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MY INTERVIEW WITH CHILDREN’S AUTHOR/EDITOR ANN FEATHERSTONE

MY INTERVIEW WITH CHILDREN’S AUTHOR/EDITOR ANN FEATHERSTONE

Ann Featherstone is the senior editor at Canadian publisher Pajama Press. She also happens to be my sister. And as her sister, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feature her wonderful new book, A World of Kindness in our October Picture Book Box as well as interview her for our blog.

MARMALADE BOOKS (MB): We both got our start in the children’s book business working at Munro’s Books, one of the leading independent bookstores in Canada. How did you transition to being a children’s book editor?

ANN FEATHERSTONE (AF): I was approached by an emerging publisher in Victoria. He often came into the bookstore for advice, and in 1990 when he offered me a job as managing editor, I decided to take the leap. I spent ten years shaping the children's program at Orca Book Publishers, and I'm proud of that. But I had to teach myself to be an editor in those days; I was on my own. So there were times when the experience was humbling. I had a degree in English Literature, which helped quite a bit, but the learning curve was pretty steep at first.

MB: Can you tell us the story of how this lovely book came to be?

AF: The publisher, Gail Winskill, has a precocious granddaughter, who was just entering Grade One. She soon had her first negative experience with another student who was mean to her, and her mother counciled kindness in response. But it wasn't until she asked her grandmother how to be kind that Gail thought it was time for Pajama Press to do something on the subject. So the publisher, managing editor Erin Alladin and I discussed the approach we wanted to take. And early on, we decided we didn't want to tell a story. Instead, we wanted to show children images that they could use to tell their own stories about what kindness means. After some research by our managing editor, and more discussions, I took all Erin's work and distilled the text into a series of questions. These questions are quite simple at first; it's easy, for instance, to say please and thank you. But later on, the questions are a bit harder. How easy is it to share something that is important to you, like your first bicycle? While Erin and I went back and forth on the text, Gail approached our Pajama Press illustrators to obtain images from our books that would work on every spread. Some of them did original work and donated it to the project, which was really lovely of them. The royalties for this book will be donated to Think Kindness, an organization that promotes school and community programs that focus on kindness.

MB: What does an editor do?

AF: First, acquisitions. I go through stacks of submissions (around 1,800 received last year—I am a fast reader), consider what I think may work for our program, and show it to the publisher and defend it as a possibility for our list. Then, substantive editing. Once a book is under contract, I reread the story and point out all the areas that need improvement: character development, point of view of the narration, story arc, pacing, thematic development, general syntax that will need attention, minor plotlines that are not resolved. Sometimes this work is partially done in general notes I send the author in advance of the contract, so the author can decide if she or he agrees and can assure us that they see the same vision for their story and are willing to put in the extra work. Then I move on to the copy edit. I go through the new version of the story line-by-line, look for problems in sentence structure, word repetitions (everybody has favourite words they use over and over) that need to be addressed, too many run-on sentences, word choices that affects tone, too many exclamation marks, that sort of thing. And of course I must standardize spelling and form (for example, the narrator cannot write "okay" on one page and "ok" on another). Then, once the author and I are happy, the text goes to the designer for typesetting. Then I consult with the publisher and designer on the cover concept. While the designer is working, I create a style guide, which informs a proofer for instance that we want to see the word "t-shirt" rather than "T-shirt," etc. So I create a spelling list of frequently used words in the text. Also, we have house-style rules that the proofer needs to know in order to proof the typeset text. Once this is done, I look at the proofer's results, throw out anything that I think is just too picky (even though I prefer them to be picky!), and pass it back to the author so they can weigh in with any objections they might have. I send the changes to the designer and supervise the corrections to make sure nothing has been missed.

In the case of picture books, I do roughly the same thing as above, but then I also work with the publisher and designer on art direction. My job here is to make sure that the author's vision is retained in the artwork, that the planned art will bring added value to the story rather than simply illustrate the mechanics of the story. So sometimes we will discuss visual subtexts that an illustrator can add to a project (as in a lighthearted story when pets appear in the background and fool around, even though they aren't part of the story. Or in a more serious story, when an artist adds visual elements that reinforce the theme, like weather that mirrors the emotional state of the main character). Sometimes, when the art is detailed, I make a decision to go back to the author to point out where areas of text may no longer be necessary, like when a text points out that someone is wearing a blue shirt (if we are going to see a blue shirt, does the text need to say it anymore?). And I keep checking the process, from rough drawings to detailed drawings to finished artwork, comparing the story to the art to make sure there is no disconnect between the text and the illustrations. 

MB:  You’ve worked with many wonderful Canadian children’s authors and illustrators over the years and the books that you’ve helped come to life have won many awards. I won’t put you on the spot by asking who was the best to work with (and who wasn’t), but do you have a favourite book that you were involved with? 

AF: Come on, Pat! You know this is like asking me which of my kids I love best! But like parenting, sometimes it is the problem child you have the most feeling for because you invested so heavily in them. And when they turn out well, you are so proud. One of Orca's earliest picture books, Waiting for the Whales gained me a cherished friend in (author) Sheryl McFarlane. At that time, I was pretty new to editing picture books, but I knew vaguely what I wanted, and Sheryl had the kernel of a story that was so beautiful and moving. But I kept pushing and pushing for changes to improve it. Poor Sheryl wrote, I think, nine drafts of that story until we were both satisfied it was perfect. And it was. We wouldn't change a word of it. It won the Governor General's Award for Illustration—and you don't get nominated for a poor story that just happens to be beautifully illustrated. Ron Lightburn's art in it is fabulous. That book cemented Orca Book Publisher's reputation as a children's publisher across the country, not only on the West Coast.

