Harold Underdown – Editor Interview

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HDU-portraitI first met Harold at the SCBWI annual conference in LA in 2011. The following year I moved to Brooklyn just down the road from the Underdowns (before I transferred to Manhattan). The kid lit community in New York is wonderful and has given me plenty of opportunities to hear him teach, schmooze with him at library talks, conferences, as well as bond over a few pints of IPA and our childhood love of Swallows and Amazons. If you are in need of an independent editor for your picture book, middle grade or YA novel, please check out his services.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your career?

[HU] I was a “faculty brat,” and lived in different places on the East Coast as my father moved up in his career as a professor of English history. We ended up in Providence when he got a job at Brown. My dad was English, and we also traveled to the UK with him every couple of years to see his family and for him to do research.

My mother has a PhD. in English, so we were an academic family. I was not interested in going into academia, but books were a big part of our lives. My parents read to me and my brothers, and read a lot themselves. At one point my father told us a series of stories that he made up about a frog and a mouse who were friends. I read a lot, both American and British books, and I’m sure that is a reason why I ended up working as a children’s book editor.

[JM] Please tell us a little about your journey to becoming an editor.

[HU] I had been teaching in the public schools in New York, and discovered that although I liked working with kids one-on-one on their reading, and reading aloud to my class (they loved my British accents when I did James and the Giant Peach), classroom management was not my strong point. I had worked hard to find books for my very diverse group of students, and felt there needed to be more books in which they could see themselves. So I thought that working in publishing and helping to create more of those books made sense.

Fortunately for me, my step-mother’s mother had worked in children’s book publishing in New York, and I was able to get my resume out to various people via her connections. Eventually, this network led to my landing a job as editorial assistant at Macmillan Children’s Books (later absorbed into Simon and Schuster after Robert Maxwell fell off his yacht… But that’s another story!).

[JM] THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING CHILDREN’S BOOKS is on its third edition and continues to be a sought-after guide for those entering the industry. Any thoughts on a 4th edition? Or something new?

[HU] I’m glad you asked about this! The 3rd edition came out in 2008, and though much of the basic information that I cover remains useful and current, there has been considerable change in our industry–notably in ebooks, self-publishing, and social media. Earlier this year, I had some conversations with my editor at Alpha Books (the imprint at Pearson that publishes the Idiot’s Guides), and learned that they are not planning to do any revised editions of existing titles in the near future and to concentrate instead on new titles.


What that means is that anyone looking at my Idiot’s Guide as a resource shouldn’t hold off on getting it, in hopes of a new edition. And that I need to get to work on creating some new and updated material, which I will then make available on the information page I have up about my book (I also have links there to sample chapters and some supplementary materials). I hope to have a plan up for feedback, and then to start on the new material in the coming months. Check at http://www.underdown.org/cig.htm to see.

[JM] Where do you teach workshops? And what do you enjoy most from the many revision and other courses/retreats you offer each year?

[HU] I’ve been working on revision-focused retreats and workshops with Eileen Robinson for a few years now. We call our partnership Kid’s Book Revisions and have basic information about what we do on our website: http://www.kidsbookrevisions.com

Together or individually, we teach at various SCBWI conferences, including most recently at the LA conference, at the Highlights Foundation (where we do our Revision Retreat: http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/revision-retreat), and other places. We’ve also started to produce online versions of our workshops, which we typically run as classes that meet once a week for an hour over the course of several weeks. In fact, we are about to launch a class about revising novels and chapter books that we will be giving this fall. Anyone interested should check our website for details.

What I enjoy most about this is the opportunity to work with people on their projects and see them discover a tool or technique that works for them. It’s very satisfying to see the lightbulbs going on and people digging in and making progress on their writing.

[JM] Diversity in children’s literature has become a bit of a buzz term. What sort of changes in the diversity of the submissions you receive have you seen in the last five years?

[HU] As an independent editor, I don’t see that many submissions, so it’s difficult to track any changes in what I receive.

But personally, I think it’s an important conversation, and one that I hope will lead to real changes. When I started in children’s books, we were talking about “multicultural children’s books” in much the same way that we are now talking about diverse children’s books, though with a somewhat narrower focus. What has happened in the past, though, is that the need for multicultural children’s books, or diverse children’s books, gets discussed, but then the number of books that would qualify as diverse doesn’t change–probably because deeper changes are needed in the industry. This time, I see WNDB pushing to diversify publishing companies, and that, I think, could lead to real change.

[JM] What motivated you to start your website many years ago and how has it evolved?

[HU] I started The Purple Crayon (http://www.underdown.org/) more than 25 years ago, just when the World Wide Web was getting started. At the time, I thought it would be a good way to make the information I was presenting at local SCBWI conferences available to a wider audience. For example, my piece “Getting Out of the Slush Pile” (http://www.underdown.org/slush.htm) started out as a talk I gave at a conference in Scranton. I also posted some basic submissions information.

