The Library in My Head


I give this advice all the time. Read children’s books. Read the books are currently being published–not just what you loved in your own childhood. Read, read, read.

Intellectually, this advice always made sense to me, but recently I’ve been noticing the ways in which my reading influences how I edit books.

Around 2007 or 2008, I began reading children’s nonfiction in earnest. I went through lists of past winners of the Sibert Award, the Orbis Pictus Award, and more. I began seeking out blogs that regularly review children’s nonfiction. The wonderful Minneapolis Central Library is quite close Lerner’s offices, so anytime I came across a reference to a book that sounded interesting, I requested it.

While reading, I’d notice things I liked, things I disliked, things I’d never thought of doing in a book. Sometimes I’d tell a colleague about what I was reading or even force a book into their hands and demand that they read it so I could find out if they shared my opinions. (Why yes, I just used their and they as third-person singular gender-neutral pronouns.)

I knew what I was doing was somehow helpful to me as an editor, but I didn’t quite know how. Well, I finally figured it out: reading all these other books has allowed me to build my own sort of mental library. When I’m evaluating a new submission or editing a book, I don’t think of that book in isolation. I think of it terms of what else I’ve read and how it relates to those other books.

This goes beyond determining whether a book will stand out from the competition. A lot of editing is problem-solving. And by having seen how so many other book-makers have approached and solved the problems related to sharing information and stories with readers of different ages, I can borrow from those techniques as I suggest possible solutions for the problems I see in the books I edit.

Sometimes when I’m editing, it almost feels as if all the books I’ve read are having a conversation in my head. I’m borrowing from and reacting to these books while working with an author (and sometimes an illustrator) to create something new and compelling.

In your own reading, perhaps you’ve come across the quotation: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” which is a line from a letter Isaac Newton wrote to Robert Hooke in February 1675. That’s not unlike the way I feel about the books I work on. If I contribute in a meaningful way to making a book the best it can be, my contributions are in large part due to all I’ve learned from the books I’ve read.

Note: The books included in this post are just a few of the books in my mental library. What are some of the books in the library in your head?