Cecily Kaiser Interview

Cecily Kaiser

Early Childhood Publishing Director, Penguin Workshop (Penguin Young Readers)

How did your publishing career begin and what are some of the most important lessons you've learned along the way?

I studied Child Development in college, and additionally got certified to teach. But I decided to explore summer internships in children’s publishing, as schools are not in session over the summer. I sorted through my family’s beloved collection of picture books and cold-called the handful of houses who published my favorite ones. I ended up at Scholastic, interning in the Book Clubs division. I was initially disappointed not to be in trade publishing, but I continued to intern there any time I was home from college and was offered a position upon graduation. I found myself working on the youngest books / Book Clubs, perhaps by chance (given their staffing needs), but it was no coincidence. My studies and experience were focused on the youngest children; I’d always gravitated there. I spent six years rising through the Book Clubs ranks, learning an incredible amount about the breadth of the children’s book market, which books sell well, and why. This knowledge and experience was foundational for all I did after Clubs. I’m so glad I didn’t give in to my initial [ignorant] distaste for the school market division. It goes to show that you can learn – will learn – no matter where you choose to begin.

Tell us how you came to set up Penguin Workshop's new Preschool Program, RISE and what your role broadly entails.

After Scholastic Book Clubs, I moved into the Scholastic Trade division to run their 0-6 imprint, Cartwheel Books. Then on to Abrams, where I launched the Abrams Appleseed imprint for 0-5 year olds. After a stint at Phaidon where I oversaw the whole children’s program, Penguin offered me a position to launch their first dedicated 0-5 imprint. I had dreamt of working at Penguin, given its best-in-class culture and best-in-industry colleagues… and the opportunity to create a list, with a focus on my career-long sweet spot, supported by the PYR team, was irresistable.

As Publishing Director, I formed the mission and vision for the imprint, hired an art director and assistant editor, worked together on the name and logo, and began outreach to find and make the books that would fulfill the vision. We work as a highly collaborative team with our creators in order to perfect each and every aspect of our books. We publish approximately 20 books per year, so really only those projects that we absolutely cannot resist. We launched in Fall 2020, so by this Spring, we’ll have published 27 books, most of which have been critically acclaimed, and a couple of which have become indie bestsellers.

RISE is defined and guided by the principal 'To engage, empower, and evolve the youngest readers (ages 0-5) with authentic, relevant, and elegant books.' Select three projects which best exemplify this ethos.

BEING YOU: A FIRST CONVERSATION ABOUT GENDER – this is the second book in our First Conversations series, which is written by experts Jessica Ralli and Megan Madison and illustrated by Anne/Andy Passchier, and serves to provide a sort of illustrated script for having essential conversations with the youngest kids about important topics.

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WHEN CLOUD BECAME A CLOUD – this is a nonfiction depiction of the water and weather cycle via a friendly Cloud protagonist, complete with humor and text bubbles. Rob Hodgson decodes a child’s world in a way that is digestible and memorable, which is empowering. Knowledge is power!

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OLU AND GRETA – this fictional picture book presents the parallel lives of two cousins living in different worlds (Lagos, Nigeria and Milan, Italy), and the similarities across distance and culture. We are all united, childhood is universal, and love transcends geography are the incredibly empowering messages that underlie Diana Ejaita’s stunning work.

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Walk us through the creation of one of your favourite titles, explaining the key stages of its journey from acquisition to publication.

I love every title in its own way, but I do have some favorite development stories. One that comes to mind is THREE WAYS TO BE BRAVE: A TRIO OF STORIES by Karla Clark, illustrated by Jeff Östberg. Karla submitted this as a single story about a thunderstorm, and a child who feels “safe at last” once he climbs into his parents’ bed. After our discussions, she revised it to be the story of a child who intends on running to his parents’ bedroom during a thunderstorm, but instead hears the whimper of his younger sister and goes to her instead. By accessing his own inner strength and ability to comfort, he was comforted. We built out this idea of having the power within to conquer one’s own fears into two additional stories, and published the book as three stories in one! Karla embraced the empowerment angle, and was thrilled to research and compose stories in which the child was their own hero. 

It was quite an illustration feat for Jeff, who had mostly worked on book covers, but he found the strength to conquer his own fears of a 80-page picture book! It turned out to be gorgeous and evocative – the perfect fit for Karla’s text.

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Professionally-speaking, what's been your a) most challenging b) proudest moment so far?

I’m a bit tentative about superlatives thinking back 20+ years, but one challenge that comes to mind is intertwined with a proud moment. Having worked in the 0-5 realm for decades, long-term trends and cycles become undeniably apparent. One of those is the lack of industry recognition for board books. Because there are currently no board book bestseller lists, no board book ALA awards, and very few board book categories in numerous other lists / award / end-of-year roundups, consumer attention is never universally directed to new publishing (as it would be when a picture book or MG or YA title hits a bestseller list or wins a big award). That makes it all the harder to make a splash with new board books, resulting in the same 5-7 classic board books maintaining bestseller status. I am working with folks both inside and outside of Penguin to affect change, but until we do, it is a constant source of frustration for me. 

The intertwined proud moment happened just last week, when the ALA announced their Notable Book List for titles published in 2021. Included in the “Younger” category was OUR SKIN: A FIRST CONVERSATION ABOUT RACE -- the only board book on the entire list! 

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Who or what gets your creative juices flowing?

Amazing creators who are mission-driven and expert at their craft; eagerly collaborative colleagues; my own kids (6 years and 3 years); chocolate; strong connection to any art or media; Fridays; enough sleep; sunshine; a good hair day; an unrushed shower. 

What impact has having your own children had on the way you approach developing children's books?

As I mentioned above, they do “spark” me sometimes, with things they say or ways in which they react to books they read. But the truth is that I’ve always had young kids in my life – as a cousin, a babysitter, a camp counselor, teacher in training, an aunt, an auntie, and then, a mom. Children have always been my focus, both personally and professionally, so I’ve never been without their sparks. I was no less informed as a publisher before I was a mom than I am now. In some ways, I may even be more skewed by the two young people whom I’m with all day every day, of which I remain cognizant. 

Who would you say are some of the publishing industry's true visionaries?

I’m dedicating this answer to my friend, my supervisor, President and Publisher of Penguin Workshop, Francesco Sedita. Francesco is not only a big-picture thinker, but a forward thinker. He can see the future and navigate towards it so gracefully. His cutting edge sensibility affords his team the benefit of fresh eyes, wise guidance, and a license to try new things! He loves books, but he loves people even more. He treasures his colleagues, his creators, his mentors, and his mentees. He makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room, but he has never once taken advantage of his charm. He uses his powers for good, and the good of our books. He is a quintessential publisher, a classy businessman, and a loyal colleague and friend. We met at Scholastic in 2001, and 18 years later, I joined his team at Penguin. I will work my hardest to never leave his side! 

In what ways do you help support and nurture the next generation of creative talent in publishing?

As someone who entered this industry as an intern, without any connections, I am dedicated to the internship program. Even during Covid, we had an intern who joined us 2 days/week from her dorm room!

I also present at forums such as SCBWI and Penguin’s Emerging Voices seminar, in order to invite writers and artists to consider the importance of and opportunity within the 0-5 realm.

And of course, I encourage kids to storytell and write and draw. I tell them how books are made, and invite them to consider that job when they get older. Why not?

Can you give us a glimpse into what we can expect to see from RISE over the coming months?

Well, I already mentioned OLU AND GRETA, which will be out this month, as will SOLITARY ANIMALS: INTROVERTS OF THE WILD (for a slice of nature that validates introversion and solitude), HOW TO SAY HELLO TO A WORM (a gentle invitation for the youngest children to experience nature with confidence), and HOW YOU CAME TO BE (in which a fetus’s development is lyrically and lovingly explained month by month for young siblings-to-be or any curious kid). We also have our seventh WHO WAS board book, featuring BRUCE LEE – an actor, philosopher, and groundbreaker whose story will most definitely inspire the youngest changemakers. 

And then, and then… you know, we work so far ahead. We just launched our Spring 23 list internally, which includes a picture book by an idol of mine. (Cliffhanger!) And so many more beauties. This is truly a job that never gets old because there are always new projects to excite, inspire, and motivate us!

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