Melissa Nelson Greenberg Interview

Melissa Nelson Greenberg

Children's Art Director, Cameron Kids

How did you get started in children's publishing and what does your current role as Children's Art Director, Cameron Kids broadly entail?

As I grew up, I loved art and was taught that “bored” was a bad word and that one should always try to make something with what they already have - perhaps by finding the magic of what is right in front of you. I often found joy in imagining the world to come alive in wonder the way that children’s books portray (like looking at a tree in the wind and seeing the leaves dance, or thinking that perhaps the stars at night are singing us a lullaby). However, when it was time to think about what career path I wanted to follow, these things never crossed my mind. All I knew was that I wanted to do something that helped others. So, naturally, I decided I would go to school to become a doctor. Within my first year of school I came to realize, despite my best efforts, that I did not enjoy the sciences nearly as much as art. And how would I help others if I was not inspired? I thought to myself, why can’t I help people through art? And there the story really started to take off.

I always loved the way children see life as full of possibility, so I began early on in school designing materials for non profits geared toward helping children in need. As I was nearing graduation as an art major, I knew I wanted to do something that involved design, art, and children, but what? Teaching? It was then that my aunt, Diane Greenseid, introduced me to the magical world of actually making children’s books. She was and still is a children’s book illustrator. She kindly gave me a list of art directors she knew and I immediately contacted them. Several of them graciously agreed to see me! I recall taking my giant, unwieldy portfolio through the wind and rain in NYC back in the winter of 1999, meeting so many lovely people but alas, however, none that could offer me a job. I did find a job at a small design studio in NYC, which was great, but now I had my heart set on working in children’s publishing.

As life will have it, you never know what turns your path will make unknowingly — 2 weeks later, I got a call from the very first art director I met, Joann Hill, saying she had a position open for a design assistant at Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin). And it was there that my career really began. I spent several years learning under her wing and having such a great time. I then moved on to the Knopf imprint at Random House, where I continued to learn every day for just shy of a decade, meeting so many amazing creators from authors to illustrators, editors of all styles including Janet Schulman who showed me how a book can be serious and funny at the same time, fellow art directors and designers, and of course Isabel Warren-Lynch, who taught me to always focus on powerful expression (and yes, I mean that in more ways than one).

When we moved out to the North Bay of California after my daughter was born, I never thought I would be able to find what I have found now which is the incredible team of Cameron + Company — a small boutique publisher that embraces the love for story, design, books and creative collaboration. I am definitely one of those lucky people who can say they love their work. 

Here, at Cameron Kids, I feel my job is less about directing the art than inspiring artists and idea makers to inspire our children as they acquire language and gain a deeper understanding of the world around them and their part in it. To help bring stories to people through books. Because in the end it is our stories that make the world human. I guess I finally found my role after all.

Who is the team behind Cameron Kids and how many titles do you typically publish per year?

Although Cameron + Company has been publishing children’s books for a few years, we really started to establish and grow this past year with the official launch of the Cameron Kids imprint. The team consists of our children’s publisher, Nina Gruener, our children’s book editor, Amy Novesky, (both amazing authors in their own right), myself — the art director, our production manager, CJ Hemesath, who is stellar at making all our crazy ideas tangible,  Emma Kallok, our Marketing and Publicity manager (also a published author), and Jan Hughes, managing editor and copyeditor extraordinaire.

We are an imprint of Cameron and Company -- where Iain Morris is the creative director, who is always inspiring with his expertise -- making sure none of our books got to print being anything shy of perfect and Chris Gruener is publisher.  And of course, the heart of our work -- all the authors and illustrators! So, you see, we are all here because we truly love the art of making stories for children and pretty much everyone does a little bit of everything. There is a definitely a lot of joy in our work, but we take it seriously. We publish about 6-8 titles a year on our list, as well as publishing our Cameron Studio projects on our Roundtree list, which is an exciting new endeavor. 

Cameron publishes "books that need to be books". Tell us more about this ethos.

To me what that means is that our books are stories begging to be heard in a way that only a tangible book can do (you know that feeling that comes from reading and holding an actual book? the smell of the paper, the feel, the quiet...)
I’ll have to refer to our blog about this as I couldn’t put it better myself.

To us there is a place in today’s digital media-driven culture for the printed word and the print design that goes with it. We seek out those books that need to be held, and appreciated for their tangible value. The books that call to us to be just that, books.
Following the Cameron tenet of publishing books that need to be books – FOR KIDS, has been a thrilling and rewarding journey for our team. Whether it be a picture book biography or a board book about trucks, we choose stories that need to be told, and told well. Our hope is that when given the chance to visit some other world in the pages of our books, children will glean wisdom, compassion and empathy. The dance between words and art in a picture book, executed with thoughtful design, has the power to not only entertain a child, but engage them in a way no other medium can. Books can expose kids to beauty they may have otherwise missed in our fast paced world. Even among the youngest of us, beauty is a great and underrated tool for cultivating change and inspiration.


You have designed and art directed hundreds of childrens books. What have been some of the stand out projects for you?

Truthfully, they all stand out in their own little way. Each project I have worked on has taught me something new. It would be fun one day to make a list of what they have taught me! 

I will say, that one of my most treasured experiences, that stands out in a big way, was working on THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak. I remember being handed a huge stack (real paper!) of a manuscript to read and turn into a physical book. I read those very pages on an airplane ride across the country, unable to put it down. I was haunted by the imagery and power of Markus’s story and have been ever since. How on earth was I going to capture that in a cover?! His words were life changing and the project was humbling. And then to watch it over the last many years reach so many other people. It has been an honor to see how much one little book really can help the world. 

