Sunday, September 16, 2012

Interview with founders of "Stone Soup," the magazine by young writers and artists

First published in 1973, Stone Soup is one of my favorite things to introduce to young people; it’s currently the last slide in the PowerPoint I use for school visits. I tell kids that they don’t have to wait till they’re my age to try to get published. I tell them I wish I knew about Stone Soup when I was their age.

Stone Soup is a high-quality magazine that comes out six times a year and consists exclusively of stories and art created completely by kids. In what I feel is high praise indeed, Ms. magazine called it “The New Yorker of the 8- to 13-set.”

(The sophistication sometimes causes a double-take. The July-August 2012 issue, for example, features a review of the Steve Jobs biography. Yes, the 656-page one aimed at adults.)

I wanted to know the story behind the magazine but found little online. I contacted the founders, both of whom agreed to be interviewed. If you want to know more, please comment and I will do a follow-up.

Gerry Mandel, co-founder and co-editor:

What was your professional background before Stone Soup?

William Rubel and I started Stone Soup when we were 19-year-old college students, living in the dorms at UC Santa Cruz. We are self-taught. Several [other] classmates were also involved at the beginning.

Where did the idea for Stone Soup come from?

It grew out of a Saturday morning art program, taught by UCSC students for kids in Santa Cruz.

Were you an art or literature major in college?

Yes. We didn’t [anticipate what we’d do with] Stone Soup. We just did it. It pretty much consumed our lives for the last 40 years.

What were the obstacles in founding it?

We got a couple thousand dollars from William's parents. That was all it took.

How did you initially get the word out to bookstores, libraries, and schools?

We created our own mailing list by spending hundreds of hours in the UCSC library, copying names and addresses of schools and libraries out of phone books. Bookstores did not carry magazines in those days.

How did you initially get the word out to potential contributors?

One of our founders was doing some student teaching in local schools. We also got work from Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York.

Any funny/painful/unusual stories from the early days of the magazine?

Can't think of any right now.

Have submissions been steady throughout the life of the magazine, have they steadily increased from year to year, or has it fluctuated?

They increased each year for many years, now they are pretty stable at about 10,000 a year.

What competing magazines, if any, have come and gone over the years?

There have not been many. Shoe Tree was one. Skipping Stones and Creative Kids are both still around.

You don’t run ads. How do you keep the magazine going?

We support the magazine with subscription sales.

I see your ads in The New Yorker often, so they must have a positive effect. But do you have a way to quantify that effect—in other words, how do you know how many new readers Stone Soup acquires because of those ads? (New Yorker ads are costly!)

We do keep track of responses. We ask subscribers how they heard about us.

Roughly what percentage of your subscribers cite the New Yorker ad as the catalyst?

I don’t know. We spend less than we make and that’s the criterion.

Have any magazine features been retired over the years? (I seem to remember that you once ran photographs?) Have you run nonfiction (including personal essay)? If not, would you consider it?

We don't distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. We are looking for good stories. We used to run stand-alone art pages. All the art we publish now is in the form of illustrations [accompanying stories]. We used to publish work by kids as young as 3. Now most of the work we publish is by 10- to 13-year-olds, with an occasional piece by an 8- or 9-year-old.

What kind of criticisms, if any, has the magazine received over the years?

We don't get much criticism. Some people ask us why we publish more girls than boys. We receive more submissions from girls than boys.

Have you ever received submissions that were concerning in some way and prompted you to follow up with a young person’s parents?

Not that I can remember.

Have you kept in touch with any of your early contributors?

We encourage contributors to keep in touch with us. Every once in a while we hear from someone.

Can you elaborate on a time a former contributor dropped you a line? Was it just to say hi? Was it many years after (i.e. when s/he was an adult)?

No. Hardly anyone does. They’re busier than I am.

[NOTE: I asked this because it could be very motivating for young people to hear that a former contributor went on to do something with writing—or even simply if a former contributor was so affected by being published at a young age that s/he would take the time as an adult to thank them again, etc.]

What is the age of the youngest contributor you’ve published?


If you have children, did any submit stories when they were of age?

I don’t have children.

