Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Children’s Editors Part Two – Christie Harkin

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In yesterday’s blog I told you about how Carrie Gleason moved from Lorimer Publishing to Dundurn. Now I’ll fill you in on the woman who took her place.

Christie Harkin was a publisher and editor for Fitzhenry & Whiteside, recently she’s moved to an editorial position at Lorimer and I don't think they could have picked a more suitable person to fill their ranks. Harkin is a former homeschool mom and high school teacher and she seems to really care about the writers she works with. But don’t let me tell you, see for yourself:

Presenting Christie Harkin

KF: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

CH: I always thought I’d become a teacher. That was my main focus right up until university when I started tutoring.

KF: What led you into the job of being an editor?

CH: I tutored for a long time and then taught high school for a bit. That’s when I realized that what I really enjoyed was the one-on-one focus with my students. When you think about it, being an editor is sort of like being a teacher. But instead of teaching a classroom full of high school English students how to become better writers, I’m working with individual authors to help them write better books. It was a natural sort of progression for me.

Eventually, I went back to university and took a 4th year seminar course in Canadian Children’s Literature with Deirdre Baker which was absolutely inspirational. She invited editors and authors into the class to talk about books, editing, and the children’s book industry – I’ll never forget the one woman in our class who spoke for many of us one day when she asked Shelley Tanaka (editor for Groundwood Books), “How can I get YOUR job?”

I learned also learned about the Ryerson Publishing Program from other students in my class and enrolled in the program the very next semester. One of the great things about the Ryerson program (apart from the wonderful courses) is the fact that students have immediate access to a job board that lists entry-level and internship opportunities. I took an internship at Fitzhenry & Whiteside within a couple of months of starting the program and was hired on full-time. I was really quite lucky.

KF: How long were you an editor for Fitzhenry & Whiteside Publishers and what were you in charge of?

CH: I was the editor for 4.5 years and the publisher for one year. I was responsible for pretty much every stage of the editorial process – I would acquire the books, edit them, direct the art (for picture books) oversee their design, and then work with the sales and marketing team to make sure that kids got to read them! For the last year, I had the great good fortune to have the help of Solange Messier, Fitzhenry & Whiteside’s non-fiction editor, who took over much of the responsibility for the non-fiction list. That left me with more time to focus on overseeing the publishing program as well as to edit the fiction titles and the picture books. I also got to travel quite a bit to trade shows in the US and to foreign rights fairs in Bologna and Beijing. And, of course, I was in charge of baking the cakes for book launches. That became a thing, over the years.

KF: What was one of your memorable moments while working for Fitzhenry & Whiteside?

CH: I am really emotionally attached to my books and authors and illustrators. When a book that I love gets nominated for or wins a really big award, I have been known to get terribly …excited? There have been some pretty memorable moments there, especially thanks to Valerie Sherrard (The Glory Wind and Counting Back from Nine) and Jennifer Lanthier and Francois Thisdale (The Stamp Collector). But still, I think the one memory I will always cherish is the moment I got the first copy of the first book I ever did, from acquisition to publication: The Dewpoint Show by Barb Howard. When I held it, I thought of all my teachers who helped me appreciate good writing and my relatives who gave me an endless supply of books growing up. I was about to turn forty, and it was amazing to finally feel as if I found something that I was meant to be doing. It’s still one of my favourite books.

KF: You have recently moved on to Lorimer Publishing. How do you think this move will help you grow as an editor?

CH: Lorimer specializes in books for reluctant readers. This is an area of publishing that I was well-acquainted with as a teacher but not so much as an editor. You need to have a special sort of “editor filter” for this type of writing. Of course the story or narrative has to be engaging, but the style and presentation need to be more accessible to struggling readers than most literary novels usually are. I’m learning to approach the syntax of the writing in a different way.

KF: What are your goals as an editor for Lorimer?

CH: I don’t know that my goals have really changed all that much. I still want to publish books that will engage young readers and add something important to the canon of Canadian children’s literature. I want to find new, compelling stories and voices that readers will connect with, and help to raise the profile of the list that I’m working on. As always, developing strong relationships with authors and illustrators and helping them to grow in their careers is also a key part of what I do.

KF: Where do you see the world of children and teen publishing heading in Canada?

CH: I was at the Canadian Children’s Book Centre Gala a few weeks ago. The energy in the room was absolutely electric. So many people are so very passionate about children’s literature in Canada, and we are all working together to keep the industry vital and vibrant. There is an incredible spirit of co-operation in the children’s lit community. At the end of the evening we all received copies of the Canadian Children’s Book News and the Best Books for Kids and Teens, all showcasing the best in recent children’s publishing in Canada. Just being at that event and reading those publications cover to cover gives me great hope and confidence that children’s publishing in Canada is going to continue to thrive. Sure, there are some challenges in the changing marketplace, but I think that teachers and parents want to keep giving kids good books to read, and kids themselves will seek out their next must-read. And we’ll be there to make sure that there will always be plenty of excellent choices.

KF: You've been a homeschooling parent - how do you think writing should be taught to young people?

CH: I love this question! My three kids all had totally different approaches to writing. My older son was completely intimidated by it. So, I decided that I wouldn’t make him write until he was ready – and that wasn’t till he was in about Grade 6! We read a LOT and talked about the books and did activities based on the books, but I never made him write. He learned grammar and spelling, of course, but when I saw how stressed out he got from having to write things out, it just seemed as if forcing him to write was the surest way to kill any love of writing in him. Then, one day, when he was about 11 years old, he started this saga about a superhero squirrel named Sammy. When he eventually went back to school, he won the creative writing award. So, I guess that worked out.

My other two kids have always been natural writers. What I tried to do was give them examples of great writing. But I noticed that when my younger son was in high school and was given an assignment, he wasn’t given enough exemplars. If you want kids to write a good essay or short story, give them a wide variety of engaging essays and short stories to read FIRST. I have a pretty extensive library in my basement so I have always been able to fill in those gaps at home, at least. As you can imagine, I was delighted when he was given a picture book assignment that included analysing a picture book first before writing his own.

The thing that I try to do for my daughter is give her time to write. By that, I mean I try to help her manage her time so that she is able to fit writing into her busy schedule. Any writer will tell you that this skill is a particularly valuable one, I think. I’m also encouraging her to write things that are outside of her comfort zone, like short stories. But I’m also careful to back off – she’s a teenager: her writing needs to be for HER at this stage.

KF: Do you have any advice for young writers who are trying to break into the industry?

CH: Read lots, write lots. Check out the submission guidelines of various publishers and see what they publish and what they are looking for. Write for yourself, but also write for an audience: ask, who is going to read this? Join a critique group, if you can, and get lots of feedback – but then use your own judgement.

Don’t short-change yourself and rush the editorial process. Make sure that your work is the very best it can be before you submit it to a publisher or an agent.

Ultimately, you are responsible for your own professional development. There are some wonderful organizations you can join that host conferences – CANSCAIP, SCBWI, the Canadian Writers’ Guild, for example. If you can attend some of their workshops or seminars, you’ll find new ways to improve your writing and get your writing career started. And you’ll meet plenty of people who are in or have been in your shoes: there’s nothing like finding a community of like-minded, mutually supportive writers to keep you focused and sane!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kim Firmston

Kim Firmston is a writer and creative writing instructor in Calgary. Her teen novels Schizo and Hook Up were Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Bet Selections. Her short story "Life Before War" was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. Her most recent novel for teens is Touch, about a teenage hacker with a troubled family life.

Go to Kim Firmston’s Author Page