Photo by Sonya Sones
How did you get started working in Children’s Books and what do like most about it?
[EDD:] I was an avid reader, writer, and drawer growing up and set out to write and illustrate a picture book text during a senior project in High School. I learned quickly how very, very hard it is to write a picture book text after I’d managed to write about 10,000 words of my own Greek Myth! Needless to say, I never did get to the illustrations, beyond one for the title page, and that particular book will never see the light of day! But it didn’t diminish my interest in stories and illustration for children and I had no doubt from the time I began college that I wanted to work in some way with authors, illustrators (the proper word for “drawers”), and books for children. I was an English Language & Literature major and landed a great (unpaid) job with the Viking Children’s Books during the summer between my junior and senior years, where I soaked up everything I could from many wonderful people who are still my colleagues and mentors to this day. What I love most about working in Children’s Books is the variety of stories and the variety of books on which I get to work—I am not a specialist, in that I don’t focus solely on picture books or any one genre, format, or age group. Rather, I have been trained—and my interests lie—in being more of a generalist, working on picture books, poetry, MG, and YA fiction and fantasy.
You have a pretty impressive background in publishing. What publishing houses have you done work for?
[EDD:] After my summer job with Viking Children’s Books, I applied to all the major publishing houses in New York City and took a position with Random House. I worked in the Random House Children’s Books imprint for four years and then became an Associate Editor with Margaret K. McElderry Books, which at that time was an imprint of Macmillan. When Macmillan was bought by Simon & Schuster, the McElderry Books imprint moved over to S&S, where I stayed throughout the rest of my corporate career, eventually becoming VP, Publisher of that imprint as well as of Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Since becoming a consulting editor, I’ve continued to do some work on the McElderry Books list and have worked with several other publishing houses on various projects in a freelance capacity, including Little, Brown, Hyperion, and Amazon, as well as with some wonderful start-up presses.
Are there any projects that you worked on with an illustrator that really stand out for you?
I can think of several that stand out: Chris Demarest’s line illustration work was well known to me long before I ever worked with Chris. He brought a project to me that had actually been turned down by another house, as it was not what they’d wanted or expected from him—it was vibrantly colored, thickly rendered pastel work, a vast departure from his usual work. The subject was firefighting and firefighters and my first response to the work was, “I want to see more smoke and more fire!” Chris and I knew we were the right match for his new style of work and not only did we create the very successful and lauded FIREFIGHTERS A TO Z, but that book launched Chris himself into a new chapter of his own career as an artist. It was as thrilling to witness and play some small part in an illustrator’s process of self-reinvention and self-discovery as it was to be a part of such successful picture book making.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster
Another project that stands out is working with the UK illustrator, Jane Chapman, who created the brilliant illustrations for author Karma Wilson’s very first picture book, BEAR SNORES ON. Discovering Jane’s bear samples and deciding to pair her with this new author seemed like a good idea—but none of us realized at the time what a bestselling franchise BEAR would turn out to be, and that’s what made that first project so special and fun. As we got started working together, Jane and I talked a lot about the differences in the UK and US markets, we talked about the size differential between bears and badgers, we talked about the way a hare’s feet would look when the hare’s jumping…and so on. In other words, we talked about art and we got to know one another, and we shared a great love for a good story. It’s always a very special time when you’re seeing an illustrator like Jane bring characters and settings to life through sketches and then through color work—it’s a quiet, don’t-say-too-much, hold-your-breath time that explodes into a nervous-energy, I-think-we’ve-just-created-something-great, this-is-going-to-be-big time.
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster
Working with David Catrow on all of Alan Katz’s SILLY DILLY books has been a total treat, as Dave is a pro who has a way of interpreting an author’s words in such unexpected, clever, and uproarious ways—he always surprised me with his quirky (aka twisted!) sense of humor, smart sense of white space, and intelligent zaniness. Working with E. B. Lewis on a new author’s first picture book recently (so new I can’t really talk about it!) has been a spectacular experience as I’ve had a chance to sit with Earl and watch him work magic with a pencil stub—making one small stroke on a page and opening up a character’s entire expression or adding one quick sketchy image to a page and turning a stone wall into a thriving landscape. Illustration is magic!
Margaret K. McElderry Books, Simon and Schuster
Can you tell us a little about your involvement with SCBWI. How do you think the organization is helpful to authors and illustrators?
[EDD:] I started to speak at SCBWI regions all over the country when I was a young, hungry editor and I came to love the organization for the collaborations and friendships it allowed me to forge with people all over this business. It’s an organization that instilled a lot of confidence in me in my own work as an editor and I found many authors and illustrators through SCBWI events and connections. SCBWI was especially important to me when I got laid off from S&S—the founders, Lin and Steve, and the R.A.s showing unwavering support for my work and assuring me I still had a place at the table even though I was no longer acquiring manuscripts or artwork for publication. In my role as a consultant, I found myself learning a lot about new publishing options, digital publishing, and about balancing life and creativity and I wanted to do something to share my new knowledge and perspectives with the SCBWI membership. I’m thrilled now to be on the Board of Advisors and having an opportunity to participate in SCBWI decisions from my unique perspective as editor/publisher/ freelancer/consultant.
