Cheryl Klein talks about editing children’s books

Cheryl Klein is editorial director at Lee & Low Books and the author of The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults and the forthcoming picture book Wings.

CMOS: In what kinds of ways do manuscripts reach you?

CK: All the usual methods: through agents, authors, and artists we’ve published who send us new ideas (or friends with new ideas), and through over-the-transom submissions (a.k.a. slush).

Lee & Low specializes in books by and about people of color, indigenous people, and other marginalized communities, and there are many great stories in that space that haven’t been told, so I’ll sometimes reach out to writers of color and say “Hey, write something for me?” or pitch them specific book ideas. I’m editing a young adult “Mulan” retelling by a Chinese American writer, Sherry Thomas, based on that approach. The company also actively works to increase the number of indigenous authors and authors of color in traditional publishing by sponsoring two contests for them each year: the New Voices contest for a picture-book manuscript and New Visions for novels. If any of your readers are interested, they can find out more here.

CMOS: What aspects of your work have changed the most over the years?

CK: We don’t talk about it much, but in the 2000s, the job of nearly every person involved in publishing grew again by half, thanks to three things: email (no hyphen!), e-books, and social media. Email wrought all the changes it’s wrought throughout all of society, making everyone accessible every hour of the day—and, in publishing, making it vastly easier for agents and authors to submit manuscripts to us. With e-books, suddenly there was this whole new space publishers had to fill up, which also allowed authors to publish their work entirely without us.

And social media invented a space in which writers, editors, agents, publicists, the media, critics, and any interested bystanders had a platform to talk (promote, critique, gossip, stir up trouble, chat) twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with no break, and publishers had to monitor it and add their own promotion of their books. “Social media manager” was not a job that existed before 2010, and now every publisher employs or acts as one.

At the same time, children’s and young adult publishing continued its explosion in size thanks to the precedent established by the Harry Potter series, Twilight, and The Hunger Games—namely, that these books could make everyone involved a ton of money and be a lot of fun besides, breathing new life into old genres and creating giant fan bases of superengaged readers. (The nation’s largest high-school graduating class ever was in 2008, the year after the publication of the seventh Harry Potter book.) Suddenly many more authors were writing for kids and teenagers, many more agents were sending submissions, and there was a lot more pressure on editors to find and make “the next _______” and get on the New York Times best-seller list—another innovation of the 2000s for children’s publishing. (Children’s and YA publishing now has become what adult publishing was in the 1990s, as I understand it.) Thanks to this explosion, it’s become much more difficult to get attention for each individual book, either in stores or in the media, so we all have to work even harder and be even louder to break through the noise.

I joined the publishing industry in 2000, when the email and Harry Potter revolutions were already well underway, and I think most of these changes have been good ones, on the whole—especially in increasing the diversity of voices writing and publishing books. But some days it’s hard not to feel it all as just an unending flood of MORE, and hard to concentrate on the important things within that.

CMOS: When you consider a submission, how important to you is presentation: formatting, font, margins, page numbers, etc.? And how important is it to you that the grammar and punctuation in a manuscript are appropriately and effectively rendered for that particular content?

In the end, a few typos or errors in a submission are no big deal; a consistent pattern of them will make me worry the manuscript isn’t ready to publish.

CK: The answer I want to give here is that absolute correctness in formatting, margins, grammar, and so forth doesn’t matter all that much, because I know writers will be reading this, and it’s very easy for them to obsess over things like formatting to the detriment of their actual ideas, stories, and voice. And the ideas, stories, and voice are much more important, so that’s what I want writers to concentrate on! If a writer says something real and true that I’ve never thought of or felt before, or expresses an old idea in a fresh new way, I don’t care a lot if there’s a typo in that idea, because a typo is easy to fix, while the true idea is much harder to come by.

At the same time, I have to say: that typo will get in the way of the idea for just an instant, and trip me up in appreciating its brilliance. And I’ve found over the years that any serious, sustained, nondeliberate disorder in formatting, grammar, punctuation, and so forth both weakens a writer’s message and is often a sign of other flaws in the argument or story. So in the end, a few typos or errors in a submission are no big deal; a consistent pattern of them will make me worry the manuscript isn’t ready to publish.

One more take on all this: formatting, margins, grammar, etc. are all things with capital-R Rules, which is why many of us writers and editors love them so. Rules are a rock in a storm, a bulwark against chaos, a basis for a common language—all things that are hard to come by in the modern age. When you can say and do literally anything in a text, it’s comforting to have at least one boundary set on that vastness, like “a colon should be followed by one space and a lowercased letter.” It’s something we know we can hold on to and control.

CMOS: What style issues do you consistently think about as an editor of books by diverse writers? And of books for young readers?

CK: As more bilingual authors write and publish books, we editors wrestle a lot with the rules about italicizing foreign-language words. For many of these authors and their characters, it’s absolutely natural to incorporate words from another language in their English speech or writing, and if we then italicize those words, that literally marks the words as Other—a mark that can then extend to the words’ speakers and even their readers, which is not an effect we want to have on young bilingual readers. (One of the authors I used to work with, Daniel José Older, created a hilarious video about this issue that has gotten a lot of traction in the publishing industry.)

At the same time, we also recognize that English-only readers can be tripped up and taken out of the text by unitalicized foreign words, especially if they can’t put together the words’ meaning through context. In some books, we include a glossary and pronunciation guide to help bridge that gap, but some critics feel that glossaries are Othering as well, because they imply that foreign-language-speaking readers are not the intended audience for the book. And of course many young readers are just getting comfortable reading longer texts on their own, so we want to do everything we can to make them feel engaged and confident.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here, and thus it’s become a discussion with the author on every book. In one of the two middle-grade novels I’m publishing this autumn, the author wanted to keep the Spanish in italics, so we did that. And in the other, we did not italicize the Spanish, and we included a glossary with both English and Spanish terms. We’re also considering the addition of a note before the text alerting English-only readers to the glossary’s existence, and saying something like, “Hey! If you’re struggling with the few words of Spanish here, think about how these Spanish-speaking characters feel in their all-English environments.” Then the language could possibly become a tool to build empathy in English-only readers, rather than a “problem” that they have to “overcome.” I love finding new ways for the style of a text to enhance its story and meaning.

Find Cheryl online at and on Twitter and Instagram as @chavelaque.

Photo of Cheryl Klein courtesy of Tom Lew; Hamilton photo by James Monohan.

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