Editor Interview: Dana Goldberg of Children’s Book Press

Dana Goldberg on Dana Goldberg: “I was born and raised in New York City, and I’m a New Yorker at heart. I moved to the Bay Area in the summer of 1997, after graduating from Brown University with a degree in Comparative Literature (Spanish and English) and Literary Translation, and I’ve been out west ever since. Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving New York since I knew I wanted to pursue a career in publishing, but I was fortunate enough to find employment with Jossey-Bass (then a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster), then Weldon Owen (a cookbook and lifestyle publisher), and finally Children’s Book Press. I’ve also worked for a literary agent in New York and a literary translation journal in San Francisco.”

Were you an avid young reader, or did you come to this love later in life?

To say I was a bookworm as a child would be a gross understatement. I was very fortunate in that my mother was an early childhood educator, and there was a constant supply of books in our apartment. My dad also regularly took my brother and me to the public library. In general, my parents stressed the importance of reading and education.

What inspired you to enter the field of children’s publishing?

It was a combination of my own passion for reading as a child, and my exposure to the children’s book industry while in college. For three summers I did a part-time internship with Liza Pulitzer-Voges at Kirchoff-Wohlberg in New York. She represents wonderful people, like Bob Barner, Lois Ehlert, and Anne Miranda. I also love that in children’s books, the art and design are integral to the process and the product.

Could you summarize your career to date?

My first paying publishing gig in the Bay Area was working as a part-time editorial assistant for Two Lines, a journal of literary translation. I got my first full-time job at Jossey-Bass, though it was really like having two jobs. I worked (rather schizophrenically) two days a week for the foreign rights manager and three days a week as a publicist.

I was there for about a year and a half before moving to an editorial and production assistant position at Weldon Owen, where I worked on a series of large format, beautifully illustrated and photographed cookbooks.

I left Weldon Owen in 2000 to become an editorial and production assistant at Children’s Book Press. Through some serendipitous timing, I moved rather quickly to being Assistant Editor, then Editor, and finally Executive Editor, which is my current position.

What led you to Children’s Book Press?

I discovered Children’s Book Press while researching publishing companies in the Bay Area when I first moved out here. I even applied for a part-time publicist job at CBP, but didn’t get it.

It seemed like the perfect place for me to be, in that it combined a lot of my interests (children’s books, bilingualism, Spanish and English literature, forward-thinking artwork, a social justice focus).

Three years after applying for that publicist position, I came across the listing for the editorial assistant position, which I interviewed for and got, and the rest is history.

What challenges and opportunities did you encounter at the company?

Working at CBP allows me to work with some really amazing people—not just my colleagues at the Press, but the authors and artists and designers I work with on producing the books.

It’s truly a privilege to shepherd their stories to fruition, to be a part of their creative process, and also to get to know them as people. In terms of challenges, that’s easy…money!

We’re a nonprofit independent press that primarily serves the school-and-library market.

As schools and libraries have seen their budgets shrink over the past several years, and as the book buying public has abandoned the independent bookstores that have also been the backbone of support for us, we’ve struggled at times to be able to continue to do what we do.

We’re lucky in that, as a nonprofit, we can fundraise and write grants and such, but there’s a lot of competition out there for funding, and it’s not always the most reliable revenue stream.

How would you describe the list? What sorts of books do you publish?

We publish multicultural and bilingual picture books, written in what we call “the first voice”—meaning the authors and artists who create the books come from the community they are representing in their work. We publish in four broad categories: books from the African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American communities.

CBP initially published a lot of folklore, but now our list focuses on fiction and poetry, generally set in the contemporary U.S. and aimed at around a third-grade audience (though we do also offer books for kids that are in the four-to-six-year-old range). Family stories, immigration, historical fiction, the power of imagination, superheroes, neighborhoods, intergenerational stories…we’ve got them all.

If you had to highlight three recent titles that would give us a feel for the list, which would you choose and why?

On My Block (2007), our most recent multicultural anthology, because it highlights a huge spectrum of diversity as well as being beautifully designed. My Colors, My World/Mis colores, mi mundo (2007), because of the stunning artwork, and Young Cornrows Callin Out the Moon (2007), because it’s just a fabulous piece of poetry and a great read-aloud.

Which would you recommend to writers for study and why?

