WE

I came to the word business by a curious route. I was drafted into the army in 1958 – a college graduate – and thought for sure I'd land some office job because I could type and speak the language. So, naturally, I was made a first machine gunner and spent six months trudging the hills of Georgia. I met a sergeant who thought I was interesting because I'd produced a play off-Broadway. He asked, "Would you write an article for the Fort Benning paper about a Broadway producer’s view of basic training?" I said I wasn't a Broadway producer – my single experience was with an unlikely verse play presented in a tiny theater near Macy's – but I'd be happy to write about one moment of drama I remembered from basic. The piece did appear – unedited, I believe. One day while I was out in the field, a Jeep drove up, and I was whisked to headquarters, where I was asked if I'd write speeches for the general. I was happy to say yes, because at the time I was about to be shipped to Germany, with my machine gun. I ended up writing speeches, articles, even letters for not one general, but three.

The army gave me my work. From it I learned that I liked writing; I liked words. I was discharged two months early to attend Columbia, to seek a master's degree in English, and there I met my wife, Nancy. I didn't like the master's program and didn't stay at Columbia long. But I kept thinking about words, and went to Harper – then on 33rd Street – looking for word work. A kindly gent in the religious-books department recommended a New York University program just around the comer on Madison Avenue: the Graduate Institute of Book Publishing, an adjunct of the School of Education. There I met a second kindly gent who continued to type, in his Homburg, throughout my opening lines. I told him that I was interested in his institute, to which he replied, “It’s March now. I can’t deal with you till autumn.” I kept talking, apparently, because at last he said, “All right, you’re in.” Between March and September I worked as a clerk at the Donnell branch of the New York Public Library.

The NYU institute was half graduate school, half internship program, and wholly fun. I was apprenticed at Doubleday. At school I met a most encouraging woman named Frances Keene. An intuitive teacher, she asked if I’d ever thought about children’s books. I hadn’t. The truth is I’m dyslexic. I could barely read as a kid. But Keene (as we called her) persisted with me: “Well, you should, because you’re interested in visual things.” I started thinking about that, and realized I might retrieve a patch of childhood I’d hardly had, a time with books. At Keene’s behest, I called up Margaret Lesser, editor of Doubleday Books for Young Readers, and asked her to get me out of the manufacturing department, to which I’d been assigned, and take me on, please, as an intern. She said, with great good humor, “What would I do with you? You’re a man!” I told her I’d type, anything – but she didn’t have an opening. Several months later, though, she called and said that if I were still game, she’d be happy to take me on. I was game. Children’s books, I began to see, were not such a leap from drama, from architecture (for which I’d gone to college) – an outlet, as my father said of my early days as a magician, for “artistic tendencies.”

My first assignment in children’s books was preparing the index for the d’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (Doubleday). Thereafter, Peggy began asking: “Why don’t you try some flap copy for this Western?” or “Have a look at this manuscript, will you? See if you’d like to work on it.” She pulled me along very quickly, despite my gender. Eventually, I signed some books on my own and ghost-wrote one on Native Americans. I felt trusted. 

In 1964, Keene, who was an active publisher although not just then in the children’s field, called to say that she’d be offered the editorship of the children’s book department at Macmillan. Would I go with her as her associate editor? I thought, I’m young; why not? During my first months there I met and began working with a friend of Janet Schulman’s named Virginia Hamilton, and with Paula Fox.  

At the time, Michael di Capua worked in the department; Rosemary Wells and Susan Jeffers worked upstairs, where they were book designers. When Keene departed, Susan Hirschman came on as editor-in-chief. A third mentor. 

I was learning, learning. I recall Susan asking once what for her must have been an ordinary question about a new manuscript by a writer I’d inherited. “Does this convince you?” she said. I’d honestly never asked myself that. Now I thought, No, this book doesn’t convince me: there’s something about it that doesn’t; it’s too vague for its own good; and though it’s skillfully worded, it doesn’t have the psychological truth which books need. Four years into my work I was learning to see what mattered, for me at least: the heart of a book beats beneath the words. 

In 1966 I moved again, to David White, a successful publisher of cookbooks (editors often move to advance their careers). I asked only Paula Fox to take the risk with me: “I don’t know what this gamble is going to mean. But would you come?” The next year we published How Many Miles to Babylon? (David White). 

I say we. In 1965, when we first met, Paula and I started laughing together and have hardly stopped since. There is between us that instinctive connection which has come to account for a body of work. It’s more than mutual loyalty. Joan Didion, in her book of essays After Henry (Simon), dedicated to her late editor, talks aptly of that connection. “What editors do for writers is mysterious, and does not, contrary to general belief, have much to do with titles and sentences and ‘changes’…The relationship between an editor and a writer is…at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if the editor was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down alone and do it.”

Writing is an act of generosity, of showing readers unlit corners of character, the contents of a closet, the color of a sky – none of it crucial to a plot, perhaps, but all of it contributing. Very often what’s generous in a book has come out during the process of revision, from first draft to second, from fourth draft to fifth. Judy Blume loves revising because she learns more of what she already knew but hadn’t written down. 

Revising requires us to think further. And for each book the process is a little different. Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was edited line for line, very closely, because the voice had to be just right. He and I exchanged chapters by express mail: he’d be revising one clump while I’d be fiddling, often reading the text aloud to myself, on the next. We had the best fun, and he continually surprised me with new thinking. 

In Nothing but the Truth – a very different book – form, not language was the talking point. There was not the issue of sustaining a single voice – the whole point was to have lots of voices; indeed, some of the language for the school-board candidate is intentionally gobbledygook. The kid at the center of the novel is no writer, so Avi wasn’t going after beautiful prose. Instead, his idea from the beginning was a story of irony in which the reader determines the meaning of many disparate pieces. As a novelist, Avi is always interested in another way to tell a story. And there often is another way – one that editors can sometimes see more clearly than writers themselves. That’s where editors are useful: as sounding boards. The writer does “sit down alone and do it” but needn’t feel he or she is alone.

While I was with David White, from 1966 to very early 1968, I was alone, a one-man children’s department. He was very kind to me, and gave me real freedom, considering that we didn’t have any money. In late 1967, I went to a job interview at Prentice-Hall, and the interviewer turned out to be Robert Verrone, my future partner in Bradbury Press. He said, “You’re not interested in this job; I wouldn’t dream of having you come here.” But we liked each other, and we got to thinking about how it might be to work at something together. Remembering Peggy Lesser’s question “what would I do with you, you’re a man,” we wondered, Well, here we are, two fathers; why don’t we see if we can publish for children from the man’s point of view. (In the sixties such a thing could be talked of. Less so now, I guess. But also in the sixties, children’s book publishing was a woman’s business.) 

There was, in truth, a certain degree of mischief behind the founding of Bradbury. And a flare that was particularly Verrone-ish. We looked for money from strange Texans in capes, from anybody. But it turned out that moneyed folk wanted editorial control, and that’s what we wanted! Bob was at the time vice-president in charge of library sales at Prentice-Hall, and the fair-haired boy of the CEO. Bob went to his mentor and told him that he was going to take another job – unless Prentice-Hall started Verrone and Jackson up in business. The chairman agreed, with a rueful smile, and off we went. (Our first picture-book mechanicals were prepared on shirt cardboards.)

Two years later, Bob’s mentor having retired, we were told, “No more contracts will be signed. We don’t want you competing with our own children’s book department.” Devastating. On our first couple of lists were Paula Fox, Arnold Lobel, Rosemary Wells, and Susan Jeffers (all friends from my Macmillan days), John Reiss, and Judy Blume. How could they let these loyal people down? How could we?

Frantically, we dove back into the money search, but to no avail. We told our wives that we'd try a nervy thing: we'd buy Bradbury ourselves and take no salaries until we could afford to pay them. It wasn't until 1972, when the paperback edition of Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret (Bradbury) was published, that we began seeing some steady income - and began paying ourselves. For years, Bradbury was nominally successful, but not financially. We could publish maybe six titles a list, which is not enough to make money on. The money came in - and the money went right out. We learned that printers, binders, and paper suppliers would call us on the thirtieth day of a bill and demand payment, whereas they didn't call the big companies; they knew they'd be paid eventually, and they needed the promise of future business. Suppliers can be tough on the little guys; in Bradbury's case, awards notwithstanding, they never knew if we'd be around next week.

Bob and I liked our independence (it's good for publishing). He did the picture books; I, the middle and older fiction; we looked over each other's shoulders but didn't have to warm particularly to what the other was doing. Bob left it to me to be convincing about a project I believed in; I left it to him. I learned that there are many reasons for publishing a book, reasons reviewers may never guess. Any number or combinations of reasons may be valid. You may wish to be supportive of an artist or writer - merely that. Publication may be a gesture of good faith, a hand outstretched. Or you may invest in a book, knowing – as editors must know, by hunch – that three or four books down the line will be something tremendous. 

I publish not books, but artists and writers. I'm always interested in what's next, knowing that any work is representative of its time in a creator's life, that very often it's the best that can be done just then. I hope to give each book my best, too. 

