Editor / Agent Spotlight

Interview with Kendra Levin, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

We are in for a treat today! As many of you know, this past spring I went on a retreat for Jewish Literature and was fortunate enough to have been in a workshop taught by Kendra Levin, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Besides leading a great workshop, she couldn’t have been nicer! If you don’t know her, you’ll get to know her now!

Hi Kendra, thanks for joining us today!

JR: To start with, I had a great time in your workshop and learned a lot. I know that you do a lot of coaching as well. I’m sure that must be very rewarding for you. How did you get started in that?

KL: I’m so glad you got so much out of the workshop! I became a life coach in 2008. A few years before, when I was new to publishing, I met a woman at a party and asked her what she did for a living. “I empower women,” she said. I thought, Wow! I’d like to be able to do something like that! She was a life coach, and by getting to know her, I found out about a field I hadn’t heard of before then. Around the same time, I’d been getting a little too deeply involved in my friends’ lives and challenges, and needed to find a healthy way to channel my desire to help people. So I enrolled in a year-long certificate program and my life as a life coach began. I love coaching, and though my work as a coach has remained a sideline to my publishing career, I’m grateful for the ways my coaching expertise helps me in my work with authors and with my colleagues.

JR: Could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor in children’s books?

KL: Publishing wasn’t a career I was aware of as a young person, but I had the good fortune to get an internship in college working for the amazing Joy Peskin, who was an editor at Scholastic at the time. We became friends on day one, and she introduced me to so much about the publishing industry and made me want to pursue editing as a career. After working full-time at Scholastic after college in the Book Clubs, I joined Viking Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers, where Joy had become a senior editor, and getting to work with her again cemented my interest in being an editor. This is such an apprenticeship-based business and I’m so grateful to have had a great mentor throughout my career!

JR: What was the first book you worked on?

KL: As an intern, I loved working on the Magic School Bus books, but the first book I ever acquired was The Great Wide Sea by M.H. Herlong, which Sharyn November helped me acquire as an assistant editor, and which went on to become an ALA Best Books for Young Adults in 2010.

JR: How did you land at Simon & Schuster?

KL: I spent fourteen amazing years at Viking and made my way up the ranks from editorial assistant to editorial director. Working under three different presidents, two different publishers, and through the merger into Penguin Random House, I got to bear witness to so much change and reinvention. Even so, I reached a point where I was curious what it would be like to work somewhere I hadn’t spent most of my adult life, so when Justin Chanda asked me to come to Simon & Schuster to become editorial director of Books for Young Readers, I decided to take the leap, and I started there in September 2019.

JR: That’s some interesting journey! What do you enjoy the most about your job?

KL: Mentoring, coaching, and managing a team. As much as I love editing and publishing my own list, it brings me so much joy to help other editors do the same. I love watching junior folks discover what publishing is all about and grow in their knowledge and experience, and I’m so proud to see some of the editors I’ve worked with go on to shine in the industry. One of the aspects of working at S&S that I’m already loving is getting to work with some great junior folks there, like Amanda Ramirez, Catherine Laudone, and Dainese Santos. Keep your eye on them—they’re going to be the rising stars in the industry!

JR: What sort of books do you look for?

KL: I always try to cast a wide net, because the variety is part of what I love about being a children’s book editor—on any given day, I could be working on a funny picture book, a heartbreaking YA novel, and an adventure-filled middle grade all at the same time, not to mention graphic novels and nonfiction, all of which are in my wheelhouse. But the threads that run through all the formats and age levels I work on are empowerment (stories that will empower young people), transporting (stories that will take me on a trip and allow me to see a new part of the world or an imagined world), and representation (stories that will allow a child to see themselves reflected in a new way).

JR: How do you like to work with your authors?

KL: I try to adapt to their style and communicate clearly to find a way of working that makes sense for both of us. Some authors like to take my editorial letter, go away, and reappear on (or at least near, hopefully!) their deadline with a draft; others prefer to chat on the phone throughout the process, bounce ideas off me. I like to be flexible—again, I enjoy the variety of working with different personalities and different processes.

JR: That’s great that you vary your style to suit your authors. What’s the state of publishing right now?

