In Praise of Mistakes: Life Lessons and Children’s Publishing

Back in March, I was at the Minnesota Book Publishers’ Roundtable, listening to Lerner editor in chief Patricia Stockland speak about developmental editing whilst I stuffed my face with free edibles, and a fascinating thing happened. Of course Patricia and both of her fellow panelists were brilliant and informative (a recording of the talk is available here), but the most unexpectedly useful moment came when panelist Patrick Thomas, managing director at Milkweed Editions, started talking about various ways he’d messed up at his job. He explained some of the mistakes he’d made as an editor and what he’d learned from them. And it was fantastic. Why? Because while it’s common to tell someone, “Learn from your mistakes,” it’s far rarer to say, “Learn from my mistakes”–and then spell out exactly what those mistakes were.

I’m a fan of Full Mistake Disclosure, not only because accountability is important, but because without acknowledging our mistakes and allowing others (not just ourselves) to learn from them, we become creatively isolated and stagnant. Hiding or ignoring mistakes distracts us from pursuing improvement–and often dooms someone else to repeat those same blunders. 

“I once wrote a song apologizing to all my ex-girlfriends
for the mistakes I made in our relationships.
Not only did I clear the air, but I used my mistakes to inspire my art.
That tidbit isn’t in this book, nor is this an actual quote,
but trust me, OK?” —fake Jaden Smith 

How is this related to children’s books, you ask? Two ways. 

No. 1: The makers of children’s books (authors, editors, proofreaders, etc.) are people, and people make mistakes, so by the transitive property, the makers of children’s books sometimes make mistakes. We have to strive not just to catch and correct those mistakes, not even just to prevent those mistakes from happening again, but to turn those mistakes into fuel for making better books (and better book-making processes) than before. Awareness of mistakes can be a form of damage control–turning negatives into neutrals. But it can also be a form of quality control–turning negatives into positives, or neutrals into positives, or positives into super-positives.

As a rookie editor, I made a lot of mistakes while working on books such as this.
(Don’t worry, they all got fixed. Thanks, colleagues.)
But I learned from them. And I will tell you all about them if you ask!

No. 2: Our books are for kids. They’re meant to help educate kids about themselves, one another, and the world. Learning that mistakes are not something to be ashamed of and that they can in fact be building blocks to success is an essential lesson for our young readers. It should be a subtle ingredient at the core of every book–like vanilla extract should be in all cookie recipes–whether that book is about the many ways great minds have been wrong about science, the stumbles of a star athlete on the road to glory, or the moral dilemmas that confront us in daily life and that we don’t always handle well. 

Sometimes, with the best of intentions, we mess up.
We want our readers to know that messing up is OK
if you take responsibility for your actions
and move forward armed with the tools to make a positive change.

I may have made a mistake in writing such a long blog post. I’ll do a shorter one next time. 🙂 What mistakes have you learned from lately?