Meet Team AG: Q&A with American Girl Author and Lifestyle Editor Andrea DebbinkCommunity
As a journalism and history major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Andrea Debbink worked for three years as an editorial intern at American Girl magazine, the very publication she loved as a child. Years later, when the editorial team sought a new lifestyle editor, Andrea applied for the position.
That was nearly a decade ago. In that time, Andrea has become a leader in developing meaningful nonfiction content for girls, including crafts, recipes, games, and activities that encourage girls’ creative expression.
When you are developing content for girls, what drives and inspires you?
I’m an American Girl fan from way back. I found the historical books at my library when I was eight years old and started subscribing to American Girl magazine when they released their first issue in 1993. Shortly afterward, I received my favorite Christmas gift of all time: my first AG doll. It was Kirsten, and she stands proudly next to my work computer today.
It’s a privilege to be a part of encouraging and empowering the next generation of girls, and the content development team and I take our responsibility to our readers seriously. I’m always interested in and inspired by what girls have to say. Young readers are so uninhibited and honest in their feedback. I love it when girls send us photos of crafts and recipes they’ve made, share their thoughts on something I’ve written, or simply tell us something about themselves.
Making a positive difference in girls’ lives is why I do what I do—truly, the greatest joy is getting feedback from readers and seeing the difference our content makes in their lives.
To that end, your new book, Spark: A Guide to Ignite the Creativity Inside You, celebrates the notion that everyone is creative: from artists and writers to inventors and builders, from scientists and coders to athletes and engineers. That’s a message that is, to use your words, incredibly “encouraging and empowering.” How did this idea, and the book, come to be?
Spark is an idea that’s based on my work for American Girl magazine, feedback from readers, and my own fascination with the concept of creativity.
Back in 2016, I dug into the letters we receive from our magazine readers to look for common questions and themes related to creative expression. We receive over 1000 pieces of mail from girls following each new issue, so I had a lot to work with. I was somewhat surprised to discover that girls were dealing with a lot of the same issues that adults face in the area of creativity: lack of inspiration, the inner critic, perfectionism, etc. I wanted to find a way to respond to these questions and concerns, but that seemed impossible to do in a short magazine article. In order to do the topic justice, a creativity guidebook seemed like an ideal solution and a natural fit for the advice and activity books American Girl publishes.
As I further explored this book concept, I noticed a gap in the marketplace. There are many wonderful picture books about creativity and many books on this topic for adults, but very few (if any) for a middle-grade audience. Not only did the topic seem right, but the time seemed right, too. I developed a concept and shared it with our executive editor, Barbara Stretchberry, and editorial director, Jodi Goldberg. They were early champions of the idea, and they gave the initial green light for this book.
Encouraging creativity in girls has long been a value of American Girl as a company, so it wasn’t difficult to gain internal support for the book. Still, from initial book pitch to final proofing, the book development process took about a year. Then it was a long wait for it to be printed and released!
So Spark guides girls through the creative process and offers them tools and encouragement to “dream up brilliant ideas and turn them into brilliant things.” In truth, then, you were actively doing the very thing you were writing about. What was that process like for you as you developed this book?
I started writing Spark on sticky notes in my living room. The structure of the book comes from my own experience and creative process as a writer and maker. To be honest, until I had to articulate it, I didn’t think very much about my own creative process—at least not explicitly. But once I got started—I don’t want to say it was easy, but the book seemed to write itself.
After the manuscript was written, art director Dan Nordskog and illustrator Emily Balsley came on board. That’s when the book really began to take shape. I love Emily’s bright and whimsical illustration style and the way she embraces creativity in all parts of her life. So I wrote words and Emily created beautiful art, but Dan is really the book’s architect and visionary.
Art directors tend to have a behind-the-scenes role in publishing, so they don’t get a lot of fanfare, but putting those two elements—words and art—together into a book is an art unto itself. Dan is the book’s unsung hero.
And then of course there are so many other people that help bring a book into being, from copy editors to marketers to production artists. One thing this process taught me was the incredible number of skilled people it takes to bring a book into the world.
Your extensive body of work for American Girl has taken up everything from chemistry to crochet! What challenges do you find in writing for these young readers?
The greatest challenge is to strike an age-appropriate tone and deliver complex information in a way middle-grade readers can understand. I never want to be patronizing, but I also don’t want to talk over readers’ heads. It’s an interesting balance. I think sometimes there’s a mistaken belief that it’s easy to write for children and that you just have to “dumb down” what you’d write for adults. I couldn’t disagree more. I think that to write for children, you don’t merely simplify, you distill. The best children’s writers can distill an idea to its essence. That’s what I aspire to do when I write for this audience.
Finally, what would you most like the adults in your readers’ lives to know about you?
Even though I create a lot of fun content, I see a deeper meaning in the work I do. Crafts and recipes and games aren’t just interesting ways to pass the time. I think this type of nonfiction content is important because at its core, it’s about skill-building and creative expression. And skill-building and creative expression lead to empowerment and confidence for children . . . and adults!
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