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Sarah Harrison Smith - Children's Book Editor for the New York Times, Part 1

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Sarah Harrison Smith - Children's Book Editor for the New York Times, Part 1

We kick off our "REAL TALK Publishing" feature with Sarah Harrison Smith, the Children's Book Editor at the New York Times! We met with Sarah at The New York Times building and she told us about her job --- from her day-to-day responsibilities to her favorite (and least favorite) things that she does --- as well as the books she loved as a kid, advice she has for book critic hopefuls, the ways her own children help her do her job and what to expect from the children's book section in 2014. She also gave us a sneak peek at The Book Review office, and even showed us her bookshelves (see the photo, below!)  Read on to find Part 1 of this three part interview, and be sure to check in next week for parts 2 and 3!


PART 1 – JOB BASICS AND LOOKING BACK

Teenreads: What are your day-to-day responsibilities as a children’s book editor?

Sarah Harrison Smith: I meet with publicists from all the big publishing houses fairly regularly and we go through each season’s new books and we talk about them. The publicists are incredibly helpful to me --- and they tell me a little story sometimes about the writers or the illustrators so I have a bit more information that’s not just from a press release. That helps me to make decisions about what reviews I want to commission.

After I have a sense of the books that are coming out every month, I decide which ones we should review, and then I take my proposals to Pamela Paul, who’s the current head of The Book Review. She was the former Children’s Book Editor and so she knows the market really well and is an invaluable source of advice and guidance. She often has information about the writers or how the Times has handled their previous work --- things that can also inform what we decide to commission.

Then we talk about who we think should review them, and we always have to come up with a couple of names to find the right person. We’ve been very lucky to have some wonderful writers of adult fiction as well as children’s fiction reviewing for us. For example, we had Susan Choi [author of PERSON OF INTEREST] writing for us recently. I thought she did a great job reviewing Meg Rosoff’s young adult novel PICTURE ME GONE.

Sometimes we get experts in the field --- Maria Tatar, who teaches folklore at Harvard, has written about fairytales for us. She’s a very engaging writer and she’s also somebody with deep knowledge, so if you’re looking at new interpretations of The Brothers Grimm or something like that, it’s kind of nice to have somebody who really understands the history of it, rather than just someone who’s coming to it cold.

So, we try to have a nice balance of the scholarly and the playful, and the great voice versus somebody who may be more academic but has great insight. [Pamela Paul and I] do the assigning together and then I approach the different writers and see what I can get and when I can get it, and we schedule the reviews.

I get a lot of email correspondence from publicists and also from people who’d like to write for us.  I respond to those people and try to do that fairly promptly, and so correspondence takes up a fair amount of the day.

And then there’s the actual editing of the reviews that come in. I don’t know if you know this, but I wrote a book about fact-checking called THE FACT CHECKER’S BIBLE. That’s actually surprisingly helpful to me even now because at The Book Review, the editors fact check the book reviews before sending them on to the copy desk.  So we’re editing, we’re cutting, we’re asking questions and then we’re also fact checking.

Then we send them on to the copy desk who do the second read and really kind of fine tune questions of grammar and things like that. And we have a very smart copy-editing team, and they will sometimes notice repetitions and more felicitous ways of flipping a sentence.

And then I of course do a bit of reading of the books that come in. I don’t read every book we review all the way through before I assign it, but usually by the end of the time that I’ve finished editing and producing the review, I feel like I’ve read the book all the way through even if I haven’t read every word.

And in the middle of every week I also write a review that goes online, usually of pictures books. And sometimes those are themed according to events, like Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day and President’ Day. But then a lot of times they are just good books that are on the shelf that are coming out that month. I love doing that because it’s a rare pleasure to be able to spend time with picture books and analyze what it is that makes them successful. So that’s been a really fun part of the job. I love that.

TRC: How do you come up with the ideas for picture book roundups that aren’t about holidays --- like if you feature a group of picture books about bears?

SHS: As I shelve the books that come in every day, I notice patterns. We wouldn’t do a bookshelf on bears if there weren’t really good books on bears. Sometimes you’ll see a bookshelf that has two really strong books of a particular theme and others that aren’t quite as strong, but it’s interesting to look at and compare and contrast.  Bears, by the way, are a very popular subject so you have to be careful about not doing them too often.

TRC: What kind of people do you interact with on a regular basis in your job?

SHS: It’s funny, now in the internet age I’m reading a lot on Twitter and reading Tweets by writers and illustrators, and so I feel like I have a little bit of a connection to them, though in general I don’t meet them. Most of my contacts are with publishers and PR people. But I also feel, of course, when I’m reading books by novelists, that I’m getting to know them very intimately too, though it’s not a two-way conversation. But there are many days when I am sitting quietly in my cubicle, doing my work, and just talking to my cubicle mates occasionally. It’s not a very social job.

TRC: How big is the department? How many people work on the children’s books team?

SHS: Only me! I do all the shelving --- you’ll have to see my shelves --- they’re a work of art. But I’m very fortunate that my boss, having been the children’s book editor, really values the work and knows so much about it. I’m always able to talk to her about new books that come in. And if I find something that looks great, I’m very happy to tell her about it and know that she will share that excitement.

TRC: Have you always known that you wanted to be a book editor or a book critic?

SHS: I started writing book reviews very early on, but I didn’t start doing it full-time until I took this job. But, in my twenties, a very kind book review editor here at The Book Review asked me to start writing little 300 word reviews and I loved doing that. I got to do some really fun things like THE LETTERS OF WILKIE COLLINS and Victorian fairy painting books. I was very interested in the Victorian era at that point and so that was a focus for me --- not children’s literature but literature of the turn of the century.  

So that was my start! And I’ve always been a very, very, passionate reader --- I have always read quite seriously and ambitiously. And I’m married to a poet; my husband teaches poetry at Johns Hopkins.  Literature is really the focus of our lives.

TRC: When you were in high school did you work on your newspaper or do any literary activities?

SHS: Yes. When I was at a girls school here in New York, I worked on the literary magazine. Then when I went to boarding school, the school didn’t have a literary magazine, and a friend and I tried to start one, but it was a "one issue wonder."

TRC: When you were a teenager, what did you want to be when you grew up?

SHS: When I was a teenager, I was a huge reader and good at English (so getting my undergraduate degree from Oxford was a dream come true). I thought of becoming a writer, a magazine editor or a costume designer. I don't think I've changed much. I still love to read, write and design, and I keep a sketchbook. My drawing skills are nothing special but getting anything down on paper gives me pleasure. Knowing a bit about painting and drawing helps me to write about picture books; there are certain illustrators whose work I absolutely love and envy.