Editor / Agent Spotlight

Editor Spotlight-International Editon – Meira Firon from Tal-May Publishing!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! As you may recall, earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be included on a PJ Library-sponsored trip to Israel. Besides getting to meet many fantastic authors from here, one of the highlights of the trip for me, was one really fun night where we met authors, agents, and editors based in Israel. I was lucky to be at the same table as Meira Firon from Tal-may Publishing. I have to say that besides being such an accomplished author and editor, she couldn’t possibly have been any nicer. So, I’m thrilled to feature her in the Editor Spotlight – International Edition!

Hi Meira, thanks for joining us today!

JR: To start with, can you tell us a little bit about Tal-May and the type of books they publish?

MF: Tal-May was established at 2004 with the purpose of publishing children and YA books. We publish Hebrew books and translations, new and old, classics and modern. Among the classic books we translated: The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, The Outsiders by S.E Hinton and a great adult book, which I decided will be appreciated by YA: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

 

JR: All great books! You’re also an accomplished author with many books out. What types of books do you write?

MF: I write for young readers, and the subject that draws my attention the most is the relationship between siblings. I wrote a series of four books about Shira (third grade) who adores and envies her older sister Yael (sixth grade). The books are full of humor and realism. The beautiful black and white illustrations are by Alina Gorban. The first title is: Spying, Snooping and Hot Chocolate. I also wrote picture books, and one of them isn’t really realistic. It’s about a kid that goes to the movies with his parents and big sister. He can’t sit still. He is thirsty, hungry, the girl in front of him is too tall and he can’t see the screen. He needs to go to the bathroom… His sister screams and says she will never go anywhere with him, but then the monster from the movie gets out of the screen and comes to sit next to him. From that point on, everything gets wilder. The title is: Stop moving! And it’s illustrated by Tamar Hochstadter.

 

JR: That sounds like a lot of fun! What was the first book you worked on after you became an editor?

MF: The first book I worked on as an editor for children and YA was a translated picture book: Don’t Let Go! By Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. I love this book. It’s about a father who leaves home, and his daughter asks him to teach her to ride a bike so she will be able to come visit him in his new place. It is really touching.

JR: Does Tal-May pay attention to overseas markets, and look to acquire many books from Europe and the U.S. as well?

MF: Of course, we pay attention to overseas markets! We even attend the Bologna Book Fair every year. Mostly we translate from English and Swedish. We love the Swedish and Norwegian literature – Alf Proysen, Rose Lagercrantz, Mats Strandberg, Hakon Ovres, Pija Lindenbaum. From the English we translated many books – we love Jenny Valentine, Gary D. Schmidt, Lois Lowry, Mo Willems and many others. We even translated Sage Blackwood’s fantasy series: Jinx. And we are always looking for new exciting things.

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

MF: I am very happy to say I enjoy every aspect of my job – how lucky am I, right? I love to read and choose books, I love to work with authors and edit manuscripts, to choose the illustrator and to translate. I guess that at the bottom of the list I will have to say – proofreading, I don’t enjoy that very much.

JR: What sort of books do you personally look for?

MF: I don’t look for a certain kind of book, but I have my personal taste to guide me. When the story is fascinating, when the writing is accurate, when I am completely immersed in the world created by the author and I feel the characters are part of my life while reading – I’m into it and I really don’t care if It’s Fantasy or suspense or realistic prose. I can fall in love with any kind of genre as long as it captures me.

JR: That’s great. Very much how I am. Are you very hands-on with your authors?

MF: I am very “hands-on” with my authors as you put it, but I must remind you that I am not alone in Tal-May. Yotam Shwimmer, chief editor, is the one that works with them closely, and he is so great that they can’t get enough of him. Thanks to Yotam almost every Israeli author wants to publish with Tal-May. Nevertheless, I am very involved in the process from the beginning.

JR: Yotam was also incredibly nice and through social media, I’ve been following Tal-May’s successes this year. What’s the state of publishing in Israel right now? In particular, Middle Grade?

MF: Middle Grade books are the most popular in Israel and teen books are much less popular. Fantasy are best sellers and now we are all looking for comics and graphic novels.  But you must keep in mind that our market is very small – even tiny – so the sales aren’t that big compared to the USA. That is a problem of course, because you have to be at peace with the fact that you won’t get rich from publishing. So, if I’ll go back to question 5, I’ll have to admit that the money aspect is less enjoyable. But, we are not here for the money, right?

