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GRETCHEN HAERTSCH ON: SOME SAGE ADVICE FROM CHILDREN’S BOOK PUBLISHER, ARTHUR LEVINE

June 14, 2010

Hearing expert advice from a renowned children’s book publisher is always a thrill. When that advice is delivered in your own backyard and you get to dine with said expert, a writer can find herself fairly over-the-moon with excitement, despite being long done with the hero-worship stage of life. Such was the case for me last month when Arthur Levine, publisher of Arthur A. Levine Books, visited Arcadia University’s campus (where I teach) to address an enthusiastic group of aspiring children and YA writers.

Arthur (I feel I can call him that now!) was funny and smart with lots of sage recommendations on how to write a book that will truly inspire kids and live on through the ages — which, of course, is exactly what he did as a publisher by bringing the Harry Potter books to America. [Arthur A. Levine Books has been an imprint of Scholastic Press since 1996.]

During his fast-paced presentation, it became clear that this is one publishing house that is not resting on its laurels. Arthur read some fine excerpts from recently published novels of the imprint, including Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee which many of my students have raved about and I now have on my reading list, and Marcello in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, a first-person novel about an autistic high school student. I’m reading Marcello right now and am enjoying it immensely. Look for my review of it on this blog soon.

The theme for Arthur’s presentation was love, as in you should love what you’re writing and the editor needs to absolutely love your book before he buys it. For that matter, so does your agent. A good editor reflects what kids will love. Arthur said, “A good manuscript sets the editor on fire.” His goal is to publish books that kids will look back on as adults and remember as their favorites.

Here’s some more advice from Arthur:

* Make your book the best of its kind (in other words, you should be able to picture your reader saying, “If I’m in the mood for [fill in your genre: mystery, historical fiction, romance, etc], this is what I’d pick up.”)

* Every book needs the main character to go on some kind of emotional journey – without that, your book will be flat.

* Try to write a book with “emotional fearlessness.” Here Arthur was talking about taking risks both with plot points and in technique.

* Consider reformatting a classical work (A Curse Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce retells the Rumpelstiltskin story) and even Harry Potter is a classic quest story.

According to Arthur, “A bad agent is worse than no agent at all,” so be very careful in shopping.

While the old rule that children and YA readers want to read about characters the same age as themselves or a bit older is usually true, rules don’t always apply. Millicent Min, Girl Genius is about an 11-year-old high school student and is aimed at the YA market. Arthur thinks the old adage about boys only wanting to read about other boys, while girls will read about boys or girls, is also overrated.

Regarding the “F-bomb” in YA: it’s okay for the general market, not so good if you’re aiming for the school market.

Finally, in response to my question about how much the Great Recession still has the publishing industry in its grip, Arthur expressed more concern about how the recession has affected school librarians (they’re being laid off in droves) and Independent Book Sellers (they are fast disappearing). Both are very bad for children’s writers.

My take-away from the presentation and the (very nice!) dinner that followed is that, whatever you write, whether in boom times or bust, if it’s good – I mean really good – someone is going to love it and publish it. And there are no better readers than young readers if you want to make an impact on your audience.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2010 9:08 AM

    Hi Gretchen,

    Great summary of Arthur Levine’s talk.

    I attended the talk too, if not the diner, and I totally agree with your comments.

    I was pleasantly surprised by his disregard of conventions (age of the protagonists, girls vs. boys) and I loved his “childlike” approach to reading. His advice to read for enjoyment because you love the story and the characters.

    Hope to meet you next time.

  2. Emilie permalink
    June 14, 2010 10:49 AM

    Levine’s sage advice is very encouraging! Thanks for letting me be a fly on the wall during that dinner.

  3. June 14, 2010 11:01 AM

    Yes, Arthur Levine reminded us of what reading and writing are all about: enjoyment and love. I intend to remind my students that flouting the “rules” is okay as long as you do it with finesse.

    Introduce yourself next time, Carmen!

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