Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Headline: Writing for Children with Highlights Editor Debra Hess with Tote Giveaway

Anyone who has read to a child or been a kid in the past decade or so has probably read something Debra Hess has written or edited. She is the author of dozens of fiction and nonfiction books for children and has been published by Disney, HarperCollins, Simon and Schuster, and more. She was a series writer on Eureeka’s Castle, editor of Scholastic News and Scholastic Action magazines and the editorial director of the Custom Publishing division of Weekly Reader.

By Sarah Whitney

Among the books she has written are Thurgood Marshall: The Fight for Equal Justice, a NY Public Library Best Books for the Teen Age, and Wilson Sat Alone, an acclaimed picture book that was made into a PBS Storytime Special.
 She joined Highlights for Children as a Senior Editor in June 2009. She is the genre editor for nonfiction, responsible for screening all nonfiction submissions, acquiring nonfiction, and editing all sports, arts, adventure, cultural, lower-level science and social studies, career and profile pieces.

In April, she will speak at the “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” conference, sponsored by the Missouri Writers’ Guild. She will present a breakout session entitled, “Why You Should Want to Write For Children’s Magazines.”  Her session will provide an overview of the children’s magazine market and why it is the ultimate stepping stone to becoming a published writer. Debra will also be taking pitches for nonfiction topics for Highlights for Children.

Sarah:  Debra, thank you for taking the time to visit with us about your upcoming presentation at the Missouri Writers’ Guild Annual Conference.

Debra:  I’m looking forward to it.

Sarah:  To begin, could you give us a little more information about your breakout session? Why is writing for the children’s magazine market a good stepping stone for aspiring writers?

Debra:  For one thing, you can begin small.  Once we have purchased anything from a writer—a craft, a poem, an activity—that writer is in our database and on our radar, and we then tend to pay more attention when submissions come through our doors.   There are also hundreds of freelance opportunities for writers in the children’s magazine market.  And, for children’s nonfiction especially, there is less competition than in, say, the adult magazine market or the children’s fiction market.  I’ll address this in depth at the breakout session.

 Sarah:  During the Editors Roundtable at the May 2011 Highlights Foundation workshop, you said Highlights “actively recruits and looks for new authors.” If someone at the conference is interested in finding out more information about how to become a Highlights author, how would you recommend they break the ice?

Debra:  They should attend the breakout session, and if I haven’t answered all of their questions after that, they are welcome to come speak to me.

Sarah:  In the same workshop, you said that the number one mistake people make when they submit nonfiction to Highlights is they don’t realize you guys vet all the pieces for publication through experts. I noticed on the Highlights website, you requested that all nonfiction pieces include a bibliography and an expert review. Could you explain the expert review?  What are you looking for in that? And how would you recommend a writer – new to Highlights – go about getting one?

Debra:  That’s a great question.  If the article is person-specific, say a scientist or a profile of an artist, then the writer would have already interviewed the subject and would simply need to ask for a review of the article before submitting it to Highlights.  If not, foundations, universities and zoos are also great places to find experts.  If an author isn’t certain how to go about it but has done solid research and attached a bibliography, we will sometimes take it upon ourselves to vet an article through an expert prior to purchase.

Sarah:  Highlights receives approximately 800 unsolicited fiction and 200 unsolicited nonfiction submissions each month. In addition to including a bibliography and expert review, what else can writers do to make their submissions stand out from the slush pile?

Debra:  I think most editors get asked this a lot, and the truth is that there is no trick to it.  If the writing is good and the story is a fit for the magazine, then it will garner the attention of an editor. I think it’s important to remember that editors have different tastes and magazines have different needs. Becoming as familiar as possible with the publication and its guidelines is good place to start.

Sarah:  Why is including stories for children about culture so important to Highlights?

Debra:  Highlights is dedicated to helping children be their “best selves.”  We value all children and all walks of life and hope to provide a window into the world for our readers.

Sarah:  In addition to being an editor, you’re also the author of several fiction and nonfiction children’s books. What are a few of the qualities you value in children’s books, and could you cite examples from your own work?

Debra:  I value the same thing as a writer of books as I do as an editor at Highlights.  Good, solid writing, accurate facts, attention to detail and respect for the audience. 

Sarah:  Debra, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope our readers here at the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference Blog will glean some insight into the submission process at Highlights and will be interested in attending your breakout session during the Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference.

To everyone else, what do you think about this interview? Does anyone who has been published in Highlights have comments to add? Let us know what you think in the comments to win a chance to receive a 2012 Missouri Writers’ Guild tote bag. Tweeting, posting a link on Facebook and blogging about this post gives you extra chances to win. Just tell Tricia when you comment how you helped us spread the word.

In the meantime, if you learned something from any of our conference previews, you should consider registering for the upcoming “Write Time! Write Place! Write Now!” Conference.  By attending, you’ll not only learn from our talented faculty, but you will also have access to two early arrival sessions, individual pitches, and chances to network with faculty and other attendees during our cocktail hour, luncheon, awards banquet and Open Mic.

Early registration ends Dec. 31. That’s less than two weeks away!  Register online via Paypal or print the registration form and submit a check via U.S. mail.

The 2012 Missouri Writers’ Guild Conference is sure to be a great event. I hope to see all of you there.

Keep writing!


  1. Interesting post. Never thought about nonfiction for children, but now I will.

  2. Thanks for another great interview. I'm excited about the conference. I've made out my check and am putting my registration in the mail tomorrow (today's a post office holiday).
    Donna V.

  3. Since I write for children, I thoroughly enjoyed your interview. I haven't submitted to a magazine yet, but have written many picture book manuscripts and I am in the process of submitting them to publishers. I also write a column for kids in a regional magazine in WV.

  4. Janet, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Writing for children is definitely harder than most people give it credit.