A Cafe Chat with Harold Underdown, by Lindsay Bandy

In exactly one month, it will be time to gather at the Highlights Foundation for our annual 2018 Pocono Retreat! Everything is shaping up beautifully, and the April 12 deadline is approaching for faculty critiques and the Peer-to-Peer critique sessions. There are still critique spots left with today’s guest – the one and only Harold Underdown! Take a few minutes to get to know Harold, then hop on over to the Pocono registration page!


Harold Underdown is an author and independent children’s book editor who works with authors and publishers. Harold enjoys teaching, and in that role wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Book Publishing, now in its third edition. He founded and runs The Purple Crayon, a respected Web site with information about the children’s publishing world at www.underdown.org. He runs the Kids Book Revisions workshops and tutorials with colleague Eileen Robinson. He also speaks and gives workshops at conferences, including the SCBWI’s national conferences in Los Angeles and New York, the Highlights Foundation Workshops, and smaller conferences all over the country. Previously, he worked at Macmillan, Orchard, and Charlesbridge, and has experience in trade and educational publishing. He has edited a variety of fiction and nonfiction in both picture book and chapter formats….And lucky us, he’s adding a chat at the Eastern Penn Points Cafe to that impressive resume!

haroldLB: Hi there, Harold, and welcome to the Eastern Penn Points Cafe! We’re so happy to have you as a faculty member at our upcoming Pocono Retreat! As we settle into our comfy booth, can we get you something to drink?

HU: Thanks, don’t mind if I do! I’m partial to IPA, and recently I’ve been enjoying the new “session” style IPAs—less alcohol, still hoppy. I’ll take a Founders All-Day IPA.

LB: And something to munch on?

HU: I’ll have some salt-and-vinegar crisps, please, in tribute to the British side of my family.

LB: Excellent choices! So, can you give us a little sneak peek into what you have up your sleeve for the Poconos?

HU: I’ll be talking about beginnings and endings of stories, and how writers make a promise with their beginnings that they must keep by the end. I have observed that there are MANY different ways to begin a story, contradicting the common ideas have to “start with action,” or give the reader a “strong hook.” So I’ll be sharing some examples of stories that make their own distinctive promises, and talking about how they do that and how they keep them.

CIG-3rd-ed-largeLB: Your book, THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING CHILDREN’S BOOKS, gets rave reviews from some pretty big names in publishing, like Laurie Halse Anderson and Linda Sue Park. What led you to compile this awesome resource for writers and illustrators?

HU: I have to admit that it wasn’t a book I’d been burning to write! Back in 2000, I had my website, The Purple Crayon (www.underdown.org), and I enjoyed writing material and posting it there. But it was The Purple Crayon that made the book happen. The Idiot’s people commission many of their guides, and they found me via The Purple Crayon after deciding they wanted to do a book on writing children’s books. I like to say that the book has the title it does because when they contacted me and proposed that I write a 300+ page reference book in under a year, I was a complete idiot and didn’t say no! But I’m glad to have it now that it’s done.

The third edition came out in 2008, by the way, and they’ve told me there won’t be a new one any time soon. Fortunately, most of the book covers core information that doesn’t go out of date.

LB: You’ve edited quite a variety of materials in the KidLit world, Harold. What do you see as a positive trend right now in KidLit? And what direction do you hope it takes (or continues to take) in the future?

hand-3285912_1920.jpgHU: I think the discussion about and interest in diverse voices is important as well as positive, though I hesitate to label it a “trend.” It’s bigger than that, and goes back as a concern a long way. I remember that when I came into publishing in the late 80’s, we were calling for “multicultural books.” That call didn’t lead to big changes, because we’re back to the same topic, with a somewhat larger focus, thirty years later. I hope that the discussion, and action generated by it, continues. We’ll see!

There’s much more I could say about this, of course, but I think that would take me beyond the purpose of this interview. I’d be happy to talk about this with folks at the Retreat, though.

LB: What’s one common mistake or false assumption you come across when working with newbies to publishing?

HU: There are so many! I don’t want to mention just one, so I’ll say instead that the reason people coming into our field DO have so many incorrect assumptions is that there is much more to learn than anyone expects. Everyone has to learn this for themselves, and to keep learning. I learn something, or several somethings, every day.

science-fiction-441708_1920LB: Congratulations Harold, you’re the first KidLit editor in space! As you prepare to rocket into the final frontier, what three things do you pack to pass the light years?

HU: A one-volume Shakespeare, the New Yorker archives on DVD, and an ebook reader preloaded with as many Newbery, Prinz, and other award-winners as I can jam onto it (was that cheating?). Two out of three of those are not directly kidlit-related, but there is a reason for that—I think that adults working in children’s books need to nourish their adult selves too.

the-tonight-show-starring-jimmy-fallon-mug_1000_1.jpgLB: Now that you’ve returned from orbit, you’re guest starring on The Tonight Show! Jimmy Fallon really wants to know, what are three skills necessary for success as a children’s book author or illustrator?

HU: Focus, playfulness, and stubbornness. Perhaps those are not exactly skills, but you’ll need them anyways…


LB: Okay, Harold, take one more crisp and a deep breath (after you swallow, of course) and prepare for Flash Favorites! Ready or not, here we go. Tell us your favorite….

Season: Spring—and spring at the Highlights Foundation is even better.

Movie: My Neighbor Totoro

Type of shoe: Hiking

Style of music: Jazz

Vegetable: Grilled eggplant with oil, balsamic vinegar, and basil.

Animal to tame as a pet (real or imaginary): A dragon, though of course dragons can’t be tamed.

One-liner of publishing advice: Read every week.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Harold! We’re looking forward to chatting with you in May!

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