SHAPING A BONSAI: An Interview with Melissa Manlove, Editor at Chronicle Books

No matter the state of the market for children’s books, it’s always exciting to find a publisher—and an editor—with a growing list of children’s poetry titles. And it’s especially exciting to find an editor who champions some of the top talent around—from masters such as J. Patrick Lewis and Marilyn Singer to gifted newcomers such as Kate Coombs. In this brief but expansive interview, I talk with Melissa Manlove, an editor for San Francisco-based Chronicle Books, about the joys and challenges of editing poetry books for young people. 

Steven Withrow

Melissa at her desk

Please sketch out for me your career thus far in publishing. How long have you been with Chronicle, and which poetry titles have you edited?

My major in college was Classics (ancient Greek and Roman civilization, Latin emphasis). Mythology and folklore fascinate me. I also took courses in Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer…Russian, Sumerian myth, Hindu religion, and poetry…it was great fun. It wasn’t the background most people think of for editing, though.

While I was in college, I got a job at a children’s bookstore—The Storyteller—and loved bookselling so much that I stayed on there for several years. But after a while I started thinking I should probably look for a job that had a health plan and would allow me to save for retirement…and it was then that I ran into an editor from Chronicle Books. She told me about the internships at Chronicle. I applied and was accepted and six months later hired as editorial assistant. That was eight years ago.

In poetry, I’ve edited Chicken Scratches, His Shoes Were Far Too Tight, Water Sings Blue, the upcoming A Strange Place to Call Home and When Thunder Comes, and a couple more exciting things that you’ll have to wait a year or two for.

Is poetry a longtime interest of yours? Did you have favorite children’s poets growing up?

I grew up on poetry. My mother still has some of the poems I made up at two years old, and the first book I took from her hands to start reading all by myself was Piping Down the Valleys Wild. My father would take my sister and me camping when we were kids, and we’d read Shakespeare around the campfire. I realize this is not a normal childhood.

Do you see poetry as an especially tough sell, or is there still a dedicated and possibly untapped market for children’s poetry?

I still work a couple hours a week at the children’s bookstore—Saturday mornings my mom and I do puppet shows there—and I’ve now been a bookseller for 14 years. From that experience I do think that poetry is a tough sell. I steer customers to the poetry section every time I think they might be persuaded, and chat with them about the cognitive benefits of sharing poetry with children. But many of them still turn away. It’s a tragedy, but in our educational system the majority of people are shoved from the playful accentual poetry of childhood—Mother Goose, limericks, etc., straight into highly formal poetic forms. You’re in junior high now! It’s time for Elizabethan sonnets! It’s like taking a kindergartner’s Legos away and giving him an encyclopedia to play with. Who wouldn’t resent that? There’s no question there’s plenty of fun to be had with an encyclopedia or a sonnet, but there are a lot of other toys in the spectrum of English poetry.

How have you discovered the poets whom you’ve edited? Do their manuscripts come over the transom or from agents?

It varies widely. I don’t think we’ve pulled a poetry collection out of the slush pile (for clarity, I mean the kinds of books that will be shelved in the poetry section, not picture books in verse, like Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site) but otherwise, we get them from agents, mostly.  Once a poet is well established, they may query an editor directly. And one was shown to me by the author’s friend, who was an established writer.

Have you been scouting for new or established talent, and what are some of the qualities you’re looking or listening for in a poetry manuscript?