KL: That’s a big question! Though I’m not sure I can answer that succinctly, or that I have a real answer, I would say that from where I sit, publishing is facing challenges, but that’s been true since the day I walked into Scholastic as a nineteen-year-old and I’m sure was true well before that. And I’d also say that publishing is also full of opportunity. We’re seeing such an exciting moment right now for voices that have historically been underrepresented by the books selected by mainstream publishers, and I think many of my editorial colleagues and I are pushing ourselves creatively and asking ourselves questions we might not have before—questions that can lead to not only a more inclusive future for publishing, but a future in which publishing is seen as more relevant, more crucial, by the society it’s supposed to be representing.

JR: Besides being an editor, you’ve also authored a self-help book for writers, The Hero Is You. Is it difficult to take your editor’s eye on your own books?

KL: Haha, I would say it’s more difficult to stop applying my editor’s eye to my own work and get out of my own way! Writing The Hero Is You was one of the biggest challenges of my life, and while I’m glad I did it and proud to have a book that represents a decade of everything I learned and observed as an editor and coach about the creative process, the hardest part was hitting pause on that critical voice in my own head.

JR: What advice can you give to authors?

KL: Read my book! 😉 Seriously though, most of the advice I have for writers and other creative artists is in The Hero Is You. I spent six years filling it with all the wisdom I could draw from my career and my interviews with working writers, so it’s kind of a container for all my most useful insights.

JR: I’ll make sure everyone buys the book! 🙂 What books do you have coming up that you’re excited about?

KL: I’m in a transitional period because books I edited are still coming out from Viking and, while I have projects in the pipeline at Simon & Schuster, they won’t be emerging for a while. On the Viking list, I’ve had a year I’m incredibly proud of, with books like SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson, Lovely War by Julie Berry, and All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing A Phoenix First Must Burn, a YA anthology of fantasy and sci fi stories by Black women and gender nonconforming authors edited by Patrice Caldwell, come out in 2020. I’m also looking forward to The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman, a middle grade novel about friendship set against the Chernobyl disaster.

JR: What was your favorite book as a child?

KL: I would never have been able to pick just one! I was a voracious reader as a kid and had a different favorite book every year, maybe every month. Lois Lowry was one of my top authors—I think I read every one of her books—and I adored All-of-a-Kind Family, Paula Danziger, Katherine Paterson. My mother was an elementary school teacher for many years, so I had a lot of Newbery winners on my shelf!

JR: What’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could make a comeback?

KL: Unstructured play. I had the privilege of growing up with a backyard, and I spent so many hours out there running around in imaginative play, or inside drawing and creating, constructing worlds with my Legos and dolls. Kids seem very programmed right now, and parents very focused on optimizing their childhoods, mostly with good intentions, but I worry about kids not having the space to be bored and then find a way to entertain themselves. (Adults, too—I just read How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and it makes such an important statement about unstructured time.)

JR: Agreed 100% about unstructured play. Definitely not enough. Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like us to know, that I might not have asked?

KL: If you know a person of color who’s interested in becoming an editor, or even who may simply be a book-lover looking for a career path related to their passion, please direct them to the Representation Matters Mentor Program, which senior editor Joanna Cardenas and I co-founded in January 2017. It’s a free mentoring program that pairs editors with mentees to give them exposure to the industry and vice versa, and to date more than two dozen mentees have found internships and/or full-time jobs in publishing.

JR: Where can people find you on social media?

KL: You can find me infrequently on Twitter @kendralevin and Instagram @kendra.levin, sporadically writing for Psychology Today on my blog The Heart of Writing, and always at my website, kendracoaching.com.

JR: Thanks again for taking the time to speak to us today!

 

That’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers, wishing you all a very Happy Halloween!

 

Jonathan

New Middle-Grade from Reka Simonsen at Atheneum

Reka Simonsen is Executive Editor at Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. She loves to work on books all across the age range, though she has a real soft spot for middle-grade novels, especially those that can turn kids into lifelong readers. She looks for believable, engaging characters whose voices she can’t forget, and stories with that special blend of humor and heart. Find out more about Reka at https://simonandschusterpublishing.com/atheneum/our-team.

Hi Reka, thanks for chatting with us. You’re publishing two new middle-grade novels from my 2019 cohort by Jamie Sumner and J. Kasper Kramer. Can you talk about what originally sparked your interest and made you want to acquire their debut novels?

Well, if a manuscript opens with a reference to The Great British Bake Off, of course I have to read more! Though it was the main character Ellie herself who made me want to acquire Roll with It. Ellie is smart and funny and she refuses to fit into the “sunshine and cuddles” stereotype that the world seems to expect of her as a kid who uses a wheelchair. That combination of grit and humor in the face of daily challenges, especially as she fights to be seen for who she really—that spoke to me, and I think it will speak to many kids who don’t get to see themselves in books very often. Ellie is determined to tell her own story, not the story others expect from her.

Jessica’s novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told, is also about the power of storytelling. It explores the way that stories—and who gets to tell them—shape what people think. From the start, I was intrigued by the setting, and loved that Jessica was weaving folklore and history together into one narrative. But that’s a tricky thing for even an experienced writer to pull off, much less a first-time author, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then I got swept up in Ileana’s story as she navigates a dangerous world where any neighbor could be a spy, and any loved one could be disappeared by the government for even thinking something that’s critical of the government. Jessica captured what it felt like to live in those circumstances, and wove in the folklore so beautifully that I thought it must be a very personal novel based on her own life. It’s not!

Both novels seem like they might present specific challenges to edit. Jamie’s book, ROLL WITH IT, is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy; Jessica (J. Kasper)’s novel, THE STORY THAT CANNOT BE TOLD, is set in Romania during the Communist revolution, told through the eyes of a 10-year-old. Can you talk about your approach to editing middle grade fiction dealing with subject matter that may go well beyond your first-hand experience?

Many of the books I work on go beyond my own first-hand experience. That’s probably true of many editors, and of many readers. For me, the entry point for working on a middle-grade novel is to find the places where I have an emotional connection to the character, so that even if I haven’t personally experienced her exact situation, I have felt what she is feeling. That common ground is what will allow a young reader to connect with a story, and hopefully to empathize with a character whose life is very different from anything the reader herself has experienced.

Middle-grade kids are at an age where most of them probably haven’t encountered many people whose lives are significantly different from their own, so the books we create for them are an opportunity to let them meet people of different abilities, ethnicities, religions, and experiences than their own. I want those first meetings to be ones that allow young readers to see the commonalities among us, as well as the challenges that they themselves may not have had to face, but others do. So I always edit with an eye to helping make the characters as relatable and believable as possible. Then when it comes to the aspects of a story where I don’t have first-hand knowledge, I work with the author to make sure that those aspects are as authentic as possible. Sometimes that involves getting authenticity readers to vet the story. Jamie and Jessica were on top of this from the start, even before the manuscripts came my way.

I know all too well that there are a lot of pitfalls in writing historical fiction. What makes middle grade historical fiction successful— first, artistically, and second, in terms of marketability? What general advice do you most often give middle grade authors who write historical?

Artistry is what makes or breaks historical fiction, as far as I’m concerned. A lot of people who want to be writers but don’t know where to start try their hand at historical fiction. I suspect this is because research is something concrete and familiar; they feel more confident in their ability to find some interesting moment in time and build a story around it than in their ability to make up something brand new from whole cloth. The result is that editors see a lot of historical fiction that is factually accurate but boring as can be (or worse). It has also been one of the most heavily published genres in kids’ books, so there are already thousands of middle-grade historical novels out in the world creating competition for any new one that hopes to make it into print. To be honest, although historical fiction is a mainstay of children’s publishing, it’s not seen as a highly marketable genre, more of a slow and steady.

So to stand out, a book has to have a terrific, fresh voice and point of view, especially if it’s about a time and place that has already been written about a lot, such as World War II. More than that, though, it has to feel relevant in some way to readers today—obscure moments in history might interest some nerdy types (like me), but unless the story includes some themes and issues that we are still dealing with today, it’s not likely that a book will resonate with many contemporary readers.

