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Jim Giblin has had two long and fruitful careers in children’s books, first as an editor, retiring as publisher of Clarion Books in 1989, and continuing to flourish as an author, most recently of The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy (Clarion, 2009). He is currently working on a joint biography of movie pioneers Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith. In honor of Jim’s work and his many years of mentoring new writers, The Highlights Foundation has established the James Cross Giblin Scholarship Fund to enable writers to attend the writing workshops and conferences held at Highlights’ beautiful campus in the Poconos. The Highlights Foundation, who asked me to help spread the word about the scholarship and the illustrious and lovely Mr. Giblin, sponsors this edition of Talks with Roger.
RS: In my conversation with Mary Downing Hahn (Mary Downing Hahn Talks with Roger, June 2012), she talked about how you helped and guided her, how you brought her into the world, sort of. Who brought you in? Who helped you?
James Cross Giblin: There were a variety of people, and some of them had nothing to do with publishing. One was my college drama teacher — I majored in dramatic arts in undergraduate — a woman named Nadine Miles, a fascinating person and a good director. She wasn’t the type to say, “Enter upstage left, take three steps downstage, say your line as you cross to the sofa…” Miss Miles let us fumble around through the blocking. But once you got that right moment, she would direct it very closely. You’d have an insight into the whole performance. I played, when I was nineteen years old, an aged Russian sage in Gorky’s play The Lower Depths. It was mainly set in the basement of a rundown apartment house in Moscow. Miss Miles didn’t stop me until I rose from a bench, and she said, “Wait a minute. How old are you?” Thinking in those days, when I was nineteen, that sixty-five was ancient, I said that, and she said, “All right. Don’t you think his bones might be a little creaky? After all, he’s trudged all across northern Russia before getting to Moscow with his strange religious vision. Would he jump up from the bench, or would it be hard for him to stand up? Why don’t you try it again?” We tried it a couple of times more until she was satisfied. I edit that way. I’ve never been the type who would mark up the author’s manuscript with a lot of changes or suggestions. I always felt that it would freeze up the writer just as it froze up me.
Early in my career, I was fortunate to work as an assistant editor with Beatrice Creighton at Lothrop, Lee & Shepherd, long gone now as a separate imprint. Bea Creighton had a real knack for picking out a picture book manuscript, of seeing the core of an effective text and paring it down. She published Alvin Tresselt’s Caldecott-winning White Snow, Bright Snow (Lothrop, 1947), illustrated by Roger Duvoisin, and Tresselt and Duvoisin’s Hide and Seek Fog (Lothrop, 1965). I well remember the day when the associate art director came rushing in with final proofs just before Hide and Seek Fog was going on press. Patsy, the art assistant, said, “Miss Creighton, Miss Creighton, look at this spread.” Bea didn’t see anything wrong with it and said, “Well, it seems to read smoothly to me.” Patsy replied, “But don’t you realize, they left off the whole text on page twelve?” So Bea looked at it again, and she said, “You know, this text always needed cutting.” It was published that way and it won a Caldecott Honor. Bea saw what authors were trying to do and helped them do it. That’s what an editor’s job is.
RS: Do you find, working with authors, that Author A has a consistent tendency to write too much or too little? Do you know, coming into a manuscript by someone you’ve worked with for a long time, what you need to watch out for?
JCG: Mary Downing Hahn, in her earlier days, had a tendency to underwrite. But the wonderful thing about Mary — and it’s certainly not true of every writer — is that she would learn from her mistakes. If she made a set of revisions after my saying, “Let the character go more. Let her really explode in the scene. Let her go at it with her mother,” the wonderful thing about Mary was she always took the suggestion in her own direction, ending up in a much better place than I would ever have imagined.
RS: It’s interesting to me that the metaphors you use to talk about what you thought Mary needed to do are very stagecrafty. Do you think there’s a connection with your drama background?
JCG: Very much so, yes. I’ll even say to an author, “Give her a stronger entrance.” How does she bring up the mail to her aged grandfather? Is there any way she makes it seem like it might be interesting or exciting news? The character, I mean.
RS: Is there anything you see in publishing today that you envy?
JCG: I’ll say a good word for marketing. Certain books that they see potential in — and I don’t always agree with them about just which ones — they work hard to promote. Once I had been in the field for a decade or so, I often felt that nobody knew what they were really doing in terms of marketing. It was easier then, of course, because the key markets for trade publishers then were schools and libraries. Clarion was fortunate, too, because we had Marjorie Naughton. I hired Marjorie in 1962, and she retired at the end of 2010.
RS: The field seems more cutthroat today.
JCG: Oh, it’s much more cutthroat. I was once quoted as having said, and I don’t even remember this but I guess I did, that in the adult field it’s dog-eat-dog, and in children’s books it’s bunny-nibble-bunny. It isn’t that way anymore.
RS: What is the most important lesson that your editing career brought to your writing career?