And I hope to be a different editor for each writer, each artist, each book, because each of them is different. I might have ideas about how this or that could be accomplished in a novel, for instance, but try to be careful about sharing such ideas too forcefully. I might say to Avi – in fact, did say – that I’d love to see him try a book entirely in dialogue. He’d started as a playwright and was intrigued, I knew, about how action can be moved along simply through speech. Two years later a book appeared, Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway? I wouldn’t have made my suggestion to anyone else. But then, our friendship is different from my friendship with, say, Cynthia Rylant. She and I have often talked about other people’s writing (usually adult, or poetry), but I wouldn’t presume to suggest a book idea directly to her. She does that on her own, and more than once has written a beautiful picture-book text expressly because this illustrator or that has wanted, for example, “to paint night.”

Several years ago I was sent a short story by an agent. The author had been previously published, but had been bruised by the experience. Actually, several short stories were in the folder. I read them all, found two books I published at Bradbury by Gary Paulsen. They were novels in miniature, I could see, and needed only some encouragement to find their form. In a sense, Gary and I found each other exchanged encouragement; our first book together he dedicated to me.  

Amy Kellman, a friend and head of children’s services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, once reminded me, “You know what you said to me years ago about your editorial process? You said, ‘Never insist.’” I loved that, couldn’t believe I’d said it! Now I quote it shamelessly. I should add, “But be there.” Editors must empathize – which means answering calls and letters, dealing with money reasonably, reading promptly, responding not only to the work of a writer or artist, but also to the life.  

Because of my dyslexia, I’m a slow reader. I’ve learned, however, to be a quick responder. Decisions are not hard for me – particularly decisions not to publish. It’s a pleasure, thirty years into this work, to feel confident of my own taste. For that, I have those mentors to thank. 

In a sense, Bob Verrone was a mentor, and later, his widow, Sandra Jordan. He gave me the Bradbury chance; she, the opportunity to join her at Orchard Books in 1986, two years after Bob had died and four years after he and I had sold Bradbury to – ironically – Macmillan. 

At Orchard I have an imprint, which is a curious responsibility, and many friends whom I’ve published for years now. Old and new. That’s how I feel. 

I’m interested these days in doing projects I haven’t seen before, or doing newly more traditional ideas. Among the recent treats are a “comic-book novel,” City of Light, City of Dark by Avi and a young artist he discovered, Brian Floca. It was once a manuscript of three hundred pages! Ted Lewin’s I Was a Teenage Professional Wrestler was once a pile of miscellaneous newspaper pieces about his years as an art student in Brooklyn and, simultaneously, a wrestler on the road. It did not start life as a young people’s book, but it became a most original one. Last year, artist Peter Catalanotto asked to begin the text of George Ella Lyon’s Who Came Down that Road? before the title page. I’ve watched readers puzzle over that, catch on smile. As published, the title of the book becomes part of its music, not a line on a page to flip past impatiently. The motive of mischief which informed the founding of Bradbury has yet to leave me. 

It keeps me going, in truth. That and the creators of the books.

And the children, of whom I’ve said very little. I think about literature, about “art” more than I do about readers. My sense is that our work touches comparatively (sadly) few lives in American culture. When I read dismissals of books as “for the sensitive reader,” I think glumly that the “sensitive” are mostly the readers we’re reaching anyway and are the children likeliest to make something more humane for our world. But I think, too, of the kids for whom reading is so hard; I hope that some of our work finds them, and opens before them like those magical shells one dropped in a water glass, from which bloomed flowers and a flag. My hope for all readers, reluctant of raring-to-go, is that with a book they may see into the life of someone other. I remember Jean Karl saying years ago, “You read fiction to meet people.” I know I do – and I believe that meeting people, making the leap from one life into another, is one way of lessening the gap that separates neighbors. 

I think back over my years in publishing – not yet done – and all the people I’ve met and nurtured with my interest and realize that several people have done just that for me. My life was changed by a sergeant! Perhaps, I think, I can change a life with a book, something playful or beautiful that creates a small gasp of recognition in a reader, that might, but for the alchemy of we, never have existed.  


Richard Jackson is the editor of Richard Jackson books, an imprint of Orchard Books. His article is based on an interview conducted by Anita Silvey in June 1992. All books are published by Orchard Books, unless otherwise noted. From the May/June 1993 Horn Book Magazine.

Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson worked as a children’s book editor and publisher for forty-plus years before his official retirement in 2005; then seventy, he continued to edit freelance. He began writing in 2013 and is now the author of ten published or forthcoming picture books, including Have a Look, Says Book (Dlouhy/Atheneum), illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, his first; In Plain Sight (Porter/Roaring Brook), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; and All Ears, All Eyes (Dlouhy/Atheneum), illustrated by Katherine Tillotson. 

 

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