Associate Art Director, Kokila (PRH)
Walk us through your professional background including how you came to your current role as Associate Art Director at Kokila (Penguin Random House).
My publishing career started with a design internship at Dial Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin Random House) while attending the School of Visual Arts as an illustration major. That experience introduced me to how graphic design and art is applied in the children’s book industry, and it changed my professional goals. I was fortunate that my internship turned into a full-time job as Dial Books for Young Readers design assistant. Over my 17 years at Dial I had the opportunity to grow, learn, and was promoted. I was mentored by Atha Tehon and Lily Malcom, two talented Art Directors. I took on more responsibilities in the Dial design department as Lily Malcom’s Assistant Art Director. I learned more about the publishing business in that role. While at Dial I had the opportunity to work with Namrata Tripathi, who was the editorial director at the time, on several books including Islandborn by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa. Two years ago, when Namrata described her vision for Kokila to me I was inspired and honored to join her, Joanna Cárdenas, and Sydnee Monday to build Kokila’s list. It’s been an amazing experience working with this team. I feel energized entering my 20th year in publishing as the Associate Art Director of Kokila.
Who is behind the Kokila team?
The Kokila team is Namrata Tripathi, vice president and publisher; Joanna Cárdenas, Senior editor; and Sydnee Monday, assistant editor. And Zareen Jaffery, executive editor, has recently joined the team. I’m fortunate to work with this brilliant group of women.
Where does the name 'Kokila' come from and what does it symbolize?
Namrata chose the name Kokila, which is the Sanskrit word for the koel bird. The koel bird sings before the monsoons come and is referenced in literature as a harbinger of new beginnings. It’s also in keeping with the Penguin Young Reader’s bird name theme.
Kokila's mission is to tell the stories of children and young adults from the margins, who are often missing from more traditional books, in an authentic way. Why do you think so few publishers have focused on diversity?
I think that publishing houses are creating books so that children from marginalized backgrounds feel represented in books. But it hasn’t been enough, and the improvements made in recent years have been small increments. There is still a big gap that needs to be addressed. The word “diversity” is a broad term, so when using it we should note that marginalized communities are not a monolith; there many layers and intersection within those communities. It is important to also show different stories from within marginalized communities so that we are not unintentionally focusing on one type of story, or one type of narrative.
In addition to race and ethnicity; Kokila is also focused on publishing stories centered around sexuality, religion, and ability. Select 3 books from your debut launch list to share with our audience.
Absolutely, as I mentioned when using the broad term “diversity” we need to think about this as well. I love all our books; each book has a mission and a purpose. I also enjoy seeing how our creators cheer on each other’s work. From our debut list, we have Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay, Strange Birds by Celia C. Pérez, and My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero illustrated by Zeke Peña. But please check out our home page at https://www.penguin.com/publishers/kokila/, to learn more about the amazing group of creators that we are honored to publish and choose your favorite. And follow us on social @kokilabooks to see all our upcoming projects.
What are your thoughts on non-Native illustrators authentically depicting Native content?
I think any creator that is working on a book/project outside of their experience and culture should be willing to do a tremendous amount of research, and engage with the communities they wish to represent. Academics and elders within those communities should be invited to review the work. Their expertise respected and taken into account. All research done by the creator needs to be done with a lot of respect, compassion, credit to those helping to build the work, and compensation for that work.
We need to acknowledge that there is a lot of harmful and false history and misrepresentation of Indigenous communities so that needs to be the main mission, not falling into any false narratives. Always think about who your reader is, and how you would want them to feel after seeing the work.
When browsing artists' portfolios, are there particular styles or subject matters you are looking for?
This is all subjective, there isn’t a formula that I follow. When it comes to art style, there isn’t a particular style that I’m drawn to. What stands out in a portfolio to me is an artist who knows their strengths, has a specific point of view, and understands how to tell a story visually. And with this in mind they build a portfolio that showcases all of that. Style plays a role in my selection, but not all books should be in any particular style.
What's been the proudest moment of your career?
Making the list for PW’s Star Watch. I shy away from attention, it’s not something that drives me but making that list was pretty awesome. Especially knowing that Namrata and Lily respected my work and nominated me for consideration, and making the cut.
Describe the most touching story you've ever read.
There are several stories and books, so I couldn’t say one touched me “the most”, but I think an honest answer would be one that has touched me recently: Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High, I think she’s a brilliant writer and in writing outside of her cultural experience for this book, she incorporated so much cultural specificity, it was beautiful.
In the first few pages I teared up and I’m not really a crier. When I read: “In fact, when ‘Buela tasted it (whatever “it” was) she says it was the best thing she’d ever eaten. How it made her whole day better, sweeter. Says a memory of Puerto Rico she hadn’t thought about in years reach out like an island hammock and cradled her close.”, this section, and reading “’Buela” spelled the way my sister and I said it to our ‘Buela, it touched me. These few lines transported me to a time and place in an instant, just like ‘Buela in the book was describing.