Andrea Spooner Interview

Andrea Spooner

VP & Editorial Director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (LBYR)

Tell us how your career in publishing began and what some of your key roles have entailed.

My career in publishing began in 1992, shortly after I graduated from Smith College and then attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now known as the Columbia Publishing Course). I was an editorial assistant at Four Winds Press, a tiny imprint at Macmillan headed by Virginia Duncan. I had been an art major and writing minor in college, and so I was lucky to land in a job where I was allowed to assist the art director as well as the editor-in-chief. So in addition to writing reader reports and learning to edit, I was also able to help with cover type design, creating mechanicals, and creating book layouts in the early days of computer design. My love of hands-on design work has lasted and impacted every role I’ve had since then.

When Macmillan was purchased by Viacom, we were folded into Simon & Schuster, where I was an assistant and associate editor; I moved to Morrow Junior books to become an editor working for David Reuther, who eventually left to begin a new imprint at the independently-owned European company North-South Books. I joined him there as editor-in-chief, and starting a new imprint—SeaStar Books—completely from scratch was an incredible adventure!

After that company fell on hard times, I moved to Little Brown Books for Young Readers in 2003 where I’ve had numerous roles: Editorial Director of the whole imprint, to Editorial Director of James Patterson’s books for young readers, to my role now as Editorial Director of picture books. I feel like I’ve come full circle, focusing on what I love most—combining words, art, and graphic design into beautiful packages with lasting stories that can be enjoyed over and over again.

Highlight a few of LBYR's award-winning titles & explain what ingredients you attribute to their success.

I’m tremendously proud of the fact that we recently had a stretch of winning ten Caldecott stickers (five Medals and five Honors) in ten years, creating an industry record with three gold medals three years in a row within a single imprint. What pleases me most is that there was no single artist or editor or art director driving that string of successes, but rather a team of people with similarly high standards and a collaborative way of working that we believe brings the best out of our artists. The books were all distinctive in art style; aside from the two by Sophie Blackall (Finding Winnie and Hello, Lighthouse), no two books looked alike.

We look for artists with a true signature style, who have their own visual language and personal stamp. Most of these artists are quite exacting and demanding of themselves, and many of the books took the better part of a year (and some much longer) to create. Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe took five years, as he grappled with creating three-dimensional works of assemblage. Oge Mora, the artist for Thank You Omu, was on the verge of finishing her book just in the nick of time to be published in 2017, but decided that she needed to slow down and make sure she was getting it just right while not under pressure, so we postponed the book for a full year so that she could feel 100% confident in her execution.

So while of course there is no blanket formula for award-winning books, some of the key elements most of these LBYR stars shared was a very collaborative process, artists who pushed themselves to do their very best work, and the development of an art style that’s uniquely their own.

What kind of stories are you currently seeking & how would you describe the art you're looking for?

While I don’t want to pigeonhole what I’m looking for too narrowly—because we believe strongly in diversifying our portfolio with a wide range of content, tone, topics and styles—one thing I do need to put out the call for is more genuinely funny, clever, or even absurdist-style books. We have been overwhelmed with very serious and earnest content lately, and while these books are important, we need to balance out all of the heavy content with something that will make kids—and adults!—laugh. It’s a tough world out there, and parents and caregivers are craving to share more happy moments together during storytime at the end of a long day.

As mentioned earlier, I’m personally looking for art styles that are distinctive and singular, rather than trendy or generic animation-based styles. That is not meant to demean animators, who I have a high degree of respect for (and in fact we work with plenty of former animators whom we love!), but I love seeing how brilliant former animators like Molly Idle, Dan Santat, and Rhode Montijo have taken the great skills they’ve learned from the business and gone on to develop their own signature styles that I could identify as their very own across a room. I tend to work with artists who do traditional drawing and painting (Corinna Luyken, Diana Sudyka, Audrey Helen Weber), collage (Oge Mora), and mixed media (Rafael Lopez), as well as primarily digital artists (Dan Santat, Bob Shea, Elise Parsley) who have a bold and dynamic sense of humor.

Describe the most exciting project you've overseen.

You know that’s like asking a mother to describe their favorite child, right? The most wonderful thing about this job is that so many of them are genuinely exciting, and there’s always another one right around the corner!

Since I’ve worked on so many picture books in my career, I will admit that one of my favorite books that I’ve ever worked on was something quite different: a debut poetry collection called I’m Just No Good At Rhyming And Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups, which is a collection of radically inventive and wildly witty poems that could best be summarized as “Shel Silverstein meets Jon Scieszka” in flavor. Not only is the poetry mind-blowingly funny and wickedly clever, but we were so lucky to work with the great Lane Smith and his amazing wife, designer Molly Leach, on a dynamic, completely distinctive artistic package.

And how lucky am I to have worked on a dozen books with the legendary artist Jerry Pinkney? Although each of his books was truly a career highlight, I think that collaborating on the nearly wordless The Lion and the Mouse, which won him the Caldecott gold at long, long last after multiple silver honors, is an experience that will be hard to top.

What portfolio advice would you offer illustrators looking to appeal to LBYR?

