this group work on both of my manuscripts because the word count added up to roughly the same as the manuscripts in the other groups (about 100K), spreading the work evenly.

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Fantasy manuscripts call for a lot of discussion . . . 

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. . . as the editors figure out the setting and characters and plot lines and, in fantasy, often the magic system the author created.

Here’s what happened from my perspective as an author. I had sent in the first draft of my thesis for review in my program. My MFA mentor wrote back with some excellent advice and good questions. One thing had to do with the entire premise. My thesis is about my life as an editor — it is more memoir-ish with research and other nonfiction elements. At first, I had the title “Superhero Editor.” My mentor challenged that, sensing that the metaphor didn’t really work. The editor doesn’t swoop in and “save the day”; no, it’s much more collaborative and intimate than that. He challenged me to try another metaphor.

I thought and thought and thought, coming up dry. Then, when I decided to give the project to my students, I offered them the challenge. And they came through.

They thought that the friendship angle would work better. They gave me the title “Friends with Words.” Then I realized that for the last month I’ve been playing on my phone every night with my mom — the Scrabble game “Words with Friends” (and, by the way, she usually smokes me!). We moved their words around, and I titled the thesis “Words with Friends” and went back and recast the entire thing to reflect the new tone of that kind of relationship between editors and authors.

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These editors made my manuscripts so much better!

I couldn’t have done it without my student editors!

After they finished my thesis, they gamely moved on to my contracted book, which is more of a textbook style (a book I will use in my editing classes moving forward). The full manuscript for this was due to the publisher on March 1, so I asked what I needed to do to improve this first draft.

I told them to put me through my paces and do what I’ve trained them to do . . . and they did. They pointed out my overuse of the word “So.” (When I checked it, Microsoft Word said, “There are too many instances to check. You use this word a lot!” Yikes!) They mentioned that I needed to watch for passive voice. They told me when I got long-winded (read: “boring”) and need to cut or revise some lengthy sections.

AND, they let me know what they liked, what was engaging, and what was helpful.

All the editing groups put together their editorial letters with suggestions and advice to their authors, who will do what they can with their manuscripts by our March 28 due date.

Stay tuned!

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Hammering away at a manuscript.

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You can spot a book lover. I mean, a real book lover. In a world where everywhere we look people are scrolling through backlighted pages on their phones, real book lovers are sitting on the bus, or in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices, or in the corner of the office lunch room engrossed in the pages of an actual book.

And book lovers, by definition, are often bookstore lovers as well. This is what is celebrated in Lewis Buzbee’s little book, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History. The book celebrates the wonder and beauty held in your local bookstore.

When a bookstore opens its doors, the rest of the world enters, too, the day’s weather and the day’s news, the streams of customers, and of course the boxes of books and the many other worlds they contain—books of facts and truths, books newly written and those first read centuries before, books of great relevance and of absolute banality. Standing in the middle of this confluence, I can’t help but feel the possibility of the universe unfolding a little, once upon a time. (3)

Those of us who love bookstores—the smell of paper, the colors of covers beckoning us, the intense desire that we could just, somehow, read it all. (Except for the banalities, of course.)

bookshopBuzbee has spent a lifetime around books—working in small independent bookstores, visiting small stores as a sales rep, and, of course, as a reader. His love for bookstores is unabashed. Where else, he asks, can you go in and sample the merchandise in the way you can with books—sitting over your latté reading the first half of that novel before you decide to purchase? Where else can you purchase for a minimal price the wisdom of the ages (or, if you so desire, the wisdom of a Kardashian or two)? Where else can you be so alone as a shopper and yet so connected to the others in the store—simply because of your love for books? Where else is there absolutely something for everyone and someone for everything? Where else can you purchase something that doesn’t need any upkeep but promises hours of entertainment—and then willingly sits on a shelf for as long as you choose to keep it, easily accessible, ready with the same words in the same spot with, perhaps, the same effect as they had on you the first time?

Buzbee describes bookstores’ evolution—the stalls where a hawker sold his wares, the semi-permanent store, and the itinerant bookseller going from town to town with his wares on his back. Before the invention of the printing press, books were copied by hand, often by the bookseller himself. Sometimes booksellers acted as publishers, entering into contracts with authors.