Over the years, I’ve just kept adding material in order to help writers and illustrators know what to do about agents, portfolios, manuscript formats, and so on. I have written reviews of key reference books, and posted materials from my Idiot’s Guide, as I mentioned. And people have contributed articles as well.

At this point, it’s badly in need of an upgrade, as it looks so 20th century! I’m planning to convert it to a WordPress-based site, and even have a Theme picked out. But that will be a huge project, and I have so many other things going on I don’t know when I’ll get to it.

[JM] What is the most recurring error you see authors making during the revision process?

[HU] That’s an interesting question, and not one with an obvious answer, since writers go about revising in many different ways, just as they go about writing. What I see happen quite often isn’t exactly an error, but a giving in to impatience or anxiety, and hurrying to rewrite without taking the time to let the manuscript sit, or to get feedback, or to use a tool like the revision grid, or otherwise work on figuring out what might need to be changed, added, or cut out. Plunging back into a just-completed manuscript can be the worst thing to do, in spite of the admonitions about “butt in chair.” Taking the time to disengage, and then to investigate the manuscript with the help of others and of revision tools, may seem to take longer, but it usually leads to better results.

[JM] What book/author have you and your daughter read recently that you both loved?

25774386[HU] We both love the books of Kate Milford, going back to Bone Shaker, and we were both excited recently to go to a launch celebration for her new book, The Left-Handed Fate, at the Jackson McNally bookstore. Simone has already read the book, and loved it, and I’m looking forward to reading it… Kate Milford writes complex, satisfying stories set in a alternate United States in which folktales and folklore may be real.

[JM] What are some of the essential qualities of a good editor?

[HU] To start with, you must love reading, because you’ll be doing huge amounts of it, both of manuscripts and published books, from the day you enter the field.

You must care about and be interested in books, publishing, children, schools, libraries, and all the other things you will deal with on a daily basis, and you must be open to learning more about them.

Above all, I think you need to love to work with people in the particular ways an editor does: to get inside what an author is trying to do in a manuscript, and to help them to do it better; to know who is the right illustrator for a given book, and to help them do their best work; to work every day with a team of people brought together to produce a book; and of course to advocate for and help a book within a publishing company and out in the world. We don’t just sit in our offices marking up manuscripts with red pencils!

[JM] What was the first book you ever bought with your own money?

I[HU] I have no idea–possibly an Encyclopedia Brown book, through a school bookfair?

[JM] What would you like aspiring writers to know about the publication process?

[HU] That it is more complicated than they might think–and that’s one reason why I wrote my Idiot’s Guide. To give people an introduction to that process. It’s over 300 pages long, but it’s just an introduction.

Five Fun Ones to Finish?                                                                                              [JM] What’s your favorite park (state, urban or national) in the world?

[HU] The Lake District. Not just for the scenic beauty and the hiking, but for the children’s book connections–Beatrix Potter and Swallows and Amazons.

[JM] Best IPA of 2016?

[HU] My two current favorites (I wouldn’t call them “best”–my favorites tend to shift gradually as I discover new ones):

[JM] What do you like doing in all that free time you have outside your day job and editing?!

[HU] When I’m not reading (and I do read for pleasure, not just for work), I like to go to the theater with my family—we all like Shakespeare and feel lucky to have seen several amazing productions in New York and London this year.  I like hiking but don’t get to do it often enough. 

[JM] First paid job after high school?

[HU] Working for the food service at college–I served breakfast three days a week, dishing out wheat-germ pancakes and scrambled eggs.

[JM] Who’s your favorite white dog in a children’s book?

[HU] Toby!

Harold can be found here:

“The Purple Crayon”: http://www.underdown.org/                                   Twitter: @HUnderdown                                                                                                  Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/harold.underdown?fref=ts

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7 Responses to Harold Underdown – Editor Interview

  1. Harold is a fount of knowledge and his Idiot’s Guide book is indispensable. The bit about Rober Maxwell falling off his yacht is as intriguing as Harold’s background. 😀 Thanks for an inside look at this fascinating man, Joanna!

  2. Great interview you two. The face looked familiar and I probably did see him in 2011. (probably chatting to you Joanna..haha) Will check out his website. Thanks.

  3. Great interview, Joanna! What does Harold mean when he refers to “the revision grid?”

    • Mary, that’s one of the revision techniques we teach in our workshops and webinars. It’s a method of breaking down a manuscript in grid form. I’m sorry, but it’s a bit too complicated to explain in a blog comment…

  4. Harold Underdown is the BEE’s KNEES. (Toby says so, so it must be true). Great interview. I learned stuff I didn’t know about HU.

  5. Love his website. Yes, I learned things I didn’t know about Harold. I didn’t realize he’s British and he grew up around academia. It’s good to know what to look for in a good editor — passion and an eagerness to really help new authors. Would love to attend one of his workshops. I really enjoyed the interview!

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