A Generous Book-Maker for Everyone – some thoughts for Vera Williams

I read just now that Vera Williams has died and am suffering that intensely personal sense of loss that book lovers can feel for someone who has moved and inspired them so much, in private moments, curled up, a world unfolded on your lap, smiling through that wonderful silent conversation between the book and the turning pages, and the images, and the reader. You can always go back and have those particular conversations again – that’s the beauty of this sort of intimacy! – but the creative force that produced those books is present now only in what’s been left behind.

I never knew Vera Williams personally; my connection to her was always that of fan-to-author. She was about the same age as my mother, though; when I heard her speak she reminded me of some ardent, passionate politically leftist artists in my parents’ circle. And her books held a combination of sincerity, beauty and warmth that spoke to me in the same way that my favorite aunts and “aunts” (those friends of family who were too close not to be thought of as relatives) might, calling you over to their side on a couch, telling you a good story about the old neighborhood.

By the time I was getting ready to enter the industry (1984), Williams had already launched a vibrant career. But it was her books about Rosa that seemed to embody all the things I loved about children’s books, all the things I felt were important, all the good I felt could be done. Her characters lived in a multi-racial world, presented unselfconsciously, an obvious and true – if perhaps mildly idealized, but that was/is the case in lots of picture books – reflection of a world I recognized. The stories themselves were filled with genuine emotion – a child striving to buy a comfortable chair to replace one lost in a fire, a group of kids finding a way to entertain a sick grandmother. And her art was carefully nuanced and impactful. Its naïve style suggested spontaneity, while the consistent quality of all her books gave strong evidence of rigorous planning and design.

Sometime in 1985 or 86, in a besotted conflation of my personal response and my professional admiration for Vera Williams I made an embarrassing faux pas unique (I hope) in my career. A struggling editorial assistant, and a hopeful writer, I sent Vera a copy of a manuscript I’d written. (How did I get her address, I now wonder. There was no Google. No websites. It must have taken detective work.) It was a story about a woman who embraces the changing ethnicities and racial characteristics of her neighborhood over several decades, and stands up for it (literally) by chaining herself to an old tree that is threatened by an uncaring government.

I am full of sympathy for the kid who did that. The themes WERE Williams-esque maybe. She would have been an amazing artist for the book. Greenwillow would have been a dream publisher. But oy, the inappropriateness of sending it to the artist directly!! Totally embarrassing.

Fortunately Williams responded to my action with kindness and generosity. In a letter I opened with trembling hands, she said she liked my story. She encouraged me to continue writing! But, she said, treating this chutzpah-filled young writer with far more seriousness than I deserved, she had too many books of her own that she wanted to do.

Thank goodness, really. The world needed her to spend time on all those wonderful contributions she made in those thirty years.

Thank you again, Vera Williams. And thank you Susan Hirschman, Ava Weiss, and Virginia Duncan. Who knows how many lives have been touched, how many hearts soothed, how many smiles of recognition have broken out in the course of reading the wonderful books of Vera Williams. Millions I’m sure. With many more to come.


What to say, where?

I think it’s become more and more confusing in the age of social media to distinguish among the many options for professional communication. There are probably people out there writing graduate theses about this even as we speak, but here are just a few words about how I personally think of things.

(1) Publisher’s Website:  This is usually a great place to GET information. And it should be one of the things that comes up when you use a search engine to find out, say, how to submit something.  Mine is http://www.arthuralevinebooks.  It’s pretty rudimentary but it does communicate the basics.  Now, if you’re someone who’d like to SUBMIT something, this is a good place to go as it tells you our professional process and guides you through it.

(2) Facebook:  Again, my imprint, Arthur A. Levine Books, has a lovely Facebook page and that’s a great place to get a visual sense of our taste and to keep up with news.  It’s not the best place for one-on-one conversation.  Messages can’t be “forwarded” on Facebook. It isn’t checked many times a day. Etc. Communication with this page is probably best left to “likes” and “shares” and comments responding to what’s posted.

