Editor Interview: Nancy Mercado on Roaring Brook Press

Nancy Mercado on Nancy Mercado: “Born and raised in Staten Island, youngest of three, brought up by a Colombian father and an American mother, married and currently living in Brooklyn; love traveling, talking to strangers, and dreaming of growing my own tomatoes.”

What kind of young reader were you?

For most of my childhood, I lived two blocks away from the library, and my best friend Julie and I spent all of our time there. I can still remember exactly where all of my favorite books were on the shelves, I can remember looking for books with either the Newbery seal or the Dell Yearling horse (and they say kids don’t pay attention to imprints!!), and I can also remember the moment when I was finally taller than the shelves!

Johnny Lion by Edith Thacher Hurd is one of the first books I remember reading by myself at that library (My childhood desk at home had knobs in the shape of a lion, and I thought it was very cool that I could put all of my Johnny Lion library books in there for safekeeping.) and so many of the books that I read there are intricately woven into the fabric of my childhood; books such as: Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban, Carolyn Haywood‘s Betsy books, the Something Queer series by Elizabeth Levy, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, The Adventures of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, the Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry, and anything and everything by Paul Zindel and Paula Danziger.

What inspired you to make children’s-YA literature your career focus?

When I was in college I worked at a mall bookstore in Albany, NY called Lauriat’s. I appointed myself in charge of the children’s section (and well, there wasn’t exactly anyone beating me to it!), and I did displays based on my favorite books (a ballet end cap for Ballet Shoes, that kind of nerdy thing.) One day I was forced to work in the calendar kiosk (which was conveniently located in the no-man’s-land part of the mall), and I read Missing May by Cynthia Rylant, and I felt like I got more from that book than any of the reading assignments in my Spanish-literature classes. Around that time I thought that I’d probably become a Newbery Judge when I grew up. (It wasn’t until much later that I realized that “Newbery Judge” wasn’t actually a job for which I could apply. Curses!)

How about editing specifically?

The desire to edit came from working at Scholastic and going to joint edit meetings where people like Tracy Mack, Jean Feiwel, and Arthur Levine would present their books and their ideas for books. I longed for that same connection to the book, that same intimate involvement in the process of book making.

How did you prepare for this career?

I never really thought about preparing for this career, though I suppose all my time spent working in bookstores certainly helped.

How did you break into the business?

After college, I worked for a while as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble in Union Square. It was great, but I was putting my rent on my credit card, and I quickly realized that I needed a job that paid more. I sent out a cover letter to ten of my favorite children’s publishers.

That letter got me an informational interview at Scholastic. Six months after that interview, I got called back for a position as a book club assistant.

How did you get from day one to your current position?

I was the assistant for the TAB Book Club (Teen Age Books) and then I was promoted to be the book-club manager for Trumpet Intermediate. I was at Scholastic for four years doing those two jobs. Then in 2002, I got a job as an editor at Dial, was promoted to Senior Editor after a few years of being there, and then in December of 2007, I got a job as an executive editor at Roaring Brook Press.

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

I think that the job of an editor is to seek out interesting and diverse voices, to work on books that are honest and well written, and to spend time thinking about whether or not young readers will connect with the books you are making.

What are its challenges?

It’s challenging in publishing to stay true to your instincts and to remember the audience.

What are its rewards?

It is truly luxurious to be able to spend my days thinking about writing, talking about writing, and dealing with creative, inspiring people. That never gets old!

What makes Roaring Brook Press special? Would you please describe the list?

Roaring Brook is a very hands-on, author-focused and fun place to work. I feel like we know how to take risks, and, most importantly, our discussions always come back to what’s best for the book. I also really like how our marketing goddesses come up with the coolest ideas for promoting the books!

I’m just beginning to become more intimately acquainted with Roaring Brook’s back list and front list, but so far I’d say that the list is eclectic and ever changing. Sometimes it’s bold and innovative, sometimes it’s kid focused and silly, and sometimes it’s wise and thoughtful. It just depends.

I’m in awe of Neal Porter and the books that he publishes under his imprint. I feel giddy about being in such close proximity to the amazing graphic novels they do at First Second, and I’m happy to learn from the quality and kid-friendly non-fiction coming out of our Flashpoint imprint.

