Carolyn Yoder Talks with Roger

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Carolyn Yoder is editorial director of Calkins Creek, an imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers. Calkins Creek specializes in books about American history, and, as you will see below, they take a refreshingly broad view of just what that history encompasses and how to write about it.

Roger Sutton: Let’s talk about Carolyn’s history and Carolyn and history. You spent a long time turning your interest in history into a career.

Carolyn Yoder: I did. I started out in college with a history minor, and then I became sort of a medievalist and went to graduate school in Iowa. I quickly abandoned medievalism for the modern novel. After graduate school, I moved to Boston where I was a chef for a while, and then I worked at DC Heath in their scholarly division. That job blended my love of history and my love of writing and the English language, and it gave me a love of well-researched books. Eventually, I got a job at Cobblestone, which is a U.S. history magazine for kids. There, also, I was able to stress the need for working with experts, doing solid research. I’m a firm believer that with solid, extensive research comes a great story.

RS: I noticed on the submission page on your website, it requires any manuscript to be accompanied by a bibliography. Good for you.

CY: That started when I was in scholarly publishing, and at Cobblestone, we encouraged it, really demanded it. I became a part-owner of Cobblestone Publishing, and when we sold the company, I started doing a little work for Highlights magazine. After a few years, Kent Brown, publisher of Boyds Mills, asked me if I’d like to start an imprint on U.S. history. I said sure, not knowing anything about book publishing at the time. That was the start of Calkins Creek.

RS: When was that?

CY: That was 2004. I knew a lot about nonfiction writing. I was good friends with James Cross Giblin and had met and read Patricia and Fred McKissack, and I had also read Milton Meltzer and Russell Freedman and admired them all. And I was a big fan of Jim Murphy. At that time, Stephen Roxburgh was the associate publisher of Boyds Mills, and he taught me a lot. My mission was to introduce kids to history that they might not know about, people who they might not know about, people they should know about. One of the first Calkins Creek books was on Bayard Rustin, the little known (to young readers) civil rights activist. My emphasis was always, and will remain, in the research process. I’m a big, big proponent of that and of working with experts as part of the research process.

RS: In 1986, Hazel Rochman published her Booklist editorial about what she saw as the deplorable state of documentation in nonfiction books for children, and it’s one of the few editorials I’ve read in our field that had an immediate impact.

CY: I did a talk once on the renaissance of nonfiction. For me, Russell Freedman’s Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography was the beginning of the field’s real emphasis on research. I was glad to be part of that trend. We started small, doing more historical fiction and long nonfiction. Now the bulk of our list is nonfiction picture books, mostly on unsung individuals. Individuals who young readers need to meet!

RS: But you did send me Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems, a YA novel in verse, which I really enjoyed.

CY: That’s somewhat different for us. I teach writing at the Highlights Foundation and had worked with Barbara Krasner, the author of Ethel’s Song, at a writing retreat. The first draft was pretty much straight nonfiction. It was very fact-based, and there was really no Ethel.

RS: More of a chronology?

CY: Exactly. I suggested to Barbara that she consider writing about her subject in verse. All of a sudden, Ethel emerged, Julius emerged, New York City emerged. And the author emerged! I want to see the author in the book. I think writers like Jim Giblin, Russell Freedman, Jean Fritz, and the McKissacks put their stamp on nonfiction — added distinct voices to the genre. And I am excited to be working with authors like Wade Hudson, Nathalie Alonso, Alice Faye Duncan, and Carole Boston Weatherford, to name only a few who have such original voices.

RS: One thing that’s interesting to me, seeing the number of nonfiction picture books in general but picture book biographies particularly, is that we’re getting these slices of history that may be known to historians, but you don’t see in general adult circulation, much less in children’s books.

CY: Absolutely. When I’m reading a manuscript, if I say to myself, “I don’t know who this person is,” that’s always a good sign. Also, we look for books about familiar figures from a different perspective. In 2019 we published Full of Beans: Henry Ford Grows a Car by Peggy Thomas, about Henry Ford’s love of soybeans.

RS: Who knew?

CY: He constructed a suit coat out of soybeans, and a car out of soybeans. It was such a kid-friendly book. If I’m surprised by something, I’m always intrigued. That’s why I’ll keep reading a manuscript.

RS: How many of the books that you publish are ideas that started in the Calkins Creek office and how many are new to you from the beginning?