Just last year, I edited Sherri Green's middle-grade novel Missing Mike. She is a dream of a writer, but something was missing in the story for me. I kept mulling it over until it hit me. Mike, our heroine's beloved dog, goes missing early in the book when the family is suddenly evacuated because of a wildfire. I just didn't know Mike as well as Cara the heroine did, it was hard to strongly identify with her pain and determination to find him again. I talked to Sherri, who is also a really generous person. And she took my suggestions on faith. She agreed to add some flashbacks that took us to the shelter when Cara first insists on choosing Mike. Then Sherri added little scenes when Cara and Mike slowly begin to bond. So now we really knew Mike as well as Cara did. By the time I reread Sherri's third draft, I kept tearing up. Every edit drove me crazy because I knew I was about to get to those spots in the story when I would start crying again. But I felt as if I were losing Mike every time I worked on that story. I won't tell you the ending, but you will cry happy tears, I promise.

MB: Okay, maybe I should put you on the spot. How about a juicy story from one of the projects you were involved with. Names are good.

AF: No names; what, are you kidding? I will tell you that I once worked on a picture book where the author and illustrator were best friends and solidly invested in the project together...until they had a creative difference about the book. It was my job to intercede. I learned early on that it is a mistake to let authors and illustrators confer and work together. They will both have to compromise at some point. No matter how hard they try to be generous about each other, authors and illustrators will always have a slightly different vision of the book in their head. So it is better for the publishing house to take the reins of a project, protect it as a separate entity, take all responsibility for decisions that someone may be unhappy about, and keep their own final vision in mind. After all, the publisher is footing the bill. In this particular case, the author and illustrator were no longer talking by the time the book launched, and they wouldn't even appear in the same room together. It taught me an early lesson. When it comes to inexperienced authors or illustrators, I sometimes have to remind them that they own only half of the story; they have to play nice and share the project. And sharing is sometimes easier if they never meet until the book launch! And it's always better if they blame me instead of each other; then they can remain good friends.

MB: Our love of books came naturally since we had a father who would read an armful of books every week. My appreciation for books came a little later but you would go to the library regularly with Dad. Do you think this is what inspired your love of reading?

AF: Oh yes. But I remember that libraries almost didn't happen for me at all. Dad would just leave me at the entrance to the children's section every Saturday while he went off to the adult section. My first time there, I chose my books and carried them up to the librarian's desk. She immediately took them from me and put them on the return cart. I was so shy that I didn't tell her that I wasn't returning books; I wanted to borrow those. So I went home empty-handed that day. Dad never said a word about it. The next week I got up the courage to ask the librarian if I could take my choices home, please. And she said yes! Holy cow! What a concept! And I'll never forget when Dad decided I was ready for the adult section. I was eleven, and I chose Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. Dad never said a word about that either. I was horrified and delighted by that book—and I still have a perverse attachment to plague stories. If you remember, Mom and Dad never censored our reading material. If we bought comic books, nobody turned a hair. When I started reading Harlequin Romances, I think Dad shuddered a little, but nobody objected. I got to decide myself when it was time to move on to Gone With the Wind, which led me to To Kill a Mockingbird and The Member of the Wedding. Nothing is better than discovering a book for yourself when you are a kid. 

MB: Growing up you were team Eloise and I was team Madeline. Was Eloise your favourite book or did you really have another?

AF: Actually, I wasn't a fan of Eloise until I was a mom. But I do still love her excruciatingly. I also loved The Cat in the Hat, Curious George, The Story about Ping and The Camel Who Took a Walk (our brother's favourite picture book to this day, I think!). And I knew every word of Madeline and the Gypsies. When I graduated to novels, I adored The Incredible Journey. And then Mom bought me my first copy of Anne of Green Gables, and I obsessed over her for years. Then there was The Wind in the Willows. Those characters positively sang to me. 

MB: What do you see for the future of children’s book?

AF: When e-books were first introduced, I was a bit worried. But it hasn't hurt children's books' sales at all. But what we have come to realize, unfortunately, is that the Canadian market for children's novels and picture books isn't as healthy as it was in the 80s and 90s; it's been slowly declining for years, just as independent bookstores have struggled or closed down in the face of chains and online selling. And what has happened in the last thirty years to the teacher-librarian? Now it is almost impossible for a small publisher to survive on books that emphasize Canadian themes and locations, because there aren't enough booksellers in this country, or school libraries with decent budgets anymore. And the cost of publishing has gone up at the same time. The Canada Council helps tremendously with funding for Canadian-authored projects, but at Pajama Press, we have also learned to thrive by finding a wonderful American company that distributes and sells us in the United States. Libraries there want hardcovers (where there is a better profit margin for the publisher and author), not paperbacks, which booksellers and many libraries only want. Our market south of the border is mostly school and public libraries. I'm grateful to them. This past year we were on the New York Times list of best picture books of the year (eight books were chosen and we had one of them!), and we won a major award administered by the American Library Association. We continue to be recognized south of the border and internationally. That is what you have to do to survive—hope the situation in Canada will improve one day, and in the meantime, cast a wider net. It's a lofty goal to claim you will only publish the finest stories you discover. For us, the reality is different. We must find the best quality stories, yes. But we also must fulfill the market's needs at the same time. And that is the challenge.

The Butler Girls: Pat (Oldroyd), our late mother Mary and Ann (Featherstone)

 

My thanks to my dear sister Ann, for letting me twist her arm to do this interview. I couldn’t be more proud of you. Pat Oldroyd

 

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