People often talk about their touchstone books, stories from childhood that had a lasting impact on them, changed their life or worldview, etc. One of the books I remember most from my childhood was Felita by Nicholasa Mohr, and it wasn’t because it changed the course of my life or even because it was my all time favorite. The effect of this book was much more subtle and at the time it felt mundane. Felita was the first and only book I read as a child where the protagonist called her father Papi, which is what I called and still call my father today.
The fact that I used a different word for father was the only visible difference between me and most of my classmates and yet, I was keenly aware of it. I even remember writing “Dear Dad” in pencil on a Father’s Day card in elementary school, knowing that I would just immediately erase it when I got home. When I think about that, I’m amazed that I felt so ashamed of such a miniscule difference. But I did.
Everyone always thinks that you need to know someone to get into publishing, but I knew no one when I moved back to New York after college. I like to think that I got into publishing through bookselling. In college I worked in a small chain bookstore called Lauriat’s and my favorite part of the job was talking to customers about books and recommending the perfect title for them. I discovered that I had a very good memory for book titles and author’s names, and once I saw the cover of a book, I would always remember it. I was especially drawn to the children’s book section of the store, and I found myself making elaborate displays for the end caps, organizing and re-organizing the shelves so that the section was perfect.
Once I graduated from the University at Albany, I moved back to New York City. I had no clue what exactly I would do, but I knew that I wanted to work with books, and that I wanted to use my degree in Spanish in some way. I applied for numerous jobs both in publishing and in Spanish translation work, but I wasn’t getting any call backs, so I worked at Barnes and Noble so that I would have some income while job searching. It wasn’t much, but it paid for part of my rent. The rest, I’m appalled to say, I paid for on my credit card. (Not advisable. I feel like I’m probably still paying for that 13 years later!) I went on several informational interviews at the time, interviewing with the adult and children’s divisions of every major publishing house. I even went to a headhunter who promised to get me a job in publishing but then kept sending me to interviews at pharmaceutical companies. I didn’t know anyone in publishing, and so I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing.
Finally, one of my informational interviews paid off. Six months after an informational interview with Scholastic, they called and offered me a job in their book club division. My boss at the time told me it was my continuous bookstore experience that had most impressed him. I was happy to have a job with a paycheck that (almost) covered my rent, happy to work in a place where books towered precariously above my head, and I was on my way to a life-long career of working with children’s books.