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Talking Books with Harper Collins Children’s Editor Laura Arnold

TeachHUB Interview

width=266Reading is the ultimate pre-req for every subject in education. Where would we be without those kids classics and new faves that ignite students' desire to read and to learn?

To get the behind the binding look at childrens lit, we sat down with Harper Collins Children's editor Laura Arnold.

What criterion do you use to determine what books will be published?

We look at a multitude of things when we’re deciding what to publish: quality of writing, of course; the strength of the story, of the characters, of the voice; the marketability—is there a hook that will help us to get this book into the public eye? Each book is a risk and we ask ourselves if it is compelling enough in some way to make it worth that risk.

What age level is the most difficult to predict a book’s success?

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Children’s book publishing, like all publishing for that matter, is cyclical—for example, a few years ago the picture book market was really struggling and now it’s flourishing. I would venture that, at the current moment, it’s hard to launch a chapter book, because there are already so many successful series out there—such as our own very popular My Weird School series in addition to Junie B. Jones and Magic Tree House—that take up most of the bookstore shelf space. But that’s not to say that with the right combination of characters, writing style, and plot, we wouldn’t take a chance on it.

What was the biggest surprise hit you’ve published (or surprise failure)?

We weren’t surprised when it was an initial success because it’s such a gorgeous book, but Mary Engelbreit’s edition of The Night Before Christmas continues to sell better and better year after year, which is unusual in the  book world and, obviously, delightful. It’s turning out to be the gold standard of Night Before Christmas picture books, no small feat when you consider how many versions there are!

How does HarperCollins work with teachers and schools to promote literacy?

We have a dedicated team in our school and library marketing department. These talented people work closely with teachers and librarians on a daily basis. They meet regularly at conferences that are spread out through the year.

As an example of a special program, we sponsor Drop Everything And Read Day (D.E.A.R. Day), a nationwide initiative to get teachers, librarians, and families spending time with kids and reading. D.E.A.R. Day is every year on April 12, in honor of Beverly Cleary’s birthday—Mrs. Cleary wrote about the D.E.A.R. program in the beloved Ramona Quimby books, which we publish.

Can you describe the “I Can Read!” program?  Who determines how books are categorized?

The I Can Read program is one of the oldest beginning reader publishing programs in the country. There are five designated reading levels and each book is clearly marked with its level. We have a senior editor who specifically handles the I Can Read line; she’s an expert on each ICR reading level and she oversees the quality and consistency of each book in that line.

Who develops the Teaching and Reading guides?

The folks in our school and library marketing department work with teachers and librarians to create the Teaching and Reading guides.

What are some current trends in children’s books?

In the young adult market, paranormal fantasy continues to exert a powerful hold, thanks in large part to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. It started out as a vampire craze and is branching out to faeries, ghosts, werewolves, and more.

What is your favorite children’s book?  What’s your favorite book of any genre?

That is a really hard question for a book lover such as myself! In children’s books, two of my all-time favorites are Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There (so creepy and beautiful) and E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In the book world at large, recently I loved Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. But I could go on (and on…).

What is the best part of your job? The worst?

There are a lot of bests, but I especially love seeing a kid engrossed in a book I worked on—it makes you realize that the two years (on average) of work before the book hits a shelf is so worth it.

The worst? It’s a big task to wade through the piles of not-always-up-to-par submissions. On the flip side, you feel bad letting down so many aspiring authors. But it’s simply not possible for a publisher to take on everything that’s sent in.

How is HarperCollins, or book publishers in general, fairing during this economic downturn?

Book publishers in general are having a tough time in the current economic climate. At HarperCollins, we’re implementing many cost-saving strategies, but we feel fortunate that even in times of financial stress, families seem to still buy books for their kids. A lifelong love of reading is what we hope to see develop.


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