(3) Facebook B: I have a PERSONAL page on Facebook.  I enjoy Facebook as a great way to interact with friends and writers and others in the various communities to which I belong.  I prefer to keep communications on this page SOCIAL rather than strictly business.  So, for example, this too is not a good place to pitch me a book.  (See problems with forwarding messages, etc.)  If you need information about my imprint there are better places to get it (see web page, etc.)

(4) My Blog: This is something I use as a public way to air my thoughts.  I welcome any comments that respond to something I’ve said!  This too is not a good place to ask me logistical questions about my job as an editor/publisher.  (See website)

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…!  🙂

More fiction than non

It’s been a few weeks since I last blogged, but that is actually a good sign.  I’ve been putting my writing energy almost completely into my book in progress.  What is still very difficult is that it’s so slow…a drip, drip, drip rather than a steady flow.  And as soon as I start thinking about how excruciatingly LONG it will take to actually finish a draft of this thing, that’s when self-consciousness chokes off the flow completely .  Sigh.

Last night I finished reading WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas.  The book swept me up in it’s empathetic storytelling, doling out the story of Eileen Leary over many decades.  It’s amazing how a novelist can do that — present you with someone to care about, to root for, as if they are someone you know personally.

It’s both inspiring to me to read such a good book, and overwhelming.  I’m genuinely awed by the almost magical way a writer can conjure up another world; and there’s still a big part of me that thinks, “How did they DO that??”

squeaky wheels

Well, I’m beginning to feel that this metaphor of rust and stiffness and the need to persevere through them might not just be flights of fancy.

I added a page before lunch — a page that actually seems to advance the (suggestion of a) plot. Maybe!

But more importantly, I think I can see what form this rust is taking – self-consciousness.  And maybe if I relegate that to this Blog I can relax and tell a story?? That would be fun. I think I might try to do that some more. 🙂

Making a habit

It’s day 3, and I took a break today to work out at the gym with a wise trainer (half my age) named Dan Hennessey at K-Strength Fitness. We talked about what new habits might help make me a healthier person. And then we talked about how long it takes for something to become a habit. Dan said that one of the things he could do for me would be to ask me periodically how it’s going — to serve as an anchor of accountability. I’m sure it’ going to help.

Of course I also thought about my writing experiment, and the rusty, stiff mechanism that I’ve found encasing the creative project I’d been working on for so long.  I can’t just leap in and bound forward like a gymnast on a tumbling run.  Apparently what I’m going to have to do is start out by limping around the mat a few times. And I’m going to have to keep at it every day until some semblance of fluidity comes back.

And when I say “comes back” that’s being generous.  It’s never felt REALLY fluid to me. And yet I still want to try.  Fortunately, I have a group of terrific writers who cheer for my creative efforts in the way Dan cheers me toward health.  I may feel rusty, but I’m a lucky, lucky rusty guy.

Paying Attention to the Numbers

I am thinking of New Years, Anniversaries, and Birthdays.

My father’s birthday falls during the first week of January. This year he turned 82. A fragile 82. But 82 nonetheless. I know he never expected to be around this long, but here he is, the birthday giving me and the rest of our family a moment to think of him. That’s the way with a birthday once you get past the age where it’s a moment to be the star in your elementary school classroom — to go first to recess, maybe, to be the first to eat the cupcake your parent made for you, or to hope, hope, hope for a particular present. Once the concept of mortality actually enters one’s awareness, though, birthdays become an opportunity to think of what we’ve done with our lives, how far we’ve come, how much more we want to accomplish. When it’s the birthday of someone I’m close to, I always think about what that person’s life has meant to me; I flip through the mental, emotional scrapbook of the time we’ve had together and think of how that person has affected my life. I’ve got a birthday coming up February 27th, which puts me at a nice, round number.  I’ll be doing some emotional scrapbooking of my own soon.