Have any Stone Soup stories moved you to tears?

Many stories we publish are emotionally powerful in one way or another. Some are sad, some happy stories can move us to tears. Sometimes it's simply touching to hear about an experience from a child's point of view.

Can you recall an especially funny Stone Soup story?

Sorry, no.

Do you know how often the writers and artists you pair up contact one another to introduce themselves?

Not too often.

How do you know about the times contributors do connect with each other—do they ask you for contact info?

Once or twice, an author has asked to get in touch with the illustrator [that the author was matched up with] to thank her. I don’t know what happens after that.

Have you ever caught an adult misrepresenting his/her age to try to get published in Stone Soup? (I suppose that would be a compliment in its own twisted way!)


Do you know the most submissions you’ve received from one individual?

No. We don't keep track of this.

Do you know the most number of rejections one contributor has received before getting an acceptance?

We don't keep track of this.

Do you know what piece has inspired the most reader reaction/mail?

Sorry, no.

Have any of your contributors gone on to become traditionally published authors as adults?

Not to our knowledge.

Has Stone Soup had any celebrity endorsers—or subscribers (for their children)?

Subscribers, yes. But it is our understanding that they have not subscribed under their own names.

Is your work with Stone Soup full-time or do you have another job as well?


Is the magazine part of any programs in schools?

Probably. We don't keep track of this. Our subscribers used to be 80% schools and libraries. Now they are more like 80% families. Many schools have had to cut back on magazine subscriptions.

Do you know of any children’s book authors (besides me) who routinely recommend Stone Soup when speaking in schools?

We hear from them frequently but we don't keep track.

Off the top of your head, can you name any of the authors you have heard from?

No. I do Stone Soup but...I don’t read children’s books. I’m not an expert on children’s literature. I read writing by children but not writing for children. We’re business people and we’re good at what we do. We are probably worldwide experts on what we do. We’re self-taught.

Has the magazine won any awards?

Not really.

Have you given other interviews about Stone Soup?

Many. Stone Soup has been written up—especially in the early days—everywhere from the Washington Post to the San Francisco Chronicle.

What has been your proudest Stone Soup moment?

I am happy that Stone Soup provides a quality forum for young readers, writers, and artists.

Is there anything you’ve wanted to do with the magazine but haven’t yet done?

We're working on a redesign.

William Rubel, CEO, co-founder, and co-editor, responded to multiple questions with one conversational answer:

I thought of the idea for Stone Soup when I was teaching children writing and art in a Saturday morning program when I was in my second year of college at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It occurred to me that while we, as college students, studied work by adults there was no work by kids for kids to study. No models of excellence by their peers.

It also occurred to me that one couldn't make money—or recoup costs—through selling a book locally. For some reason it occurred to me that as there are so many schools and libraries in the United States that I'd only have to sell to a very small percentage of them to have a viable business. This was true.

We knew nothing about business but had the energy of being young and it was also a different time. I got together a group of friends from this Saturday morning art program for kids and we started Stone Soup. We got our first mailing list by typing names out of phone books at the university library. Initial responses from our directly mail pieces (typed) were in the range of 10%.

Looking back it was a golden time for starting projects. It was a transitional time for typesetting and printing. The very beginnings of the do-it-yourself era.

From the first we have made money off of the magazine's cover price. American children's magazines don't run ads, and besides, ads in small magazines are not economic for advertisers. Obviously, we haven't become rich from the magazine, but it has provided a livelihood doing what we care about.

I have a daughter who is 5½ so it is some time now before she might contribute to Stone Soup.

I have not been there full-time for fifteen years, at least. But I am the CEO. After nearly forty years we are still truly excited by much of the material we publish. We believe in children as authors and artists of genuinely creative material.

As publishing moves into another revolutionary time we, like other publishers, have no idea what the future holds for print. On the other hand, it seems to us that we are looking forward to a time of unprecedented creativity and we are working to transform our own business so that we will be able to thrive in the new publishing environments as they unfold—and hopefully grow much bigger so we can reach more children than we do now and thus inspire more children to take writing and art seriously as a means of substantive self-expression.

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