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Sarah Harrison Smith - Children's Book Editor for the New York Times, Part 3

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Sarah Harrison Smith - Children's Book Editor for the New York Times, Part 3

Here is the third part of our “REAL TALK Publishing” feature with Sarah Harrison Smith, the Children's Book Editor at the New York Times! In the past two weeks, we’ve brought you Part 1, which highlights her job responsibilities and her high school self, and Part 2, which focuses on her childhood reading habits and the influence of her children. In the final part of our interview, Sarah talks about everything else --- what to look forward to in 2014, words of wisdom, what it's like to work for a world-renowned news organization and more.

PART 3: JOB DETAILS! Advice, favorite part, what makes a good book review, what to look for in 2014 and more

Teenreads: Do you find a difference between reviewing adult books and reviewing children’s books?

Sarah Harrison Smith: I think that I let myself be a little more playful in children’s book reviews, sometimes, than I would do if I were reviewing adult books. The reviewers whose work I enjoy most are the reviewers I can tell are having fun on the page rather than making it all more serious than it is. So if I’m reading a film review, for example, Anthony Lane is my favorite film reviewer because he is very funny and playful and wears his learning lightly. So that would be my ideal, which I don’t always or often meet.  We’re in the entertainment industry too, to a certain extent.

TRC: What would you say is the key to writing a good book review?

SHS: Probably the most important things that a book review should do are to give a reader a sense of the content and tone of the book, put the book in a larger context and bring some kind of critical eye to the work. And I think, sometimes, when it comes to children’s books, people are afraid to be critical because everyone loves children’s books! In general, there’s nothing bad or wrong about them and we want to support something that we see as virtuous and of value. But, that doesn’t mean that every book is perfect, and there’s no reason not to point out its flaws because [children’s books are] literary constructions just like any other book.

TRC: What qualities or skills would make someone a good book editor or book critic?

SHS: Everyone I work with is a passionate reader and an astute reader. Not just an enthusiastic one, but someone who reads sentences carefully and notices things about the ways that books are constructed. They have a little bit of that architect’s insight into the foundations of a work as well as --- to kind of continue the metaphor --- the wallpaper.

TRC: And do you have advice for those who might want to do this as a career?

SHS: I think anybody who wants to work in this industry should really love it and should read as much as they can all the time, and read broadly. But I don’t know that there’s any other way to learn how to do it.

It helps me to have moved through the ranks of editing, starting at the very lowest tier, because in helping truly good writers with their work as a fact checker, I learned a lot about how they did what they did so well. So that gave me an inside view into the industry, first of all, but more particularly into the minute details of how a story is created and constructed.

Also, for somebody who is in awe of great writing, I think it’s very helpful to see how great writers do their work in order to make it less daunting.

TRC: What would you say is your favorite part of your job?

SHS: I think like most people who have to write on a deadline, my favorite part of my work is finishing my writing and being pleased with it when I am. And my least favorite part is actually having to write on deadline. That’s hard for anybody. I’m always pleased when I’ve done the writing but sometimes actually settling down to do it is hard!

TRC: How is it different working for a big national newspaper as opposed to reviewing books for a magazine or a website?

SHS: I haven’t worked at a smaller place, and the blogs that I see are generally very high quality, and are often like little magazines that are being run by very entrepreneurial people who are seeing great books just the way we are. We use a little bit less of a personal tone, generally, than a blogger would use, so that’s a difference in terms of the writing. But in terms of the book choices, I think we are looking for great books that represent the market just the way everybody else is.

TRC: Do you ever feel pressure because The New York Times is such a famous name?

SHS: I think everybody here is trying to do the best work they can, but I’m sure that they would feel the same way at another place. That’s a hard one. I think when you work for a big newspaper like the Times that has a strong sense of itself and certain decorum, you know that there are ways that you’re not going to behave on the page because it wouldn’t be suitable. But I’m not tempted to veer into something morepersonal or inappropriate, so it’s not a conflict. I do always feel the desire to live up the standard of the newspaper.

TRC: If you review a book – positively or negatively – do you get comments back?

SHS: Yes, on Twitter there’s a certain amount of feedback. Though I haven’t seen any critical feedback yet. I don’t know if people think that’s bad manners or what. There’s almost no back and forth. And it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to have much to do with the writers directly --- you want to keep a little bit of a wall so you can have some critical distance.

TRC: Do you have any big plans for 2014?

SHS: We definitely want to do more online projects that I hope will also have an interactive aspect for children, so we’ll see where those go.

TRC: I remember you saying when we first met a months ago at the 2013 National Book Awards Teen Press Conference that you liked the idea of having teen reviewers. Is that something you could see happening at the Times?

SHS: I don’t think it could happen in print but I do think that that could be part of an interactive online project, and I think it’s a great idea. The Guardian’s website is very open to young reviewers. I don’t always find children’s reviews to be that helpful to me as an adult, but I think that children may feel differently about reading those reviews than I do. And it’s also a great way to encourage children to be really engaged with what they’re reading, and so that’s valuable on its own.

I love the idea of doing an online book club and chatting online to readers about what they think of books. One of my freelance gigs when I was starting out was writing the book club questions that some publishers include at the end of novels that they know are going to be popular. Having done that, I feel like I could really run a book club well.

TRC: Thanks so much for your time, Sarah --- it’s a pleasure to talk to you!

SHS: Of course! I’m so happy to talk about books any time because I love them so much.