It wasn’t until the expansion of the universities across Europe that books came to be more required and thus needed to be made more cheaply. A new class of copyists and the introduction of paper into Europe transformed the face of books and publishing. Then, of course, Gutenberg’s printing press was the game changer. “A printer could create in one day what it might take a single monk six months to accomplish. It’s estimated that before the printing press, there were 50,000 books in all of Europe; fifty years after Gutenberg’s first Bible, there were more than 20 million” (102).

Along came copyright laws and the rise of brick and mortar stores. One bit of information I found fascinating was that in early stores, books sat horizontally on shelves, just the pages bound in signatures (sets of pages), no covers. A customer would purchase the book, then choose the color and cost of the binding. (So that’s why all those books in the big old mansion libraries are all the same color!)

Those who get to frequent (or work in) today’s bookstores have a distinct advantage—the ability to work around things we love.

I can say we because, for a few summers after my college years, I was happily employed in my parents’ small Christian bookstore. I dusted shelves and shelved books. I watched my dad meet with the salesmen in the office in the back, my mom making a fresh pot of coffee, considering the books our clientele in the little rural town of Corry, Pennsylvania, would buy. I loved to see my mom putting together tasteful book displays in the front window. I loved to see my dad behind the counter with several Bibles laid out on the glass-top case, explaining the various features of each to an intent-looking customer. I loved that my parents would sell a Bible to a person who couldn’t afford it right away, but would allow them to take it, knowing that the person would be coming in with maybe only a dollar or two each week to pay off the purchase.

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The grand opening and ribbon cutting of Ye Olde Book Shoppe, 1980. That’s me second from the left.

Ye Olde Book Shoppe had been an institution in town for decades. The previous owner had it in a room of her home; when my parents purchased it, they moved it to a storefront on Center Street. The bookstore was always such a peaceful place – soft music humming through the speakers, sunlight through the windows, the smell of fresh books, and the opportunity to sit at the counter ready to wait on customers. When I wasn’t busy dusting, I could pick up the latest book off a shelf to read at the front counter or purchase it (at a discount!).

So as a reader and writer and publishing professional and former bookstore employee, I found the history in Buzbee’s little book fascinating. His description of the Paris bookshop, Shakespeare & Co., opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach is itself worth the read. Not only was the bookshop the haunt of expatriate writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Pound, Beach also acted as publisher for Joyce’s Ulysses. Then the story of how she hid the entire contents of the store from the Nazis—well, that makes her a bookseller’s hero.

You reader friends will agree—there’s just something about a bookstore. Tell me your favorite bookstore story. What do you love about bookstores?

Buzbee, Lewis. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006.

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I hyperventilate when I go into used bookstores. For thirty years my husband has dragged me to antique stores and the only saving grace to these excursions (where eventually every antique begins to look the same) is that sometimes the booths will have books. I zero in on these, turning my head sideways to read along the spines. I don’t feel the same way in my local Books-a-Million, although if I have to go shopping that’s where I want to go.

There’s just something about the smell of used bookstores and the possibility of treasures to be found. If I’m going to by one of the classics or a book on my list, I don’t want one of those repackaged recent releases or (God forbid) the ones that put on the cover not the person but the movie star playing that person (seriously, a book about Julia Child with Meryl Streep on the cover?). And I’m not all worried about getting first editions or signed copies. Instead, I just want to pick it up and know that I’m giving it new life. It was written (by hand, in the case of those classics), edited, typeset (when typesetting was really setting type), printed bound, and sent out into the world. Someone bought it and put it on a shelf. Sometimes that person’s name will appear handwritten inside the cover. Chances are, that person read it. I love it when evidence of that shows up with underlines or marginal comments.

I love the feel of those books. I will often buy it if it feels right in my hands. I look forward to reading it just so I can hold it and turn the pages. The last time the book felt that was when that person decades ago did the same as I am doing now. It’s a kinship. We read the same words, get engrossed in the same story, get pulled away into the world that writer created.

