Editor Interview: Yolanda LeRoy of Charlesbridge

Yolanda LeRoy is the editorial director at Charlesbridge, an independent publisher of children’s books since 1989. Authors she has worked with include Linda Sue Park (author interview), Eve Bunting, Kathryn Lasky, Martha Alexander, Caroline Arnold, Tony Johnston, Sneed B. Collard III, Grace Lin (author-illustrator interview), Iza Trapani, and Jerry Pallotta. She began her career in publishing at Charlesbridge and has also worked as an editor at Candlewick Press. Yolanda is a former executive board member of the Foundation for Children’s Books, a Boston-based non-profit organization for children’s literacy, and is the founder of the Boston Children’s Publishing Group, a social and networking organization for children’s publishing professionals. Yolanda studied Russian language and literature at Harvard College.

What kind of young reader were you?

Voracious. I was a big nerd and classic overachiever from an early age, and reading was my salvation. I read with the flashlight under the covers so my mom wouldn’t know how late I was staying up. I read on car trips; on one family trip to Newfoundland I remember being yelled at for burying my nose in the fantasy book I was reading instead of taking in the culture and scenery around me. I read books cover to cover as fast as I could. It was addictive. I remember going to the library with my mom every few weeks and checking out stacks and stacks of books. I went through a big mystery phase, first Nancy Drew, then Agatha Christie. I collected every title.

What inspired you to make children’s book editing your career focus?

Well, actually I fell into it in a really odd way. I was a Russian major in college and had planned on working for the CIA. After going through the year-long application process, including a polygraph test and background check, I received a politely terse rejection letter in the mail. Signed by “Crystal” (no last name). I was devastated. My then-boyfriend was going off to study at Oxford, and I had to decide whether to go off with him or try to find some last-minute job in Boston.

Not a big one for change at that point in my life, I decided to stay, and I somewhat randomly figured publishing might be a good field for me. I sent out dozens of resumes and started my follow-up phone calls a week or so later. I got put on the phone with someone at Charlesbridge and was transferred around to the human resource director, who said the only opening available was for a temp in the front office, but they had been thinking of creating the position of assistant to the president and maybe I’d be interested in that. I went in for an interview with Brent Farmer. Turns out his daughter was a few years older than me, had gone to Harvard, and was a Russian major. I got the job. I had never thought about children’s books before and knew next to nothing about the industry. But I was in the right place at the right time.

How did you prepare for this career?

As the above shows, I really didn’t! I learned as I went along, with a few good mentors along the way. Brent Farmer, president of Charlesbridge, and Mary Ann Sabia, associate publisher, taught me about business and management, and I learned the craft from several talented editors along the way: Juliana McIntyre, Kelly Swanson, Harold Underdown, Dominic Barth, and Liz Bicknell (at Candlewick).

In my early career, I think I learned mostly by making lots of mistakes. I used to keep a file actually–every time a new book came in, I would dissect it mercilessly and write down everything that I wished I had done differently. Then I’d file the list away and forget about it. It was kind of like purging evil sprits or something. Nowadays, I’m more accepting of the fact that books are imperfect creatures and that’s why we love them.

So I say I was completely unprepared for this career, but when I look back at my early life, I see that really I wasn’t. I’m an older sibling, and one of my favorite games as a child was making my poor little sister diagram sentences so I could correct her work. I was always a little bit of a perfectionist (okay, a lot of one), and my LP and cassette collection was meticulously organized. Friends used to come into my room when I was a teenager and subtly shift my belongings around to see how long it would take me to move them back to their proper place. When I was feeling particularly frazzled or buffeted by teenage angst, I would delight in taking everything out of my closets and shelves, throw them in a heap in the middle of the floor, and put them back where they belonged. I was a strange child.

But I often think of that image now, because isn’t that analogous to the editing process? We take what’s there, throw it on the floor, and put it back (mostly) where it belongs, with a few subtle improvements along the way.

What do you see as the job(s) of an editor in the publishing process?

The editor is the lens through which the separate creative visions of the author and the illustrator are focused. Editors are behind-the-scenes facilitators. I personally feel that editing should be invisible. I don’t need or want my name on a book. We don’t edit for our egos. Ultimately, editing should be something of a selfless job. You give and give and give, all in the service or the books, the authors, illustrators, and their careers.

I think it’s important to remember at all times that as an editor, it is not your book. You take care of it, you nurture the author/illustrator, but your name’s not on the book.

Of course you’re trying to build your own career, but I do believe the best editors are humble and respectful of the integrity of a work. That doesn’t mean we don’t have strong opinions, of course! But you have to know when you’re holding onto something too tightly.

What are its challenges?

Editing requires the ability to juggle many balls in the air. I have to balance managing my staff, running the department, editing over thirty projects in various stages of development, acquiring new books, analyzing the list balance, keeping abreast of sales figures and overall profitability, keeping all the books on schedule, attending more meetings that there are hours in the day, building up a network of key contacts, attending conferences and exhibits, and many more responsibilities. It’s a lot. And I’m supposed to keep myself cheerful, decisive, and above all, creative. But call me crazy, I wouldn’t change careers for the world.

What do you love about it?

I love working with all the creative voices that I do. Not only the authors and illustrators, but the fabulous art directors and designers. With my staff. With the marketing and sales team. I love how all these voices contribute to the final work of art, the book.

It’s my job to sort through the din and help determine which ideas require implementation. I enjoy the management duties of my position, and helping our editors find their strengths and watching them grow is so akin to the creative process of working with authors and illustrators.