CY: Most of them are new to me. I might suggest an idea over a glass of wine, if I’m at a conference or a writing retreat, but I never assign something to an author. I’ve tried a couple of times. I really want to do a book on Richard Nixon, but I can’t convince anybody to write it. Most people say they don’t want to spend three or four years on Nixon. But he’s a fascinating American character. One time at ALA, somebody mentioned the 1965 riot in Watts as a topic. I thought of Larry Brimner, who lived in California at the time and does a lot of social justice books for us (Black & White and Twelve Days in May, to name two), and now he’s writing a book on Watts. I meet with authors like Gail Jarrow to talk about what she’s thinking about working on. She has a very good idea of what kids are into. Her Deadly Disease trilogy did phenomenally well, as did Medical Fiascoes, which we just finished up.

We have a lot of repeat authors. Rich and Sandra Wallace did a book for us called Blood Brother. That led to another social justice book, The Teachers March!, illustrated by Charly Palmer, which led to yet another social justice book, Race Against Time. Because they’re both investigative reporters, they do a phenomenal amount of research: primarily field research, primary document and archival research, and photo research. They know how to do it, they’re intrigued by it, they’re excited by it. All of our authors, by the way, do their own photo research, which I find is imperative to writing the book. Some publishers and packagers do the photo research, but I don’t know how that would work. For me, looking at photos and writing the book sort of go hand in hand.

RS: I remember in reviewing some of the old nonfiction series books, we’d get these random photos. Clearly someone said, “I need a picture of Abe Lincoln,” but not much thought went into which picture.

CY: If you’re working with an expert early in the process, he or she can help you find unusual photos. Do we need the same picture of Abe Lincoln every single time? Or maybe there’s only one photo of Emily Dickinson. Maybe there’s not. Those are the things subject experts can really help with.

RS: How do you find that nonfiction publishing today competes with online assignments, Wikipedia, information that kids can get in different places online? Your books are clearly not substitutes. They’re not basic fact books. Hallelujah. The internet is doing a wonderful job of helping people discover basic facts about things, so you don’t need to do that. But how do you convince teachers and librarians that American Murderer: The Parasite That Haunted the South, Gail Jarrow’s book about hookworms, belongs in their collection?

CY: Because, first and foremost, it’s a great story. It’s a thriller. You can look up those facts, but she knows how to shape the narrative. She knows what to leave in, what to leave out. In other words, she knows what to do with the vast amount of research she has done. She is IN the story. You’re not going to get that online. That’s my simple answer.

RS: And I don’t think you really want that. If I’m looking for basic information about hookworms —

CY: You can get that.

RS: “Do I have hookworms?” I’ll go to Dr. Google first.

CY: Hopefully, you read American Murderer and then you think, “I want to know a little bit more about hookworms,” and you go online.

RS: In her dedication to American Murderer, Jarrow says, “To Carolyn, who made me a better writer.”

CY: It’s a two-way street. She was one of the first authors at Calkins Creek. It’s really a joy to work with her. We talk a lot when a book is in the “germ” stage. When I read her first draft, my comments are more general: “Maybe you could tighten this section.” I don’t have to do a lot of nitpicking with her. We work so well together that I can almost anticipate how she’s going to react, and she probably can anticipate what I’m going to say. Making her a better writer just comes from care, and some guidance. I think a lot of it has to do with the length of our relationship. Which isn’t over. We’re doing another book.

RS: What do you think an editor does to make an author a better writer?

CY: An editor can make suggestions, can push an author a little bit, can see the manuscript in a different light and offer insights into the character and the setting. I think besides offering suggestions, an editor can stay alongside and be a helping hand. You’re both in it together. You both want the best book that you can offer. You’re seeing places that need a little bit more expansion, maybe need a little bit more history. I do a line edit with overall suggestions, and then we talk and I hear the author out. I’ll give you this one example. I’m working with this author who’s writing a book about a woman who wove silk during World War II. She had a gazillion spiders in her house. There’s somebody I would never have known about.

RS: That’s somebody I never would have visited.

CY: I read the manuscript and had questions: does this woman have family? Are her archives anywhere? As it turned out, the author found the spider woman’s son and a lot of primary materials. When the manuscript came back to me, it was totally different. It was quirky and full of details and exciting. The main character came to life. That all comes from really doing a good job researching. When reviews say some nonfiction book is extensively researched — I’m not so sure reviewers know what that means. I don’t know how they test that.

RS: It’s like when reviewers say “smoothly translated.”

CY: The same thing. How do they know? Anybody could put a bibliography in there. Some people write, like, ten nonfiction picture books a year. I don’t know how they can do that and do a good job research-wise. I know I get on my soapbox for that.

RS: Good!


Sponsored by

Astra Books for Young Readers

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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