Interview with Karen Li
By Naseem Hrab
Today we’re going to talk to Owlkids Books’ editorial director extraordinaire … Karen Li! Karen has been in her role at Owlkids since 2014 and she’s spent over ten years creating award-winning children’s books.
I worked with Karen while she was an editor at Kids Can Press and she is one of my favourite people on earth. She’s also one of the editors of Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend. I have to say that it’s been kind of mind-blowing to get to work with Karen in an editorial capacity. (I feel I should also mention that while Karen asked me to submit Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend to Owlkids, the manuscript was presented to their editorial board under the pen name Abe Bishop.)
I feel like the working relationship I have with Karen is a lot like our friendship: we respect each other’s ideas and opinions, and laugh at each other’s jokes, Karen has to work really hard to make sense of what I’m trying to say, and she has to rein me in a lot. Could Karen be the editor of my books AND MY LIFE???
In this interview, we ask Karen about her favourite funny books, what it’s like to edit funny books and more!
Right now, my favourite funny book is School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex. I love how Adam turns the traditional “first day of school” narrative on its head and tells the story from the school building’s perspective. It’s so ridiculous! And the book also has so much heart—you really feel for the school. What are some of your favourite funny picture books of late? What do you think makes them so successful?
I also loved School’s First Day of School! I’m eager to get my hands on his next one, Nothing Rhymes with Orange.
Some favourites at my house right now are the Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! books, in particular, We Are Growing! and The Cookie Fiasco. (Full disclosure to readers: Naseem gave these books to my son for his birthday.) I make myself hoarse doing all the voices. My kids also love Olivier Tallec’s books and Peter Brown’s, too. Especially Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.
Some of my personal favourites: I really laughed at I Don’t Like Koala. I think We Found a Hat is the funniest and loveliest of Jon Klassen’s trilogy. On the Owlkids list, Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend, of course, has cracked me up since it was a manuscript. My other favourite from Owlkids is The Flat Rabbit, which I still find shockingly funny. It’s a perfect tragicomedy.
I’m not sure if there’s one thing that makes all these books so successful … Maybe it would be the element of surprise. In other genres, I think you can make a marvelous picture book even if it’s a story you’ve seen before. The success is in the telling of it. But the funniest picture books always surprise. They make you think, “Well, that was a first!”
When you’re working with an author on a funny manuscript, you’re also helping them craft jokes. How is editing a funny book different than editing a more serious book?
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When I’m editing “serious” books, I’m mostly sending queries to the author in hopes of helping them clarify, organize or deepen their ideas. With funny manuscripts, I think the author and I are maybe more fast and loose with the material.
Story matters, of course, and what happens needs to be true to the character. But people who write funny stories—and particularly those with a comedy background—are not precious about their material. We are constantly cutting and trying new jokes—always in search of the line that will make us laugh harder.
Whether I’m writing comedy for kids or adults, I have no idea whether my jokes will land. I basically cross my fingers and hope that somebody’s going to laugh. How can you be sure that the humour in the books you’re publishing will resonate with kids and their parents?
There’s no way to be sure. Our in-house editorial process guarantees someone will tell me if a joke is definitely not funny or appropriate. But otherwise, I have my fingers crossed, too.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring children’s author?
Read, read, read children’s books! And not just the favourites that you remember from your own childhood. People have been doing incredibly interesting things in children’s literature over the past ten years. Prepare to have your mind blown!
Fart jokes in children’s literature: Yea or nay?
Do you even need to ask? Of course, yea!
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naseem Hrab is a writer, a storyteller and a pretty good friend. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.