 

JR: Well, that’s for sure 🙂 What advice can you give to authors?

MF: My advice to authors will not be new to them: write. Don’t stop writing even if you feel you don’t know what to write about. I’m sure it will come to you if you sit long enough in front of your computer. And just another one: Look around and listen. The world is full of stories waiting for you to capture them. Wow! I sound to myself like some guru.

JR: I think that’s great advice, and yes, guru-like! What was your favorite book as a child?

MF: As a child my favorite book was The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. I read this book over and over again and wanted the Cat to be my friend and help me make a big mess and then fix it all. I think it’s a perfect story and I still love it today.

 

JR: One of my favorites, though Thing 1 and Thing 2 scared me as a kid. Speaking of which, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

MF: I wish I could come back to my childhood need to read a book over and over again without getting tired of it. This is such a wonderful feeling. The book is your friend, your world, your escape from everyday life. I wish I could be so happy when given a book like I was as a child. And if I may add – I wish I could be as carefree as the child I was – but that has nothing to do with books. (Or does it?)

JR: I’ll allow it. 🙂 How can people follow you or Tal-may on social media?

Facebook Meira Firon

Tal May Facebook

Tal May Instagram

I’d like to once again thank Meira for taking the time to speak with us today, and hope you enjoyed reading!

 

Well, that’s all the time we have today, since I have to make hurricane preparations. So, wish me luck, and until next time my Mixed-Up friends, keep reading!

 

Jonathan

Interview with Stephanie Lurie, Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Stephanie Lurie at a Florida SCBWI conference, as well as take a workshop she was giving. Besides being extremely informative, she couldn’t have been nicer.

If you don’t know her, she’s the Editorial Director of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion, and I’m thrilled to feature her in the Editor Spotlight!

Hi Stephanie, thanks for joining us today!

JR: You’ve had a long, successful career in publishing. Could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor, and eventually working for Disney-Hyperion?

SL: Being a children’s book editor was a career choice I made very early on. When I was fifteen, a local bookstore owner asked me to review a book a townsperson had written for young adults. As I read the book, I thought, “Too bad this woman doesn’t know how kids really think.” It was an “aha!” moment for me: I could help authors make their books stronger. I’m not even sure how I knew such a job existed. . . .

I went on to be a creative writing major at Oberlin College, and during the first semester of my senior year, I had an internship for college credit at Dodd, Mead and Company in New York (a publishing house that was ultimately acquired by Thomas Nelson Books). My experience working for a children’s book editor at Dodd, Mead proved to me that I had found my calling. Dodd, Mead offered me a job after college–for a whopping $8,000 a year!–in sales promotion and customer service. I learned a lot, but I wanted to get back to children’s editorial. I jumped over to Little, Brown, where I grew up from editorial assistant to senior editor over twelve years. After that I ran the imprint Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for six years. My next stint was as president and publisher of Dutton Children’s books at Penguin. In my ninth year there, a friend of mine who was working at Disney Hyperion talked me into applying for an editorial director job by saying, “How would you like to do what you are doing at Dutton but not have any other imprints competing for marketing and publicity attention?” That sounded pretty good to me, and over the past decade there I have enjoyed being part of a boutique publisher within a huge entertainment company.

 

JR: That’s some exciting journey! What was the first book you worked on?

SL: I had a generous boss at Little, Brown who allowed me to “cut my teeth” on manuscripts by their top authors at the time, such as Lois Duncan, Ellen Conford, and Matt Christopher. One of the first authors I acquired was Neal Shusterman, who has gone on to be a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Award winner with other editors.

JR: When you first saw The Lightning Thief, what about it appealed to you so much?

SL: Rick Riordan’s first middle grade novel, The Lightning Thief, was acquired at auction before my time at Disney. Rick chose to go with Miramax Books, which eventually became part of Disney-Hyperion. Jennifer Besser (now at Macmillan) edited the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I took over as Rick’s editor after she left, picking up on the Kane Chronicles trilogy. I was amazed by how he made ancient Egyptian mythology relevant to modern readers with exciting adventure, relatable characters, a healthy dose of humor, and a breakneck pace. He makes it look easy.

JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?

SL: What hasn’t? I’m so old (How old are you?), I pre-date office computers! Yes, we had to type on Selectrics, using carbon paper. The biggest changes have come from: corporate buy-outs of family-owned companies, which necessitated more attention to the bottom line; the rise of chain bookstores; the Harry Potter phenomenon, which brought hardcover fiction back from the brink of death; the importance of social media in author promotion; Amazon’s dominance; and today, more focus on diversity.

JR: I grew up doing all my reports on typewriters. Slightly easier now. And by the way, I could’ve sworn I heard Gene Rayburn say the “I’m so old” part before you answered (How old are you?) But back to the interview. Disney has recently acquired a lot of new properties. Does that mean anything for the publishing division?

SL: Disney now encompasses several premiere brands, such as Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and Fox Entertainment. We can publish against all of these brands, from straight movie tie-ins to extension books that tell new stories based on the characters from the movies. It also means that there is more opportunity for intercompany synergy for authors writing their own IP (intellectual property).

JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

SL: I’m having a blast helping Rick curate the Rick Riordan Presents line of middle grade fiction by under-represented authors who want to write stories about their own cultures’ folklore and mythology. I send him submissions to consider, acquire the projects we agree on, edit the manuscripts, and collaborate with my colleagues on book design and promotion.

JR: All that sounds like a tremendous amount of fun. What sort of books do you look for?

SL: For Rick Riordan Presents, we want the same qualities that make Rick’s own books so popular, because the imprint was created to satisfy his fans’ craving for adventure based on mythology. We look for a funny, snarky teenage voice; a fast pace; an exciting, high-stakes plot; and a likeable but flawed protagonist who grows over the course of the story.

JR: The kinds of books I love! Are you very hands-on with your authors?

SL: I’ve always enjoyed helping writers bring out their story by asking pointed questions and making suggestions to improve logic, flow, and clarity. For the Rick Riordan Presents authors, my guidance may be a bit more involved, because there is a certain flavor we are trying to achieve while retaining the author’s own voice. It’s a delicate balance.

JR: What’s the state of publishing right now, in particular, Middle Grade? 

SL: It can be difficult for a book—any book—to break out in this time when there is so much entertainment content for consumers to choose from and there are fewer retail outlets for print. Amazon is grabbing more and more market share, but the online site doesn’t encourage browsing. Buyers who shop there usually go already knowing what they want. This is part of the reason best-selling authors remain best-selling authors and new authors have trouble competing. Authors need to partner more with their publisher on promotion as a result.

JR: Probably more important than ever for authors to get involved in the promotion process. What advice can you give to authors?

SL: The best way to learn to write is to read, read, read, and write, write, write.

Remember that you are communicating with an audience and not just writing to satisfy your own ego.

A good concept isn’t enough by itself. Write the entire manuscript.

You may have to land a literary agent before you can land a publishing deal.

Choosing an agent and editor/publisher is like choosing any partner. Make sure there is good chemistry between you.

Be open to feedback but stand up for what is important to you.

Don’t expect the publication of your book to satisfy all your desires or change your life.

Writing the book is only 50% of the work; promotion after publication is the other 50%.

School visits are still one of the best ways to build word-of-mouth.

Support other authors on your way up, and they will (should) do the same for you.

 

JR: All of that is outstanding advice. In my experience, many authors have been extremely supportive of each other. I think strong relationships are extremely important in that regard. I read that Harriet the Spy was one of your favorite childhood books. I have a few friends who wholeheartedly agree with you. What did you love about it and what other books were among your favorites?

SL: I loved how honest Harriet the Spy was about a kid’s real life—I believe it was one of the first contemporary middle grade novels ever published. To this day I enjoy books in which a well-meaning main character makes a big mistake that causes them humiliation, e.g. The Truth About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. As a kid I also enjoyed animal-based fantasies such as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, and The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. High fantasies such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings stood out, too.

JR: The Narnia books were also among my favorites as a child. Speaking of childhood, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

SL: My fun-loving dad. He taught me to always remain a kid at heart.

JR: Okay, that answer hit me. If there’s one thing I could wish for from then, it would also be to see my dad. How can people follow you on social media?

SL: For publishing news and comments, Twitter is probably the best bet: @SOLurie.

JR: Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like to add?

