Carolyn Yoder has a notorious reputation for relentlessly scrutinizing one’s research. She’s the only editor I know who requires not just bibliographic documentation, but photocopies of primary sources for all one's quotes. No wonder some authors are scared of her, others say she’s the best editor they’ve ever worked with - and some say both. Her imprint, Calkins Creek, at Boyds Mills Press, publishes fiction and nonfiction books on American history that consistently win awards and notable honors.
I’ve known Carolyn for years and look forward to our museum days each time I visit New York. That long friendship doesn’t cut me any slack when it comes to research, but it did earn her the dedication of my latest Calkins Creek book, out in March, Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren (illustrated by Alexandra Wallner.)
Here’s what Carolyn has to say about herself and her books.
Where does your interest in American history come from?
In high school, I had a fabulous American history teacher whose father was a U.S. congressman – talk about making history come alive. I still remember her spirit and her love of the past!
In college, I started out in art, printmaking, and then switched my major to English but I always took lots of history courses – not just courses on large sweeps of history but courses on the history of scientific thought, medieval art, and the Bible, for example. I was interested in “historical context” early on. My first real job after graduate school was in scholarly publishing and it made me appreciate the art of analysis and research – how the author is a big part of nonfiction. From there, I worked for several years at Cobblestone Publishing. My love of history blossomed there, and I discovered to my extreme delight that young readers embrace and appreciate solidly researched and exciting portraits of the past.
This is the mission of Calkins Creek books – to offer young readers original research AND original writing. For me, great history writing is a balancing act of the two.
You publish biographies and history books on obscure subjects, when many publishers cling to same old, same old. How do you choose the books you publish?
I first look at the research to discover the author and the passion. Most people don’t realize that what the author relies on, says so much. Once I am assured of the quality of the research and, as a result, the author’s passion, I can read the manuscript with confidence. Again, original research and original writing is what “moves” me -- more than the subject matter. It just so happens that we have brought many “unknown” people to the forefront – but we have also brought to light “unknown” aspects of well-known people – George Washington as a farmer, Abraham Lincoln as a family man, to name a few.
No – Larry’s passion for the civil rights movement and the times brought these titles to light. I think he felt that there were so many important stories to tell – and that young readers should hear them and form their own opinions of the events. To have authors dig deep and wonder is a great result of solid nonfiction.
How much of your list is fiction? How much nonfiction?
Calkins Creek is looking for both – I am never aware of percentages but we probably publish more nonfiction. Historical fiction doesn’t just mean novels –Calkins Creek has published historical novels as well as picture books.
It’s odd but some authors feel that historical fiction is “easier” to write than nonfiction – but quality historical fiction respects the “history” part of the title and requires extensive research. We still get historical fiction submissions without bibliographies, which I find surprising and upsetting. Why write about the past if you don’t want young readers to enter into believable and complex worlds with believable and multi-dimensional characters, settings, tones, etc. – if you don’t want readers to make emotional connections with your world.
What’s your take on the current state of nonfiction publishing?
It is so exciting to see all the wonderful and different titles (different is key -- daring titles) that are being published today and that are being recognized – titles that are well-researched and written. It’s great to be a part of that Renaissance and to work with committed authors and illustrators.
Our three Spring 2012 titles are diverse in direction – two nonfiction titles, one long (on Harry Kellar, the little known American magician) and one picture book (on the little known writer Mercy Otis Warren), and one historical fiction (portraits of people who lived, worked, visited, traveled through Ellis Island). Two biographies and one collection of voices – all little-known individuals. Calkins Creek is not necessarily looking for manuscripts on unknowns, but for authors who are earnest about offering young readers exciting journeys into the past – a past that is not “remote,” but a vital place that kids can relate to.
Want to close with a shout-out to George and the past! Happy Birthday George Washington! You’d be 280 today!
PS from Gretchen: Carolyn leads frequent workshops for the Highlights Foundation in bucolic Pennsylvania. On May 20-26 she's hosting one on Whole Narrative Nonfiction, with a cast-of-stars faculty. For more information, visit http://www.highlightsfoundation.org/content/whole-narrative-nonfiction.