What is it that pulls us into books? Why do we read, anyway? In her book, Ruined by ruined by readingReading: A Life in Books, Lynne Sharon Schwartz muses about why we are willing to spend hours of our lives with tales others have spun.

I have read for so many years but, like Schwartz, I wonder at why it is I cannot recall so much of what I’ve read. Thus I’m glad to know that others have been in the same boat. Schwartz writes, “I don’t remember much of what I’ve read. My lifelong capacity for forgetting distresses me. I glance at a book on the shelf that I once read with avid interest . . . and while I struggle for the details, all I recall is the excitement of the reading. . . . What do I have, then, after years of indulgence? A feel, a texture, an aura.”

Precisely for this reason of forgetting what I’ve read (and the accompanying distress), a few years ago I gathered up some of those lists of “must read” classic books. I began to work my way through it, hoping to recapture the wonder. As I began pursuing an advanced degree in English, I realized that I had to be able to actually discuss the classic works, not just pretend that I had read them or, even if I had, pretend that I remembered them. So the past few years I dove into Moby Dick and This Side of Paradise and The Old Man and the Sea and Portrait of a Lady among many others of the great classics. Some I enjoyed. Some I wanted to pull my eyes out (hello, Moby Dick. I’m sorry. I probably need to turn in my credentials to speak such blasphemy). But I felt accomplished reading them and saying I’ve read them and being able to, while perhaps not remembering all the details (a problem I wish I could overcome, but maybe no one remembers every detail), at least remember the basic story.

And that makes me feel something.

What is that feeling? And why do I feel it? When I finish a classic work, I join a club—a club of readers across months or years or decades or centuries who also have gently opened the cover, absorbed the words, turned the pages, finished and imbibed the story. No matter what I do, it’s there forever. Of course, not all the details (as I’ve already established) but the story. I am forever changed, I have a new view on the world, I learned something.

That tends to be my “divining rod” (as Schwartz calls it) helping me work my way through the morass of books stacked in teetering piles in used bookstores. I go straight to the reference section to find books about writing that I can use in my teaching. Then I’m over in the classics, then memoir, then the books of essays. I have never been a reader of romance or popular fiction. (On a visit, I once picked up a copy of a Danielle Steele at my mother-in-law’s house. By the fourth page I was so appalled by the terrible writing I laughed out loud.)

When I read, I want to learn something. And if a book isn’t pulling me along with its lyrical writing or keeping me turning pages or giving me info that helps me see the world in a new way, then I’m not interested and am not above putting it back on the shelf unfinished.

Life is too short to read a bad book.

But I feel like I came late to the reading game. I wasn’t precocious. In fact, I remember being mortified that many of my fellow fifth graders were reading from the advanced areas of the reading box when I was down in the “average.” I stunk at math and hated science, but reading? I loved reading. I felt like I should have tested right into those higher levels. It didn’t make sense.

I didn’t go to grad school until I was in my fifties and felt the sting of both not having read the classics and not being “up” on even recent authors. So I made my list of the must-reads and began to work my way through it.

Now I read voraciously, as if trying to make up for lost time. Which I am. But, again, why? It gets back to that feeling of knowing¸ of learning. Is my life better for understanding the whaling culture explained to me (ad nauseum) in Moby Dick? Actually, yes, I think so. Do I have a better understanding of writing from studying The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby? I do indeed. Is my writing life inspired by the writing of Flannery O’Connor and  Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekov? Yes.

In short, I read because it inspires me. Sometimes it is the grace of the writing. Sometimes it is the very encouragement I get to live better and be better and write better.

So tell me, what is it about reading that enthralls you?

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She went shopping with Amy Tan and Amy’s mother in Manhattan. She loved bargains, just as Amy does. When it came to finding the cheap deal, she and Amy were joined at the hip.

Her name was Faith Sale and she was Amy’s editor—the one who first saw the potential in a young business writer who began to write novels as a creative release from the doldrums of writing for corporate executives. Sale said in an interview that finding the novel about Chinese mothers and American-raised Chinese daughters was “the biggest thrill an editor can have.” Before she passed away in 1999, Sale had an editing career that spanned four decades, working with, in addition to Amy Tan, authors such as Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Hoffman, and Joseph Heller.

