Interview with Kendra Levin,

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: I think that’s great. Always nice to learn from someone. 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 long journey, and congrats on the new position! 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: Will be on the watch! 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: 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 they all buy it now! 🙂 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%. Not enough unstructured play at all. 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!

 

Well, Mixed-Up Filers, until next time . . .

 

Happy Halloween!