Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
We’re starting a new monthly spotlight feature on agents and editors, and for our very first one, we are in for a treat! We have with us, Executive Editor from HarperCollins, Jill Davis!
For those of you who don’t know Jill, I can honestly say that she’s one of the nicest people. So, sit back, relax, and get to know her now!
Hi Jill, thanks for joining us today!
JR: To start, could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor in children’s books?
JD: I came to New York City from UMass Amherst with a degree in French in 1989 to live and work for one year as a babysitter and occasional research assistant for wonderful family friends, Ken Auletta (journalist/author) and Amanda Urban (literary agent). This was an unexpected and fantastic introduction to publishing–I inhaled an entire world of journalism and a taste of fact checking through Ken for his book, Three Blind Mice; and as for Binky (Amanda Urban’s nickname) I saw how a literary agent lived—the constant companionship of thick white manuscripts, early-morning and late-night reading, and familiar names of clients and buzz about new projects. I learned there was an agency called ICM, heard about book parties, and helped take care of an adorable second grader in an apartment with a magnificent library (and lots of great picture books—this is where I discovered William Steig). After a year with the Aulettas, I got my first job at Family Circle Magazine editing the letters column, which is another way of saying I read the mail and found and edited down the few letters that were actually about the articles in the previous issue—and the few letters that weren’t complaining about smoking ads and cardboard inserts (some people pulled out all of the thick inserts and mailed them!) Working at a magazine is really fun, but I was creative, and loved making things and writing. I was a frequent visitor to the crafts department, where I would make myself the occasional pillow on their sewing machine. I wrote parody songs about some of the articles, and one about the Gulf War, since it was something we were addressing at the magazine, by sending care packages to the troops. All to say–there was an inkling that I might be a writer. One day, a designer I was dating told me about an opening at Random House as an assistant editor in children’s books, so I prepared a clip book for my interview for an assistant editor job to show that I was already knew how to put a sentence together. I guess I sufficiently impressed Simon Boughton at Crown Books for Young Readers because soon I was an assistant editor, working on his books.
JR: WOW! That is some intro. I think my first job out of college was summer camp and then an insurance company, so yours definitely beats mine. Also, be prepared, since the next time I see you, I’m going to request to hear some of your parody songs!
JR: What was the first book you worked on?
JD: For Simon, the first book piece of copy I wrote was for a postcard for a Faith Ringgold book called, My Dream of Martin Luther King. I remember seeing it printed and swelling with pride. There was lots of nonfiction as well as Dick King Smith, so I worked on The Search for the Right Whale by the New England Aquarium, The Invisible Dog by DKS, and soon I was doing the photo research for some of Jerry Stanley’s books. I was passionate about photo research, so I went to Washington DC to collect photos for Jerry Stanley’s Book, I Am An American. The Library of Congress gave me white cotton gloves to hold Ansel Adams photographs of Manzanar Internment camp. Nothing was online back then, and I had a roster of photo agencies that would send big fat envelopes of photos. I would choose the ones I wanted, get permission for use, and then hold on to the actual photo until it came back from the printer. The design of Jerry’s books was terrific, too. Isabelle Warren-Lynch gave them a very modern look and we always tried to use photographs as large as we could. The first book I acquired on my own was called Rosie the Riveter: Women on the Home Front in World War II. The first picture book I edited was Nappy Hair by Carolivia Heron, illustrated by Joe Cepeda. By then, Crown and Knof had merged, and Arthur Levine had come on as editorial director. I struggled to find the perfect illustrator for Nappy Hair (though I met with a very young R. Gregory Christie at the time) and Arthur suggested Joe Cepeda, which gave the book a more commercial, fun look than I would have known to do.
JR: I’m so jealous! I’m such a history geek and love all that stuff. Especially that you got to see all the photos. I used to teach many of the subjects you mentioned, so I would’ve been lost in some of those photos.
JR: How did you land at HarperCollins?
JD: After four years at Random House, I went to Viking for a decade. Viking was a joyful place to work, and working for Regina Hayes was just the best. I left to try a smaller house in 2005, and went to Bloomsbury for 3 years before being let go on what I still remember as a very sad day. I had begun to love editing picture books at Bloomsbury—a fun shift from nonfiction. My next job was at FSG, where I was excited to work with Margaret Ferguson and Wes Adams—but it would only last four months until the economy collapsed in 2008. I loved every minute of working in an office next to Frances Foster, the beloved editor of everything with the most beautiful blue eyes, who had been working for decades with Peter Sis and had been the first to publish Sergio Ruzzier.
After losing two jobs, I felt discouraged. By now I had two school-age boys, and I began writing a novel. Yes, who knows how it happened? I guess I was inspired by two things: my own 4th grade experience growing up in Massachusetts and some of the kids my son, Henry, knew in our neighborhood on the Upper West Side. I tried to figure out how to write this novel, and even went to B&N and bought books with titles such as No Plot? No Problem. I got to be a stay-at-home mom for a while and spent hours and hours at the PS87 school library, and helped both kids schools find great authors for events.
Little did I know that a breakfast with the late, great, brilliant author, Ellen Levine would lead to my applying to the MFA program at Hamline University in St. Paul. Ellen and I had collaborated on a novel about a girl experiencing the McCarthy era called Catch a Tiger by the Toe, and Ellen always talked about her trio of favorites writers and writing teachers–Phyllis Root, Jane Resh Thomas, and Liza Ketchum. Now, she told me, they were all on faculty at Hamline, and she urged me to try the low residency model. At Hamline, I met other writers–Molly Burnam, Peter Pearson, Rebecca Grabill, Cheryl Bardoe, and maybe a hundred others over five residencies. The faculty were all gifted teachers and authors, including Gary Schmidt, Gene Luen Yang, Laura Ruby, Marsha Qualey, and many others. As a an MFA student, I worked with faculty including Mary Logue, Marsha Wilson Chall, and Anne Ursu on my MG novel.
After this two-year program, I was swimming in a hotel pool at a literary conference in Key West when I got a call from agent and friend, Jennifer Lyons. “Katherine Tegen is looking for an executive editor,” she said. “I interviewed with her a few years ago,” I told her. But I had really liked her. The truth was that I never thought I’d be a kids book editor again. It was sad, but it felt true. I was an MFA now, and fully planning to write. I had published three picture books, and it all seemed set. Yes–I was a writer now who had spend the previous years trying to unlearn my habit of seeing writing through the eyes of an editor. Trying to be less prescriptive (as was my habit) and more constructive. What would happen if I interviewed with Katherine Tegen? (Well, I did. And I got the job.)
JR: Yay! I can see how it would be a difficult choice, but you now get to work on many books you love.
JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?
JD: When I started, there was a very obvious distinction between what we called trade and mass market. In trade, we were developing authors and illustrators with the hope that eventually they would have a breakout book and become known. There was more patience, I think. The idea of discovering a new talent was always at the forefront, and we all looked in the New Yorker for illustrators. I even posted ads at the School of Visual Arts to meet young illustrators. Mass market was the “other side” and included series publishing as well as licensing. In those days, at least at Random House, doing a series was a foreign concept to trade editors. This all changed after Harry Potter.
JR: Who? ? I’m guessing Harry Potter changed many things about the industry.
JR: What do you enjoy the most about your job?
JD: I love finding a new voice that speaks to me in a way I haven’t seen before. Of course I love working on manuscripts with my authors, and I love collaborating with my designers and our illustrators.
JR: What sort of books do you look for?
JD: I never know until I see it.
JR: Good answer!
JR: Are you very hands-on with your authors?
JD: Since I work mainly on illustrated books, there’s always lots of sculpting to make text and art work together, so yes. I’m the worst when it comes to making changes when final art is already in. That’s because an editor’s eye sees right past everything that’s working and goes right to that one sentence that feels long, or that one repetition that feels cumbersome, or those two eyeballs that aren’t getting the mood of the text right.
