Episode Nine! Conversation with Susan Van Metre
Welcome to episode nine of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Every week this podcast will feature an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, Susan Van Metre discusses her essay "Rewriting the Stories that Shape you" (which can be heard in episode 8) with Alvina Ling. We hear more about Susan's
On today's podcast you will hear:
Susan Van Metre is the Executive Editorial Director of Walker Books, a new division of Candlewick Press. Previously she was at Abrams, where she edited EL DEAFO by Cece Bell, the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger, the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, THEY SAY BLUE by Jillian Tamaki, and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Fornatale, and their daughter and Lab mix
Alvina Ling is VP and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (a division of Hachette Book Group) where she has worked since 1999. She edits children's books for all ages, from picture books to young adult. She has edited such books as A Big Mooncake For Little Star by Grace Lin; Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown; Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier; Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer, The Candymakers by Wendy Mass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, and The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. She Tweets with the handle @planetalvina and is on Instagram @alvinaling. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her cat, Venus.
Alvina: Hi, I'm Alvina Ling, talking with Susan Van Metre about her essay, Rewriting the Stories that Shape Us, in which she discusses the classic stories she loved as a child, addresses the patriarchy we live in, how that affects the children's publishing industry, and some ways to create change. Susan, thank you for joining me today.
Susan: Thank you, Alvina.
Alvina: That leads me to the first question, which is why did you write your essay?
Susan: Yeah, I actually graduated from a women's college and I've always considered myself a feminist. I read Betty Friedan, I read Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem, but it really took the Me Too Movement and working with some younger feminists for the scales to fall away from my eyes in terms of cultural narrative and how deeply that is still controlled by men. It made me realize that even some of the stories that I love, that are formative to who I am, are heavily influenced by a male vision of the world.
Alvina: I think that was what surprised me the most about your essay is, I just really never thought about that before, that there is a man that's pulling the strings behind it all. Thank you for opening my eyes to that.
Alvina: Actually I don't know if you feel comfortable talking about this, but your essay reminded me a little bit about ALA, which we were both at a couple of weeks ago when we were recording this, and it was announced that the Laura Ingalls Wilder award was being renamed as the Legacy Award, I think a decision that some considered to be controversial. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on that.
Susan: Yeah, that's funny because it reminded me of my essay as well and I thought that it was such an important and, I'm sure, difficult conversation because, unquestionably, there's some really problematic content in those books that make her name represent something that could be quite painful to the recipient of the award. But at the same time I do feel like when I think back on those books, as ones that I really loved as a child, I do think about how they centered a female character and gave her so much agency, and this relationship showed that a girl could develop survival skills in a way that I think really resonated with a lot of girls. I think so many of these books of our childhood have to be looked at so critically but also maybe with some generosity too, for the progressiveness they showed for their time. I guess that's the way to put it.
Susan: Yeah, I was certainly one of those people, I hadn't been in on some of the earlier discussions that had taken place, I think in February, about the decision, so it did sort of take me by surprise. But I definitely felt like I could see both sides and as long as people still feel like they can read Laura Ingalls Wilder but maybe need to read her more critically, I think it's a sound decision.
Alvina: Right, I agree. I think I had heard some rumblings but hadn't really been paying attention and I think I was a little on the fence about how to feel about it. I don't know if you were at the Awards Ceremony but I think the way Lindsay explained the decision was beautiful and it just made it make so much sense. And, of course, Jackie Woodson's speech I think kind of emphasized it as well. But yeah, I agree. I mean, I just love the classics and I think we all know that they were of its time and I don't think that people should stop reading those books. I think there's a lot of good that come out of those classics.
Well, I guess on a related note, my next question, is there anything you're afraid that people have, or will, misunderstand about your essay?
Susan: Yeah, I think I wouldn't want them to think that I am dismissing the particular books that I mentioned, The Narnia Chronicles and The Westing Game, as no longer having anything valid to say, because I definitely think that they do. It was a personal moment for me, but also, I guess, a call to people to pull away some of the haze of nostalgia and, I think, real gratitude people feel to the books that they loved. To get some distance and to see that they might have also delivered some negative messages that you didn't even realize they contained, that I think can imprint on you in these subtle ways.
And then I think I would also not want people to think that I meant that every book needs to be written from a deeply political place. It's more just to be aware that the words that you write, I think, can have even more impact on a child reader than you might realize as an adult who probably can read with some distance and some critical thought.
Alvina: Right. I think we talk a lot about certain books being potentially harmful to readers and I think my rule of thumb is ... You can't prevent a book from being potentially harmful to some reader somewhere, I think it's just impossible.
Alvina: I think as long as that reader isn't only reading that book over and over and over again, then that one book is not going to be critically harmful, as long as there's a wide range of books that they can read. I think we should be careful about what we publish but there's no way to be completely safe, I guess, or not problematic in some way.
