Lily Kessinger Interview

Lily Kessinger

Associate Editor, HMH Books for Young Readers

How did you get into the world of publishing and what's been your career journey so far?

According to the ol’ family lore, my dad asked me as a kid what I wanted to do when I grew up and I simply replied, “read,” so my dad told me to figure out how to do that—and that’s been my goal ever since! I studied English and Anthropology in college, while interning at the Wake Forest University Press, and then earned my MFA at Emerson College in Publishing & Writing, which is how I wound up in Boston. My focus has always been on books for young readers, so I did internships at The Horn Book and Candlewick Press during that time and finally landed at HMH Books for Young Readers.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is launching a dedicated children’s graphic novel imprint, 'Etch'. Could you explain the concept and main mission behind this new offering?

Happy to! The goal of Etch is to publish graphic novels that make a mark. I am personally so excited for the launch of an imprint that is dedicated to publishing graphic novels for every young reader. Etch publishes authors and artists that exemplify the best in art and storytelling of all genres and reflect the diversity of our readers.

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As Associate Editor, what are some of your main responsibilities and what do you most enjoy about your role?

The romantic answer would be that I read all day, sipping tea and staring off moodily out the window. While that is certainly part of it (!), every day really does bring something new. I field a lot of emails, I read submissions and bring exciting titles to our team to consider for acquisition, and negotiate contracts. At the same time, I need to edit manuscripts, review copyedits, write flap copy, search for artists to pair with graphic novel scripts, and offer feedback on cover comps. I love being able to work directly with authors and artists, in addition to my colleagues from design, managing editorial, publicity, and marketing. Making a book is a collaborative labor of love with so many moving pieces!

There is nothing quite like connecting with a submission—that fluttery feeling when you just know you have to work on something. With graphic novels that have separate authors and illustrators, one of those magical moments is when you get to see the artist’s interpretation of the characters and world after working solely on a script for months. It’s such an exhilarating, exciting experience!

How would you describe the current market for children's graphic novels?

As a reader and editor, it feels like we’ve entered a sort of golden age of graphic novels. It’s amazing to not only see all of the incredible books being published across a range of genres and age categories, but also the uptick of graphic novel submissions in my own inbox over the past few years! There appears to be a real hunger for visual storytelling, and the market seems fairly fluid in that readers are reading up and down in age groups. It’s also lovely to see the critical reception and accolades titles have been receiving—Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz Awards and Honors, oh my! Last ALA I was cheering for every graphic novel that was honored, which goes to show how passionate the comics community is. I’m very lucky to have two amazing comics shops in my town—Comicazi and Hub Comics in Somerville, MA—but I’ve also seen the graphic novel shelves grow at my local indie and B&N. The market is really primed to support expansion of this category.

Have you always been passionate about graphic novels?

I was obsessed with making stories and illustrating them as a kid (I think my mom has kept them all, and since I am no artist, she has a lot of blackmail should she decide to use it), and I still have a SpongeBob notebook filled with an unfinished comic from middle school. As a teen, my best friend and I would spend hours on the floor of our local bookstore reading manga, and so my love of long-form visual storytelling organically expanded from there. I enjoy reading across genres, age groups, and mediums—serial comics, graphic novels, manga, web comics—and it’s really informed my editorial tastes and the type of projects I want to work on. On the subway a few months ago, I saw a young boy reading an incredibly beat-up copy of Sisters by Raina Telgemeier and as soon as he finished, he flipped to the front page and started again. I got a little misty-eyed seeing that kind of passion—it reminded me of that complete joy and absorption I experienced reading graphic novels as a kid (and as an adult).

Tell us about some of the exciting middle grade graphic novel series HMH is gearing up to release in 2020.

Our Etch launch list has seven titles that span various age groups and genres, so there is really something for everyone! There are dinosaurs, video games, an appearance from the elusive Carmen Sandiego (if you can catch her), bird detectives, gods and goddesses going to middle school, and a new edition of the Will Eisner nominee and Asian/Pacific American Young Adult Literature Honor book Ichiro by Ryan Inzana.

