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Sarah Harrison Smith - Children's Book Editor for the New York Times, Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Sarah Harrison Smith - Children's Book Editor for the New York Times, Part 2

We continue our REAL TALK Publishing feature with Sarah Harrison Smith, the Children's Book Editor at the New York Times! Last week we featured the first part of her interview, where she talked about her job responsibilities and her past --- you'll never guess her teenage career aspirations! Below you can find Part 2, where she talks about her favorite books from her childhood and the way her own children help her in her role.


Teenreads: Do you have kids? How old are they?

Sarah Harrison Smith: I have three children. I have a 12-year-old girl and eight-year-old identical twin boys. They are adorable and also very helpful to me in my job.

TRC: In what way?

SHS: I can’t say that they are in love with the canonic children’s novels that I grew up reading, and in general they are more inclined to read books like Rick Riordan’s adventure sagas or in my daughter’s case, contemporary young adult novels. They help to familiarize me with that more commercial aspect of the market. Those aren’t the books that I grew up reading, but they’re very popular for a reason.

TRC: Have they ever influenced your job? Have they read a book that made you think of doing something with it in theTimes?

SHS: I’ll actually ask them to read [picture books] and then give me their opinion on them, and show me what they like about them. And that is very interesting. Because picture books are now below their age level, they’re very happy to do it.

My daughter, who as I said is 12, will sometimes read young adult novels I bring home in galleys. We love talking about them together, and that’s a really great shared joy. She really enjoyed reading Rainbow Rowell’s ELEANOR & PARK and FANGIRL over the summer, and it’s been interesting because she doesn’t want to give them to her friends because she thinks [the books] may be too mature for them!

I read aloud to my sons every night for a long time. Though I wish that we were reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s FARMER BOY, I’m very happy also to be reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series with them. My dad read to me at night when I was little --- it's a great bond.

TRC: Can you talk about your favorite children’s books?

SHS: Growing up I read constantly and very broadly, and although I remember my school librarian trying to prevent me from taking out some books that she judged were too grown up for me, I really read whatever I wanted all the time.

TRC: Reminds me of Matilda, a little bit.

SHS: Yes!  So, some of what I read was complete trash, and yet very enjoyable. And I don’t think all books have to be blue ribbon books to be valuable to children. And I think that children come to literature with lots of curiosity about all sorts of things, including things that are well above their age range, like, let’s say, sex, and books are a great place to learn about that stuff.

TRC: What other books do you remember from childhood?

SHS: The truly good books that I got a lot out of as a child were books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madeleine L’Engle, Eleanor Farjeon and C.S. Lewis. And among the more silly but delightful books that I loved were Mary Stewart’s novels about Camelot, and also in my early teens her romances like THIS ROUGH MAGIC and NINE COACHES WAITING. And when I say that those books were of lesser literary value, they still had some great qualities. For example, she used as the epigraph to each chapter little snippets of Shakespeare. So, you would be reading a very fun, silly romance, but also getting a bit of Shakespeare at the same time.

TRC: And what about books that have come out more recently?

SHS: Well, mostly I review picture books, as I said. Though I did review a novel called ANTON AND CECIL: Cats at Sea by Valerie Martin, who is a novelist for adults, and her niece Lisa Martin,which I thought was extremely charming and very well-written.

The young adult novel that I last read (and actually finished two nights ago [at the time of the interview]) is a 1938 Newbery Honor book called BRIGHT ISLAND, which a friend recommended to me. It’s by Mabel Robinson, and it’s still in print with Random House, which I think is fantastic. And I was really struck when reading that book by how different it was from most of the young adult novels that I read now, which are often “problem novels”. 

And this book had a coming-of-age theme (like really all young adult novels), but the heroine also took a great deal of pleasure in the natural world, which is something that I felt very strongly growing up and I was glad to see it in a novel. Sometimes young adult novels seem more miserable than in my own experience, or in what I believe people really feel, and I like to see a bit of happiness and pleasure represented that doesn’t just come from dating (which is, of course, a great joy).

As a side note, I’m introducing Laurie Halse Anderson at the 92nd Street Y this month, and so I had the pleasure of reading some of her books in preparation for that, and I really was impressed by them. Those are problem novels, and I think that within that structure, she brings a lot of literary merit and insight and texture to the writing which makes them truly worthwhile.