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Interview with Rebecca Davis

By Sibani Ram


"I think I was eight years old when I decided that I’d rather go to sleep with my arm across whatever book I was absorbed in than fall asleep cuddling a doll,” says Rebecca Davis, senior editor of over 25 years for Boyds Mills Press and WordSong, Imprints of Highlights. By launching her love for written word into a career, Davis has initiated numerous opportunities for youth involvement in reading. From serving on the advisory board for Poetry Advocates for Children and Young Adults (PAYCA) to editing many youth books, Davis’s successes are deeply rooted in a passion for literacy and its impact.

What inspired you to become a children’s book editor?

"My first job out of college was in an entirely different field and wasn’t right for me. But all of my life I’ve loved books, reading, and writing, so when I was trying to figure out what to do next, book publishing seemed like a good fit. At first, I thought I’d want to work for a university press, because I also loved college and loved learning; I thought that at a university press, I’d constantly be learning. But the first job I was offered was the position of assistant to a children’s book agent. Almost immediately, I fell in love with children’s books and knew that this was the right field for me.”

Have children’s books evolved from the time you began working as an editor? If so, what major changes have taken place?

I've been working in this field for 26 years now. In that time I think there’s been some evolution in the books themselves. Crossover books—those that appeal to both young adults and adults have always existed, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the popularity of Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, this part of the children’s book field grew. More crossover titles were published and promoted. Picture books that cross the fourth wall (the wall between the book and the reader) also began to proliferate more. David Wiesner won the 2002 Caldecott Medal for The Three Pigs; Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! was a 2004 Caldecott Honor Book and a New York Times bestseller; in 2011, Herve Tullet’s Press Here was a huge success, and there have been many other metabooks published in recent years. Similarly, over the last decade or so more graphic novels have been published with great success. In 2006, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was a finalist for the National Book Award and it won the 2007 Michael L. Printz award; in 2015 Raina Telgemeir’s Smile celebrated being on the New York Times bestseller for three years straight. And, too, another genre that has been growing in terms of the numbers of books that are published and the honors they win is novels in verse. In 2015 the Newbery Medal winner was The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (a novel in verse) and the Newbery Honor winners were Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (a novel in verse) and El Deafo by Cece Bell (a graphic novel). These are specific categories of books that have grown in popularity over the years. At the same time, picture books have tended to have shorter texts in them, because picture books with longer texts became harder to sell. But while new categories of books are becoming popular, many picture books, novels, and nonfiction that are being published today could also have been published in the 1990s; some things don’t change. Bigger than the changes in the books are the changes in the way books are sold, which have made it harder for publishers to connect new books with readers. In 1991, when I got my first job in a publishing house, there were many independent book stores hand-selling books across the country. The American Booksellers Association had 5,200 members that year. When you have people hand-selling their favorite books, a wider variety of books reaches a wide audience. In the 1990s, Borders and Barnes and Noble were opening superstores, creating stiff competition for the independent bookstores, causing many to close their doors; and in the mid-1990s Amazon began selling books, creating even more competition. By 1999, the American Booksellers Association had only 3,300 members. By 2009, that number had shrunk to just 1,401 members. Meanwhile, Amazon grew and grew, and the big chains faltered. In 2011 Borders declared bankruptcy; its stores closed. Barnes & Noble has lost a huge amount of money on the Nook and has been struggling. When people look for books online, they can’t browse the way they can in a bookstore; they can’t look at a book, except for a glimpse. They have to know something about a book—the name, the author, a key word to use in a search—in order to find it. And so it becomes harder to connect books with readers. On a more hopeful note, more independent bookstores are opening these days, though they seem to be opening at a slower rate than they closed at. In 2015, the American Booksellers Association had 1,712 members—still a far cry from 5,200 but better than 1,401.

Is there one particular editing project that brought you unparalleled satisfaction? What is it and why?

This isn’t a question that I can answer; I’m sorry. I love the books that I’ve edited. I love the process of working on them. It would be impossible to choose one that has brought me more satisfaction than the rest; so many have been so satisfying in different ways.

Describe your involvement and endeavors in Poetry Advocates for Children and Young Adults (PACYA).

Poetry Advocates for Children and Young Adults (PACYA) was founded by poet Steven Withrow in 2011 as a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to promoting poetry for every age group. It has a website with a blog and many resources for those interested in poetry for children: Steven Withrow has great energy and great enthusiasm for poetry. He’s put a tremendous amount of work into creating the website and the Facebook page for PACYA, and he updates the Facebook page with news, links, and announcements about poetry-related events on a regular basis. I was honored when he asked me to join the advisory board for PACYA. I participated in various conversations about the organization, its goals, and possible projects, especially in that first year, and worked with a couple of other people to compile a list of all the books of poetry for children and young adults that were published in 2011. I support Steven Withrow and PACYA’s goals of connecting children with poetry and of providing resources for writers, teachers, students, and readers.

In your opinion, what sets “good” poems and “great” poems apart?

A great poem uses fresh language to create a new connection for the reader, makes you see things in a different way, and/or evokes a sense of wonder. A great poem is one that you want to savor and to read again.

What literary device is the trickiest one for authors to incorporate into their poetry? What makes it so challenging?

Isuspect that one author may find one literary device more challenging and another author may find an entirely different literary device more challenging. Overall, though, the thing that seems to most often be challenging for writers is rhyme. It can be all too easy to let the rhyme lead when writing a poem, but the meaning needs to lead. Writers often give in to the temptation to use awkward syntax—turning a sentence around so that it doesn’t read naturally—in order to place the rhyme where they want it to go. Poetry doesn’t need to rhyme, but if a writer is going to use rhyme, it’s vital that it seem natural in context.

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