Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A veteran's memories

I have just learned that my colleague and blog chum, the autodidact Philip Nel is replacing Jack Zipes as the editor of the Routledge series in children's literature. I am sorry that Jack is leaving, but I do understand him. I am happy Philip has been offered the job and taken it - hope he knows what he is doing. This is a big event in the international children's literature community, and it brings back memories since I was involved with the series from start, once upon a time, before the dawn of time. 

I had just finished a draft for a book in Swedish, the first big work after my PhD, summing up all my post-doc endeavours. I offered the ms to the series published by the Swedish Institute for Children's Books, because it was the obvious place to offer it to, and they had also published my thesis as a book. They do not publish on their own, but in collaboration with different Swedish publishers, but most children's lit scholarship appears in this series. So I sent the draft to the editor, and I also presented it at an open research seminar in my department. The seminar participants didn't say much, and neither did the editor, but from the notes on the draft I got back it was clear that my research was utter rubbish and wasn't even remotedly publishable. It was quite discouraging, especially since some bits of it had already been published as articles. I tried to offer the ms to some Swedish publishers without including it in the series, and they all said they couldn't, because it was only by being part of the series that a book had a chance to be adopted as a course textbook. (Which was nonsense; academic books are very seldom adopted as textbooks, and my proposed book was not meant to be a textbook).

Anyway, I saw an announcement in Children's Literature Association Quarterly that Jack Zipes was starting a series on children's literature at Garland. Jack Zipes was a Famous Scholar, and I was an anonymous postdoc from an obscure country, but I wrote to him immediately (you see, it was in Stone Age, when you actually wrote letters on paper and sent them in envelopes with stamps on) with my book proposal, and he got back saying that yes, he was interested. It so happened that I had a Fulbright grant at UMass, Amherst, and while I was there I was invited to give a talk at the Kerlan Collections, University of Minnesota, which was Jack Zipes's place. I wrote to him, on paper, etc, seeking an appointment, and he took me out for lunch. He said he liked my proposal, and how long did I think it would take me to finish the project. I explained that I was on a Fulbright with a tolerable amount of teaching and would start the next day, and I actually had a full draft in Swedish. I also mentioned that since English wasn't my native tongue I'd make sure I had a native reader before I submitted the draft. "Well, I am not going to edit your draft for you", said Jack cheerfully as ever. So we parted, and in due time my book appeared as the very first volume in the series. It is still quoted a lot, although I think I have written several better books since then.

A few years later I met Jack at a conference where he was a star, and I am always reluctant to display my familiarity with stars so I waved to Jack from a distance, but he came closer, saying: "It's a long time since you've contributed a book to my series". What do you say to this? I said: "I am working on picturebooks, will you be interested?" "I will, he said, I will take anything you have written". Now, you don't hear THAT every day; I had to refrain from covering Jack with kisses. So this is how the picturebook volume appeared in the series.

By which time, I had got involved with another publisher because they brought out the series for Children's Literature Association, and I was commissioned to do a book for them. Scarecrow was a good publisher to work with, and I published four books with them, three single-authored and one co-edited. But then something happened, perhaps they changed the acquisition editor; so when I sent in the next proposal they never got back, and suddenly I remembered that unforgettable: "I'll take anything you have written".(Meanwhile, Jack had taken a lot of stuff I had written for his fabulous encyclopedias). So I sent in a proposal with three finished chapters, and the book was out within a year.

There is nothing to boost your creativity like a publisher's contract. But an editor's enthusiasm cannot be overestimated. Thank you, Jack, for all your support - and I know I share my gratitude with many colleagues all over the world.

So Philip has a lot to live up to. But I hope he will be as supportive and generous toward younger colleagues as Jack has been toward me.

1 comment:

Philip Nel said...

You write: "hope he knows what he is doing." Believe me: this thought has crossed my mind more than once. Jack Zipes' shoes are big ones to fill. I'm honored to be asked, and will do my best to live up to this honor. If I'm fortunate, perhaps in a few years, you'll be able to excise the word "hope" from that sentence. Or perhaps it will take longer to turn that hope into a declarative statement. Either way, I'll do my best! Thanks for the congrats (on Facebook), and for sharing your story here.