Children’s Literature Editor Karen Boss ‘95 ‘13 Champions Diverse Authors in Successful Career Change
There is no replacement for what you learn in [the Children’s literature program at Simmons]. You start [your career] on the 50 yard line.
When she returned to Simmons to study children’s literature in 2011, Karen Boss ’95 ’13MA, had worked in higher education for 12 years, and in nonprofits for 6 years.
“I didn’t want to get a PhD, and I didn’t want to be a Dean,” says Boss, from her new home on an island off the coast of Maine.
Her initial response to an impending life change? Quit her position at Occidental College in Los Angeles, buy a one-way ticket to China, and eventually take a diving course in Thailand. The result was transformative. “I lived on a little island in the Gulf of Thailand for 20 months, working as a diving master and then as an instructor. Living abroad changed who I am.”
Once back stateside and after deciding to leave higher education behind, she tried working in nonprofits, including Hyde Square Task Force in Jamaica Plain, but couldn’t find a focus that would anchor the rest of her career.
Making the decision to start the MA program
Through all of these changes, children’s literature had always been a part of her life. “I never stopped reading kids’ books,” she says. “I paid attention to the Caldecott [award for picture books] and the Newbery [award for children’s books]. I cared about kids’ books.” One day, at her nonprofit job, the realization finally hit. “[I thought], this is not what I’m supposed to be doing. I decided I was too old to not do the children’s literature degree. You get to a point in your life when work has to matter. It knew it was time to do this. Even if I couldn’t make the degree turn into an actual job, it would enrich my life, and I could return to nonprofit work, having spent two years studying literature I’ve loved for decades.”
She started the program exactly 20 years after she began her first semester of undergraduate classes at Simmons. Even still, she held back her true ambitions for practical reasons. “I wanted to be an editor, but I didn’t want to move to New York City,” she recalls. She told Professor and Director Cathryn Mercier, “I know I don’t want to be a teacher and I’m worried because I didn’t major in English in undergrad. Cathie asked me to name the book with this first line, ‘Where's Papa going with that ax?’ Of course, I knew it was Charlotte’s Web. She told me, ‘You’ll be fine.’”
Becoming an editor
In Spring of Boss’s first year of graduate school, Charlesbridge Publishing listed an editorial assistant job. “I thought, this is a no-brainer. I’m going to apply. I have 15 years of work experience, I can convince them that I’ll be an asset.” Yolanda Scott, now Publisher and Editorial Director at Charlesbridge, hired Boss for the position. “Yolanda sees the benefit in the people around her knowing stuff that she doesn’t know. She told me that I was reinventing myself for a purpose, and what I had to offer the department was invaluable. I was so grateful!”
Finishing the program while working at Charlesbridge (her first position in a for-profit company) was a challenge. “It was hard, time-wise,” recalls Boss. “I told my friends, I would love to see you, but you need to come over here and read picture books with me. I had wonderful friends and a community around me that helped me get through that year.”
Eleven years later, Boss is still at Charlesbridge. “It’s a small house, so I was promoted more quickly,” she says, having acquired her first book after just one and a half years. “I will likely acquire my 100th book this fall. I don’t think I’m ever leaving Charlesbridge!” Working remotely has enabled her to move off the coast of Maine, while still producing quality children’s books.
While she doesn’t have a “wish list” like some editors, there are elements of a book that Boss looks for when reading submissions. “I look for well-written, well-conceived, unique ideas with multiple sales hooks,” she says. “I care about structure — how the story works is really important. I turn down a lot of books because they’re too straight-forward, with not enough tension.”
Focusing on diversity
Diversity has been a cornerstone of her entire career, and the push to publish diverse content and authors existed at Charlesbridge long before it hit the mainstream. “More than 50% of my list has a diversity focus of some kind,” says Boss. “If I have a creator who is white, we look for the illustrator to bring diversity to the book. I’ve also edited several books by Indigenous authors. Traci Sorell’s picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga came along in the slush pile. We’ve done four books together since then, with another one coming, and she’s sent other Native creators my way.” As a result of Boss’s dedication, Charlesbridge has become adept at working with Native creators. “They have no reason to trust a white system and publishing is an overwhelmingly white system. They’ve been silenced for centuries. It’s time they were heard.”
Boss is also a part of the Charlesbridge Connections program, which invites BIPOC creators to submit a manuscript and have a 30-minute consultation with an editor about their work. “It’s been great to be able to support new voices who have been underrepresented or left out on purpose from publishing,” she says.
Reflecting on the opportunities and advantages offered at Simmons
Looking back, Boss sees the Children’s literature program at Simmons as pivotal for her success. “There is no replacement for what you learn in that program. You start [your career] on the 50 yard line. Both the MA or MFA can parlay into publishing. You have to take criticism classes that make you understand children’s literature as literature. Many people, when they go to hire, they pull out [applications from] Simmons students and look at them first. They know they are coming with a vast knowledge of children’s literature as an art form, what it means, and its history.”
While Boss admits that those who dive into the publishing industry will need to contend with lower salaries than in other professions, she thinks that the benefits often outweigh the drawbacks. “This is a job that you can do as long as your brain is functional. I could be 75 and still editing books and still get stuff into the hands of kids who need it. That’s a really strong draw.”
As for leadership, Boss says, “Growing up, my last name was incredibly apropos. My mom tried not to squash my spirit but also wanted me to live as a polite member of society. I wanted to be in charge, but how could I reign it in and turn it into leadership? Simmons was a part of that [learning process]. It fostered the part of me that wanted to be in charge of everything, and helped me figure out how to make that happen in a way that was respectful and thoughtful to fellow humans.” In both her undergraduate and graduate studies at Simmons, learning extended well beyond the classroom. “I met unique, thoughtful, incredibly smart young women at Simmons. They helped me better understand the vast differences among people in the world, and that’s always a strength.”
Children's book recommendations
We asked Karen Boss for her children’s book recommendations, and here are her picks:
- We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessac
The Cherokee community is grateful for blessings and challenges that each season brings. This is modern Native American life as told by an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
- We Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessac
Twelve Native American kids present historical and contemporary laws, policies, struggles, and victories in Native life, each with a powerful refrain: We are still here!
- Captain Skidmark Dances with Destiny by Jennifer A. Irwin
This laugh-out-loud middle-grade novel follows thirteen-year-old Will — who hates hockey and loves dancing — as he navigates school, bullies, and his father’s expectations.
- Stand as Tall as the Trees: How an Amazonian Community Protected the Rain Forest by Patricia Gualinga and Laura Resau, illustrated by Vanessa Jaramillo (also in Spanish: Con la cabeza en alto: Cómo una comunidad amazónica protegió la selva)
An inspiring true story about how an activist in the Amazon worked with other Indigenous communities to protect and preserve their sacred lands and forests.
- Where You Left Us by Rhiannon Wilde (imported from Australia)
This coming-of-age novel for fans of Becky Albertalli and Nina LaCour follows two sisters navigating mental health and relationships as they uncover their family’s mysterious past.