In her autobiography, The Opposite of FateAmy described her relationship with Faith this way:

Whenever I gave Faith something to read, she’d ask me what I wanted from her as an editor. “Keep me from embarrassing myself in public,” was my usual answer. And she did keep me from exposing the glitches in my prose, but she also prodded me to go deeper, to be more generous in the story I had to tell, to not hold back, to show what was most important in my life and on the page. She had an unerring sense of what mattered—to me. She could help me find it, though there were many ways in which we differed in taste and opinions. (63)

Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, hit The New York Times bestseller list and remained there for several months, winning both the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award.

joy luckI appreciate that Sale paid her dues—working her way up through the levels of editing as she moved to various publishing companies. Beginning as a secretary at Knopf, she moved on to Lippincott in 1959 where she was an editorial assistant, then moved up to assistant editor. In 1963, she moved over to Macmillan as associate editor. After living out of the country briefly, she did freelance work upon her return—working for publishing companies, literary agents, and authors. In 1977, she was named senior editor at E. P. Dutton, and then joined Putnam where she was vice president and senior executive editor.

In an essay she wrote for Editors on EditingSale emoted about her love of being an editor. She saw good writing as “the highest form of art” (268), and she knew that she wasn’t someone who could accomplish it. Like Maxwell Perkins, she had no visions of being a writer; she was an editor through and through. She saw herself in service of the art by helping the writers.

What I try to be for an author is the smartest, most sympathetic reader of the manuscript. . . . This means I must earn the author’s trust, make the author feel comfortable with me and my perceptions. . . .

When I’m hooked, I’m unshakably committed for the long haul, regardless of obstacles. But I can’t fake it: my devotion to fiction is born more out of instinct than intellect, based more on emotional response than calculated judgment. The moment of connection is the moment I become a book’s (or an author’s) advocate—its nurturer, defender, supporter, mouthpiece, bodyguard. . . .

Having made the decision to take a book on, I must figure out how to convey to the author what I think could or should be done to make the book the best it can be. It never is—because I think it never should be—making the book into anything other than what the author has envisioned. In my role of the author’s best reader . . . what I mean to do is help the author to realize the author’s intention. (269)

She saw the editorial process as organic, working back and forth with the author, with both trying to take the raw manuscript, deepen and enrich what exists, sharpening the book and the plot arc and the characters. Then she shepherded the manuscript through copyediting, answering questions the copy editor may have that she knew she could answer on behalf of the author, discussing with the author if she didn’t. She wanted to “make sure that nothing is being done to harm the work in any way. I also look over the proofreader’s markings to ensure that the author’s style has not fallen victim to a by-the-book grammarian. And I follow along through the further stages of production so that neither the author nor I will discover any surprises in the printed book” (271-72).

A good editor doesn’t stop when the book gets sent to copyediting and then to proofreading. There has been so much communication with the author that the editor knows the book through and through. Authors may want particular things that go against the rules of grammar—and a copyeditor may make changes that the author would not want. The editor will know this . . . and keep it from happening.

Great editors know that the book belongs to the author, and they fight for it every step of the way. Faith Sale understood that. In The Opposite of Fate, Amy adds this:

[Sale] was . . . wrong in one thing about me as a writer. She believed for some reason that writing came easily to me, that words poured onto the page with the ease of turning on a faucet, and that her role was mostly to help me adjust the outpouring toward the right balance. That belief had so much to do with her confidence in me. And I guess that is the role of both an editor and a friend—to have that confidence in another person, that the person’s best is natural and always possible, forthcoming after an occasional kick in the butt. (64)

Confidence and a kick in the butt. And bargain shopping. Sounds like a perfect match.

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So I’m writing a book. Yes indeed. A couple actually. One is for my MFA program; the other is for a small publisher. Both are about editing–one more in a memoir-esque fashion, the other more like a textbook, something I want to use in my future editing classes.

