VP & Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, Random House Children’s Books
Senior Year. Second Semester. It started with a Children’s Literature class I took with Jane Yolen. I admit, I hadn’t read any children’s books…since middle school, seventh grade, back in my day. And I had definitely never heard of Natalie Babbitt and Steven Kellogg, part of the course reading. I read TUCK EVERLASTING and was profoundly moved – and horrified that I had missed out on Natalie Babbitt because I was “too old” when she started writing children’s books. (Then I binge read everything else by Natalie Babbitt.) Same with Steven Kellogg, only I was able to read all of Steven’s picture books in one day.
Fast forward. I’ve graduated from college. I’m in Taiwan, teaching English as a second language and loathing it. Teaching is not my avocation. For solace, I reread and reread the three books I brought with me: RAMONA THE PEST, PIPPI LONGSTOCKING (remember, second semester course reading) and THE JOURNALS OF SYLVIA PLATH (Remember, I’m all of twenty one, full of recent college graduate angst.)
Upon my return to the States, I have a new career plan. I’m from New York City. That’s where most all the publishers are: I should get a job in publishing, children’s publishing. My Chinese immigrant parents are aghast. Odd enough to choose publishing as a career choice; why am I making it even harder by choosing a niche like children’s books? I won’t be swayed. Even though I know nothing about the business (Remember, this is the mid 80s.) out of my newly discovered passion for children’s books, I’m determined to work in children’s publishing only. And since I’m an English major, a job in the editorial department makes the most sense. It doesn’t really occur to me that there are a myriad of jobs in the publishing sector and I don’t have to limit myself to one department. (Today, I tell students and interns: Don’t do it this way!)
I send cover letters and resumes to every children’s publisher in town. I hear back from two houses: Harper Collins, who doesn’t have a job opening and Scholastic, specifically Scholastic Book Club.
I’m asked to take a typing test. (I’m in shock. Why is typing quickly and accurately a prerequisite for the job of See Saw Book Club assistant? I’m nervous. I flub it. I’m grateful when the HR person allows me to retake it.) D. Craig Walker interviews me. He describes the job and then we spend the rest of the time talking about my favorite children’s books and why. When I’m offered the position, I’m thrilled (but less thrilled about the salary, about an eighth of the cost of one year at college. I’m resigned to living at home. I don’t realized that I’ll be doing it for seven years.)
When I describe the job to my friends, I tell them, I’m writing glorified book reports about picture books. I’m supposed to read every single picture book sold by the kindergarten/first grade book club to prepare for evaluating every single picture book every single publisher is offering on submission to See Saw Book Club. Much of the day, I type correspondence, file correspondence, read the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. And answer Craig’s phone.
At my first job performance review, Craig tells me, “and what I love most, is your phone manner.” I’m in shock. Basically I’m getting praise for something I learned at home. But already I’m picking up on the required skill set: read widely, read with a point of view and communicate effectively. One of the rumors I hear is that the Executive Vice President, Dick Krinsley doesn’t read any memo past the second paragraph. This serves me in good stead for thirty years and counting. In my spare time, I do readers’ reports for Brenda Bowen so that I can learn about acquiring middle grade fiction.
I’m the second person to hear of Craig’s “off-the-wall,” off the charts idea about an unconventional science teacher who takes her class on very unconventional class trips, what becomes THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS series by Joanna Cole/illustrated by Bruce Degen. The combined formats of story narrative, speech bubbles, reports and other interstitials, charts, diagrams, non-fiction, plus humor make editing the series a two person job. I realize that I’m really detail-oriented and I’m not daunted by the rigors of non-fiction book-making. Now, as I reflect back, I realize that all of my book-making and book editing has been informed by learning how to edit non-fiction picture books. And there is no way I could have edited Jeffrey Brown’s graphic novel LUCY & ANDY NEANDERTHAL if it hadn’t been for working on The Magic School Bus.
