Creativity and Collaboration Subjects of Children's Booksellers Programming at BEA

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Writing is a solitary endeavor, it's said. But for those writing children's books, there are all sorts of collaborators -- before, during, and after a work is done -- to help a writer produce a book.

These different sorts of collaborators were revealed in the course of an imaginative, three-part program for children's booksellers, sponsored by the Children's Booksellers and Publishers Committee -- a cooperative committee of the American Booksellers Association, Association of Booksellers for Children, and Children's Book Council, at this year's BookExpo America. The program, "Books Too Good to Miss," was held on Thursday afternoon, May 29, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Chris Crutcher

The creative process was the focus of the first part of the program that featured a discussion between Chris Crutcher (author of King of the Mild Frontier, Whale Talk, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and more) and his editor Virginia Duncan of Greenwillow Books. The chances of Crutcher producing one of his best books might have been missed altogether if he hadn't accepted an invitation from Duncan to go to the Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans.

Once the two were seated there, Crutcher admitted to Duncan that he couldn't eat oysters -- hadn't been able to since a certain loathsome initiation rite that had flavored his small-town adolescence. After Crutcher shared a few more such vivid stories from his youth, he said, "Virginia thought, Hmm -- maybe this could be the stuff of great literature."

"Or at least," said Duncan, "a book."

The eventual result was Crutcher's autobiography, titled -- after further tugging between author and editor in order to produce something with the right "balance of comedy and tragedy" -- King of the Mild Frontier.

Duncan and Crutcher read aloud from e-mails that demonstrated the frank and supportive nature of their collaborative working relationship. "It's always mysterious to me, why he would trust me," Duncan admitted. But there was no such mystery for Crutcher, who praised "the absolute beauty" of working with an editor "who just sees it and says it" when something in his text ought to be added, subtracted, or changed. And given his trust in Duncan's judgment, Crutcher added, she needn't say much to make her case: "A question mark in the margin is enough."

Children's book authors who aren't also illustrators depend on another sort of collaborator: the artists who make the pictures that bring their words to heightened life. Such collaborators can make all the difference in capturing the imaginations of readers -- and the hearts of publishers.

Margie Palatini's Mary Had a Little Ham, scheduled for publication later this year by Hyperion, wasn't always thought of as a lead title, explained an editorial and marketing team from Hyperion. This revelation came during the second segment of "Books Too Good to Miss" in which representatives from nearly a dozen publishers went from table to table throughout the meeting room, showcasing fall titles. The status of the title changed once Guy Francis gave the publisher an advance JPEG peek at his first irresistible pictures for the book, and "now it's an in-house favorite," with a double-page spread in the catalog and eye-catching promotional items.

The late Romare Bearden created both words and pictures for his Civil War story, Li'l Dan, the Drummer Boy, about to be published for the first time by Simon & Schuster. But Bearden's 1984 work -- rejected by the only publisher who saw it before Bearden's death in 1988, then filed away and forgotten -- comes to print with the help of all sorts of other collaborators, including David Gale, editorial director of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

"Of all the books I've ever published," Gale said, "this is the one I'm most excited about."

After his house acquired the book in a 2002 auction, Gale and his team designed a volume they hoped would well serve Bearden's text and art. "When the Bearden Foundation people saw our layouts," Gale recalled, "they were thrilled. Someone called us practically in tears, and said, 'This is what Romie would have done.'"

Yet the posthumous collaboration was far from finished. As the book was about to go to press, a representative from the Foundation called Gale to say they'd just found another Bearden illustration meant for Li'l Dan. When Gale saw the "new" picture, he agreed it must be included, and the book was pulled back to be remade.

"Then," Gale continued, "someone from the Foundation told me, 'You know, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was good friends with Romie during the period he was writing Li'l Dan -- and if you don't let him write a foreword, he's going to be very upset.'" Gale was happy to have Gates write the foreword. By now, Gale was finding his own ways to enlarge the book.

"I said to Henry, 'Maybe we could get some sort of celebrity, someone with a great voice, to give a reading of the book in public.' He said, 'Well, I'll just ask Maya.' I said, 'Maya Angelou?'"

If the three-time Grammy Award-winning Angelou were willing to read Li'l Dan in public, Gale wondered, might she also record a CD of the text to be included in the book?

Angelou would.

Esmé Raji Codell

The finished book of Li'l Dan is a handsome volume -- the sort of book one can imagine Esmé Raji Codell sharing with her young students when she was a teacher in Chicago public schools -- a time memorialized in Codell's own first book, the award-winning nonfiction title Educating Esmé (Algonquin).

Now former teacher Codell has written her first children's novel, Sahara Special (Hyperion), a work with which she whetted booksellers' appetites through a delightful slideshow, talk, and reading that capped this "Books Too Good to Miss" afternoon.

The stir caused by Educating Esmé, her candid account of her first year as a teacher, led to Codell having to choose between being a teacher and being an author, she told her audience. One principal, she recalled, said he'd hire Codell only if she'd promise to stop writing. "I couldn't promise him that -- but I did promise to make fun of him at a large booksellers' convention."

Once launched on a life as a full-time author (and wife and mother), Codell said she discovered her own creative formula involved "99 percent procrastination." During that other one percent of time, then, she wrote Sahara Special -- a work about a gifted student and her gifted teacher that has earned starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and made it the number-one pick of independent booksellers for the Summer 2003 Children's Book Sense 76.

Codell also has another title forthcoming from Algonquin, How to Get Your Child to Love Reading.

Like her creator, the title character in Codell's novel is a talented writer and reader. "We don't always think of reading as a talent," the ex-teacher pointed out.

And so Esmé Raji Codell revealed an author's final collaborator: the reader. -- Tom Nolan