In the process of putting together my proposal, I needed to check out books similar to mine. As I ordered books online and checked them out from the local library, I fell in love with some of them–the voice, the humor, the helps, the advice, the exercises. So I thought I’d pass along to you some of my favorites. If you want to learn about editing or want to work more on being your own self-editor, you might check into some of these excellent resources. The great thing about reading books about editing is that you really get a double-whammy–you are also studying how to be a better writer, the kind of writer editors dream about!

 

dumCopyediting & Proofreading for Dummies, Suzanne Gilad. Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2007.

I’ve used this book in my editing class since 2010 when I first began teaching. The book does an excellent job of being very introductory, has exercises for practice, and incorporates vocabulary. It’s also the only book I could find that gives a clear delineation between copyediting and proofreading. It includes practice exercises, proofreading marks, and publishing vocabulary.

 

 

Stein on WritingStein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies, Sol Stein. St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

I wrote more about this book in this post, so you can check it out there. Suffice it to say that this is one of those books that really will help you ask the right questions as you work on your own writing. He also offers advice to both fiction and nonfiction writers.

 

 

 

artfulThe Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself, Susan Bell. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Bell takes on the topic of editing yourself (and, by extension, others). She covers what she calls Macro-Editing and Micro-Editing. I love that she uses several pages working from information in Scott Berg’s book about Maxwell Perkins to discuss the editing process—and how Fitzgerald edited The Great Gatsby from Perkins’s advice. In between are testimonies from various authors about their editors. She discusses the history of editing–which is quite fascinating.

 

 

 

thanksThanks, But This Isn’t for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being RejectedJessica Page Morrell. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. 

Morrell talks about her experience as a developmental editor, includes chapters that focus on the various elements of good writing (plot, suspense, characterization, stories, etc.), and teaches with anecdotes and examples. Her focus is on helping writers write better so that they can avoid getting rejected for the most common reasons that manuscripts get rejected.

 

 

 

companionThe Editor’s Companion: An Indispensable Guide to Editing Books, Magazines, Online Publications, and More. Steve Dunham. Writer’s Digest Books, 2014.

If you’re interested in more than just book editing, this one is a great resource. Dunham includes a level of content editing, copyediting, and proofreading. There are chapters on “Editing for Content,” “Editing for Focus,” “Editing for Precise Language,” “Editing for Grammar,” “Typography,” and some tips about word usage, words that are often misused, etc. He includes some checklists and examples. There is information about magazines, online publications, “and more.”

 

forestThe Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner, Putnam, 2010.

I also wrote about this one in a blog post. Lerner describes some general types of writers and then peeks behind the editor’s desk and into the publishing world. If you want an idea of what goes on in the editing world at a publishing house, this is a great book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

on writing wellOn Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser, Harper Perennial, 2016.

No list of books would be complete without this little gem. If you often write nonfiction, this little guide offers everything you need to “write well.” We lost Zinsser in 2015, but his legacy lives on. I wrote more about this book in this post.

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, every copy editor should have style manuals (Chicago Manual of Style or an AP Style Guide). I’m sure I’m missing a few. If you’re an editor or interested in editing, what books have you read that you’ve found most helpful?

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Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant story of Harriet the Spy drew cheers from some critics and groans from others. But the children took Harriet right to their hearts, and this book is now a best seller which seems destined for literary immortality.

So says the back flap cover of the dust jacket of my copy of Harriet the Spy. I impulse purchased it on Amazon a couple years ago remembering how much I had loved the book when I read it somewhere around age eleven.

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I’m not sure where I first came across Harriet. Perhaps she arrived through a kids’ book club. Maybe I checked her out from the bookmobile that arrived in our subdivision every Saturday morning. But I recall being entranced by her. Harriet wore rolled up jeans and glasses and ran a spy route and wrote in her notebook her observations about the comings and goings and private discussions of the people she spied on. Outside under an open window, she listened to the Robinson family; from a rooftop skylight she peered down at Harrison Withers; sneaking into a dumbwaiter and pulling the ropes, she listened outside old Mrs. Plumber’s bedroom. I found it all fascinating. I wanted to be Harriet. I didn’t want to spy necessarily, but I did want to observe my world and I wanted to write.