I would definitely recommend Juan Felipe Herrera, especially books such as Calling the Doves (1995) and Grandma and Me at the Flea (2002). He has an incredible poetic sensibility and a truly magical imagination, and is a real pro at showing rather than telling.

I’d recommend Uma Krishnaswami‘s books, Chachaji’s Cup (2003) and The Closet Ghosts (2006). She’s immensely gifted at creating real characters and wonderful dialogue, and she has a great natural sense of story.

I’d also point to Lucía González (The Storyteller’s Candle (2008)), Jorge Argueta (A Movie in My Pillow (2001)), Xochitl and the Flowers (2003)), Moony Luna (2005), and Amy Lee-Tai (A Place Where Sunflowers Grow (2006)) for how to present historical information in a warm, engaging, sensitive way.

Who are your new voices, your rising stars, and your big names?

Let’s see… New voices: Malathi Michelle Iyengar. Rising stars: Lucía González, Maya Christina Gonzalez. Big names: We’re publishing a book in 2009 by Diego Rivera’s daughter, Dra. Guadalupe Rivera Marín. She’s writing about her childhood memories, which will be illustrated with her father’s artwork.

What do you see as your jobs in the publishing process?

In a general sense, my job is to find and nurture new, emerging, and established voices, and to help those writers and artists bring their stories and their vision to fruition.

In a more specific sense, my jobs are many. At Children’s Book Press, because we’re so small, each person essentially functions as his or her own department.

So my job as Executive Editor includes: building the editorial and production budget; finding authors and artists; acquiring new stories for publication; manuscript development; art direction (to some extent, along with the book designer); and project management.

What are your challenges?

Juggling the book schedules, making sure my authors and artists are delivering on time, figuring out what we can do with our sometimes-limited nonprofit budget.

One of the biggest challenges we all face is reigning in our desire to do more. Currently we’re limited by our budget to publishing only four new hardcovers a year, but we’d all like to be producing more titles each year.

What do you love about it?

I love working with fantastically creative people! We’re so lucky to work with such generous storytellers and artists, and I am so thankful I get to be involved in how their work develops.

I love the range of stories and styles and histories I get exposed to in doing this work.

I love that each book represents a completely new adventure, a new relationship (even when I’m working with an author I already know well), and a new learning curve.

And I love producing books that do some good in the world.

How has publishing changed–for better and worse–since you entered the field?

For the better…. Publishers are finally making (limited) room for authors and artists of color and for bilingual books, which I think is a very good thing, although I don’t think they’re always as thoughtful about it as they could be.

For the worse…. The market is so glutted—we’d all be better off if publishers were publishing fewer books of higher quality. The booksellers, the reviewers, and the public wouldn’t be quite so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of what’s out there, and the books themselves would benefit from more attention and a longer shelf life, I think.

Also, there’s obviously been a huge negative impact on independent bookstores in the last ten years due to certain online retailers (ahem) and the expansion of the big chains, which hits small presses especially hard.

What global improvements would you like to see and why?

I’d like to see independent presses be able to survive on their own and not keep getting swallowed by huge conglomerates that seem to be only incidentally interested in the making of books.

I’d like for people to walk the walk and not just talk the talk—a lot of people say they support independent bookstores in their communities but then go spend their money elsewhere.

Of course, these are probably not very realistic improvements to expect, but a girl can dream.

Why is it important to make a special effort to publish books with diverse characters and themes?

Because that’s the world we live in! All children deserve to see themselves reflected in the pages of books. It’s a powerful thing to be validated like that, and it helps get them–and keep them–engaged and excited about reading. And all children benefit from reading about kids with lives and experiences and histories that are different from their own.

Bilingual books?

Unfortunately, there’s a segment of our population that insists we should be a monolingual nation, which is so limited and so not reality!

Bilingual books are important because many, many children in this country are growing up in households where their parents are bilingual, or maybe their parents don’t speak English well or not at all. Bilingual books allow those families to read together, to share that important experience together.

Some people may resist the idea of bilingualism as a positive value, but it’s obviously something we believe in and which we promote in our books.

How has multicultural publishing evolved over time?

Back in the 1970s, when Children’s Book Press was founded, there wasn’t much in the way of multicultural publishing for children. Harriet Rohmer, who founded CBP, started by traveling to Latin America, transcribing and then publishing stories (folktales, myths, etc) from the oral traditions of various Latin American countries. The Press focused heavily on international and multicultural folklore and was one of the few, if not the only, publishers to do so at the time.