No, I haven’t been scouting. One of Chronicle’s great strengths is that our list is not a large one—we focus hard on making each book shine—but the flip side of that is that there are very few slots for poetry on our list. They fill up quickly. I’m looking for an acute awareness of language and its music, but beyond that what really makes a poetry collection stand out is fresh ideas and phrasing—surprising ways of looking at things. As in the Joan Bransfield Graham poem, the best poetry really does feel like a kick in the head—it changes the way you think as well as the way you feel.
Could you walk me through the main steps of your work on Water Sings Blue? How much back-and-forth and how many stages of revision did you and Kate Coombs go through?
Kate had sent us a book of poems ahead of this one that nearly got published. When that fell through, I encouraged her to keep sending me things—and this is what she sent me, bless her! Like most poets, she sent me many more poems than would fit into a picture book, and then we discussed which ones were our favorites. Independently, we both decided we wanted the book’s movement to start and end on the shore, and move from shallower to deeper water, to shallower again. That’s why you’ll find “Blue Whale” and “Shipwreck” in the exact center. We also talked about which poem would make the best introduction, which the best goodbye, which poems could share a spread, and where to alternate between the more evocative and the lighter-hearted poems. Some poems Kate wrote new for the collection during the editing process, some were lightly edited, some had only a single word changed, and some appear in the book exactly as she submitted them originally. We emailed back and forth quite a bit, but I don’t think it’s possible to count stages of revision.

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When was the illustrator, Meilo So, brought in to the project?

I knew at acquisition which artist I wanted for Water Sings Blue. That’s uncommon; usually we come up with a short list of artists, any of which I would be thrilled to have on board. But for this evocative set of ocean poems, Meilo was my list.

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Was editing a poetry collection for children like Kate’s significantly different from editing another type of children’s book, since even the smallest changes in a poem can have huge consequences?

I agree. In some ways editing a poem is like shaping a bonsai, where editing a novel is like landscaping a park. In many cases, if a poem needs more than very slight editing, it will simply have to be rewritten. In editing any book you think about some of the same basics (structure, theme, tone, audience, etc.), but in some ways every book is unique, and the editing process bends differently to fit each one. That’s part of the delight of my job!

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Are there particular challenges for an editor of poetry?

I can’t think of any that are really specific to poetry. In all picture books, there is the challenge of having to guess what the artist will do with the art, and what effect that will have on the text. Of course, we sometimes change a text just a bit in galleys, once we see it paired with sketches, because no matter what we’ve imagined during editing, the art always surprises you—usually in the best possible ways! But author and editor have to try to envision how the text and art will work together—before the artist gets started on the book—so as not to create accidental problems for the artist.

11 thoughts on “SHAPING A BONSAI: An Interview with Melissa Manlove, Editor at Chronicle Books

  1. As always, thank you for serving the work. A wonderful interview — children’s poetry is alive and well and flourishing here on this site—and in hands of editors like this.

  2. Thank you, Steven and Melissa, for sharing this interview. The reply to “Do you see poetry as an especially tough sell …” was particularly insightful. Again, thanks! -Ed

  3. Loved this interview! i enjoyed everything from the personal bits about Shakespeare around the campfire to those gorgeous illustrations for Water Sings Blue! Great point about poetry getting short shrift in schools. My kids attend a highly-rated school system, but their poetry education has been disappointing.

  4. “…like taking a kindergartner’s Legos away and giving him an encyclopedia.” Perfectly described! It does seem that many educators want to dismiss the playfulness and fun of poetry, but that may just be due to the climate of adult poetry these days – so much of which is so disjunctive and obtuse that only the most confounding is considered respectable. I often wonder if Robert Frost would’ve stood a chance at publication these days!

  5. Fantastic post. So full of little takeaways. My kids love WATER SINGS BLUE, and I love how the book is structured from shore to deep ocean and back to shore. Thank you for sharing so much about the process and I can’t wait to see the books yet to be released.

  6. Chronicle does a top-notch job on all its children’s books, but I particularly appreciated having the spotlight focus on poetry in this interview!

  7. What a great interview, Steven! Your questions elicited so many wonderful responses from Melissa. She was very generous with her answers. I love her comment comparing editing a poem to shaping a bonsai and editing a novel to landscaping a park!

  8. Pingback: Poetry Friday: Welcome All Poetry Fans « Check It Out

  9. Melissa, I appreciate your kind words–so glad you enjoyed my poem, “A Kick in the Head.” I love your bonsai metaphor and am happy you are sending wonderful poetry out into the world. Thank you, Steven, for this fascinating interview!

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