New Year’s celebrations turn that reflection inward. As a Jew, in fact, I do this twice a year, looking back on what I had hoped to do to be a better father, husband, friend, writer, publisher. Inevitably I have fallen short, but I try to use that knowledge not to let myself off the hook, but to remind myself to keep striving. My big brother Dan sent me a postcard once when we were in college (pre-Internet, obviously!) with the quote: “Life is a series of surfaces; the key is to skate over them gracefully.” (That’s at least how I remember the quote now.) I think my experience would add a few things to that quote: Yes, life presents surfaces, but if you don’t look down through the top layer and see what’s below those surfaces, you’re missing the point. Also, when you’re skating you’re bound to fall on your butt repeatedly, so you have to keep getting up and moving even if you’re sore.

Which leads me to Anniversaries.

2012 marks the fifteenth anniversary of Arthur A. Levine Books. Holy Moley!!  

At this time of year in 1997, I was working with Norma Fox Mazer to polish the text of WHEN SHE WAS GOOD, a novel with a main character — Em Thurkill, who was so tender, her innate sweetness folded into a tiny nut that was somehow protected from the brutality of her circumstances — that I read the entire book with a lump in my throat. It was the kind of novel that reached out to the part of you that feels battered by life, that acknowledges our deep bruises by fearlessly showing us those of its protagonist. But it did so with an undeniably beautiful, luminous prose that came straight out of the emotional core of Em Thurkill. I wanted the part of me that was like the best part of Em to survive, and reading that novel, PUBLISHING that novel, made me feel as if it might.

By the end of 2012 we’ll have published more than 200 titles at Arthur A. Levine Books. Other survivors have joined Em Thurkill — Thomas Klopper in Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything, Marley Sandelski in Lisa Yee’s Warp Speed, Re Jana in Anne Provoost’s In the Shadow of the Ark, the unnamed immigrant in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Marcelo Sandoval in Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, and Lida Wallace in Erin Saldin’s The Girls of No Return, to name just a few.

Oh, it hasn’t all been “survival”! We’ve had our laughs (read Andy Rash’s The Robots Are Coming: And Other Problems with a straight face — I dare ya!). We’ve had our explorations of nonfiction (from masters like Russell Freedman no less). And sometimes both at the same time, as in the work of the genius biographer for young people, Jonah Winter (could anyone else make you laugh at Pablo Picasso??).

Over the course of this year, I hope to be celebrating many of the aspects of our publishing program at Arthur A. Levine Books. Every month, we’ll feature a different interpretation of the Lantern Logo as our profile picture, created by some of the brilliant artists who’ve contributed to our list; this month’s lantern is from the delightful Steven D’Amico.  (All you artists out there: Feel free to post your own Lantern Logo interpretation and share it with us!!)

But here, just post-Valentine’s day, close to the start of the year, celebrating the start of our imprint, it seems only fitting to give a special note of thanks and appreciation to all the authors and artists whom we were so proud to introduce to American readers with their debuts (or their debuts in English!):

Leah Bobet
Erin Bow
Deborah Bruss
Elizabeth C. Bunce
Neil Connelly
Kate Constable
Carmela D’Amico
Steven D’Amico
Kevin Emerson
Laura Gallego Garcia
Silvana Gandolfi
Quiara Alegría Hudes
Ana Juan
Guus Kuijer
David LaRochelle
Erin McCahan
Martin Mordecai
Martine Murray
Sally Nicholls
Joanna Pearson
Guillaume Prévost
Anne Provoost
Andy Rash
Trent Reedy
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
J. K. Rowling
Erin Saldin
Dan Santat
Karlijn Stoffels
Nahoko Uehashi
Lisa Yee
Linda Zuckerman
Markus Zusak

Thank you for trusting us to bring your work to an American audience with the passion it deserves.  I hope that you all will take our Imprint Anniversary as a chance to think of your own beginnings, as I am doing now with gratitude.




Day 2

Sometimes a beginning ‘s

More drinking than drawing

Less writing than thinking

More hemming and hawing

And when I say drinking

That’s coffee of course

Though perhaps I need liquor

To remount this horse

Right now I’m just staring

While the horse flicks its tail

Not even beginning the trot down the trail

One day, zero pages, 12 weeks in duration

I add up the sums of this hoary equation

Oh how and oh why am I facing this path

Having signed up for Writing

I’m saddled with math.