Virginia Duncan On Editing a Newbery Winner

The acclaimed editor talks about working on Erin Entrada Kelly's Hello, Universe, her mentors, and more.

What do Lynne Rae Perkins’s Criss Cross, Naomi Shihab Nye’s 19 Varieties of Gazelle, Kevin Henkes’s Kitten’s First Full Moon, Megan Whalen Turner’s “The Queen’s Thief” books, Sid Fleischman’s The Trouble Begins at 8, Brian Pinkney’s The Adventures of Sparrowboy, and Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe have in common?

They were all edited by Virginia Duncan, publisher of Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children's.

The veteran editor, who started as an editorial assistant at Bradbury Press, recently shared some of her experiences and the process of working on this year’s Newbery Award–winning Hello, Universe.

Who were your mentors, and what are their influences?
Richard Jackson and Norma Jean Sawicki at Bradbury Press were (and are) very important to me. Because the house was so small—just four people, including me—I had the opportunity to see, read, and experience a lot. The fact that Dick and Norma Jean published all kinds of books for all ages shaped my interests and future acquisitions. Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow hired me in 1997, and we worked together until she retired in 2001. Probably the most important thing I learned from Susan was to push and ask questions and push some more, but in the end the author is always right.

How did Hello, Universe come to you?
Erin and I worked on Blackbird Fly, her first book, as well as The Land of Forgotten Girls.

Can you share some of the discussions that came up during the revision process?
I love Erin’s voice and clean, confident, spare writing and admire her ability to speak directly and respectfully to her readers. We talked about making Hello, Universe funnier and increasing the tension. She loves to revise, and I love reading her revisions because there is always something new and surprising. We talked about the extent to which she describes the characters physically. We talked a lot about Chet. Would readers think he was a caricature? Did she let us see his motivations enough? In the end, we anticipated that some readers would be unsatisfied with this portrayal, but we decided it was just right and true to the story and the world of the book. Erin worked with several readers from the Deaf community on her portrayal of Valencia. That input was very nuanced and important.

Could you talk more about the choice to mix first- and third-person narration?
This was something Erin decided on her own from the beginning. Valencia’s chapters are in first person because she spends a lot of time alone, especially at the beginning of the book, so there would have been limited opportunity for readers to get to know her. So Erin had her interact with readers.

How did Erin tailor Filipino folk stories and beliefs to align with Owen’s situation?
Filipino folklore/folk beliefs are woven into Erin’s earlier books as well. But in Hello, Universe, they are especially powerful, and the dovetailing is subtle, a real strength of the writing. Erin experimented with voice and tone and looked for all possible connections during the revision process.

What are some of your current projects?
You Go First, Erin’s next book after Hello, Universe, published in April. Now she’s working on her first fantasy, which incorporates scenes, details, [and] moments from the initial manuscript I received on submission six or so years ago but did not sign to publish. It has come full circle and makes me happy. Other forthcoming titles are The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock; Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea by Lynne Rae Perkins; So Done by Paula Chase; Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes; Mapping Sam, written and illustrated by Joyce Hesselberth; and A Kiss for Akaraka by Richard Jackson, illustrated by E.B. Goodale.

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City and one of SLJ’s “Heavy Medal” bloggers.

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