I make my first acquisition as an editorial assistant. I’m lucky. (or brazen). Craig Walker is one of the most innovative editor/bosses (I figure this out, years later), reporting to Jean Feiwel, one of the smartest and most innovative executives in the business. She practices what she preachers: anyone can have a good idea. I admit, I grew up reading THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS. At the time, I wasn’t processing the way the illustrator Kurt Wiese drew the brothers with slitty eyes, and a garish yellow skin tone; or that the author, Bishop had added whipped cream into the mix. (not indigenous to the Chinese palate). This was one of the most popular books sold on the book club. I went to Craig and explained why this particular version of a popular Chinese folktale was so demeaning and offensive. Why can’t we publish another version? I was told to go ahead. And this is how I made my first “ownvoices” acquisition. Imagine my happiness when I came across THE SEVEN CHINESE BROTHERS on a B&N endcap last summer. The first book I’d acquired – still in print! (paperback of course!)
From Larry Yep, I learned about the importance of pain-staking, thorough research and consulting primary sources. But also that even two people with the same last name – Yep/Yeh could have vastly different Chinese American stories. He was West Coast. I was East Coast. He was third generation. I was first generation. His family spoke Cantonese. My parents spoke different dialects.
I stayed at Scholastic for ten years because I had a chance to keep learning about different aspects of children’s publishing, starting with the school book clubs and switching to trade publishing. This wasn’t the norm: usually, people moved around, often at least once every two years.
I had an opportunity to take on a more managerial role so I made the big move from Scholastic, downtown to Harper Collins, in midtown and a much more corporate, hierarchical environment. The first teen novel I ever edited was MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers. Of course I didn’t mention it to Walter at the time. He had just bought the screen play HAROLD AND MAUDE on the street and it inspired him to write his next novel, MONSTER, as a screenplay. I thought, Good thing HAROLD AND MAUDE is one of my favorite movies of all time. I rolled up my proverbial sleeves. I was terrified but also excited about the challenge of editing and publishing an innovative format with screenplay content, journal writing and art. When MONSTER received the first Printz medal, it was both inspiration and challenge to keep on pushing my authors and myself to innovate. During Walter’s collaboration with a teen author, Ross Workman on KICK, his mother, Rosemary Brosnan and I, both seasoned editors by this time – who thought we had seen everything – were amazed by the way Walter mentored his young co-author thru the writing and revising process. From Walter, I learned about storytelling, dialogue, experimenting, research, work. But also about integrity, generosity and passion.
Although I valued by years long collaborations with authors such as Aliki, Seymour Simon, Eloise Greenfield and Jan Gilchrist, I wanted to discover new talent. When I met Lincoln Peirce, the creator of the Big Nate cartoon strip, based on working on the Magic School Bus books and serving as a liaison for the PBS TV series, I knew that Lincoln would be able to continue to write his comic strip and create a new format for his Big Nate characters without compromising his beloved comic strip. What do Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Lamar Giles, Ellen Oh all have in common? They made their debut with me.
Fastforward to five years ago. Once again, an opportunity, this time a chance to help fashion my own imprint, one that would continue to give me an opportunity to find and cultivate new voices, and what has now been coined, “ownvoices.” I also knew that working with a visionary such as Barbara Marcus would still give me, even with more than thirty years in the business, new opportunities to grow and learn.
When I started in children’s publishing, “multicultural” publishing was the trend. Today it’s called “diversity.” Some people worry that it may come and go. I like to believe that we’re still moving ahead. Now is Our Time. May it prevail.
Phoebe Yeh is a VP/co-publisher at Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House. She worked with Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen on The Magic School Bus series and with Walter Dean Myers for twenty years. She edited MONSTER, the first Printz winner and the New York Times bestselling series BIG NATE by Lincoln Peirce and THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL by Soman Chainani. For Crown, she has edited THE CATAWAMPUS CAT by Jason Carter Eaton, illustrated by Gus Gordon; LUCY & ANDY NEANDERTHAL by Jeffrey Brown; FLYING LESSONS AND OTHER SHORT STORIES in partnership with We Need Diverse Books, edited by Ellen Oh; THE LAST GARGOYLE by Paul Durham and the New York Times bestseller, DEAR MARTIN by debut author Nic Stone. Upcoming titles include MY SO-CALLED BOLLYWOOD LIFE by debut author Nisha Sharma and the own voices anthology WE RISE. WE RESIST. WE RAISE OUR VOICES edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson.