Melissa Warten Interview

Melissa Warten

Associate Editor, Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you landed in the children’s publishing business and how you became the Associate Editor for Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers?

I always knew I wanted to work in books—I was an avid reader and writer from childhood, and I couldn't imagine a better career! I double majored in English and philosophy/theology in college, and attended the Columbia Publishing Course postgrad, a six-week program that introduced me to the publishing industry and some of the amazing folks in it. I landed my job at FSG BYR through a connection I made at CPC, a lovely woman and amazing editor who was kind enough to keep me in mind when a position opened at Macmillan Children's; I'd been interviewing around for various publishing roles, across all age groups and departments, but in my heart of hearts, it was always children's editorial, getting up close with writers and creators, building those relationships and bringing stories to life. And here we are today!

You spend your days acquiring & editing picture books, middle grade and young adult novels, and select graphic novels and nonfiction projects. Could you select a recent example from each category that you particularly enjoyed overseeing to share with our audience?

Picture book: Sing, Aretha, Sing!: Aretha Franklin, "Respect," and the Civil Rights Movement was my first picture book acquisition some years ago, and it will finally publish in February 2022! After Aretha Franklin's death, I pursued the incredible Hanif Abdurraqib to tell her story for young readers, and he delivered beyond my wildest dreams. I paired him with illustrator Ashley Evans after seeing the most striking artwork of Aretha on her Instagram, and again, she delivered on the vision and then some. This was a labor of love and a really deep, thorough collaboration, and it's a real honor to see it into the world. 

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Middle grade: I edited Sarah Allen's first two middle-grade novels, What Stars are Made Of (2020) and Breathing Underwater (2021), and those books have my whole heart. The voice in Stars is just unmissable, coming from the most lovable main character; and the difficult topics in Breathing hit really close to home for me in beautiful ways, as I imagine they will for many young readers. 

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YA: I can't wait for One for All by Lillie Lainoff to hit shelves! This historical adventure centers a disabled girl fighting to avenge her father's mysterious murder, and along the way falls in love with her chosen family and herself. The buzz around this one is growing steadily, and I'm so excited for this unique perspective to find just the right readers. 

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Graphic novel: I'm co-editing two middle-grade graphic novels by indie-pop music duo Tegan & Sara, narrativizing their story of growing up queer and in a band for kids today; it's illustrated by award-winning artist Tillie Walden. This trio of humans could not be more talented, easier to work with, or more creative in their approaches to this story, and I've learned so much from them. This one hits bookstores in 2023! 

Nonfiction: Phillip Hoose is truly one of the best there is—a thorough researcher, a thoughtful creative, and a committed advocate of the truth. Working with him is always an amazing exercise in telling untold stories, and his forthcoming book Duet: Our Journey in Song with the Northern Mockingbird is no exception. 

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What things should a member looking to appeal to FSG a) include and b) avoid in their portfolio?

a) Variety is always good! We at FSG publish all styles of picture books, from board books to graphic novels, from the commercial to the literary, animals and humans and everything in between. The more sense you can provide of your stylistic range, the more likely we are to keep you in mind! 

b) To that point, I wouldn't say there's much to avoid if you want to appeal to us. We're certainly very selective about graphic novels, so no need to over-include that style; otherwise, I would say all systems go!

Which 3 books from FSG's list would be your 'must reads'?

What a great question, and my answer truly changes every day! Okay, let me think about what today's answer might be... 

1) Northwind by Gary Paulsen (2022)—we at FSG were privileged to publish Gary's last three books before his death this past year, and this is his beautiful, stirring, adventurous swan song. 

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2) A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena (2018)—a dark, sharp look at the complexities of womanhood and growing up.

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3) Flo by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Jay Fleck (2018)—I fell in love with this goofy, spare picture book about being yourself and helping others from page 1!

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Which children's book character makes you laugh out loud the most?

That would have to be Dennis, from The Book of Rules by Brian Gehrlein and illustrated by Tom Knight. I ran all around my office showing my colleagues this character when sketches came in, and to this day I crack up to look at his goofy face and tell him, "Go wait in the margins!" 

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What are some of the most important factors when considering an illustrator for a project?

For me, it's trust and vision. I want to know I can trust this story in your hands, that you have the stylistic range and the critical eye to bring it to life; this trust comes from looking at your other projects, poring over your portfolio or social media presence, and really getting a sense of your abilities. In terms of vision, I want to know that you're a willing collaborator, and that you're able to take instruction as well as be creative and independent in executing on a story. We determine if we're on the same page here through phone calls, emails, and overall frequent communication!

When was your last light-bulb moment?

Can I say last night, when I was cooking dinner and thought my dish was missing something, and I realized that air-fried chickpeas were just the thing? :)

Growing up, which books had the most impact on you?

So many! I remember The Babysitters' Club series as one of my earliest entry points into books that I sought out and devoured; I loved the various perspectives, the friendships, and the ordinary adventures depicted. The first book that made me cry was Inkspell by Cornelia Funke, the second book in the Inkheart trilogy, and I adored her standalone The Thief Lord as well. I keep Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine on my shelf to this day; I had the privilege of meeting Gail at a conference some years ago, and got to tell her myself how that book inspired the characters I fall in love with and the plots that keep me turning pages. And Patricia Reilly Giff was a family friend and an immense talent, one of the first people I ever knew who made a career out of books, so I always return to Pictures of Hollis Woods, Nory Ryan's Song, and All the Way Home.

Who or what has inspired you most in your career so far?

The FSG editorial team is absolutely unmatched—the level of collaboration, healthy criticism, brainstorming, laughter, and creativity I've experienced is really beyond anything I could expect from a professional environment. I can't imagine coming up under better instruction. I'm so grateful for colleagues that encourage me to pursue stories that matter to me, push me to ask bigger questions of my creators and of myself, remind me to take breaks and care for my mental health, and crack me up over GChat on the daily. I've also been so inspired by the camaraderie I've found in my industry peers; our group chats, happy hours, and hangouts have really made me the best version of my professional—and personal—self.

What exciting new releases can we expect to see from FSG this year?

I'm really excited for This Book Will Get You to Sleep by Jory John, illustrated by Olivier Tallec; Jory's voice never fails to make me laugh, and Olivier's illustrations add so much extra humor on top of that! I'm also a big fan of The Hike to Home by Jess Rinker, whose star is totally on the rise in the middle grade space—I love this adventurous, heart-filled story. And keep an eye out around the holidays for The Christmas Book Flood, a stunning picture book written by Emily Kilgore and illustrated by Kitty Moss, about an Icelandic tradition where folks give each other books on Christmas Eve and spend the night reading together. A dream!

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