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

The majority of my manuscripts come from agents. To me, agents are just like (my new obsession)…they pass along things that they think I will like based on conversations we’ve had, books they know I’ve edited, or just a sense of what might jive with my personality.

Roaring Brook has a closed submission policy so we only take submissions from agents, authors that have been recommended to us, or people that we’ve invited to submit. And although that policy makes it sound so exclusive, what it does is it frees up the editor’s time to focus on the books that are already acquired and the authors with whom we have a relationship. I’m really grateful for that.

What recommendations do you have for writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Avoid being too cutesy or gimmicky in your cover letter. Most of all though, I think the greatest pitfall is spending too much time worrying about the submission process and not enough on the writing process!

What titles would you recommend for study to writers interested in working with you/the house and why?

Read Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen if you want to write in multiple perspectives, read anything by Tomi Ungerer if you want to do subversive picture books, read Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis if you want to learn how to write in third person and have it feel like first, read Ten Mile River by Paul Griffin if you want to write something edgy and realistic and yet not devoid of hope, read Laika by Nick Abadzis if you want to learn about dialogue, read Frindle by Andrew Clements if you want to write anything for middle graders, read The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein if you want to write about a historical experience that will resonate throughout the ages, read the Gym Shorts series by Betty Hicks if you want to write sports stories that concentrate more on relationships than the scoreboard, read The Qwikpick Adventure Society by Sam Riddleburger if you want to do gross-out humor with heart, read Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack by M.E. Kerr if you want to write an unforgettable main character, and read Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’engle if you want to be a writer of anything at all.

What new books are you especially excited about in 2008?

I’ll limit myself to four. (Sorry, you asked!) My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins & Fenway Park by Steve Kluger is a personal favorite because it’s upbeat, funny, and it’s a YA that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It also reminds me of one of my favorite books as a kid, Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman.

Ten Mile River is a YA novel by a first time author named Paul Griffin about two friends surviving on their own on the streets of New York City. I’ve been calling it “Of Mice and Men” meets “Good Will Hunting.” (How’s that for my Hollywood style pitch?)

Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel (from Neal Porter Books) is a book that truly makes me laugh out loud. And I don’t even like cats! It’s aimed towards an older audience than his picture books and it features his famous mischievous kitty, and I just love how it combines factual information about cats with zany, age-appropriate humor.

Finally, Wonderbear is a book that I acquired along with Lily Malcom, the art director at Dial, right before I left. I didn’t have the pleasure of working on the book, but I’m so excited about Tao Nyeu and her magical drawings. You’ll definitely be seeing this book all over in the Fall. I think Tao has a long career ahead of her.

Of the books you’ve edited over the course of your career, which three or four are you most proud of and why?

I’m most proud of Defining Dulcie by Paul Acampora, Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis, and I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry, and all for different reasons.

Defining Dulcie was one of the first books I edited, and the author and I learned so much about how a story unfolds and how to best invite the story to reveal itself.

I’m proud of Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree because I think it’s a book that will stand the test of time and because it’s an important book that will really help kids to see things through another perspective.

I’m proud of I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean because the author/illustrator came up with an idea (using paper and paint on layered glass plates!) that was both innovative and just plain fun to look at. Kevin also taught me about the beauty of pure, goofy enthusiasm in life and in picture books.

Could you describe your dream writer? Illustrator?

My dream writer or illustrator is someone who adores the collaborative process of making books.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

I teach yoga privately, I watch too much “Lost,” I search for new documentaries I haven’t seen yet, and I spend time looking at birds in the park with my husband.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Yes, I’d love to tell you about two books that I’m working on at the moment. One is called Episodes and it’s a hilarious and tender memoir written by a 20-year-old high functioning autistic student named Blaze about his freshman through senior year of high school.

Inspired by the format of and, Blaze writes in episodes about his quest for the perfect trio of friends, his love of Hillary Duff, and his never-ending search for a girlfriend. The other is a brilliant and soulful graphic novel project by Tracy White, about a young girl’s struggle with bulimia and depression. Both of them probably won’t be out until next year.