SL: Thank you for inviting me to answer these questions. I greatly admire authors—both aspiring and published—and wish everyone a fulfilling journey. Your book could be the one that makes a reluctant reader a forever reader, changes a kid’s perspective, and inspires someone else to be a writer.

JR: Extremely true. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us today!

 

Well, that’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers. I’d like to once again thank Stephanie Lurie for joining us! And if you ever see her listed to speak at a conference, I strongly suggest you go listen!

Until next time . . .

Get to Know Acclaimed Editor and Middle Grade Author Kara LaReau

Kara LaReau is the author of many beloved middle grade, chapter book and picture books. After receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, she worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press, and via her own creative consulting firm, Bluebird Works. Among other celebrated titles, she edited Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie (winner of a Newbery Honor), The Tiger Rising (finalist for the National Book Award), The Tale of Despereaux (winner of the Newbery Medal), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (winner of the Boston Globe Horn Book Award), and the Mercy Watson series. She’s the author of The Infamous Ratsos, a chapter book series illustrated by Matt Myers, and The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, a middle grade trilogy illustrated by Jen Hill. Rise of ZomBert, the first in her new illustrated middle grade series, will publish in spring 2020. For more information, visit Karalareau.com

I had the good fortune to get to know Kara when she was the author-in-residence at Hollins University Summer Graduate Program in Children’s Writing, Literature & Illustration
We were roomies in the alumni cottage, where we enjoyed porch sits, her blueberry crumble and many good talks. The students were all wowed by her insightful lectures, one-on-one mentoring, wit, and wisdom about craft.

My interviews for The Mixed Up Files have always been conducted over email. However, this interview was miraculously conducted in person while Kara and I drank coffee and listened to the rumble of the dehumidifier. After all, we were in the Roanoke Valley, where you can swim in the air. But it’s so beautiful–with lush green pastures all hugged by the Blue Ridge Mountains– that you don’t care. Plus, there are bunnies everywhere on campus. It’s easy to see where Alumna Margaret Wise Brown got her idea for The Runaway Bunny. Anyway, I had much to ask Kara. Gosh, it was hard to whittle down my questions since I had admired her for so long.

Why do you write Middle Grade?
I don’t set out to say I’m going to write a chapter book or middle grade. The story comes to me, and that’s when I figure out what it is. That age range was a formative time in my life. When we talk about what is your internal age–that is one of my default ages. And that’s why I enjoyed editing middle grade so much too. It’s kind of like I’m creating the library that I wish that I had had when I was that age.

Do you come up with characters or conceit first?
With the Bland Sisters (Kara’s first middle grade series, The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters), the characters came first. I wasn’t necessarily intending to write a novel about them. I was just writing a short scene about these two very boring girls. Just for fun. I wrote a little more. They kept speaking to me. In the first book, there’s a moment when there’s a knock at the door. I established they never go outside. This created a moment of extreme tension and curiosity. I wanted to know what could be on the other side of the door to motivate them to open the door. For me, the answer was pirates. And of course, they would have to be lady pirates.

I love it. Why Lady Pirates?
It’s my own feminist sensibility, and I tried to imbue the series with that spirit. I’ve tried to create stories that feature women in roles that are most often attributed to men. In the second the book, The Uncanny Express, they encounter a female magician who has encountered a lot of sexism. In the third book (Flight of the Bluebird), I wanted to parody an Indiana Jones style mystery. I thought it would be a fun to have a female action hero in the vein of Indiana Jones. I’m really interested in subverting gender norms.

Once again, I love it! Why is subverting gender norms important to you?
I’m hoping to portray for boys and girls who are reading these books unsung female heroes. For example, the character of Beatrix in book three is based on Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman and Nellie Bly–female pilots, journalists and explorers.

Tell us about your research process.
Each (of the Bland Sister books) was different, and each required more and more research. The first one takes place on pirate ship, and to find out what a ship looked like back then, I looked at books. I also looked at the different roles of pirates, and how they talked to each other. I read Robert Lewis Stevenson, as well as Herman Melville Billy Budd and brushed up on Moby Dick. There are lots of Melville references in the book.

While the first book was a parody of pirate stories and Melville, the second was set on a train and I knew it just had to be a parody of Agathe Christie, particularly Murder on the Oriental Express. I decided to re-read Murder on the Orient Express. While I didn’t have time to re-read all of Christie’s work, I actually watched the entire Poirot BBC series. I watched it over the summer and took notes on all the tropes that I noticed and that I could use. I also researched poisons and disguises. In doing that, I immersed myself in her world and that gave me the confidence to start writing the book.

When I started to writing The Flight of the Blue Bird, I knew that there was going to be an airplane. I watched Casablanca and Indiana Jones films. I was setting the adventure in a real place (Egypt), and there were details about archaeology and the Egyptian culture that I needed to be sensitive to and get right. I found James Allen, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University, and discovered he lived five blocks away from me. He gave me all kinds of fascinating details that inspired me to create the backstory in this book. I also watched documentaries about Howard Carter (the British archaeologist who discovered the intact tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun or “King Tut”). To have confidence to move forward, I did all research beforehand so I could immerse myself in it. Jim Allen read my pages, and then gave me suggestions here and there. Then I also decided the airplane would figure prominently in the plot. I found a husband of a friend of mine who is a pilot, and he also read some of my pages to make sure the aeronautical details were correct.

How long do you do research?
About a month or so. Then it usually takes me a month to a month and half to draft and two months to revise.

In addition to your current middle grade series, you have a popular early chapter series, The Infamous Ratsos. Tell us about where you are with that series.

I’m going to start drafting the sixth one. The first three are out in the world. The fourth one comes out next spring. Illustrator Matt Myers is due to start the fifth one next. The sixth one I’m hoping to start at the end of the summer.

Did you originally conceive of The Infamous Ratsos as a series?
After the first book, I knew I had more ideas as adventures. It turned out when my agent sent out the project, Candlewick wanted to know if I had another idea, so they signed up a two-book contract. In each book, Louie and Ralphie Ratso are learning something knew about themselves. They make mistakes just like we all do, but they’re always eager to learn from those mistakes.

Can you describe the books?
In the first book, The Infamous Ratsos, Louie and Ralphie think they need to be tough, and they equate tough with being mean. But that’s not their true nature, and they eventually realize it’s much easier to be kind than tough. The second book, The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid, is about the brothers realizing they are afraid of admitting they’re afraid. They learn that everyone is afraid of something, and that there are a lot of different ways to be brave.

How did you come up with the different themes for the Ratso series?
I ended up watching a documentary about toxic masculinity, The Mask You Live In. The film showed how boys are conditioned at early age by society, by media, even by their own families to adhere to a very oppressive definition of masculinity. My books examine and subvert different characteristics of toxic masculinity: acting like you’re tough, pretending as if you’re not afraid of anything, pretending you don’t have emotions, refusing help, solving conflict through violence, and shunning feminine traits.

You have a new middle grade series. Tell us about it.
The new middle grade series I don’t want to give name since my publisher hasn’t announced it yet. The first book is called The Rise of ZomBert. It’s about a girl and her best friend, who is a boy, and a cat they find, who may or may not be a zombie.

When does it come out?
Spring 2020

What might be familiar to your readers and what might feel different?
There is a lot of humor in it. However, it is very different as the humor is not as on the surface as it is with Bland Sisters, which is very slapstick. It’s for a slightly older audience than the Bland sisters. And it’s darker than the Bland Sisters. It’s definitely has creepy and scary moments.

How are you feeling about it?
I’m excited. I’m starting to see art come in from (Illustrator) Ryan Andrews that’s bringing in moodiness that compliments the text so well.

Can you give a snapshot of the first book?
I describe it as Bunnicula mixed with Stranger Things. It takes place in the suburbs. There is something going on this neighborhood. And the kids slowly figure out what that’s going on. And they seem to be the only ones that know that truth about what is happening.

What is something about you that most people don’t know?
In The Bland Sisters, the running joke is how much that Kale loves to clean. I actually hate cleaning! That was sort of my response to people when people assume that certain characters are based on the author, which Kale is, but only to a degree!

Anything else you want to say?
I want to thank you for taking the time to interview me, and thank my readers for reading my books. I hope they will check out Rise of ZomBert next spring!

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature and Illustration as well as at Sonoma State University, where she directs the Arts & Humanities internships program and teaches communications. Hillary also teaches the Middle Grade Mastery Course and the Chapter Book Alchemist Course at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.