Professional Autodidact; or, How I Became a Children’s Literature Professor

I teach children’s literature, write books about children’s literature, and direct a graduate program in children’s literature.  But I’ve never taken a single course in children’s literature, neither as a graduate student nor as an undergraduate student.  I have no formal training in the field of my alleged expertise.

So, in the words of David Byrne, “You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?”1

Children’s literature is the reason that I became an English Ph.D., but I did not realize that until well after I earned the degree. Children’s literature made me a reader. Since I liked reading, I became an English major. Realizing, as a college junior, that reading books and writing papers was far more appealing than seeking a “real job,” I applied to graduate programs in English. Though I enjoyed writing an honors thesis on William Faulkner, the books of early childhood were more important: they instilled in me a love of reading. So, don’t blame The Sound and the Fury. Blame Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley, Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, and Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.

A chapter of my dissertation was on Dr. Seuss. That chapter — “Dada Knows Best: Growing Up ‘Surreal’ with Dr. Seuss” — became my first conference paper (1997) and, in its revised form, my first published article (1999).2  Until I wrote that chapter, I had not been aware that one could do scholarly work on children’s literature. Vanderbilt University’s Department of English did not (and, as far as I know, still does not) offer courses in the subject. The late Nancy Walker had done some work on children’s literature, but I was unaware of this fact until after I received the Ph.D.

Though there are more opportunities for graduate study in children’s literature now, many of us in the field are autodidacts. Appropriate, perhaps, that the book that inspired me to take children’s literature seriously was written by two non-experts: Judith and Neil Morgan’s Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography (1995). Before reading it, I hadn’t known that Dr. Seuss was a political cartoonist.  Or that, during World War II, he’d worked with Chuck Jones on the Private SNAFU cartoons.  Fascinating stuff.

The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive ShocksMy move into children’s literature began by chance, but became pragmatic. The Seuss chapter was the only part of the dissertation on children’s literature. The book version, The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (2002), included a second children’s lit chapter (on Chris Van Allsburg). The other chapters were on (mostly) American literature and music for grown-ups: Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, Laurie Anderson, Leonard Cohen.  When I got the degree, I thought I was a twentieth-century Americanist.

But I couldn’t get the time of day as a twentieth-century Americanist, much less an MLA interview.  So, I reasoned, if I market myself as both a twentieth-century Americanist and a Children’s Lit specialist, then I ought to increase my odds of finding that elusive academic gig. This decision to publish and present in both fields seemed to help. Two years after receiving the degree, I had my first MLA interviews: two in children’s literature, and one for teaching with technology (I’ve had a website since 1997). Though I then only had one refereed article on children’s literature (“Dada Knows Best”), that piece plus two other under-consideration children’s literature essays — one a new Seuss essay, and the other on Crockett Johnson — proved persuasive enough to get me one campus visit. I used the Crockett Johnson piece for the job talk, and spoke of my plan to write a biography of Johnson. The combination of my slender publication record, plans for future projects — coupled, of course, with a native ability to bluff — worked. During that hiring cycle (1999-2000), I finally landed a tenure-track job … at the university where I still teach today.

For a time, I thought I would remain active in both fields.  But, as the chart below indicates, it proved impossible to keep up in both children’s literature and twentieth-century/contemporary American literature.

Gratuitous Chart of Philip Nel's Scholarly Work in Its First Decade

Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2011

I taught my last “20th-Century American” class (a seminar on Don DeLillo) in 2001.  Although I continue to venture beyond books for young readers, first and foremost I am a scholar of children’s literature.

It’s taken some time for me to become comfortable making such a claim. I am a scholar of children’s literature, but I am also keenly aware of how much I don’t know about children’s literature.  On the one hand, this can be a source of anxiety (Aaah! I’m unqualified!). On the other, it can be a source of inspiration (Hooray! So much to discover!). Though I’m more inspired than anxious, one hazard of autodidacticism is acute consciousness of one’s status as disciplinary outsider.  Since I never studied it formally, I’m not always sure what I should have mastered by now; since the field is so vast, I know I’ll never master it all.

Happily, one benefit of graduate school is learning how to learn.  So, I read the relevant scholarly books and articles, regularly attend the children’s literature conferences,3 and read lots of children’s books — which, after all, is the reason I chose this line of work in the first place.


1. Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” Remain in Light (Sire/Warner Bros., 1980).

2. The conference: Second Biennial Conference on Modern Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, Nashville, TN, 11 April 1997.  The publication: Children’s Literature 27 (1999): 150-184.

3. I go to the Children’s Literature Association, and the International Research Society for Children’s Literature.  The former is the big North American one (ChLA is international, but most members are from the U.S. or Canada); the latter is the big international one.  There are others, of course — regional ones, and ones that develop from other disciplines, such as Library Science or Education.  So, look around and find the ones that intrigue you the most.


Note: You can also read this essay on the Children’s Literature Association’s “Scholarly Resources” page — scroll down to “Pursuing a Degree in Children’s Literature” (the items are in alphabetical order).  There, you will also find a great autobiographical essay by Marah Gubar.  Its title? “All That David Copperfield Kind of Crap.”  Check it out!

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How to Publish Your Article

The sequel (or prequel?) to “How to Publish Your Book,” here’s something else they don’t always teach you in graduate school.  As in that earlier post, this is what has worked for me.  Results may vary.

Please note: the advice below derives from my experience as an English professor who specializes in children’s literature.  This advice will be most applicable to those in English/Modern Languages and, more generally, the Humanities.  If you’re working within a different discipline, then please consult someone in that field.

1. How do I know when my article is ready to send out?

GlassesThe short answer is when it’s in the best possible shape it can be in.

The longer answer is if you’re not sure what that shape looks like, then seek help.  If you’re an assistant professor or adjunct, then seek help from a colleague — at your current or former institution — or from a colleague you’ve met at a conference.  If you’re a graduate student, ask a professor.  Or ask a graduate student who’s already published something.  Have people whose advice you trust — and whose writing you admire — critique the article.  What works?  What doesn’t?  What isn’t clear?  But don’t revise endlessly: Set yourself a deadline for revising it, make the essay as tightly focused and as clearly written as you can, and then send it out.

2. Where do I send my article?

ChLAQ 35.4 (Winter 2010) cover: Winter and Ford's BarackWhat journals cover the subject of your article?  If you’re not sure, you might look at the journals you consulted during your research.  You might also seek advice from someone else in the field — if you’re a graduate student, then perhaps from a professor.  After you’ve a list of possibilities, read some articles in each journal and think about which would be the best fit.  In the field of children’s literature, some journals you might consider include: Children’s Literature, The Lion and the Unicorn, The Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Children’s Literature in Education, The New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, and Jeunesse (formerly Canadian Children’s Literature).  That’s by no means an exhaustive list.  For a more complete (if decade-old) list, see Wally Hastings and Michael Joseph’s page of Journals that publish articles on children’s literature theory and criticism.

Two other general principles:

  1. Aim high and then settle.  That is, if you think the article can be published in the top journal in your field, then send it there first.  If that journal doesn’t like it, its editors will let you know.  And you can move on to the next one.
  2. Publish widely and well. If this is your second (or third, fourth, etc.) article, consider sending it to a different journal.  It’s a-OK to publish more than one piece in the same journal (especially if it’s a good one), but publishing in more than one place (especially good ones) shows that your work has been approved by multiple venues.

3. What does a cover letter look like?

Nearly all submissions happen on-line, so this is probably a cover email rather than a cover letter.  Here’s my most recent one, sent to American Quarterly on 2 August 2010:

Dear Editors,

I am attaching “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Seuss and Race in the 1950s.”  I’m also attaching a document containing images.  I’ve read your guidelines concerning images, and — should the article meet the needs of American Quarterly — I will (of course) send hi-res scans and obtain all necessary permissions.

Should you have any questions about the manuscript (or the images), please don’t hesitate to contact me.  Thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Philip Nel

[followed by full contact info.]

As you can see, the letter is brief and to the point.

4. The journal’s guidelines ask for Chicago citation style. I’ve used MLA style. Do I have to re-format my article?

Yes.  Follow all of the journal’s guidelines, including suggested page length.  It’s not that hard to switch from MLA to Chicago, or Chicago to MLA, or any of the other styles.  It may not be especially exciting work, but it’s simple enough.  Do it.  And you may as well save a copy in your original citation format — just so you have it.

 

5. I’ve sent it in.  Now what?

First, the journal should acknowledge receipt of your work.  Generally, this happens within a week, perhaps even within a few days.  If a month passes or even a couple of weeks pass without acknowledgment, then follow up.  If more time than that passes, then follow up again.  If you reach six weeks or so and there’s not yet been any acknowledgment, then write again, politely informing the journal that you have decided to submit your article elsewhere.  Each time you correspond, you should include the record of your correspondence — easiest way to do this (in email) is by simply forwarding the earlier one each time, and appending your latest query to the top of the message.

You can, of course, wait longer than six weeks.  Perhaps it’s a very prestigious journal, and you feel it’s worth the wait.  That’s up to you.  But the essay is your intellectual property, and it deserves to be treated with respect.

 

6. When should I expect to hear from the journal?

American Quarterly 62.3Three to four months after it sends your article out for review.  Some journals take longer, and some are more swift.  On the longer side, American Quarterly now takes 6-8 months just to decide whether to send out the article to reviewers.  On the shorter side, the editor of a special issue is most likely to offer the most prompt response.  Indeed, the fastest way to get published in a journal is through a special issue: it allows you to bypass the journal’s backlog of unpublished articles.

If three months pass, and you’ve not yet heard from the journal, then follow up.  Be polite and brief.

Dear [person at journal],

With apologies for bothering you at a busy time of the term, I thought I would follow up.  Have you any sense of when we might receive readers’ reports on my manuscript?

Thanks in advance for any information you may have.

Best regards,

[your name, contact info., etc.]

The journal will then follow up with the reader(s).  As a reader myself, I find these follow-up emails very helpful.  I get overwhelmed with work, and I use urgency to bump this task up my to-do list.  So, when I get a “where is the reader’s report?” email, I get right on it.

Two related points:

  1. You can withdraw your article. Depending on how tardy the response, you might decide to withdraw your article from consideration.  When?  That depends on how prestigious the journal is and how long you’re willing to wait.  It’s reasonable to expect readers’ reports within three to six months time.  This is your intellectual labor: if the journal isn’t treating it (and thus you) with sufficient respect, then take your submission elsewhere.
  2. One journal at a time. Very important: you must withdraw the article from consideration at Tardy Journal before submitting it to another journal.  You’re not allowed to have the same article under consideration at more than one place.

In case you’re curious: yes, I have withdrawn work and submitted it elsewhere.  In one case, I withdrew work from a proposed essay collection (the editors of which were not responding as swiftly as I’d liked) and submitted it to a journal’s special issue — where, in short order, the essay was published.

So.  Be proactive!

7. I heard back from the journal!  What do I do now?

That all depends on the response.  There are four possible ones.

  1. Accepted.  In this case, express your delight to the editor, make the (presumably minor) editorial and typographical changes you need to make, and do whatever you need to do to prepare the piece for publication.  For example, are there images you wish to include?  If so, start seeking permissions immediately — image permissions can take months to obtain.  And, of course, update the entry on your CV to indicate “Forthcoming,” along with the article’s page length in manuscript form.  And pat yourself on the back.
  2. Accepted with revisions.  Make the revisions.  Cede the point when you can, and hold your ground when you need to.  But do your best to address the readers’ concerns.  Accept the helpful advice with gratitude and respond graciously to the less helpful ones.  Important: Respond onlyto the content and never to the tone.  Sometimes, a reader’s report can be snarky or sarcastic or even cruel.  This isn’t the norm, but it does happen.  In those cases, remember that your objective is to publish this article.  Viewing an obnoxious reader’s report as an invitation to verbal sparring may be emotionally satisfying for you, but it will not help you achieve your objective.  So: don’t go there.  Be professional.  If you’re worried about your tone, have a friend or colleague read your note before sending.
    • As you make revisions or after you complete them, you might consider creating a separate document in which you sketch a map of your changes.  You don’t have to do this, and it may be that the cover letter will provide you enough space to indicate where changes have been made.  But one thing I’ve done (though I do it much more rarely now than I used to) is indicate how I specifically responded to the reader’s suggestions by pointing out where, in my article, I made the changes.
  3. Revise and resubmit.  If you get this response, you have two choices.  If you feel that the reviewer is completely missing the point, then perhaps this isn’t the journal for you.  Thank the editor, withdraw your piece and submit it elsewhere.  More often than not, though, I’d advise you to pursue the other choice — revise and resubmit.  If the reader has suggested that you revise and resubmit, then he or she sees some potential in your work… but your piece is just not yet where it needs to be.  You will likely have to do some fairly extensive revisions — rewriting sections, throwing parts out, creating new parts.  But you’ll learn something and, in the process, will improve your essay.  See the “Accepted with revisions” guidelines above.
  4. Reject.  Three choices.  If you think the journal is wrong, then send the piece out to a different journal.  Or, first, make a few revisions and then send the piece out a different venue.  The first journal to which I sent “‘Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz…’: How World War II Created Dr. Seuss” rejected it — and took its time in doing so.  I then sent the piece to Mosaic, where it appeared in a special issue.  If the essay is important to you, your second option is to revise the piece and then submit it again — either to this journal or to another.  The third option is to put it aside for now.  Work on something else.  Perhaps, in time, you’ll return to this piece, and be able to salvage what’s salvageable.  Perhaps you won’t.  But don’t fret too much about one article.  You’ll write others.  The main thing is that you learn why this one isn’t working so that you don’t repeat those mistakes in other essays.

8. How much do journals pay you?

In the Humanities, they don’t.  If your work appears in an edited collection, then you should expect to receive a copy of the book.  Again, though, getting paid for contributing is rare.  If you’re writing an essay for a reference work, you’re likely to get paid but not get a copy of the book.  That depends: sometimes I’ve been paid for those, and other times I just get a copy of the book.  And “payment” is fairly loosely defined.  “Payment” can be a certain $ amount of books from the publisher’s catalogue.

9. When will it appear in the journal?

As indicated above, if it’s in a special issue, then quite soon — as soon as a couple of months.  But that’s the best-case scenario.  More likely, your essay will not appear for at least a year.  If the journal has a backlog of accepted essays, you may wait for several years.  You can still mark the piece as “Forthcoming” on your CV, of course.

10. Geez.  That seems like a lot of work just to get something published.

Yes, it does.  But, as is the case with many things, the more you do it, the better you get at it.  If this is something you want to achieve, then persist. To quote the Desmond Dekker song, “You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try… you’ll succeed at last.”

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Suck It Up. Enhance Production.

numbersA number of folks at MLA 2011 were kind enough to mention that they’ve found my “advice” postings useful.  In the hopes of continuing to help, here’s one more before I veer back to other blog topics (children’s literature, comics, biography, music, etc.).  Today’s topic is: how do you develop a robust CV quickly?

As noted in “Up from Adjuncthood,” this was a matter of some urgency: when I earned the Ph.D. in 1997, I had zero publications.  To escape terminal adjuncthood, I’d need to transform an anemic CV into a healthy one.  I found Michael Bérubé‘s CV on-line (a full version was on-line back then), and decided to emulate him.  I knew I was neither as smart nor as talented a writer as he, but (I reasoned) I could at least strive to be as productive.

It’s a simple calculus.  If you publish one article a year, then in five years you have five articles; two a year, then you have ten in the same period.  Similarly, if you can publish a book every five years, then in a decade, you’ll have two. I never literally followed this x-articles-per-year model. The idea was not to meet annual quotas. It was to think about the long term. If you maintain a steady rate of production, then, over time, publications add up.

And they have.

I’ve already blogged about How to Publish Your Book.  It occurs to me that I ought to write another post on How to Publish Your Articles.  Too often, I think, we academics take for granted that aspiring scholars already know the ins and outs of how academia works — forgetting that we had to learn this, too.  So…, I’ll do an Article-Publishing post soon.

Oh, and bonus points for anyone who guesses the song quoted in the post’s title.  Need a hint?  It’s included on Never Say Die: A Mix for Job-Seekers (posted back in September).

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My Book About Me

These days, I don’t talk much about my first book.  I wrote it when I was 7 years old, in collaboration with Dr. Seuss and Roy McKie.  As you can see, I improved upon their artwork with the aid of stickers from the United Fruit Company (of whose bananas I was then an avid consumer) and the Kellogg Corporation (whose Raisin Bran I ate for breakfast).

My Book About Me by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and Philip Nel, age 7.

As you will soon discover from the interior pages, the handwriting on the latter sticker is not my own (it is my mother’s).  The inflatable bunny and the safari suit (my parents are South Africans) dates the photograph to my sixth Easter.  At the book’s end, I claim to have finished the book on my seventh birthday.

Here, McKie, Seuss, and I take a look at my culinary preferences:

from My Book About Me, by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and one 7-year-old Philip Nel

For those unable to decipher my distinctive crayonmanship, favorite foods then included: hamburgers, candy, fruit salad, swiss cheese, and that rare variety of pickle spelled without the “k.”  I could not stand olives.  This latter claim still holds true, although my favorites have altered.  I’m now more partial to pickles with a “k,” and have grown more discerning in my candy consumption: today, I would replace “candy” with “dark chocolate.”  I still eat swiss cheese, and plenty of fruit, and, though I enjoy a good hamburger, I would no longer rank it at the top of my list.

Interestingly, my choice of profession proved to be a remarkably accurate predictor of my current employment:

page from My Book About Me, by Roy McKie, Dr. Seuss, and a 7-year-old wunderkind known as Philip Nel

After all, the job of English Professor combines the fame of the paleontologist with the modesty of the television star.  In crossing out “TV star” and writing in “paleontologist,” I was not replacing one with the other, but rather suggesting a hybrid that is the job I now hold.  Yes, I was a prescient lad.

Though many books of this vintage (McKie and Seuss’s portions of this book were written in 1969) have been updated, I’m interested to report that this has not been.  Current editions do not replace “Airplane Stewardess” with “Flight Attendant”; nor do they subtract the now rare job of “Milkman” and replace it with, say, “Computer Programmer.”  The list of professions remains exactly as it was 41 years ago.

Finally, a sample of my developing storytelling skills, rendered in letters of varying height and legibility:

from My Book About Me, by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and young storyteller Philip Nel, age 7

Indicative of the paleontology lobby’s influence on my 7-year-old imagination, the story stars a dinosaur.  For those struggling to decode my strikingly original penmanship, here is a transcription:

The Dinosaur

The Dinosaur was walking in the woods one day.  And then he saw a hunter!  And the hunters [sic] gun was ponted [sic] right at him!  And the dinosaur was! frightened.  But…………… then he walked up to the hunter and was very very very brave.  So [he] picked the hunter up by the pants and dropped him.

The end.

With the unique spellings and unusual grammar characteristic of a gifted author, the story swiftly introduces the rising action in the second sentence.  After prolonging the suspense via its deft use of ellipses, the tale concludes with a clever narrative twist that lets readers know they’re reading the work of a master storyteller.  The Dinosaur dispatches the hunter through the rarely used picking-up-by-the-pants-and-dropping technique.  Gasping in delight at this surprising but satisfying conclusion, we salute this 7-year-old wunderkind, who, fortunately, did not grow up to be a writer of fiction.

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The Picture Book Is Dead; Long Live the Picture Book

The New York Times reports a rise in visual illiteracy among parents.  Only, that’s not quite the way the article puts it: instead, it notes that parents are pushing their children to read “big-kid” books earlier, steering them away from picture books, on the grounds that picture books are somehow lesser or easier.  As a result, Julie Bosman (the article’s author) notes, fewer picture books are selling, and publishers are cutting back.

None of this may be true, of course. Amanda Gignac, a source for the story, has blogged that her quotation was taken out of context.  And, as MotherReader blogs,

This is The New York Times. And in terms of children’s and young adult literature, this is what they do. Some writer comes up with a topic in this field in which they know very little. They “research” that topic with a few interviews, an observation or two, and a quote from man on the street.

She has a point.  I regularly read the Times’ reviews of children’s books, and they’re very hit-or-miss.  Sometimes, the reviewer will have considerable knowledge of the subject and do a great job; other times, the reviewer knows little or nothing about the field, and muddles through, often to the Times’ detriment.

Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, Goodnight MoonThough the real cause for declining picture book sales may be the economic downturn (a fact the Times piece mentions but downplays), the article does one thing very well: it accurately reflects the prejudice against children’s illustrators and illustration.  When we write about a picture book, we always put the author’s name first and the illustrator’s name second.  Sometimes, the illustrator’s name comes not after the author’s name but after the title.  And it’s not uncommon for people to forget the illustrator all together.  We refer to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon instead of Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon or to Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd.  Tellingly, the Times’ reporter quotes one author of picture books (Jon Scieszka), but no illustrators of picture books.

The lack of attention paid to picture books’ artists is just a symptom of our culture’s tendency to dismiss illustration as less serious than writing.  Though Ms. Gignac’s words were decontextualized, the idea of denigrating picture books as lesser rang true to many of the article’s readers — myself included.  We could imagine a parent like Ms. Gignac expressing such a sentiment.  This is one reason why the article prompted so much discussion in the blogosphere and on Twitter.  Those of us who study, teach, or write picture books are used to hearing such ignorant remarks.  The thought that such misinformed people were harming something we love — the picture book — made us upset.

A picture book is a portable art gallery.  It’s also an intricate dance between pictures and words, in which — though neither leads, and neither follows — no step is out of place, no dancers trip.  A picture book can of course also be wordless, such as Istvan Banyai’s Zoom or Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse.  But for most picture books, pictures and words have an interdependent relationship.  The pictures do not simply “illustrate” the words, and nor do the words “name” the pictures.  They work together, often in a creative tension with one another, to make meaning.

Newgarden and Cash, Bow-Wow Bugs a BugI could be mistaken, but I’m skeptical of the claim that the picture book is in peril.  Indeed, I think we are living in a golden age of picture books.  Consider the astonishing work that has been published in just the last few years: Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship, Menena Cottin and Rosana Faria’s The Black Book of Colors, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Emily Gravett’s Wolves, and Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash’s Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug.  All of the books on that list — which is by no means a thorough or representative survey — were published in the last five years.

News of the picture book’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.

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How to Publish Your Book; or, The Little Manuscript That Could

Graduate schools don’t teach you how to get your book published.  This post represents my attempt to help.  I’ll focus on academic publishing, rather than commercial publishing.  One disclaimer: this is what has worked for me.  Results may vary.

1.  Do you need to have written the entire book before you seek a contract? No.  You need a book proposal, and a chapter — ideally, a chapter and the introduction.  On the basis of these materials, you can get either a contract or a request to send the complete manuscript when finished.  In the latter case, the press will ask: How far along is the manuscript or when can you send us a completed manuscript?  Invent a deadline for yourself, and respond: “I’m on schedule to complete the book by … October 1st.”  (Or something.)  Note: for a first book, the press may want a complete manuscript before sending a contract.  But the proposal and chapter can get their attention and get you some feedback.

2.  What do you put in a book proposal?

Dr. Seuss: American Icon

  1. Summary.  Brief but punchy description of your book’s scope, goals, and contribution.  Be bold.  Here’s one of mine: “Dr. Seuss, American Icon will establish Seuss’s importance as a subject for critical inquiry while revealing the ideological assumptions behind Seuss’s work.  Since his death in 1991, Seuss has ascended in cultural importance, but little has been written on the social significance of this fact.  Seuss has, in effect, become another Disney — a corporate enterprise, a marketing phenomenon, a symbol of U.S. culture — but his transition from children’s book author to American icon has never been fully explored.  Dr. Seuss, American Icon will be the definitive book on this subject.”  End quote.  Is that an overstatement?  Of course it is.  But I prefer to think of it as plausible hyperbole, supported by evidence (elsewhere in the proposal).  And it’s truly what I hoped to accomplish in the book — though whether I did accomplish it is a separate question.
  2. Table of Contents, followed by chapter descriptions — no more than a single paragraph for each chapter.  Be succinct.  Lead with your main idea.
  3. Length of book.  About 100,000 words might be the upper limit here.
  4. Markets.  Who will buy your book?  Is it for fellow scholars only?  In which fields?  (Since I mostly work in children’s literature, some possible fields I’d suggest are: Education, Children’s Literature, Cultural Studies, Childhood Studies.  All of the above?)  Can you imagine your book also being read beyond academia?  If so, say so.  Might your book be assigned in a class?  If so, which classes?  How widely are these classes taught?  To support your claim, you might use a search engine, and locate a few specific examples.
  5. Competition.  To what other books is your book comparable?  You might here indicate how your book differs from those books — what are you doing that these other books are not doing?  A sentence or two on each book will suffice.
  6. The Author.  Who are you?  What are your qualifications for writing this?  A paragraph or so is sufficient here.
  7. Deadline.  When will the manuscript be complete?
  8. Illustrations.  If illustrations, you might indicate availability of illustrations.

William Germano's Getting It PublishedFor the best advice on what to put in a book proposal, read William Germano’s Getting It Published (here’s an excerpt).  If you’re here because you’re turning your dissertation into a book, then you should also read Germano’s From Dissertation to Book (here’s an excerpt).  They’ll give you better advice than I can.

3.  Which publisher? Look at publishers’ lists and see where your book might best fit — you can do this on-line.  Start with the books in your “competition”: who published those?  Since I work on children’s literature, I can tell you that many presses publish children’s lit scholarship, among them: Oxford, Yale, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Duke, Iowa, Mississippi, Norton, Wiley-Blackwell, Ashgate, Routledge, and Continuum. Duke and Mississippi are interested in popular culture more than children’s lit (Mississippi specializes in comics in particular); NYU tends more towards childhood studies, and history. There are many other differences between presses: Oxford and Yale have more money than, say, Mississippi or Iowa.  Refereed presses carry more prestige than non-refereed ones, though a major trade press will usually carry as much prestige as any refereed one.  Full disclosure: I’ve published with Continuum (2 books), UP Mississippi (2 books, one of which is forthcoming), NYU Press (2 books, one of which is forthcoming), and Random House (1 book).  I’ve had great experiences with all of these publishers.

4.  Contact the Appropriate Editor.  Once you’ve decided on likely publishers, contact the editor in charge of your area – if you’re doing Children’s Lit, that’s likely the Humanities Editor or the Literature Editor.  You can find this on the publisher’s website.  If you’re going to MLA or ASA, set up an appointment with these editors in advance.  Write a cover email in which you briefly describe your book and explain why it might fit with their list; offer to send the proposal, and ask if the editor might be free to chat at MLA or ASA. That’s the best approach, but I’ve only done that for the most recent books.  What I used to do is simply arrive at MLA with half a dozen copies of my book proposal, and half a dozen copies of my CV.  I walked through the book exhibit, gauging which publishers might be a good fit ­— then, I introduced myself, and made a little sales pitch for my book (which I rehearsed in advance).

5.   Can you give a book proposal to more than one publisher at a time? Yes, you can.  A publisher will ask for exclusive rights to review a manuscript. Once the manuscript is under review at Publisher X, you may not turn around and send it to Publisher Y. You need to wait until Publisher X has delivered its verdict. That said, for the most recent contract (Keywords for Children’s Literature), several publishers asked for exclusive review of the proposal — that was unusual. Hadn’t happened to me before. From what I’ve  heard, such requests are becoming more common. Since we already had the proposal under review with several places, we had to say, politely, “no” and ask if a non-exclusive review would be possible. In all cases, the publisher agreed to give it a non-exclusive review.

6.  If favorable readers’ reports, respond politely to the content only.  So, you send your book proposal — along with a sample chapter or two — to a publisher.  If the readers’ reports are favorable, you’ll need to respond.  Readers’ suggestions range from excellent ideas that will help you make the project better … to less helpful ideas, reflecting, perhaps, the book the readers would like to see you write or, maybe, a misunderstanding about what your book intends to accomplish. Accept the helpful suggestions with gratitude, and respond graciously to the other ones — perhaps your proposal could have more clearly conveyed that your book intends to do X and Y?  You might then quote the relevant part of your proposal, offer a few more explanatory sentences, indicating that while the reader offers promising directions for further development, to fully advance the aims of your project you won’t be able to pursue all of those directions even though you especially like direction number 7 which you find very helpful in reframing Chapter 3.  My policy is to cede when I can and to hold my ground when I can, but always do it politely.  If a reader’s report has a hostile tone, respond only to the content and not to the tone.

7.   If unfavorable news,… never say die! What if that publisher doesn’t either send you a contract or ask to see your manuscript?  Well, keep trying.  Go to the next publisher on your list.  If you remember nothing else from this blog post, remember these three words: Never say die.

Minear's Dr. Seuss Goes to War8.  If your proposal can’t be a book, it can become an article or a chapter of a different book. It’s possible that your idea simply isn’t going to work as a book. Not all ideas become books.  This isn’t because there are good ideas and bad ideas, although there are good ideas and bad ideas.  This is because there are marketable ideas and un-marketable ideas.  If you have a good idea for a book, but you can’t sell it… then it’s not a book.  Maybe it becomes an article or part of another book. As I noted in this blog’s inaugural post, my first failed book idea was a collection of Dr. Seuss’s World War II cartoons.  Right when a publisher was ready to offer me a contract, I learned that the New Press would be publishing Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War.  So, I turned my introduction into an article, which I published in Mosaic in 2001, and which became Chapter 2 of Dr. Seuss: American Icon — that article and the book proposal secured the contract for that book.  A more recent failed book idea is for an Annotated Ferdinand; I gained the support of the Leaf family and the Lawson estate, but I couldn’t interest Viking or Norton.  So, I’ll be turning that proposal and sample annotations into an article.  And so on.  In other words, if it won’t work as a book, then put it to some other use.  This is simply another version of never say die.

Gubar's Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature9. Reasons to keep trying.  Given the many obstacles, why should you pursue your dream of writing the book?  Two reasons.  In academia, writing a book means never having to explain yourself. You become (for example) Marah Gubar, author of Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature.  Second reason: in academe, publications are the coin of the realm, and we academics get to print our own money.  There’s pocket change — say, an encyclopedia entry or a book review.  Then there are moderately-sized bank notes — articles in refereed journals, essays in edited collections.  Finally, there are the Really Big Bank Notes — books.  The book increases your cultural capital more than any other kind of publication.  Now, I’m definitely not arguing that books should be so highly valued; some books should not be.  I am merely pointing out that they are highly valued.  And that’s a good reason to keep repeating to yourself, “I think I can, I think I can….” And it’s an excellent reason to make your Little Manuscript That Could… into the Little Book That Is.

Note: I presented a version of this at the Children’s Literature Association’s annual conference in Normal, Illinois, on June 12, 2008.  Several people have indicated that they found this information helpful.  So, I thought I would share it with a wider audience.

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Mash-up vs. Purple Crayon

This is not a post on bastard pop or remixed movie trailers.  Such a post would be fun to read, but this isn’t it.  At 13 years (if measured by my degree date) or 11 years (if measured by my first publications) into the business that is academia, I’m reflecting on what kind of work I do.  So, if you aren’t an academic, it’s highly likely that this will bore the pants off of you.  True, given that we’re having an exceptionally warm summer, you might want to be pants-less.  Surely, though, you could find a less wearisome way of becoming de-pants’d?  (Insert ribald joke here.  Thank you.)

Anyway.  Some scholars manage to shift the paradigm, changing the discussion.  Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) is a popular example; Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) is another.  In the field of literary studies, one could point to Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993), or Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? (1993) — among many others.

And then you have people like me.  Some (much?) of my scholarship is the academic equivalent of the musical mash-up.  Instead of combining a song by Jay-Z with one by the Beatles, I make a similar move with ideas — placing a set of ideas in a different context, and coming up with something unusual.  Read Dr. Seuss through theories of the avant-garde and postmodern, and you — well, I — get “Dada Knows Best: Growing Up ‘Surreal’ with Dr. Seuss” (article, 1999; book chapter, 2002).  Write on Don DeLillo while teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies, and — voila! — “Amazons in the Underworld: Gender, the Body, and Power in the Novels of Don DeLillo” (article, 2001).  Where odd ideas collide, you’ll find me.

I admire people who have the paradigm-shifting ideas.  But I’m not one of those people.  Perhaps my tendency to pursue many projects simultaneously prevents the sort of reflection that leads to the Big Ideas.  Or maybe that my mind simply doesn’t work that way.  Likely, both are factors.

After getting my doctorate, I concluded that a rigorous publishing regimen was the only path out of adjuncthood and into a tenure-track job.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who earned her Ph.D. at the same time I earned mine (exactly one year later, in fact), did something different.  Instead of arriving at a conclusion, she asked a question: Why?  Why do we publish in academic journals and with academic presses that take years to print our work and that few non-academics read anyway?  Why not post our work on-line, via a blog?  While I toiled away within the publish-or-perish paradigm, she challenged the paradigm … and has begun to change it.  Thanks to her Planned Obsolescence blog, her many invited talks, and her forthcoming book (named for her blog), Kathleen is shifting the way that academics think about publishing.  My motto for the past decade has been: Enhance production!  Hers is something more like: Change the mode of production!

I intend the echo of Marx in that last sentence to evoke less his ideas, and more the boldness of his thinking.  As an untenured academic, Kathleen took a risk in questioning the system she aspired to join.  Wisely tempering that risk, she did (and does) also publish scholarship through traditional venues, of course — via academic presses, academic journals. Though I co-edited a collection of radical children’s literature, my own career path has been much more conservative. True, I have had a website since 1997, but — for the bulk of my scholarship — I have stuck almost exclusively to traditional modes of publishing.

If the mash-up is the controlling metaphor for my scholarship, then the purple crayon is the metaphor for hers. Instead of doing the usual thing and creating a story about a character, Crockett Johnson had the idea to make his character the author of his own story.  In doing so, he created a classic of children’s literature — Harold and the Purple Crayon — in which the title character draws a universe out of a single crayon.  His adventures get him into a few tight spots, but, keeping “his wits and his purple crayon,” Harold draws his way out … and into another six books.  So, hoping that you keep your wits and your purple crayon (or blog, or vlog, or insert other medium here), remember there’s more than one path to success.  Why not draw your own?

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Fortunate Failures; or, How I Became a Scholar of Dr. Seuss

I was going to begin this blog with a post on last week’s Harry Potter conference in Orlando, but Henry Jenkins’ excellent blog post (including photos of the theme park) is far more interesting than anything I could contribute.  So, instead I’ll lead with something else by J. K. Rowling: “the benefits of failure.”  As she said in her speech to Harvard’s class of 2008, “some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Though my failures (and successes!) have never reached the extremes of Rowling’s, failure has been good to me.  In 1997, I had an idea: no one had collected any of the 400+ cartoons that Dr. Seuss wrote for the newspaper PM in 1941-1943.  That would make a great book!  So, I wrote an introduction, photocopied a selection of cartoons from microfilm, wrote a glossary to all the political references in the cartoons, and … tried to get a book contract.  At that time, I was a brand-new Ph.D. with zero publications to my name.  I have no idea why I thought that a publisher would offer me a contract.

An editor called to offer me a contract.  This should have been great news — except that, the day before, I learned that the New Press would (in six months’ time) be publishing Richard Minear’s Dr. Seuss Goes to War (1999), which collects about 200 of Seuss’s PM cartoons.  I told the editor about Minear’s book, and asked: perhaps we could still do our Seuss cartoons book?  She told me no, the market would not bear two such books.  But what else was I working on?  If I had any other ideas, I should definitely get back in touch.

Fast forward two years to July 2001.  I had published a few articles, including one on Seuss’s PM cartoons — I had taken that failed introduction and developed it into a essay.  I first sent it to the New Yorker, which turned it down.  (I have no idea why I thought the New Yorker would publish it.  Naïveté?  Optimism?  Both?)  I then reworked it again and sent it to a scholarly journal, which … rejected it.  Ah, failure again!  So, I submitted it to another journal, Mosaic, which published it in its June 2001 issue as “‘Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz…’: How World War II Created Dr. Seuss.”  Earlier that same year, I had turned in the manuscript to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum, 2001).  Anyway, in July, checking my email at a computer terminal in Vancouver (where I was on holiday), I read a note from David Barker, my editor at Continuum:

I think I read something in Library Journal the other day about a (mediocre-sounding) new book on Dr Seuss. The review ended with something like  ‘so we’re still waiting for the first decent study of Dr Seuss’. Are you aware of anything good on Seuss? Would you know of anyone who might want to write one?

I responded immediately, saying that, though I was working on a few other projects, I might want to write one.  I had published two articles on Seuss, had plans for several more, and had ideas on what the structure of such a Seuss book would look like.  With what now seems like unbelievable hubris, I wrote, “I know that I could do a great book on Seuss and I’m ambitious enough to take on such a project.”  So, I asked, “What do you have in mind?”

Happily, Mosaic’s website had featured my Seuss piece as that issue’s sole freely downloadable article.  David read it, liked it, sent me guidelines for writing a book proposal.  On the basis of that article and the proposal, he sent me a contract for Dr. Seuss: American Icon.  Meanwhile, the Harry Potter reader’s guide — as the first scholarly book on Rowling’s series — drew media attention.  Newspapers quoted me.  I appeared on NPR.  This was a truly surreal experience, but it also got me thinking: the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) would be in March 2004.  If we could get the book out by that date, then it might conceivably get a little media attention, right?  (Not for nothing is a section of my website labeled Shameless Self-Promotion.)  Although the manuscript wasn’t due until 2004, I asked David: when would Continuum need my manuscript in order to get the book out by early 2004?  He said: July 2003.  So, I turned it in by the end of July 2003.

Some other time, I’ll write about the media hoopla that Dr. Seuss: American Icon begat.  It was fun, exhausting, and I often felt like I was living someone else’s life. Really. Going from being an adjunct professor  in 1999 to a tenure-track professor on NPR’s Talk of the Nation in 2004 is extremely strange. Good, but definitely weird. My point in mentioning the publicity is that the great Lane Smith saw me on CBS Sunday Morning, and sent me an email. That, too, was amazing.  Upon opening it, I called downstairs to Karin, “Holy cow! I got an email from Lane Smith!”  To meet people whose work you admire is wonderful.  Plus, Lane is a cool guy.  Anyway, Lane and I struck up an epistolary acquaintance, and I mentioned a couple of other ideas for Seuss projects — a collection of Seuss’s unpublished magazine stories, and an annotated Cat in the Hat (to be published on the 50th birthday of The Cat in the Hat). He said, well, why don’t you drop Janet Schulman a line?  (Schulman was Seuss’s editor for the last decade of his life.)  I said that I’d love to, but I didn’t know how to reach her.  Lane gave me her contact info., and I emailed her with my ideas.  Now an editor emerita, Janet had read and liked Dr. Seuss: American Icon, and promised to share my ideas with Kate Klimo, who heads the children’s book division at Random House.  Within days, I heard back that they liked the Annotated Cat idea and, later in the week, would be meeting with Dr. Seuss Enterprises (corporate entity which oversees the licensing and production of all things Seuss).  Could I send details on The Annotated Cat?  I dropped everything else, and stayed up very late one night writing sample annotations.  On the basis of that email and my previous Seuss book, I got a contract for The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats (2007).  That’s the shortest, quickest, and most high-profile book proposal I’ve ever written — or, I expect, ever will write.

To date, I’ve published five books (one co-edited), and have two more forthcoming (one co-edited).  I’ve also created failed proposals for an additional five books.  All of those failures either have gone or will go on to another life as articles, different books, or something else.  So, that’s why I say that failure has been very good to me.  And it’s why I’m starting this blog with a post about failure.

After all, who knows but that this blog may prove to be another fortunate failure?  Ah, one can hope!

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