Editor / Agent Spotlight

Interview with Editor Jonah Heller – Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

We are delighted to have with us, Jonah Heller, associate editor at Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

Welcome to Mixed-Up Files, Jonah!

Hey, thanks for having me!


Could you share your editorial journey at Peachtree with us?

My editorial journey with Peachtree started shortly after I graduated with my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. I was fortunate enough to have a network of peers connected to Peachtree who helped advocate my intern application, and I did my internship with Peachtree in the summer of 2016. Through hard work, careful attention to detail, and routinely showering everyone with baked goods, I left enough of a positive impression that I was hired on as a publisher’s assistant on January 1, 2017.

From there, I was entering orders for sales, organizing mailings, proofing our catalog, and doing just about anything that needed an extra pair of hands while also training into editorial assistant work. As my supervisor left for other horizons—I eventually did take on more editorial work and started dipping into acquisitions by examining imports from Frankfurt and Bologna. It was great exposure to literature abroad and an excellent opportunity to develop my own taste and direction. Of course, the reward for work done well is—more work! So lots of paperbacks and reprints and editorial outreach as an assistant editor. And now I’ve been upgraded to an associate editor, so I’ve been set loose into the wilderness to go find exciting things and build my list. Woo!


What are some books you’ve worked on?

Peachtree is very well established in the picture book arena, so plenty of those!

In terms of middle grade: Peachtree is a smaller house, so that means it’s an all-hands-on-deck environment and everyone’s got their hand in the cookie jar at some point. I’ve helped proof various stages of our Charlie Bumpers and Nina Soni series. I’ve also overseen the paperback adaptation process for quite a number of our middle grade titles, which can involve anything from a new cover and revised back matter to substantial text edits and updates with the author.


Working on imports as an assistant, I adapted The Bookshop Girl from Scholastic UK and oversaw the illustration process from sketches to final art and cover. It’s a fun mystery about a girl who can’t read and has to save her family’s recently acquired bookstore from a shady con man. A good choice if you love whimsy and the idea of a mechanical wonder bookstore with rooms dedicated to rocket ships or pirate treasure aquariums.

What are some subjects you’d like to see authors tackle in middle grade?

Ultimately, I’d like to see them tackle whatever interests them. That’s the best place to start. But as far as my wish list for this group…

Themes: adventure, animal points of view, comedy, coming of age, contemporary, magical realism, mystery, wilderness survival,

Craft: character driven; compelling voice; page-turning digestible plot; 3-dimensional protagonist & antagonist

It’s one of those things, where I’ll know it when I see it and get into the first ten pages. So I try to keep a wide net cast. I would, however, especially LOVE ownvoices LGBTQ+ stories.

Could you share with us your ideas and goals when it comes to the representation of diversity in the books you publish?

Everyone should be able to reach out to literature and see themselves. That’s critical not only to a sense of belonging but also to establishing empathy for other walks of life outside of our own experience. I strive to be mindful and thoughtful in my acquisitions, because I don’t want a one-note list. I’d be very bored and disappointed with that and, ultimately, so would my publisher and our readers.

Putting that into practice: I don’t ever actively look to check off a box and then move on to something else. I don’t think that’s a good approach, nor a sincere one. My goal is to ultimately acquire talent from all walks of life, who can deliver an excellently crafted story while also offering authentic mirrors and varied experiences. I don’t want to just acquire you and your one book and then be done with it:  I want to build a long-lasting relationship with you and work on lots of cool things for years to come.

What are some common reasons for a manuscript to make it to acquisitions at Peachtree Publishing?

For middle grade fiction, it’s usually character- or voice-driven. You can really latch onto someone’s journey and empathize with their trials and triumphs if the writing lets you step close enough. It’s not really theme or topic that drives fiction for us; it’s a fully satisfying story and arc of growth. You walk away from the book, having had some sort of raw emotional experience that sticks to you and you carry around for a while.

Nonfiction: it’s not my area of expertise, admittedly. But this can be topic or theme driven at first and then develop into something that will ultimately be more for the institutional market. So, we’ll ask: how can this be used in the classroom? What makes it different and specialized from everything else already out there? How can we grow it further from this one book? Etc.

What advice do you have for writers who want to query you?

So if you’re unagented, I’m on snail mail at the moment. It’s not everyone’s favorite method, but it’s mine and it keeps me organized! You can find Peachtree’s address and submissions guidelines on our website, and if you were dutiful enough to read this then you’ll now discover that if you don’t put my name on the envelope, it won’t ever come to my desk.

My general wish list is above, but it’s always a good idea to check out a publisher’s catalog and see what kind of stuff they’ve done. That’s always step one. Ask yourself: does it feel like they’re a good fit for my work, or am I going to be an odd duck out here? Or, if they’ve done something similar: how is my work going to stand out?

As I’ve said, nonfiction isn’t generally my cup of tea. But maybe I’ll surprise myself one day.

I’m also probably not the right editor for a divorce or abuse story, unless it culminates in healing and/or some type of cathartic and triumphant resolution. Additionally, fantasy and science fiction haven’t been as prominent at Peachtree, so the pacing, world building, and character work has to be top-of-the-line.

Other tips:

  • Spelling the editor’s name right is cool
  • Showing up at their office in-person is not cool
  • Neither are frequent phone calls
  • Explore resources on writing query letters

What’s going on in Middle Grade at Peachtree right now?

I’ve been Americanizing an illustrated adventure from the UK, called Mr. Penguin. It’s Indiana Jones meets Sherlock, but with a penguin and a kung fu spider. So basically loads of fun.



Our Nina Soni series continues, and upcoming for 2020: we’ve bought the US text rights to Lavie Tidhar’s Candy from Scholastic UK. It’s an awesome film noir-like mystery following young detective Nelle Faulkner as she uncovers the shady underworld of candy smuggling in a town that’s outlawed sugar. We will be re-illustrating, so expect a fun story and a fresh American package!

Domestically, I’m on the verge of some exciting things I can’t share just yet. So stay tuned and be on the lookout for Peachtree’s middle grade!


Jonah Heller is an Associate Editor at Peachtree Publishing Company Inc. in Atlanta, GA. He graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and earned his BFA in Dramatic Writing for Film and TV at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His editorial focus ranges from board book to young adult. Say hello on Twitter @jrheller87



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!



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!