Susan: Sure, yeah. I don't think you can make yourself paranoid about it, but I think we would-
Alvina: Although, many of us in publishing are. Anyway, what makes us smart, careful editors, I hope.
Susan: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Alvina: Okay. What was the hardest part for you, personally, in writing this essay?
Susan: The hardest part for me was actually putting my own words out into a public space. I realize that as an editor, I'm so behind the scenes. Of course, I do writing as an editor that is read by the public, but it's typically about other people's thoughts and other people's stories. Putting something out there that was so much about me and that turned out rather personally was a little nerveracking. I was surprised by how nervous it made me.
Alvina: Well, I applaud you for writing a post because I was supposed to write a post and I never did, partially for those same reasons. But also, I just couldn't ... I don't know, at the time it was just a busy time in my life and I couldn't think of anything to write. So I'm glad, but I was happy to support all the other posts and I was glad that there were some publishing points of view.
Susan: I think hopefully we'll hear a lot more of your point of view in this podcast.
Alvina: Yes, I hope so.
Alvina: Did you have any other ideas that you were considering writing about?
Susan: Yeah, I got a sort of bee in my bonnet during the month, about how I feel like men and women can tend to promote themselves differently, because I think we were having a conversation about how society tends to see men as geniuses and women as hardworking. I thought about how, in my observation, some male authors are very good at promoting themselves and making themselves the brand, and this is generalization of course, whereas I feel women tend to let their work speak for themselves. I thought about how that fed the societal impression, that men's genius just springs from their head. But I realize that I'm not a marketer, so I didn't feel completely qualified to write that post, but it is something that I've been thinking about.
Alvina: Well, maybe if you think it about more, you should write it.
Susan: There you go.
Alvina: I'd like to hear about that. Okay, one last question about your essay. How do you hope the world of children's publishing will change in the future, related to the topic that you wrote about?
Susan: Oh, I hope that we'll just see more books about girl character who are directing their own destinies, rather than being directed by some distant male figure. Also, I'd love to see books that show powerful women as inspiration for girls, for the girl characters and for the girl readers. I do want to say that, as I mentioned before, I do feel like these books, like Narnia and Westing Game, they were revolutionary at the time, just for following a girl and making a girl the hero of the narrative. But I feel like we can take it a step further and make her more active in creating her own destiny.
Alvina: Great. I'd love to see that as well and I think you mentioned some examples of books you're editing and I can think of some examples of my own books where it is happening.
Susan: Yeah, exactly.
Alvina: It's funny, I don't know if this has happened to you but every now and then I'll get a query from an agent who is not necessarily a children's book agent, maybe it's an adult agent, and I feel like this happened twice, where the query says, "There's a lack of strong female characters in children's books," and I'm thinking, "Are you kidding? There are so many." Anyway, I don't think there is a lack of strong female characters, but I do think that what you outlined in your essay is true, that we need powerful women pulling the strings as well as men.
Alvina: Great. Anything else you want to add about your essay that you didn't get a chance to discuss?
Susan: No, no. That was great.
Alvina: Okay. Okay, two final questions. First is we call it the self-promo closing, can you give me the elevator pitch of what you're working on now or your newest book that you've edited?
Susan: Yeah, sure. I'm actually kind of at the start of something new that's quite large, because I recently took a job with Candlewick Press and I'm helping them start a division called Walker Books, that's going to focus on fiction and commercial non-fiction. One of my first acquisitions is a graphic novel hybrid called, Queen of the Sea. It's by Dylan Meconis and it's an alternate history of exile of Queen Elizabeth I by her sister, Queen Mary. It takes place in an island convent that is actually a lot more than it seems on the surface and I'm really excited about it. I hope I'm not alone in this, but I've always been fascinated by nuns. I really loved seeing a book that treated that as complex characters and really explores the female space with so much respect and enthusiasm and detail. That's my-
Alvina: That's great. What is it called again? What's the title?
Susan: It's called Queen of the Sea.
Alvina: Great, and when is it coming out again?
Susan: It will be coming out in Spring '19.
Alvina: Great, I will look out for it. Then finally, what is your biggest publishing dream? Think big and goofy.
Susan: I have to say, I feel like I am kind of already living my publishing dream. It seems greedy to want more than I've already been given, because I've been given some amazing opportunities, but I will say that now that I've gotten a taste for putting my own writing out there through this Month of Women, I do feel like maybe I'll try to be a little more open with my opinions on what's going on in publishing and post more.
Alvina: Great. I'm going to close off this podcast, but I'll be back with Susan with another interview. But thank you for joining me today, this has been Alvina Ling talking to Susan Van Metre.