There are most definitely so many wonderful books I have had the pleasure of working on, it is almost impossible to choose as what has meant the most, is the process of creating a book for children together with other creative people whether we are like-minded or not. What a delight it is to work with other artists, constantly hearing and seeing new ideas.  I actually just finished working on a project, called ODE TO AN ONION written by Alexandria Giardino, illustrated by Felicita Sala, that is to be published in the Fall of 2018, that I am simply thrilled about all around: the words, the pictures, the content, the design, the process of collaboration between publisher, editor, author, artist and production — truly lovely.

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If I do have to pick, a couple of projects that come to mind, I’d mention Lunch Lady and Punk Farm by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who I am simply thrilled has had so much success in publishing.

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The Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. 

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A Splash of Red, by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet.  

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See the City by Matteo Pericoli. 

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Modern Fairies, Dwarves and Other Goblins by Lesley M.M. Blume, illustrated by David Foote.

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Thelonius Monster's Sky High Fly Pie by Judy Sierra illustrated by Ed Koren.

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...and a recent book, Play? by Linda Olafsdottir.

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Are you passionate about nurturing emerging illustration talent at Cameron Kids?

Absolutely! One of the most fascinating things to me is watching artists grow to reach their potential while working on making a book reach its highest potential. I love looking through an artist’s work and finding that little nugget of art that is just begging to be explored, and subsequently working with an artist to develop that in a way that is unique to them.

As an art director, I can look at sketches and help with pacing, emotion, expression, perspective, composition, etc. once we get into the book making – but the artist is the artist, and that is what we are looking for – that unique artistic expression that will turn a story into a tangible magical world.

Select 3 of your favourite titles from your current list to share with our audience.

I am lucky that I can say all of them! Our Spring 2018 list which just published at the end of April, features a The Great Chicken Escape by Nikki McClure, for which we had fun creating a giant die-cut of a chicken in the case to echo her signature cut paper style, Red a 2 color wordless book by first time author/illustrator Jed Alexander, a bright and bold book about Los Angeles by Elisa Parhad, illustrated by Alexander Vidal, and the second installment of the WALNUT ANIMAL SOCIETY, Magnolia’s Magnificent Map written by Lauren Bradshaw, illustrated by Wednesday Kirwan....that is 4, but I can’t choose.

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Describe the process of creating a book at Cameron Kids outlining the various stages involved along its journey to publication.

Being a small publisher, it is always a collaboration. We receive a story submission, and decide if we love it. Since we do so few books, we always search for that absolute yes moment! Once that is settled (often after several rounds of edits to the text), we begin the search for an illustrator who can bring the words visually to life. This sometimes happens quickly and sometimes takes a really long time.

While we do have a certain aesthetic we gravitate towards, what excites us most is when we see something different than what has been done before. We believe the art for children’s books can be sophisticated yet still childlike. So, often, we may work with artists who are amazing artists but have never done a children’s book before.

Once the team for the book is made, we go through anywhere from 1 to 4 sets of sketches, with the level of involvement differing due to the nature of the project and how the artist works. The design happens simultaneously as we begin to think about the production aspect of the book from the get go.

Design plays a huge role in our books, but it has to be thoughtful. No bells and whistles! So we think about the format, the paper, and any other added elements we may want to explore. Then the final design comes in to play once the art is done, we go through several rounds of edits to make it perfect. Then we proof the book to get the look and feel just right, then it becomes a book! That is an extremely simplified version of the process (not including all the materials and plans made to get the outside world excited about the book, the number crunching, the marketing and publicity,...)

Which book(s) from your own childhood were the most inspirational?

WHAT A MESS! by Frank Muir illustrated by Joseph Wright is still one of my favorite books, as well as Who Took the Farmer's Hat? by Joan L. Nodset, illustrated by Fritz Siebel, Harold and The Purple Crayon, and The Little Prince.

What kind of illustration styles or subject matters are you particularly interested in at Cameron Kids?

We are looking for artists who can visually capture childlike wonder–artists that have a unique expression that can turn a story into a tangible magical world and fill the spaces the words leave open with more. It inspires me when an illustrator shows the reader what he/she can’t already see.

I am moved when I can see an artist’s passion and potential through their work. A good balance of fresh use of line, white space, and poignant expression of character—whether that is portrayed through the setting of the stage or the characters themselves . . . I love to see an artist open to trying new things within his or her own style to make the story come to life.

Our emphasis is on beauty, simplicity, and story.

What are some of the goals for Cameron Kids over the coming year?

To continue to find stories that inspire and teach children about empathy and an open minded understanding of the world around them and inside them, to see the beauty in the simple things that are really the big things.  And to turn those stories into books.

You recently sold the rights to your first picture book as an author called Oh, Bear - congratulations! Could you tell us a bit about the story?

Yes! I am so excited for OH, BEAR. It will be illustrated by Ruth Hengeveld - this is her first picture book and she is a true talent. I am over the moon at the art I have seen so far. After all these years of being on the art director side of picture book making it is invigorating to see someone else put visuals to a story that came directly from my heart. And Ruth couldn't be a more perfect fit. She is brilliant! The story is simple, yet deep.  It's about a dear bear, a beloved kite, loss and renewal, and friendship. The art is realistic yet magical and my hopes are that this book will inspire children to find the magic in nature, the magic of connection, and the magic that can emerge when you change the way you look at something. It will be published in the spring of 2019.

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