Elizabeth Agyemang Interview

Elizabeth Agyemang

Associate Editor, HarperCollins Publishers

Could you tell us how your publishing career got started, and how you arrived at your current role as Associate Editor for HarperCollins?

I was always a big reader growing up, so when I found out there was a whole industry dedicated to making the books I had loved, I did everything I could to learn more about it. I listened to podcasts like Minorities in Publishing, read posts by industry Representation Matters mentorship program professionals online, and researched mentorship programs. I ultimately was accepted into the which connected me with a senior and junior publishing professional who shared their insights in the industry. Simultaneously, I saw a call online for an internship at Clarion Books (which at the time was an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), interviewed, and got the role. Through my time as an intern, my mentors guided me, and when a role opened up as a full-time editorial assistant at the Books for Young Readers imprint in the company, I went through the application process got the job which was my first full-time role in publishing. Through my time at Clarion Books and HMH Books for Young Readers, I learned so much and ultimately transitioned into my current role as an Associate Editor when the trade division was acquired by HarperCollins’ Publishers.

In addition to being an editor, you're also a writer and illustrator. Could you share one of your children's books with our audience & explain the inspiration behind it?

Fibbed is my debut graphic novel as an author-illustrator. It was inspired by many things, from reconnecting with my family as a first-generation immigrant and my love of folktales and fantasy. Particularly, it draws from Ananse (Anansi) folktales from Ghanaian lore, which follow the trickster spider who is said to have brought all the stories to the world. In Fibbed, my main character Nana is visiting her family in Ghana for the summer after a series of incidents at her school land her in hot water. There, she discovers that there’s magic in the village forest and must team up with Ananse to save the magic from a group of greedy contractors trying to steal and sell the forest’s magic for profit. Nana’s journey is about finding your voice and learning from the past. Themes of family, environmental stewardship, and community play an important role in the story.

But most of all, it’s about searching for the truth, and finding instead, the power that comes in believing; in others, in ourselves, and in the intangible.

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What impact has your own childhood had on the kind of stories you particularly enjoy working on?

I grew up reading everything and anything as a kid, from fantasy stories, contemporary comics, to epic tales inspired by history and myths. Some of my favorites included Ella Enchanted, Fruits Basket, Kare Kano, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Eragon. Additionally, I read so many seminal books in high school and college that still stick with me today, like Brown Girl Dreaming and The Wrath and the Dawn. I definitely think these stories inspired my genre interests. As an editor now, I’m still particularly drawn to fantasy, contemporary, and historical fiction. For my list, I look for works that reflect the diversity of the world around us, from coming-of-age middle grade narratives about family, friendship, and adventure, sweeping young adult fantasies with a hint of romance, rom-coms and contemporary stories, to historical fiction and graphic novels in the contemporary and fantasy genres.

What portfolio advice would you offer members looking to appeal to HarperCollins? Are there specific subjects matters they should look to include?

I think the great thing about portfolios is that they’re a reflection of you. To me, that’s so important to keep in mind, and the advice I would offer your members is to take your portfolio as an expression of this. How does the work in your portfolio reflect your strengths, your interests, your style as an artist and the work you’d like to do in the future? Sometimes as a creator, it’s easy to focus only of what you think someone else wants, even though that’s important in terms of figuring out how to pitch. But what’s more important is defining who you are, what your work represents and then finding the right collaborator. That’s what I look for in an artist’s portfolio rather than a specific subject matter, though of course depending on the project I’m working on, I would consider portfolios in the specific genres of that project. So for me, creators who are able to hone their craft and really showcase their strengths and creativity in their portfolio are the ones that resonate.

Select a few spreads from one of your favorite recent projects to share with our audience, explaining why they really made you smile.

So the spreads I’m selecting are from The Secret of the Ravens by Joanna Cacao. The story follows twin siblings, Elliot and Liza. In the story, Elliot must join forces with a mysterious and ancient mage to save Liza from a deadly poison after the two are swept up in a series of magical Raven Quests.

When I first came across Joanna’s art, I was immediately drawn to how beautifully she is able to bring to life worlds and characters through her stunning color palettes and expressive renderings. Her art has a vibrancy, energy, and emotional core to it that makes you feel like you’re in the story and the world and characters are alive. I have so many favorite pieces from the book. One of the previews we shared on the book’s catalog page showcases when Elliot and Liza first arrive at the Kawumiti Kingdom capital.

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Here you get to see a taste of Joanna’s gorgeous landscape work, the expressive nature of her character designs, and the first sense of this world and the struggles the twins face as they try to build a better life for themselves. Elliot and Liza only have each other, so when that tragically changes, Elliot is thrust on a quest to save Liza—even if it means sacrificing everything.

What advice would you offer an illustrator looking to overcome a creative block?

When it comes to a creative block, I think my advice to illustrators would be to step back, reassess, and reconnect. Stepping back could mean giving yourself a break if you feel you’ve been creating a lot of work but haven’t felt that spark. It’s just giving yourself time to rest.

Reassessing to me is about reflecting on what you have created so far. A lot of times it can feel like creators need outside validation to celebrate a piece but taking the time to reflect on the work you’ve done with a positive outlook on what you loved, what you’d want to do more of, and how you’d like to continue honing your craft can help give space to overcome a creative block.

Finally, reconnecting with art itself can be so helpful to that end, whether that be celebrating the works of other creators you love or exploring a new style that you’ve always wanted to try. Finding a way to enjoy and be excited about creating can help immensely when overcoming a creative block.

Who has been your greatest career cheerleader & mentor?

Luckily, I’ve had a lot of mentors and cheerleaders throughout my career. From my mentors at Representation Matters, my early and current managers at HMH Books for Young Readers and HarperCollins, and my coworkers and peers. As challenging as this industry can often seem, it’s also filled with so many kind and passionate people and I’ve found those connections to be so rewarding.  

Describe your dream project.

All of my dream projects were books I could never have imagined or dreamed up myself. That’s the magic of working in an industry where we get to share the stories of creators. To me, dream projects are when visions align across the illustrator, author, editor, and the team in the publishing house. I’m continually amazed by the many stories and voices there are to share and the incredible creators behind them. Every project has something magical and unique about it, and the heart of that is the creators behind the books and the collaborative process that’s the nature of publishing.

What exciting new children's releases can we expect to see from HarperCollins this year?

There are so many amazing releases coming from HarperCollins Children’s Books this year! We have everything from delightful picture books, heart-felt middle grade novels, to adventurous young adult novels and graphic novels. Some of them I have been lucky enough to work on like The Secret of the Ravens and The Lightstruck and others I’ve been excited to get to experience as a reader such as The Probability of Everything, Frontera, Cindy and Panda...

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The Do-Over, and The Hills of Estrella Roja to name a few on both ends. But there are so many incredible stories coming this year and I can’t wait for readers to be swept away by the work of our amazing creators!

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