“What are you writing?” Sport asked.

“I’m taking note on all those people who are sitting over there.”

“Why?”

“Aw, Sport”—Harriet was exasperated—“because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.”

After the book arrived from Amazon, I reread Harriet’s adventures. Looking through my adult eyes, the story came across as a bit weird. Really? Sneaking into someone’s dumbwaiter in order to listen to private conversations in the bedroom (well, yeah, the woman was an elderly woman alone and on her phone, but still!). Climbing onto a roof? Writing unkind things about your closest friends?

Looking at the book through an adult’s eyes, I suffered from what Ursula Nordstrom understood all too well—adults too often plastering children’s books with their own adult concerns and thus totally losing the beauty of imagination.

geniusI learned about Ursula Nordstrom by reading a book of her letters: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998). She was publisher and editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row from 1940 to 1973. She is considered the Maxwell Perkins of children’s publishing; in other words, as Perkins was willing to take a risk with an author, spot talent, and then coddle that author along by way of encouraging letters, Nordstrom did the same but with children’s books. If not for Nordstrom, we might never have seen books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur, and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Nordstrom believed in children. She believed that if she could get the books past the adults who buy them into the hands of children, the adults could learn from the children how to enjoy and understand what was being done in a truly creative work.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964. When Louise Fitzhugh arrived at the Harper & Row offices, she had a manuscript that was originally no more than the scribblings in Harriet’s notebook. Nordstrom’s senior editor, Charlotte Zolotow, wrote a report on the sample pages noting that they needed to bring Fitzhugh in to talk. Zolotow saw that it wasn’t yet a book, but it could be. Nordstrom wrote to her senior editor later, thankful that the two of them had “drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise” (304).

The book managed to garner accolades as well as criticism. Nordstrom is credited with answering mail and constantly being willing to stand up for her authors. Regarding a complaint letter about Harriet, she wrote:

I still wonder what put you off so about Harriet the Spy. Was it the fact that she spied that disturbed you? I think most of us have forgotten the awful things we did or wanted to do when we were 10 or 11 or 12. I was brought up with the most stern drilling of what was right and wrong, kind or mean, thoughtful or inconsiderate, etc. etc., and never tell a lie no matter what. And to this day I would love to read other people’s mail and listen to their telephone conversations if it were not for this hideous conscience, well . . . But you are all for vigor in children’s books and Harriet seems to have such vigor and life. (229)

Nordstrom realized that it would sometimes take the force of her strong personality to help the publisher and the authors and then the librarians and teachers and parents read the books with a child’s eyes. To get rid of their “adult” concerns, open their imaginations, and enjoy what she called “vigorous” books. As she considered the sorry state of 1960s teen novels, she wrote, “The ‘rigid world of good and bad’ is infinitely easier to write about than the real world. Because the writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”

As I reread Harriet the Spy, I fell into the trap. I found myself wondering if I’d have wanted my kids to read it. I saw the danger Harriet was putting herself in writing true observations, hurting her friends. But that was the very genius of Nordstrom—she realized that children liked books about kids who did bad things sometimes, who had to go to bed without supper, who weren’t perfect little angels.

charlotteWhile I read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and Where the Wild Things Are to my children, it never occurred to me that somewhere along the line an author had to get an editor to understand that—yes—a talking spider is a really great idea! A spider! And a kid spying on the neighbors and writing down everything they do—also a great idea!

Somehow Nordstrom and her team got it.

I’m thankful that Nordstrom and Zolotow did indeed help Fitzhugh create Harriet. Harriet became my friend. She got herself into scrapes but learned how to deal with them. She was herself—willing to be different from everyone else. I think that’s what I saw in her as I sat reading this book on a quiet evening baby-sitting my sleeping baby sister. Harriet made it okay to be alone, to be observant, to want to write.

Children’s literature is a special breed that takes special people to navigate it. It needs adult writers and editors who have enough of a child’s mind to be able to see the possibilities. To know that a talking spider can save a pig’s life. To know that a talking mouse can be born to human parents. To know that a little bespeckled girl with a notebook might just inspire another little bespeckled girl to become a writer.

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