Tween and Teen Editors
Last week I spoke to the Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. My talk was about how to build a world that readers will believe and won’t want to leave. At the end, I mentioned how I hired tween editors to help me with A Thousand Never Evers. There were many questions, so I thought I’d elaborate here:
When I was teaching sixth grade, I got a grant from a local education foundation to hire a half dozen of my former students to read and critique the first draft of my book.
Now I know editors aren’t fond of hearing that children—the students you grade or the children you feed and clothe every day—like what you wrote. “Of course they’re going to love it!” the thinking goes. And that’s probably correct.
In my case, I hired my former students. I begged them to be honest and promised them they wouldn’t hurt my feelings. I meant it. Then I trained them to critique me.
First, we reviewed the basic elements of fiction, as well as a handout I put together called “Questions to Ask Myself As I Read.” Then I gave each tween editor the entire manuscript in a 3-ring binder, along with Post-It Notes, a colored pen, and this letter.
I called the group The Butter Bean Bunch, because at the time, the working title of my book was The Butter Bean Fiasco. (My 12 and 13-year-old editors later nixed that title because they said it sounded funny and my book is more serious than funny.)
We held our first meeting at the local town library, but we were a bit too rowdy for the other patrons, so we moved future meetings to the local pizza shop, which was more fun for all of us.
We quickly developed our own rituals. We set a can of butter beans in the middle of the table, and we sang a silly butter bean song that one of the young editors wrote. Next, my editors introduced themselves using code names like Matilda and Fred. We referred to each other by these code names, which not only made things mysterious, but also prevented tweens from feeling too self-conscious speaking their opinions into my tape recorder.
First, I’d ask for general impressions, and then I’d just let the conversation flow. I interrupted as little as possible and tried to keep a poker face, so they would feel free to express whatever was on their minds. I tried not to seem dismayed when they told me something “sort of sucked,” and I tried not to appear overjoyed when they said a certain scene “rocked.”
Because of the school where I taught, I was able to have a racially and ethnically diverse group of editors. However, students self-selected to participate, and generally, they were the “scholar” types, who were eager to read a book they didn’t have to read for class.
When working with young editors, it’s important to remember that just like grownups, kids have taste that varies. For example, some kids love historical fiction and others consider it punishment. Some love sports novels, while others might start snoring by page 4.
All told, my former students had plenty to say, and by listening carefully, I learned loads about writing for young people. Thanks to the grant from the Brookline Education Foundation, I could pay them each $100, so essentially working for me was a summer job.
In subsequent years, I no longer had a grant, but many former students wanted to help me for free (minus the cost of pizza). I gave them the whole manuscript, and we met once for three hours. This also worked very well, and these students gave me wonderful written manuscript reviews.
Because I implored my young editors to speak candidly and trained them to be specific, I got invaluable feedback, as well as the homework assignment of my life—one that left me revising for more than seven years!