JCG: Well, for one thing, I hope it taught me how not to be a demanding son-of-a-bitch with my editor.
RS: “Here comes Jim again.”
JCG: Yes, exactly. You know, a lot of authors have very unrealistic expectations about what their books are going to do. They can make themselves obnoxious by wondering why nobody invites them to be on television or why they’re not mentioned in People magazine. At writers’ conferences, there’s so much emphasis on marketing. Current wisdom states that the marketing people only have time to concentrate on their star people, so you have to self-publicize, and if that means being aggressive, you have to learn how to be aggressive. I don’t know how that’s working out, but I don’t advise it as a course of action. Of course publishers spend more money on proven commodities, because they want to follow up a success with another success. And until you prove that you can deliver a successful book to the house, they’re not going to give you as much attention as they give their star people. I think that should be understandable to anybody.
RS: Even the star people are being pressured to do a new book that’s as much like their last successful book as possible. Sequels, companions, things like that.
JCG: I’ve never thought that really good books come from that approach. But who am I to say, because one of our bestselling author-illustrators at Clarion is someone I still work with, and love working with, because she’s so imaginative and intelligent, and that’s Eileen Christelow and her five little monkeys.
RS: People love those five little monkeys.
JCG: They do, and Eileen will ask me plaintively sometimes, “Can I take a break and do some other kind of story?”
RS: And what do you say?
JCG: I say yes. Two of her best books are What Do Authors Do? (Clarion, 1995) and What Do Illustrators Do? (Clarion, 1999).
RS: Have you found a difference in publishing your own books?
JCG: I published my first book, The Scarecrow Book (Crown Publishers) in 1980. It’s been over thirty years now. There is more nonfiction publishing for the younger set now, and there’s much more use of color, especially color photographs, in series like Houghton’s Scientists in the Field.
RS: I love that series.
JCG: It’s a fine series. It fills a real need, I think, that nobody’s tapped before. Of course, nonfiction has gone through so many different phases.
RS: Kind of like books for boys, you know? It seems about every, oh, eight years or so, people say, “Oh my God, we’ve got to do something about nonfiction.” Or, “We’ve got to do something about boy readers.” One or the other. Then you see more attention for a while, and then it slowly recedes, and then it cycles back.
JCG: Yes, exactly. My friend Russell Freedman lucked out, I think, with Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion, 1987), because it came at the peak of a trend for recognizing nonfiction, including several nonfiction Newbery Honor Books: Rhoda Blumberg’s Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun (Lothrop, 1985); Patricia Lauber’s Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount Saint Helens (Bradbury, 1986).
RS: I remember your own early books as being concerned with social history.
JCG: Yes, that was what I devoted my books to in the eighties.
RS: And now we see more biography from you.
JCG: Yes, there was a definite shift. I, for better or worse, have always followed my own inclinations in the subjects I chose to explore, and editors have gone along with me. I don’t think if I were starting out today I would have as easy a time getting contracts for those earlier titles. I had a lot of fun writing those social history books, especially one called From Hand to Mouth, or, How We Invented Knives, Forks, Spoons, and Chopsticks, & the Table Manners to Go with Them (Crowell, 1987), which is, I think, my funniest book.
RS: Let There Be Light: A Book About Windows (Crowell, 1988), that’s my favorite.
JCG: That one was the most demanding to write. And I think probably one of the more creative of them, because it was an unusual idea, and I had a lot of fun researching it and writing it. Those were books I could do comfortably while heading Clarion as editor-in-chief and publisher, because they’re what I call beads-on-a-string books. There’d be a theme, like in From Hand to Mouth, and I could research a segment, or a “bead,” of the story and write it. There was not a driving thrust through from beginning to end. With the biographies I started writing later I had to go deeper and be more concentrated.
RS: Biography demands more attention to the string. You can’t cherry-pick.
JCG: No, and you can’t link up a few stray facts with a few more stray facts. When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS (HarperCollins, 1995) was a pivotal book in my career, and one of the most popular. It’s not a biography of a person, but in a way it’s a biography of three epidemics. I pushed individuals to the front of the story because I felt it made it livelier, and so that you could feel the personal effects of the particular plague. But among my biographies is my own favorite, a 2005 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, Good Brother, Bad Brother: The Story of Edwin Booth and John Wilkes Booth (Clarion, 2005). I think I did a pretty good job with Hitler, too (The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler, Clarion, 2002).
RS: Are you attracted to bad boys, Jim?
JCG: Not in life, necessarily, but certainly in my writing. I think bad characters are just more fun to write about or watch in a movie. I’m paraphrasing Bette Davis, I guess.
More on James Cross Giblin from The Horn Book
- “More Than Just the Facts: A Hundred Years of Children’s Nonfiction” by James Cross Giblin
- “Not-So-Trivial Pursuits: The Wrong Plot” by James Cross Giblin