VP & Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, Random House
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
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!)
Phoebe Yeh is the publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers/Random
House. Previously she was an editorial director at Harper Collins
Children’s Books; senior editor at Scholastic Press and an editor of the SeeSaw Book Club.
The “It’s Possible” series showcases six inspiring publishing
professionals sharing a little bit of their experience with Walter
and how working with him helped push his goal of more diverse literature forward.
#TakeActionTuesday: Moving into Action Panel
Join CBC Diversity every Tuesday to discuss ways of increasing access to diverse literature for all children.
This year, the Children’s Book Council and the Association for Library Service to Children teamed up to host a Day of Diversity: Dialogue and Action in Children’s Literature and Library Programming at the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting.
We now invite all advocates for diverse children’s literature to join us on Twitter every Tuesday to keep the conversation moving forward.
An “It’s Possible” post contributed to CBC Diversity by Phoebe Yeh
The very first project I worked on with Walter illuminates a lot about our collaborations together. It was 1994. Walter had already received acclaim for his realistic fiction (the Newbery Honor books, Scorpions and Somewhere in the Darkness) and Now is Your Time, a work of ground-breaking non-fiction (to name a very, very few). Somehow, I had come across The Dragon Takes a Wife, a picture book Walter had written in 1972 starring Harry, a hapless dragon and Mabel Mae, a jive-talking African American fairy who tries to help Harry defeat the African American knight in shining armor. Here was another way to think about the classic medieval tale. I loved the way Walter had re-invented the traditional story and thought, we need to bring this book back. It’s a perennial storyline. It’s funny. It’s fantasy and it offers a perspective readers seemed to have forgotten, at least in the nineties. (Of course Walter had already figured this out in 1972. We obviously had some catching up to do.)
Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.
For the purposes of this response, I propose that we define “diversity” in a more expansive way.
I suggest that “diversity” should mean more than issue based books by authors of color about protagonists of color. (While I believe that these books are still needed, the definition of diversity in the 21st century needs to be broader. I encourage all of you to read Christopher Myers’ excellent Horn Book piece for more on this subject.
Please consider the work of the debut novelists Korean American Ellen Oh and Asian Indian Soman Chainani. They are part of a growing number of authors of color who are breaking boundaries with regard to the diversity of book content and genre.
In Prophecy by Ellen Oh, our heroine is a girl soldier/demon slayer. Oh based her research on Genghis Khan and feudal Korea. Readers may pick up on the nods to Asian history and culture, or they can be content with reading an action packed adventure with a strong heroine.
Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers, is about the friendship of an aspiring writer, Darius and a runner, Twig, set against an urban landscape. Myers sets the standard for challenging himself as a writer and for giving voice to young people, their fears and frustrations, but also their hopes and dreams. But do not be fooled. These are not “just urban novels for urban teens.” Pay more careful attention, dear reader. Myers’ message is about universality.
In The School for Good and Evil, Chainani skillfully upturns our notions of the good, bad and ugly. Readers will find the travails of Sophie and Agatha uproariously funny but I also like to think that the novel offers another perspective, a broader perspective about identity that maybe, you may have taken for granted.
All three novels were acquired with the slightly subversive intention of pushing us along just a little bit farther as readers.