You’re also editing Joy McCullough’s new middle-grade, A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST (April 2020). Joy’s Young Adult verse novel, Blood Water Paint was published to a lot of well-deserved acclaim last year. What do you see as the challenges for authors who switch genres/age bands on their second book? Does this present any branding or marketing issues for a relatively new author? Do you ever advise authors you work with to stick to one genre?

We didn’t publish Joy’s YA novel in verse, so there’s no pressure from our marketing team to follow it with something similar. There used to be a concern within the industry that an author’s audience would get confused and not follow her if she switched genres. I think it’s far less of an issue now for writers to change age ranges and genres from one book to the next; the kids’ book world as a whole has gotten more comfortable with the idea that writers might have talent in more than one area. It’s not a bad idea for an author early on in her career to have her second book be something that the audience of the first book would enjoy, since building a readership, especially with middle-grade readers, can take more than one book. But I don’t think it’s a necessity.

What’s the most intensive editorial project you’ve ever worked on?

That’s nearly impossible to say! There have been so many projects that were intensive in some way, and the ways in which they are intensive can vary so much. I’ve worked on some fantasies that took incredible amounts of thought on my part and the part of the author to make the worldbuilding as clear and solid as it could be. Other books are intensive because there’s a lot of factual information to condense and shape into an engaging story—for instance, figuring out how to narrow the amazing and long life of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who just turned 101, into a book for middle-grade readers was a bit of a challenge. And still others are intensive because I signed up the project based on something really special, but other aspects might not be working—structure, age range, whether it’s first person or third, or present or past tense—and an overhaul is called for.

What unique talents or perspectives do you think you bring to the table as an editor for middle-grade?

I like to joke that my bad memory is my great editorial strength. In reality I don’t have a bad memory so much as selective one; I can reread mysteries after a few years because I rarely remember whodunit, since what I love about a good mystery is the mood and the rich characterization. In all seriousness, though,

this does allow me to reread manuscripts with somewhat more of a fresh eye than I might otherwise have had on that third, fourth, or fifth read. And that is a real help, because we editors have to reread manuscripts so many times that the risk is high of familiarity allowing our eyes and minds to auto-correct something, rather than catching that it could use more thought.

What’s the number one thing a new middle-grade author can do, pre- or post-publication, to help boost sales of his or her books?

If we knew the answer to this, every book would be a success! My best advice is for authors to make friends with people at their local indie bookstores and libraries and attend events there, and try to get to know other authors in their area. It’s always helpful to build connections within your local literary community, where you can help support one another and build the word about your own books and those of other writers in your community.

What’s an under-represented middle-grade genre or topic that you’d like to see more of?

I’d love to see more books about kids struggling with financial insecurity. We live in one of the richest countries on earth, yet nearly half of our children are living below or dangerously close to the poverty line. Yet even as we’re entering a time when realistic slice-of-life stories are trending again, so few books deal with the issues of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or whether your family will be kicked out of their home, or whether you’ll be taken from your parents because they can’t care for you.

Do you have other forthcoming or new middle-grade novels you’d like to introduce us to?

Of course! In a completely different vein but also absolutely wonderful: The Green Children of Woolpit by J. Anderson Coats is a deliciously creepy, spine-tingling fantasy based on a British legend about two children with green skin who mysteriously showed up in a small village. Jillian has brilliantly interpreted this story as a dark fantasy involving a strong-willed young girl and the dangerous fairy folk from English legend.

On the younger end of middle-grade is The Very, Very Far North by Dan Bar-El, an utterly charming novel about a sweet and curious young polar bear named Duane who befriends an array of animals as he discovers where he belongs. It really feels fresh and new, yet it has all of the classic appeal of Winnie the Pooh, or of Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moomintroll books, which are favorites of mine.

And one to look forward to next summer is The Great Pet Heist by Emily Ecton—which is what would happen if you cast Oceans 11 entirely with animals, complete with reconnaissance rats named Marco and Polo, a brains-of-the-operation bird, the coolest of cats, and a decoy dachshund named Butterbean. It is the funniest book I’ve read in ages.

Thanks so much for your time, Reka!

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