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If you’re looking for humor, I recommend Dinomighty! written by Doug Paleo, illustrated by Aaron Blecha. If you love mythology, be sure to keep an eye out for the first in the Oh My Gods! series written by Stephanie Cooke and Insha Fitzpatrick, and illustrated by Juliana Moon. For mystery readers, Sherlock Bones and the Natural History Mystery by Renee Treml is a delightful museum romp. I could go on and on! It’s a wonderful list with such talented creators.  

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Which graphic novel titles on HMH's backlist are bestsellers?

As the home of Alison Bechdel on the general interest side, HMH has a long tradition with graphic novels. Over in the books for young readers, we have Kayla Miller’s brilliant, funny, and heartwarming Click and Camp (the election-themed next book in the series, Act, comes out this summer!). We also publish the award-winning graphic nonfiction of Don Brown including Drowned City and The Unwanted. And we’ve recently published graphic novel adaptions of Newbery Award–winning titles The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and The Giver by Lois Lowry.  It has been incredible to see these beloved books reimagined in another medium.

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What portfolio advice would you offer artists on looking to appeal to graphic novel commissioners?

Personally, there are two things I look for when reviewing artist portfolios to pair with a graphic novel script:

1.) character studies

2.) panel work.

Not every artist can/wants to do everything (nor should they!), so when I am looking for an artist for a fantasy, for example, I love seeing creature sketches—mermaids, wolf people, vampires—or magical locations like moon palaces, haunted swamps, or undersea cities. It’s really helpful to see a range of character expressions (whether human or otherwise) to help determine whether an artist can nail the various emotional beats of a script.

As for panel work, the questions that come to mind when I’m reviewing a portfolio: Are they playing with layout in an exciting, dynamic way? Is there variation in paneling across spreads? How does the artist use white space? Even if it is just a miniature comic, it’s great to see how an artist handles the movement and progression of a scene. I also like to get a feel for whether an artist likes to work in full-color, two-color, or both.

Describe your most rewarding project, giving an insight into the various stages of the creative process.

Hmm…this is a tricky one as I feel each project I’ve worked on has been a meaningful experience with its own challenges and triumphs! Regarding graphic novels, I have two forthcoming titles that I’m really excited about: Oh My Gods! and ParaNorthern and the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calypse. Both are funny, heartfelt middle grades, but I will discuss Oh My Gods! here as that title is out first in January 2021 (right around the corner 😉). This series has three creators—two authors and an illustrator—and the team already had existing friendships, so it was incredibly fun to work with them. They are a welcoming and creative bunch! It had such an energy of organic collaboration and humor that it reminded me of being in middle school and making comics with my friends again.

Editorially, we worked on finalizing the script while the artist created a character lineup so we could offer feedback on what was working. Once the script was copyedited, the metaphorical baton was passed to the artist, and our brilliant designer Andrea Miller came aboard to help offer feedback throughout the process. It has been an incredibly rewarding and collaborative project, and I am looking forward to readers meeting Karen and her god and goddess friends (while squeeing over the adorable art!).

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What would your dream project look like?

Whenever I get this question I completely freeze—you’d think I’d have an answer handy and at the ready! Sometimes I don’t even know a project is a dream of mine until it arrives in my inbox , and you never know what’s going to knock your socks off. But in the interest of answering your question, what type of graphic novel am I dying to read right this second?

1.) A romantic, coming-of-age YA—all those longing glances and blushes on the page! Something hopeful in these trying times.

2.) Having just finished The Great on Hulu, I’d love an anachronistic, hilarious historical, which could be so fun visually with the palaces, period clothing, and decadent food!

3.) I’m always looking for #OwnVoices projects and stories that offer diverse perspectives and experiences in both MG and YA.

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