Novel Secrets Series: Interview with Editor Alexandra Penfold of Simon & Schuster

Alexandra Penfold is an assistant editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

What were you like as a young reader? What were your favorite books?

I was an obsessive reader as a kid. I read everything I could get my hands on and bankrolled the public library with my allowance because I always wanted to read books one more time before I returned them.

Some of my favorite books growing up were Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, The Knight and the Dragon by Tommie dePaola, The Pirates Mixed-Up Voyage by Margaret Mahy, Matilda by Roald Dahl, The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, That Dreadful Day by James Stevenson; I could go on and on.

I can probably attribute my living in New York today, at least in part to my love for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, Eloise by Kay Thompson, and The Babysitter’s Club Super Special #6: New York, New York!

What inspired you to become a children’s/YA book editor?

My mother is a writer and growing up I always wanted to be just like her. My parents always made sure our home was filled with books and when it came time to choose a career path it all came back to the books that inspired me as a kid and wanting to be part of the publishing process that brings great books to children.

How did you prepare for this career?

I graduated from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which is a specialized school at NYU that allows self directed students to create their own majors. My concentration in school was Entertainment Business and Marketing, so I basically did a marketing major with lots of writing and entertainment and media classes thrown in.

I actually started out on the marketing side of things as a summer intern and then got my first job as a publicity assistant for Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing. After a couple years in publicity, I transitioned to the editorial side of things. But honestly I’m still learning new things every day–it’s a lifelong learning process.

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

Throughout the publishing process the editor wears many hats, but first and foremost I think of the editor as a book’s champion. From the moment an editor reads a manuscript and has that gut feeling that “this is it” they are cheering on the author and illustrator every step of the way.

What are its challenges?

I honestly wish that there were more hours in the day. As an editor you’re always on the look out for new talent, and it’s difficult to find the time to read as much as I would like. We get a lot of unsolicited submissions from authors that aren’t totally polished, but have promise and it’s hard when you don’t have the time to give a lot of individual feedback

What do you love about it?

I love working with the authors and illustrators, of course!

Could you give us some idea of your tastes, the kinds of books you’re looking to acquire?

I’m particularly interested in young humorous picture books that work on multiple levels. The kind of books that both parents and kids will want to read again and again.

I’m also interested in middle grade and YA novels with strong central characters and unique voices. Those pre-teen and teen years are such a defining time in a person’s life, a time where you really discover who you are and what you stand for. I remember reading a lot at that age and finding comfort in books–discovering I wasn’t alone in my confusion and frustration at the world.

Above all, voice and strong characters are what grab me.

Could you suggest some of your previous titles for study and/or those by other editors that you particularly admire (noting which are your own)?

Some of my favorite picture books include: Double Pink by Kate Feiffer, illustrated by Bruce Ingman; Cowboy Ned and Andy by David Ezra Stein; Wolves and Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett; Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and the Gossie books by Olivier Dunrea.

I love the humor in these books. The text of each book is short and young, the characters have a great deal of personality, the stories are fun, and once you’ve finished reading them you can’t wait to go back to the beginning and read them again.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Meghan McCarthy on City Hawk: The True Story of Pale Male (Fall 2007), which is a really great engaging non-fiction picture book about Pale Male, the hawk who makes his home on the ledge of a swanky 5th Avenue co-op in New York City. As with all of her books, Meghan does a great job making the characters really come to life for the reader.

I would also say the same for Marissa Moss‘ Amelia series, which I’ve also had the opportunity to work on. Moss’ Amelia books cut right to the heart of what it is to be a middle-schooler. Amelia’s voice is authentic and her hopes, dreams, troubles and struggles are real. I can’t tell you how many readers write in saying that Amelia is just like them

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson, Private by Kate Brian, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak are three very different young adult novels that I’ve enjoyed recently. Each has terrific characters, a great voice, and I couldn’t put them down.

Along with Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, you’ll be joining Novel Secrets: A Novel Retreat in 3 Acts as an editor speaker. Could you give us some insight into your program?

I’m excited to be doing this retreat with Rebecca Sherman, not only because we’re good friends, but also we’ve also worked together. We hope to give participants some insight into the editor/agent relationship, how we negotiate and communicate, both with each other and with our authors and illustrators, as well as run workshops on the steps to preparing manuscripts for submissions

What is one thing you wish every beginning writer knew?

You never stop learning as a writer. There’s always something more that each of us can learn. I truly believe that writing is a skill in addition to being a craft, and in order to improve you really need to write and write and write. Keep believing and keep writing!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Many thanks go out to Nancy Wagner for putting together this great retreat program! Retreats are a terrific opportunity to really focus on your writing, get targeted constructive feedback, solve those seemingly unsolvable dilemmas, and get things into great shape for submission. And personally, I love the opportunities it affords me to get to know participants one-on-one.

I hope to see you in Nebraska!

Cynsational Notes

See previous interviews in this series with authors Darcy Pattison, Elaine M. Alphin, and N.L. Sharp as well as agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House.