We are eager to see your range—of emotions, and places, and moods, and characters (different ages, diverse body types and races, people and animals). We also often need to find illustrators who can render settings and backgrounds well, who are good at adding rich detail, who are able to bring a layer of storytelling to the art that goes above and beyond what the text literally offers. Many portfolios often overlook the importance of that and focus on character interaction only. We tend to gravitate toward styles that are unique, layered, with depth and texture. On the flip side, sometimes it’s harder than you’d think to find boldly funny-but-not-necessarily-cartoony work that has its own non-generic flair, so if you can do humor, don’t be shy about including it in your portfolio!

Select a few spreads from one of your favourite recent projects to share with our audience which really made you smile.

CHEZ BOB written and illustrated by Bob Shea (released 9/21) is a funny book that is also one of our most acclaimed picture books this year, with four starred reviews and inclusion on several best-of lists. It’s a good example of humor that’s fresh but with depth and a strong takeway. I love this spread because of its fearlessly dramatic close-up cropping which makes the reader feel just a breath away from the Alligator’s big teeth. Bob’s devious expression combined with the absurd chef’s hat makes for delightfully humorous juxtaposition.

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THE GREAT WHIPPLETHORP BUG COLLECTION illustrated by Elizabeth Bergeland (released 5/21) is a story about a boy who is learning that what it means to be “great” is a lot deeper than just manly accomplishments! This spread cleverly shows his different ancestors evolving over time via the change in the style of picture frames as well as increasing the amount of color in each photo—and the last photo makes me laugh every time.

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I’LL MEET YOU IN YOUR DREAMS illustrated by Rafael López (released 3/21) is about the evolving relationship of parents and children over time. The exquisite range of palette (with both warm and cool colors) in this spread always delights me, and I admire the combination of both literal things and abstractions (like the twisting lines—indicating our complicated emotional connections to our growing children as they leave “the nest”), which creates a warm, layered, emotional response.

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Describe the process of working with an exciting debut illustration talent.

Working with a debut illustrator is often one of my favorite things to do. I imagine an artist remembers their first book like their first love—there’s only ever going to be one, and to be a part of that key moment in someone’s career is very special and I want it to be a good memory! On the artist’s end, I think there is sometimes an extra degree of energy, both nervous energy and excited energy, that can be channeled into really great work since there’s such an eagerness to please. On my end, it’s a responsibility I cherish, to make sure that people’s first experience in publishing is a great one, at least creatively. I don’t mind explaining the industry terminology (self-ended pagination! Blues! F&Gs!) as well as other esoteric aspects of making books, like why we need the final art to be delivered a year or more before the book’s release. I feel like laying the groundwork for a collaborative and intense-yet-hopefully-rewarding creative process that will set people on a positive path forward toward their next work is really a special role to have.

What are some of the greatest challenges of your role?

The greatest challenges of being and editor are usually parts of the process that authors and artists aren’t aware of. Negotiating and reviewing contracts and dealing with the legal and financial aspects of publishing are never going to be parts of the job that I consider to be fun—not surprising to hear from an art major!—but it comes with the territory. And as an editor who is the key liaison to the author, artist, and agent, there will always be days where it’s your job to deliver some bad news (a shipping delay, books out of stock, having to say “no” something an author really wants, etc.)

Most of all, juggling priorities and staying on top of the work never gets easier, even after almost 30 years of experience and having an assistant to help me. Editors are not only responsible for wading through hundreds of submissions to figure out what we want to acquire for the future, and preparing acquisitions materials and negotiating deals for those books; we’re also working on all creative aspects of books coming out in the next three years, plus navigating sales and marketing issues for books coming out soon or now, plus playing the role of “customer service rep” for backlist authors and miscellaneous issues that always pop up. It’s an endless flow of different kinds of tasks every day; we could easily be “touching” twenty different projects in a day, so it’s very difficult to find the quiet time to sink into simply reading and editing books in a focused way. It’s like we’re directing a dozen different movies at the same time!

What is your favourite children's book of all time?

Ironically, I don’t actually have one when it comes to picture books, and I really mean that. I’m an equal opportunity lover of picture books, a kid in a candy store who wants to buy everything and simply cannot ever just focus on one favorite bit of candy.

But as a child, I relished in a special way the very few picture books that I owned, poring over the pictures again and again; the one I best remember is Mitsumasa Anno’s Upside Downers, a book whose art could be seen/perceived in a completely different way when turned upside down. I guess to this day, I still love books that have a smart, inventively clever or thoughtful visual conceit like that one!

Who have been your most significant mentors?

I have been fortunate to have three wonderful supervisors and role models in my career: Virginia Duncan, now the head of Greenwillow, who taught me much of what I know about editing. My second boss, David Reuther, taught me much of what I know about the business of publishing and about cultivating and maintaining strong author/artist relationships. And Megan Tingley, our publisher, has taught me how to be a manager, how to navigate complicated situations, and maybe most importantly how to believe in myself. I can hardly believe I’ve been entrusted with the many roles I’ve been given at Little, Brown, and I feel very lucky to have been working with Megan and the entire wonderful team at this company these 18 years!

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