JR: What’s the state of publishing right now?
JD: It’s filled with unbelievably talented writers, editors, and illustrators. There is still a painful call-out culture on social media, but I notice it’s calming down a bit since some of the anger-filled writers realize that a conversation is more productive than a monologue, if you don’t want to feel like a pariah at publishing events and conferences.
JR: What’s going on in Middle Grade?
JD: Middle Grade seems to be where it’s at right now, likely because of the explosion and saturation in contemporary teen since John Green came on the scene. Ages 7-12 encompass a vast range of opportunities, and to me the middle-grade range is too big! What does a 7 or 8 year old have in common with a 12 year old? Not much!
JR: Yay for Middle Grade being where it’s at! But, I agree with you, so much about age range. I always think the range is too big. Those four years make a huuuuge difference and kids have different tastes and understandings.
JD: I love working on illustrated chapter books, and wish we had two distinct categories: 7-10 and 10-14. Graphic novels and hybrids are everywhere and kids just love them. They’re not only great for reluctant readers—they’re terrific for everyone. Middle-grade novels with humor, fantasy, adventure will always be popular and in demand, but I’d like to see more problem novels for younger kids. Kids experiencing pain in any form, feel less alone when they can relate to a character in a book. Seeing how other kids, like them, survive and come out whole, just seems very important right now. And of course, we all want to see as much diverse middle-grade as we can—both fiction and nonfiction.
JR: What advice can you give to authors?
JD: Join a critique group, and don’t try to go it alone.
Don’t be afraid of massive revision.
Comparing ourselves to other people, whether as writers (or editors!) or just humans, is never going to work.
Your editor is on your side and loves your project no matter how good or bad it seems to you.
If you publish a book, be prepared to promote it on your own and don’t feel insulted if your publisher can’t send you on tour.
JR: All very true, and great advice.
JR: What books do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
A picture book called See What We Can Be? about trail-blazing Japanese American illustrator, Gyo Fujikawa by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad; the next book by Beatrice Alemagna: Harold Snipperpot’s Best Disaster Ever. Everybody Says Meow by Constance Lombardo. How to Walk a Dump Truck by Peter Pearson and Mircea Catusano. Codzilla by David Zeltser and Jared Chapman. I have a really fun novel by Randall Platt coming for teen. It’s set in the carnie world of 1896, and features a fantastic friendship between two girls, one a giant and one a small person. It currently needs a new title if anyone wants to help.
JR: I’ll get right on that!
JD: Oh, and I have a pair of Picture Books by ME! The First Rule of Little Brothers and Orangutans are Ticklish!
JR: Can’t Forget those! 🙂
JR: What was your favorite book as a child?
JD: The Pushcart War, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Forever; A Wrinkle in Time; Pippi Longstocking, and the V.C .Andrews books. Creepy but so juicy!
JR: Mixed-Up Files? Well, you came to the right place for that one! ?
JR: We’re both children of the 80’s. What’s one thing from the 80’s you wish could come back?
JD: I miss Madonna and U2 being young and edgy. I miss the less techno world. I miss the feeling I got from a great pair of shoulder pads, though I don’t want to go back to them. I miss Freddie Mercury. I miss everyone being older than me!
JR: I’m with you on all of those! Especially missing Freddie!
JR: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us today! It’s been a lot of fun!
JD: Thanks for asking!
You can find Jill at:
Jonathan Rosen is a transplanted New Yorker, who now lives with his family in sunny, South Florida. He spends his “free” time chauffeuring around his three kids. Some of Jonathan’s fondest childhood memories are of discovering a really good book to dive into, in particular the Choose Your Own Adventure Series, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Jonathan is proud to be of Mexican-American descent, although neither country has been really willing to accept responsibility. He is the author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies, which is out now, and the sequel, From Sunset Till Sunrise, coming August 21. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, FromtheMixedUpFiles.Com, and his own website, WWW.HouseofRosen.com