I think SCBWI is most helpful to authors and illustrators for being a supportive, informative community to artists at all levels of their careers.
What are your thoughts about the direction of the quickly changing landscape for children’s books?
[EDD:] The publishing landscape is definitely changing and I find it all very exciting. Otherwise, I’d find it appalling and hide my head in the sand—which is just not acceptable or conducive to anything! Seriously, though, I think the advances made in digital publishing options, self- and indie-publishing options, and printing options are inevitable and interesting—and my goal is to remind authors and illustrators of two things: One, that story matters most, no matter on what device or platform it’s being delivered to children; and two, it’s critical to apply the very best practices of business when exploring the new terrain. To my mind, best practices include, among other things, staying professional, maintaining patience and self-control, recognizing the value of editorial critique and feedback; being willing and open to revision, being collaborative, and focusing on creating the very best art you can. These—and flexibility!—will keep you in the game as the rules of the game seem to be changing. And as anyone who reads my posts knows, my word to the wise is always FLEXIBILITY in this current landscape.
You have started your own company and offer services. Can you tell us a little about how your services help illustrators?
[EDD:] drydenbks LLC is a children’s editorial and publishing consultancy business. I offer all sorts of editing services to authors at various stages of their careers and/or manuscripts. I also consult with people on a myriad of topics related to children’s books and publishing: agents, rekindling a career, trying new styles of writing or artwork; writing a strong query letter, business protocols, how to make a career change or career move; how to create apps, the marketplace needs and demands, evaluating a portfolio or website; and much more. I am interested in all aspects of this business and am open to anyone’s questions or ideas—and if I can help figure out some answers or best next steps, then we’ve got ourselves a consultancy! You can find out more about my background, what clients and colleagues have to say about working with me, and my services at HYPERLINK "http://www.drydenbks.com" www.drydenbks.com.
I’ve been hearing a lot about uTales. Can you tell us how that works and your involvement?
[EDD:] uTales ( HYPERLINK "http://www.utales.com" www.utales.com) is a terrific eBook platform launched by a young man from Sweden with a passion for children’s books and a delight in artwork and storytelling styles from around the world. uTales is not a publisher, but it’s more of a library of eBooks (all picture books right now) that have been created by uTalers—picture book authors and illustrators who have paired themselves together to create books for the platform. I won’t go into too many of the business details of the platform, as this information can be found on the uTales website, but I will say what I’m most impressed with is the showcase uTales is providing for new authors and illustrators. Some of the books are stronger than others, there’s no question about that, but the books are “ranked” by the children and parents themselves who read the uTales books—and those weaker books don’t get as many “hits” as the stronger books. What I hope will happen with this system is that the creators of the weaker books can learn how to make stronger and stronger books by seeing what books on the platform are getting the hits, by reading the helpful posts on the uTales blog, and thereby working on their craft within a very friendly environment of uTalers who support, help, and advise each other. I was asked by the founder to come on board as the head of what’s called the uTales Quality Editorial Panel (uQEP)—a group made up of authors, illustrators, and educators—to evaluate the books before they go “live” and offer critique and feedback. It’s not a “reject” or “approve” system as much as it is a system whereby authors and illustrators are given a chance to adjust, revise, and strengthen their work before it is put on the platform. I think uTales is one of a handful of interesting, exciting children’s book initiatives that’s resulted in this digital age.
What do you think are the most important things illustrators should be doing to succeed in the children’s book market?
[EDD:] Illustrators ought to be evaluating their websites and portfolios to be sure they’re as up-to-date and fresh as possible—I’d do this at least once a year. I would also encourage illustrators to work in new media from time to time—if you work in pencil, try oil or cut-paper; if you work with pen-and-paper, try digital; mix it up a bit and see what results. Editors’ needs for art styles change over time and illustrators don’t want to be left behind because their style that suited the market for the past five years doesn’t seem to be suiting the market anymore. Illustrators won’t be good at every style and medium they try, but try working in new styles anyway—you could be pleasantly surprised! (Marc Brown has been working in new art styles for his last several picture books and he says he’s happier than he’s been in a long time! You wouldn’t know from his newest books that it’s the same artist who created Arthur—and that’s very exciting for Marc and for a new audience of readers!) I would also suggest that illustrators learn digital techniques—they don’t have to love every bit of it, but I’d say they ought to get to a point of being knowledgeable and comfortable with various digital platforms on which to create artwork. This is essential if illustrators ever want to work on apps and it’s also a way to keep artists nimble and flexible artistically. Finally, just as I tell authors to read, read, read, so too will I remind illustrators to look, look, look—look at old and new picture books, stay abreast of not just the picture books on the bestseller lists, but of what illustrators you admire are doing, of what picture books are being chosen for the Society of Illustrator shows, and look through art directories and illustrator websites.