I love how a book comes together. Each journey is different, and you can’t have too many firm expectations or you’ll be disappointed; I love how books surprise me along the way. I love how, at the end of the day, I feel like what I do matters. I make a difference. Books make a difference. That’s a great feeling.

For those unfamiliar to Charlesbridge, could you offer an overview of the list and its philosophy?

I think our mission statement says it best (and I admit I’m biased as I was on the mission statement committee): Charlesbridge publishes high-quality books for children from birth to age 12, with a goal of creating lifelong readers and lifelong learners. By integrating reading and discovery, our books connect to the classroom, library, and home. We believe that books for children should offer accurate information, promote a positive worldview, and embrace a child’s innate sense of wonder and fun. To this end, we continually strive to seek new voices, new visions, and new directions in children’s literature.

If you had to pick just three–hard, I know–what are Charlesbridge’s don’t-miss titles of 2006? And why?

You can’t ask me to pick just three! Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Aggie and Ben by Lori Ries, illustrated by Frank W. Dormer, is our first foray into the early reader genre, and I think it’s a perfect little book about a boy and his dog. It’s already been starred by PW and The Horn Book.

The Legend of Hong Kil Dong is a fantastic “graphic picture book,” written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien. Based on the first book published in the Korean language, it tells the story of a young boy denied his birthright who studies martial arts, swordplay, magic, and the wisdom of the Book of Changes to discover his destiny and claim his role as a wise and just leader. It’s an exciting adventure tale–an earlier version of the western Robin Hood story–that is stunningly illustrated.

Little Lost Bat is a companion book to the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award honor book A Mother’s Journey. Written by Sandra Markle and illustrated by Alan Marks, it tells the story of a baby Mexican free-tail bat (you know about those, Cynthia, don’t you? [Yes, I do!]) whose mother disappears one night. At the brink of starvation, he is rescued by another mother bat who has lost her child. You’ll need tissues when you read this one.

Lastly, Pirate Bob, written by Kathryn Lasky and illustrated by David Clark, is a unique pirate story that stands out in the sea of pirate books riding the wave of popularity associated with Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” You’ll follow Pirate Bob and the rest of his crew as they sail the high seas and plunder ships for treasure. But Bob is also introspective, and he wonders about the nature of friendship while contemplating the pros and cons of his chosen profession. Ultimately, it’s a story about the fleeting nature of happiness. I think there’s nothing else out there quite like this book.

What new directions should we know about?

We are very excited to be branching out beyond picture books. We’re not cutting our picture book program at all (we haven’t been affected by the much-discussed downturn of the picture book market), but we are now publishing early readers, young chapter books, and middle grade books. Our first list of what we are affectionately calling our “bridge books” was published this past July. These books are for the newly independent reader who is ready to bridge the gap from picture books to more sophisticated literature. Including nonfiction and fiction, the bridge books are meant to challenge, entertain, and engage today’s reader. With these added titles, we will now be publishing about 30 to 35 books each year.

In the age of bigger and bigger big houses, smaller publishers shine on. What are the benefits of working with and within a smaller house?

I really believe that smaller independent houses are where it’s at. I think they are the hope of the publishing future. Charlesbridge has an informal, collegial, and creative environment. I feel very much a part of a team. There is no competition among editors, which is unique. I think that’s because in some ways Charlesbridge is still a smaller fish in a big pond, and we feel united in our mission to get the word out about the good books we’re doing. Another major plus is the job security that we enjoy. We’ve never had the rounds of layoffs you’ll find at other houses, and I can’t imagine we ever will. It’s just not that type of business. Decisions are made by taking more than numbers and percentages into account. I think eventually publishers like Charlesbridge will step into the void left by the fiscal irresponsibility and shortsightedness of the entrenched publishing establishment, that has become increasingly influenced by its multi-media corporate partners.

As far as the benefits for an author or illustrator working with us, I like to think there are many: individual attention, a greater proportion of our focus on each person’s book (one of fifteen per list, as opposed to one of 150), the flexibility to publish projects that might not work elsewhere, not being beholden to shareholders or large governing boards, and a team-oriented, family business atmosphere, to name a few.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or through agents?

I’d say I get maybe 70% from writers and 30% from agents.

In what ways do you work with teachers and librarians in support of your titles and their efforts?

In the context of the whole company, we have a dedicated sales rep for the school and library markets. We’ve grown this segment of our business quite significantly over the past five years. For grassroots work, we host a series of open houses here in the office where local teachers and librarians come in to meet our staff and our authors.

As far as the editorial department goes, we all try to cultivate our own network of key industry players, and we meet in person whenever possible at conferences, exhibits, and the like. Never underestimate the power of one opinionated librarian!

In addition, one of our editors works part-time in her local library, and another is active on the board of ALSC (American Library Services for Children). We’re very eager to do whatever we can to support the good work that teachers and librarians are doing out there on the front lines.

How about booksellers?

Cultivating bookseller relationships and support is the third supporting leg of the tripod of book promotion. We attend all the major bookseller trade shows, and we all try to speak and present at various council and board meetings. Booksellers face many challenges that are different from those facing teachers and librarians, but all are united, along with publishers, in our love for good literature and our passion for promoting childhood literacy.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

I am quite active in community and some professional theater in the Boston area, and I also sing with a few different ensembles, including an Afro-Cuban Armenian salsa band. I own a hundred-year-old house in constant need of some renovation or the other, and I live with my two beloved cats and my sweet German scientist boyfriend who does sex research. It’s an eclectic life, never dull.

Cynsational Notes

See also another interview with Yolanda, this one by Lisa Lodholm Gilman from the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI.