Talia Benamy Interview

Talia Benamy

Assistant Editor, Philomel

Tell us about your career to date and what first sparked your interest in publishing.

I've always loved reading—I was one of those kids who read under the covers at night and under my desk in school—so the idea of helping to create books that inspire the next generation(s) of readers to fall in love with stories in the way that I did has always been exciting. But on top of that, I think publishing, and especially children's publishing, appeals to me because the books we read as kids have such a profound ability to shape the way we view the world around us, our role in it, and our power to change it. The idea that I can have a hand in helping kids understand that and take full advantage of their own ideas and passions is one that draws me in over and over again as I do the work that I do.

I currently work at Philomel, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers, where I’ve worked for the past almost-five years. Prior to that, I worked for three years at Oxford University Press. I edited college-level English textbooks at Oxford, which definitely made for some fun reading for the English major in me, but children's publishing was always my goal, and I couldn't have found a better place to do that than at Philomel. 

How is the team structured at Philomel and what does your role broadly entail?

Philomel's team is led by a publisher, and we have an associate publisher, a senior editor, and two assistant editors. We also have an associate art director and a junior designer (and that's not to mention our amazing Managing Editorial team, which keeps our ship sailing smoothly). My role is to both assist the associate publisher and senior editor on their books and find and edit books of my own. I read manuscripts, provide feedback on them to authors and illustrators, work with the design team on both interior and jacket design, and write copy for our in-house Sales, Marketing, and Publicity groups as well as for online platforms and jacket copy. I also manage our imprint's Twitter and Instagram presence (@PhilomelBooks).

Philomel literally means “lover of song.” Tell us more about the philosophy behind the imprint's title.

I think our imprint's mission statement says it all: Philomel publishes stories that live beyond the page, that reach into the fabrics of imaginations, family traditions, and self-identities. Our list is small and our impact large. For the youngest of readers, for tweens and teens, for the adult reader still open to being empowered by story—our books are here for you for a lifetime.

Take us behind the scenes of one of your recent bestselling titles describing the creative journey to publication.

I don't think I can answer this question by talking about any book other than She Persisted, by Chelsea Clinton and Alexandra Boiger, which was edited by our associate publisher, Jill Santopolo. The idea for it came out of the incident in the Senate in which Elizabeth Warren was attempting to read a letter by Coretta Scott King during the confirmation hearings for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and she was interrupted by Mitch McConnell, who wouldn't let her finishing her reading. When McConnell explained his actions by saying, “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” that statement became a rallying cry for feminists everywhere, and it inspired Chelsea as well to want to find a way to talk about that moment with kids. She saw Senator Warren's experience as part of a long line of women who have been told to sit down and stay quiet, but who didn't listen, and instead persisted in making incredible changes for our country. From conception to publication, She Persisted took under four months to make, which is incredibly fast for any book, and especially for a picture book—and we are endlessly in awe of Alexandra Boiger, who basically worked around the clock to get her gorgeous art in on time. The process of working on that book was thrilling, because we were making a book that would have been great at any moment, but that had special immediate relevance as well, and we are all so incredibly proud to have had a hand in putting it out into the world. The companion book to She Persisted, called She Persisted Around the World, is now out as well, and we’re all so thrilled to have these two inspiring and empowering books reaching the hands of girls and boys everywhere.

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Which 3 projects from Philomel Books' list would you select to share with our audience?

Apart from She Persisted, I can't talk about Philomel's picture books without mentioning The Day the Crayons Quit (and its sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home), by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. Those books are so chock full of humor, heart, and fun, and I can't tell you how many adults I know who have read them and loved them as grown-ups, let alone all of the children who are over the moon about them.

Then there's Terry Border's Peanut Butter & Cupcake, which features adorable little food objects that are positioned in fun poses and made into characters that tell a fun, funny, and ultimately heartwarming story. Terry has created four other picture books and three separate board books in the world of Peanut Butter and his friends, and he's working on his latest project as we speak!

Lastly, I want to talk about a book that I feel incredibly privileged to have worked on, which is What's the Big Deal About Freedom, by Ruby Shamir and Matt Faulkner. In it, Ruby's words and Matt's art tell the story of freedom in America—how it began, how it grew, and how its very purpose is to be a constantly shifting and evolving entity set within a process of which we can all be a part. I can't imagine a more important message for kids to hear today.

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What illustration styles or themes are of particular interest to you?

I tend to gravitate toward illustrations with depth and texture, and often toward those with a sense of whimsy. And I absolutely love art that plays with light and makes a two-dimensional image on a page look like it's glowing—I’ve always loved J.M.W. Turner’s art and the way that he used color to make a painting look like it had actual light shining out of its canvas, and picture book illustrations that do the same never fail to captivate me.

In terms of cultivating your own list, what are you currently actively looking to acquire?

I'm looking to acquire both fiction and nonfiction picture books. As far as fiction goes, I look for books that have heart, humor, and whimsy, and books that can be read on multiple levels. Also, books that play with language are always a plus. For nonfiction, I look for inspiring stories that can relate to the world today. For any book, I want readers to come away feeling excited, amused, pensive, or inspired.

What would your dream project look like?

I think my dream project would somehow combined humor and history to create a story that would both entertain and inspire.

Visually speaking, what sets Philomel Books' titles apart from the competition?

Our art definitely varies book by book, but there are a few things that we tend to look for. Our books often have art that is visibly rendered, but without being too heavy. That lightness is often offset by bold lines, all of which can create a sense of charm that we love. More generally, I think we tend to look for art that says something on its own, and that adds another layer to the story, rather than just illustrating its words. We’re looking for art that both kids and their parents will find appealing.

Which book from your own childhood had the most powerful effect on you?

I'm going to cheat here and name three books. Where the Wild Things Are remains to this day among my absolute favorite picture books. The cadence of its language and the depth of its art resonated with me in a way that felt magical and real all at once. Max and his imagination, dreaming up far-flung worlds just beyond the confines of his bedroom walls, showed me the power of our minds and our creativity, and when the wild rumpus starts, I can truly feel the music of it inside of me.

I also loved a book called There's an Ape Behind the Drape, by Bernard Most. It's about an ape who gets into mischief by trying to hide around a house, and it's filled with words that have “ape” within them. I loved that the text and the art were playing together, hiding the ape in plain sight in multiple ways.

Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about People, by Peter Spier. It's a book that showed me just how big and beautiful and diverse and multicolored our world is, and it's the type of book that I would hope all children would read at some point in their young lives.

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