Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shana Corey: Her Life in Books

What self-respecting bookworm wouldn't want to be Shana Corey? As an editor at Random House Children's, she works with award winning authors on graphic novels, middle grade fiction and YA. She's also an author in her own right, working steadily on her laptop when her children are asleep. Shana has written many picture books and early readers that have kept my children's noses in books. She also specializes in incisive biographies of women long-forgotten, by focusing on small moments where they have turned the tide of history.

Shana's latest picture book biography Mermaid Queen: The Spectacular True Story of Annette Kellerman, Who Swam Her Way to Fame, Fortune and Swimsuit History! (Scholastic, 2009) with pictures by  Edwin Fotheringham was a huge hit at my children's elementary school during their Mock Caldecott round-up. Shana kindly took the time to talk about Mermaid Queen, some of her other books, the research involved, and in-house writing. She also explains why her current list of books she has edited are such treasures. (Hint: if you're a Babymouse fan, read on!)

AB: What led you to become a writer and editor? Also, which came first for you: writing children’s books or editing them?

SC: I’ve always told stories. As a child, I became so absorbed in my favorite books that I wished I could be friends with the characters in real life, especially when the characters, like Laura in Little House on the Prairie, were people who had actually lived. I felt like I had been born in the wrong century. I wanted to wear long dresses and ride in a covered wagon! I would make up my own stories that continued the adventures in the books and allowed me to be a part of them.

As much as I loved making up and later writing stories, it didn't really cross my mind early on to try to make a career out of writing books. I consider myself primarily a reader. Reading led me to editing (imagine-being surrounded by books all day! Getting paid to read! Swoon!). Being around so many wonderful books and creative, talented people-- talking ideas every day‑-inspired me to try writing myself.

AB: Please tell me about the first book that you wrote. What was the experience like from kernel of an idea to publication?

SC: My first book was You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! (Scholastic, 2000). It was one of those delicious experiences where the stars seem to line up. I was just starting out in publishing as an editorial assistant. One of the editors I worked for edited an early reader series called Step into Reading and editors often came up with topics for the series themselves. I loved brainstorming ideas, but often came up with ideas that weren’t at all right for early readers geared to a mass audience. I’m very interested in women’s history (must have been all those Little House books) and many of my ideas reflected that. I brought up the Amelia Bloomer idea to that editor and she told me it wasn’t right for an early reader, but she encouraged me to write it myself.

I wrote the manuscript and sent it to the lovely and talented Tracy Mack at Scholastic. To my great shock and delight, she wanted to publish it! Tracy helped me revise and found a fabulous illustrator, Chesley McLaren, for the book. (One thing that often surprises people outside of publishing is that it’s the editor-working with an art director-who finds the illustrator, not the author.) Tracy has an amazing eye for art, and Chesley’s illustrations were beyond my wildest expectations. When the book came out, it had some really lovely reviews which I’m still enormously grateful for, and it ended up being featured in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I was still an editorial assistant and on my lunch hour, I used to bring my little bag lunch to eat on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I could gaze across the street at the windows and the larger than life cut outs from Amelia Bloomer. Talk about a New York moment.  (Looking back, it still doesn’t seem quite real!)

AB: Last August your Step into Reading book Barack Obama: Out of Many One hit the shelves.  I see you’re also credited with many Babe and Thomas the Tank Engine readers. Do you ever write for packagers?

Re: A slew of questionsSC:  I haven’t. Most of the writing I’ve done outside of my picture books has been through Random House.  I began here right after college as an editorial assistant. Random House publishes many licenses (Babe, Thomas the Tank Engine, Sesame Street, Disney) and one of my favorite perks was that a lot of licensed books were written in-house. For me, that was a great way to get my feet wet and to gain confidence. (My other favorite perk was getting to hang out with Jan and Stan Berenstain and listen to their stories about Ted Geisel--aka Dr. Seuss--and publishing in the old days).

