People always ask me how a children’s book is made – the writing, the editing, the illustrating, the cover design, the publishing. So I’ve decided to share a series of interviews with the amazing team of humans who helped take my new book My Life & Other Weaponised Muffins (and the entire My Life series) from original idea to bookstore shelves. Over the next few weeks I’ll interview illustrator Gus Gordon, designer Astred Hicks, publisher Zoe Walton, a children’s bookseller and, here, Brandon VanOver, Managing Editor at Random House Australia.
Brandon, what, exactly, does a children’s book editor do?
There’s that expression of not being able to see the forest for the trees – the job of the editor is to help the author see the forest (the story), and sometimes that means you need to cut down a few trees (things that stand in the way of telling that story). Not that I’m advocating cutting anything but words and wayward ideas/characters/plotlines. I love trees; I’m a tree-hugger. The editor helps the author reach clarity in their writing, and fix up the occasional rogue comma, misspelling or gratuitous adjective.
How is it different to working on a book for adults?
Working on children’s books is different because I’m no longer a kid. There’s an authenticity you need to tap into or be aware of – and if you and the author miss the mark, it makes a reader want to throw a book across the room (or simply put it down if they’re less moody). They’re called ‘dad jokes’ for a reason. But there’s a great freedom in being a kid, so as an editor you can let your hair down too and sojourn with the author into refreshingly absurd realms. I also laugh more editing books for kids.
Am I annoying, as an author, to work with? How so? What about Gus? He has to be annoying, right?
You are not annoying as an author or a human being, because you care so much about getting the story right. You know when things aren’t quite working and will keep scratching away until it clicks. That’s it! You’re annoyingly good at revising a joke until it works. Gus is the golden child.
Does that mean you like him better than me? Brandon? Nuts. You edit lots of very serious adult work throughout the year. What do you like about working on the My Life books?
I was a shy kid, a closet nerd, and Tom and Jack are fun characters to work with because they’re so uninhibited and mischievous (in a good-hearted way). It’s fun to work on gags and funny storylines about things I wouldn’t have had the nerve to do as a kid, like trying to monetise my nits or do a runner at the dentist’s office. It’s fun also to remind yourself how funny the adult world looks from the child’s side of the lens.
Can you share three things that could help young writers create better stories?
1) Write as much as you can – it’s the only way you can get to know your unique voice. The other side of this coin is to read as much as you can – your creative well will be deeper.
2) Don’t fear the weird – follow your imagination wherever it takes you, even if it’s weird or silly or embarrassing. You can revise a story later (with a talented editor!); get everything onto the page first.
3) Walk more than a mile in the shoes of others – keep your eyes and ears open to the world around you and the unique lives and experiences of others. If every character is a version of yourself, then the story will feel narrow. (Not that you’re particularly narrow, but you know what I’m sayin’.) It will also show how alike we all are despite being our own unique beasts, which is one of the aims of great stories.