Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Tips from Karen Li, Children's Book Editor Extraordinaire

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Ever asked an author with a children’s book manuscript undergoing the editing process how he likes his or her editor?

• “I adore my editor!” = editor has just championed author’s manuscript through the acquisition stage

• “(grumble, grumble) My editor is ruthless!” = author has received mark-up of first draft manuscript

• “I just sent my editor a box of chocolates” = author has received positive initial feedback on second draft before receiving mark-up

• “(mutter, mutter) I used to think my editor liked my manuscript” = author has received mark-up of second draft manuscript

• “My editor is absolutely amazing!” = author has just learned substantial edit of third draft manuscript is complete and is headed to copy edit

I’m kidding, of course. There is no denying that there is a tension during the editing process but most authors appreciate and even rely on the editor to consider, evaluate, and, if necessary, challenge, every word in his or her manuscript. Almost every author I know values editors highly, understanding that they are one’s staunchest allies in the wonderful struggle to create the best book one can.

Over the years, my own children’s books have benefitted from the red pencil markings of such talented editors as Tara Walker, Jennifer McKinnon, Niki Walker, Anne Shone, and Karen Li. And today I am very pleased to introduce you to KAREN LI, one of the senior editors at Kids Can Press in Toronto.

Karen and I have worked together on two books, Case Closed? Nine Mysteries Unlocked by Modern Science (Kids Can, 2010) and No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure (Kids Can, 2008).

Karen’s contribution to shaping these books was fundamental. For example, it was Karen who suggested focusing on the science behind the “mysteries” in the book which became the award-winning Case Closed.

ME: Karen, thanks for agreeing to spend some time chatting about editing. Many people think of editors as people who check for spelling mistakes and run-on sentences and indeed some editors, for example, copy editors, do fulfill that function. But there are many kinds of editors in the publishing world. Can you describe what you do exactly?

KAREN LI: To start, I acquire and develop children’s book projects. Then I work closely with authors, illustrators and book designers to shepherd the books from first manuscript to final text, from sample design to set layouts, from rough illustrations to final art. I’m involved at every stage, so it’s a blend of creative work and nitty-gritty project management.

ME: The books you and I have worked on together have all been non-fiction. Do you only edit non-fiction or do you edit fiction as well? If so, can you explain whether there is a different process involved in editing each? Do you have a preference?

KAREN LI: I edit across all genres, but recently I’ve been editing mostly nonfiction and graphic novels. Every genre has its own demands, but so does every book project. I believe this difference is what keeps my job interesting!

ME: What do you enjoy most about editing?

KAREN LI: Hands down, it’s the opportunity to work closely with writers and visual artists. I’m constantly astonished at and invigorated by their creativity and unique points of view. They make my world a larger, more interesting place.

ME: What are the most important tips you'd share with writers of children's books submitting a first manuscript to you?

KAREN LI: I think you’d be surprised by how many aspiring children’s book authors don’t seem to read contemporary kids’ books! I strongly encourage first-time authors to check out the books that appear on the “Best of the Year” lists from publications like the Quill and Quire, Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times, etc., or to ask their local librarian for recommendations.

Children’s books are such a dynamic, innovative, complex form of storytelling. To offer something unique, aspiring authors should be familiar with what’s already out there.

ME: People never ask writers if they have ever tried to edit but they invariably ask editors if they have ever tried to write. Why do you think that is, and how do you respond when people ask you that?

KAREN LI: I do write for fun, but I find my efforts so paltry compared to those of the amazing authors I know (several of whom are editors)!

I’m not sure why people ask this question, but you’re right that I get it a lot. Perhaps it’s because writing a book is something that a lot of people secretly -- or not so secretly -- aspire to! Madonna writes children’s books. Tyra Banks penned a YA novel. The creators of Shit Girls Say have just signed a book deal.

Why do these people who have so much popular influence in other media care to write books? I think we all just want to share our thoughts and make a lasting impression. We want to be deeply understood, and the book is the still the best platform for that.

ME: You've read many, many manuscript submissions and many, many children's books. What do you think makes a great children's book?

KAREN LI: There are so many factors and so many people who contribute their talents to making a great children’s book—it’s complex, and I don’t think anyone has a formula.

A great manuscript, however, I think is one in which the action is driven by a unique point of view. In picture books and fiction, this is usually the central character. There is no other Scaredy Squirrel, for example, or Binky the space cat. And no other character would behave in any given situation the ways that they do.

In nonfiction, this would be the way the information is framed or contextualized for kids. For example, the way complex statistics are distilled in If the World Were a Village or the way civics becomes a game in How to Build Your Own Country.

Whether it’s presented through a picture book, fiction or nonfiction, this point of view needs to be unique, meaningful and memorable. Easy, right?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page