Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books
Take us through your professional background and explain how your publishing career began.
My first exposure to book publishing was an internship at the fantastic Graywolf Press one summer while I was in college. Upon graduation, I attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now Columbia Publishing Course), which led to a job as editorial assistant at Callaway Editions, a publisher and packager in New York City. While there, I worked on both books for adults and books for children. After several years, I decided to relocate to Minneapolis and was fortunate that Lerner Publishing Group had an opening in the editorial department. Lerner acquired the Millbrook Press imprint in 2004, and I began overseeing the imprint in 2008.
As Editorial Director of Millbrook Press, tell us what your role broadly entails and how the team is structured.
I acquire all picture books and single title nonfiction for the imprint, and I edit or oversee another editor’s work on those books as they move through the various stages of editing, revision, and production. I work closely with a couple other editors (who are also involved with other imprints) and art director Danielle Carnito and a few graphic designers who work under her direction.
I love that every day is different, though it’s sometimes challenging to juggle all the different duties that come with the job!
Tell us about 3 books you've recently edited which you are particularly proud of.
Since we’re focusing on illustration in this conversation, I’ll go with three picture books.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul, illus. by Elizabeth Zunon. This book spoke to me from the moment I first saw the manuscript—during college, I’d studied abroad in Senegal and had also visited the Gambia, and I’d always wanted to work on a book set in that part of the world. Elizabeth Zunon was the ideal illustrator for the book, and Miranda and I were so thrilled when she agreed to take on the project. Her collage illustrations are fit the story perfectly—especially because she cleverly incorporated bits of plastic bags into her art throughout the book. I’ve been so gratified to see what a positive reception One Plastic Bag has received, and it is one of our top-selling picture books.
Tooth by Tooth: Comparing Fangs, Tusks, and Chompers by Sara Levine, illus. by T.S Spookytooth. I love both science and books that present information in playful and unexpected ways—and this book satisfies both criteria. We’d previously published Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons from this author and illustrator, and it was fun to collaborate again. I love the guessing game format and the mix of imaginative and realistic illustrations. I was incredibly pleased when this book won an AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books last year.
We recently finished making a third book together, which came out this spring, Fossil by Fossil: Comparing Dinosaur Skeletons.
Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illus. by Victo Ngai. This book was a collaboration from start to finish—Chris and I were brainstorming about possible topics for a picture book, and I mentioned having heard an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible that was about dazzle camouflage. Chris did some research and said he thought the story of dazzle ships could be told in an engaging way for kids. He started writing, and art director Danielle Carnito began a search for an illustrator who could gorgeously depict water and pattern while also incorporating a surreal element. Victo Ngai had never illustrated a picture book before, but she was up for the challenge—you can read an interview with her here. The book came together fantastically.
How would you describe the kind of illustration Millbrook Press is interested in commissioning - are there particular themes, subject matters or styles you tend to look for?
Art director Danielle Carnito and her team of graphic designers do an amazing job finding the right illustrators for our books. We look for artists who have an eye-catching style and who can be accurate in conveying nonfiction concepts when needed. For certain books, we need illustrators who are up for doing some research, and we’re always happy to recommend sources that may be helpful. The style really varies by book—we want to match the overall mood and tone of the text. Generally speaking, we prefer bold colors to pastel ones and seek out art that has a contemporary feel to it.
Millbrook's titles strive to provide readers with books full of Aha! moments. Tell us more about this idea using examples from your list.
I like books that use innovative ways to teach readers something they didn’t already know. Some of that comes from the text, but illustrations also play a huge role in helping readers truly see what the text describes. In the book Water Can Be . . . by Laura Purdie Salas, illus. by Violeta Dabija, the text is very spare and poetic—the text on one spread reads, “Water can be a . . . Tadpole hatcher/Picture catcher.” What exactly does that mean? The illustrations make the meaning clear.
In Noah Webster’s Fighting Words by Tracy Nelson Maurer, illus. by Mircea Catasanu, there’s a surprising component—the “ghost” of Noah Webster has added his comments throughout! It’s a playful element that’s true to the spirit of Noah Webster, who was known to go back and add edits to his own works even after they were published! Mircea Catasanu’s illustrations also include many playful details that help keep readers engaged and more fully bring the book to life.
For more on this topic, check out my blog post about nonfiction picture books and the element of surprise.
What's one of the most unusual / unconventional topics you've covered in your editing career so far?
Ha! That’s a great question. One of the things I love about editing nonfiction is the range of topics covered and the fascinating facts I pick up along the way. This past spring we released Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, illus. by Charlotte Riley Webb. Most people wouldn’t think a topic like lynching could be discussed in a picture book, but this book presents the story of how the song “Strange Fruit” came to be and how Billie Holiday came to sing it in a way that is age appropriate yet also respectful of children’s need to know about difficult topics. The text and illustrations came together beautifully to tell the story of a song that told a necessary truth and helped pave the way for change.
How has the educational children's book market changed over the last few years?
In the US, the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards have resulted in a greater emphasis on nonfiction as well as on hands-on science and the process of science. We’ve also seen a lot of interest recently in STEM and STEAM topics as well as makerspaces and coding.
For illustrators looking to appeal to an educational children's book publisher, what should they include (and avoid) when selecting pieces for their portfolio?
We definitely look for portfolios that include examples of full scenes and not only spot illustrations. We also look for diversity in the humans depicted, a range of emotions expressed, appealing animals (for some reason, I’m a sucker for a good humpback whale illustration), pieces that show action, and good use of color. If an illustrator is interested in nonfiction, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to include a few pieces showing recognizable figures, whether it’s Abraham Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, Wangari Maathai, or Jane Goodall.
Which educational title from your own childhood really inspired and engaged you?
That’s a tough one! I do have fond memories of browsing through our family encyclopedia set. I enjoyed the fact that I never knew what I might come across.
But by and large, nonfiction has changed so much from my own childhood—when the norm was text-heavy books with small, black-and-white photos or illustrations. So in some ways, I would say I’m now making the type of books I wish I’d had when I was a child.
What are some of the goals for Millbrook Press over the coming year?
Things are going well, and I’m hoping to build on the success we’ve already had and continue finding new topics and new approaches for our books as well as finding striking illustrators who can bring these books to life. We have some fabulous books planned for fall 2018 and beyond!
To find out about our latest releases, check us out on social media:
Lerner Publishing Group
Lerner Publishing Group