AB: Mermaid Queen (Scholastic, 2009) is a gorgeous picture book biography of Annette Kellerman, who was an Australian professional swimmer, vaudeville and film star, and writer. In it, you focus on the story of how Kellerman set the trend for lighter, more athletic women's swim wear. Before Kellerman, women wore ungainly full body suits.  How did you research Annette Kellerman’s life? What types of sources did you use?
SC: Microfilm. Lots and lots of microfilm. I spent a lot of time in New York City’s main library, reading through reams of old microfilm and Annette’s own out-of-print books. (If you’re ever in New York, I highly recommend spending time in the main library’s truly magnificent Rose Reading room-with the frescoes on the ceiling and the smell of old books--it’s a sort of a cathedral of research and completely and utterly awe-inspiring). I also found a wonderful autobiographical script treatment that Annette wrote for the movie based on her life, Million Dollar Mermaid (MGM, 1952).

AB: In the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast review of Mermaid Queen, you mentioned that you’ve always “had a thing for olden-girls.” Did you major in Women’s History at Smith College?

SC: I didn’t. I took a lot of women’s history classes and classes on women writers, but I was also very interested in politics and was actually a government major. For a time, my career plan was either to be a White House speech writer or the President.

AB: Although few seem to remember her now, Annette Kellerman was a superstar in her time. She has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and even appeared nude in movies. Was there information about Annette Kellerman that you purposely chose to leave out of your book? Any racy content which you viewed as too adult?
SC: Not really. She was controversial later in her life-especially with her movies. But all that takes place out of the scope of the story that I was telling which is really about her early life, culminating with the bathing suit. 

AB: In your opinion, what is most important for writers to consider when working on a historical account for children?

SC: I think if you write history for kids-or really for anyone-you need to find the thread in the story that’s going to resonate with your readers today. What’s relevant to them? Where are they going to be able to recognize themselves? In my books, I’m not trying to teach a lesson or to write complete biographies, but I do want to find that universal common denominator and highlight it.

AB: As an editor yourself, what is it like working with your own editor Tracy Mack at Scholastic? 

SC: Tracy Mack is a dream to work with. She’s a very gentle, encouraging, smart, incredibly patient editor (which I especially appreciate since I had children) and a lovely person to have in my life. Working with Tracy has taught me not just about writing, but also about editing—I’m pretty sure my early editorial letters were modeled very closely on the letters she sent me.

AB: Let's talk about your job as an editor. How do you best work with an author? Could you describe your ideal working relationship with an author?
SC: As an editor, I acquire books and then work with authors to make their book the best it can possibly be. Editors differ from copyeditors in that we aren’t so concerned with grammar. I pay more attention to character, pacing, plot, and structure. It’s also my job to position the book---first in-house and then to support the other departments as they position and sell it out-of-house. To that end, I write flap copy, catalog and web copy for my books, present them (and then present them again) to the sales force and later to librarians, and work with the art department to get the right cover for the book. And then when I can, I read submissions in the hopes of falling in love with a new author and a new manuscript so that we can start the process again. For me, the relationship works best when there’s mutual trust-I want the author to know that I’m on their side and want what’s best for the book. It also helps to have authors who are just truly great people and I'm very fortunate in that respect. (I think children’s books folks tend to be a pretty fun, down-to-earth bunch in general).

AB: Please tell me about your current list. I’m personally very excited about Nature Girl and my family can't get enough Babymouse.  If there are any books you are particularly excited about, please tell us!
SC: I’m excited about all my books! Here are some of my picks for this spring.

Babymouse: Burns Rubber  (Random House Books for Young Readers, January 2010) is the 12th title in Matthew Holm's and Jennifer Holm’s fabulously fun pink graphic novel series. Babymouse has really led the way with younger graphic novels and they just keep getting better and better.

The Sixty Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone (Random House, 2010) is out in February and I want to give a copy to every 10 and 11-year-old I know. It’s a book with tons of kid appeal-it has magic, mystery, miniatures, and adventure!  It’s the kind of book I would have loved growing up (and if you ever looked for treasure in your backyard or secret passageways in your attic, it may be your kind of book as well.) It’s set in the Thorne Miniature Rooms in The Art Institute of Chicago.  It’s  for kids who love Chasing Vermeer and the Mixed Up Files, and has that perfect blend of magic meets realism that lets you think maybe…just maybe this could really happen.  Maybe it could happen to me!

Nature Girl (Random House, April 2010) which you’ve already mentioned is another debut that I just fell in love with on first read. Jane Kelley’s voice is laugh-out-loud funny and irresistibly readable. Nature Girl tells the story of 11 year old city kid Megan, and what happens when she gets lost alone on the Appalachian Trail with only her little dog Arp for company. It’s a quirky, feel-good, girl power survival story and also a deeper story of growing up and figuring out who you want to be. And it’s hilarious; I’m tempted to quote a funny part but would end up quoting most of the book. 

And then three of my favorite authors have new novels coming out. Jenni Holm has an absolutely gorgeous new novel out this May, Turtle in Paradise-about a spunky 10 year old named Turtle who gets shipped off to live with relatives she’s never met before in Key West, Florida during the depression. This one is another one I’d love to quote from, but would end up quoting from every page-it’s just a dazzling combination of humor and beautiful writing.

Audrey Couloumbis also has a new novel out this fall, Jake, (no picture yet) which is narrated by the most endearing 11 year boy I’ve ever met and told with Audrey’s unbeatable style. I’ve never met an author who can say so much, with so few words.

And C.K. Kelly Martin-- one of the most deliciously readable YA authors I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading--has a new novel out, The Lighter Side of Life and Death. It tells the story of one confused boy, two girls, first love, first lust, and second chances. I’m a fan of all of C.K.Kelly Martin’s books, but this is my favorite yet. I can’t wait for readers to find these books!

AB: How long have you worked with Jenni Holm? Did you work with her on Newbery Honor winners Our Only May Amelia and/or Penny from Heaven? Have you worked with Matt and Jenni on the whole Babymouse series? 
SC: I began working with Matt and Jenni while Jenni was writing Penny from Heaven. We actually knew each other through writing-we met a million years ago when we were both signing books at Chris’s Corner bookstore in Philadelphia. We got to be friendly. I spent a lot of time when I was pregnant with my first child at Jenni’s apartment, cooing over her gorgeous newborn son, and scoring free advice and hand-me-down baby clothes. During this time, she started telling me stories about her Italian-American family (many of which became part of Penny from Heaven) She also showed me sketches she and Matt had done of Babymouse. I loved both sets of stories and to my great delight, acquired both for my list. It’s been such a treat to watch Matt and Jenni take Babymouse from a fun concept to this wonderful, smart, and completely original series that kids and grownups love.

AB: Shana, thanks so much for taking the time to answer all of these questions! Just two more before we wrap it up: Are you open to submissions? If so, what types of projects are you looking for? 
SC: Thank you so much for having me! The absolute truth is that I shouldn’t add to my list just now, but that said, I’m too greedy to pass up something truly wonderful, so I am accepting agented manuscripts. I’m looking for middle grade and YA with big hooks, fabulous writing, and commercial potential.


Selina Alko said...

what a wonderful interview! thank you for such an in depth look at Shana's own process creating wonderful books as well as the books she's worked on with others.

Alison Morris said...

Thank you for giving Shana's readers the chance to get to know her better! When I worked at the Dartmouth Bookstore 10+ years ago, we were honored to host Shana for her first ever booksigning, for You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer. It's been SUCH a pleasure watching her careers as author AND editor grow since then, and I feel honored to count her as a friend. She is one of the most humble, kind-hearted, and hard-working people I know in this or ANY business!

Angela Roberts said...

Thank you for this delightful interview with Shana. I worked for her quite a few moons ago at Random and can testify that she is one of the most wonderful, funny, talented people I've ever had the pleasure to know. Shana, you're a star!

Shana said...

Well, gosh. Thanks so much Amy for the great questions-I'm not sure I've ever actually talked about editing and writing in one place--and thanks all of you for the lovefest (it's mutual).

Amy Baskin said...

Thank you for your comments, Selina, Alison and Angela! It was a privilege to interview Shana and always a joy to read her work and the books on her list.

CocoaStomp said...

Thanks for such a great interview, Amy and Shana. I love those olden-girls, too!

Amy Baskin said...

Thanks, Jaime!