The rest of the publishing industry took quite a while to catch on, to realize there was a market out there for those kinds of stories. CBP eventually shifted its focus from folklore to more contemporary stories, and other publishers have followed suit, though many of them still publish quite a lot of folktales.

What is the landscape now?

I think the multicultural publishing fields has just exploded over the last 15 years—though as a share of the entire industry, it still represents a very small share.

But I do think that some of the bigger houses have realized that there is money to be made, that the Latino population (for example) is a huge, mostly untapped market, and so they’re trying to capitalize on that.

As I said before, in some ways I think that’s great, and in some ways it’s challenging for us because it does create more competition.

What new directions and/or continuing challenges are out there?

In terms of new directions, we’re looking to move into bilingual board books and books aimed at kids who aren’t yet reading on their own.

There’s a huge need out there for bilingual materials for that age group; that’s what we’ve been hearing from experts in the early literacy field. Some day I would love for us to be able to move into chapter books and YA as well…

Our continuing challenges have to do with there being seemingly no end in sight to the budget pressures that are being put on our teachers, school districts, and librarians, who make up the biggest share of our customers.

How do you work to ensure that your books are accurate and respectful of the communities they depict?

Our motivation for publishing work in the first voice—written and illustrated by people who are part of communities they represent in their work—is to keep our books as culturally accurate, sensitive, and authentic as possible.

I’m not saying there isn’t more than one way to be authentic. But for us, this idea of first voice is a very important principle. We also have various trusted readers who review our manuscripts while they’re in development.

And in terms of bilingual books, we run the text by a bilingual copyeditor and a host of native readers to ensure as much as possible that the translation is not just correct, but also as smooth, poetic, and beautiful as the original language.

How does Children’s Book Press work with teachers and librarians to connect books to young readers?

We used to do quite a bit of direct programming with classrooms, after school programs, and libraries, but now we try to partner with organizations who are already doing direct service work with kids.

We’ve also developed relationships with quite a few teacher-education programs to connect student teachers to our books, so that they know how to maximize their use in the classroom.

We’ve developed free online teachers guides for many of our books, available on our website.

We’ve also been involved in things like helping to plan San Francisco’s annual Día de los Niños, Día de los Libros (Day of the Child, Day of the Book) festival.

What qualities do you look for in a manuscript?

An engaging voice, believable dialogue, action that compels you to keep reading, economy of language, showing rather than telling.

I love it when manuscripts teach me something new, or that have a fresh, sparkling take on a subject I already thought I knew something about. I love manuscripts that have a clear sense of purpose. I love manuscripts that are intelligent, that respect the intelligence of the reader, and that don’t talk down to kids.

How can writers/illustrators submit their work for consideration?

Guidelines are on our website, and I’d encourage aspiring authors to read them carefully before submitting.

Any submission recommendations or pet peeves?

Do your research! We are pretty specific in terms of what we look for and what kinds of books we publish, and it’s always disheartening to see how many people submit stories to us with apparently no idea as to what we publish.

As for pet peeves… A lot of people submit stories about food, or about situations involving school bullies, classroom contests, talent shows, etc.

I’m kind of over those topics as vehicles for promoting inter-cultural understanding. But then again, if someone were to come up with some really and truly original take on those themes…

Please describe your dream author.

One who submits a perfect first draft that needs no tweaking whatsoever! Just kidding. One who delivers on time, is thoughtful about his or her work, passionate about their subject and their craft, diligent about deadlines, and pleasant to work with on a personal level. A sense of humor never hurts, of course. That goes for authors and editors alike, actually.

Please describe your dream illustrator.

I’ve actually been lucky enough to work with a few artists I’d consider “dream illustrators”… The same principles I outlined in the previous question apply to illustrators, as well.

Do most of your books begin as submissions from writers, writer-illustrators, or agents? Why?

Most of our books begin with the author, and we choose the artist. We’ve had a few instances where the author and illustrator are the same person (Carmen Lomas Garza, for example, or, more recently, Maya Christina Gonzalez).

I think it’s just really rare to find individuals who are equally talented at both writing and illustrating. It seems much more common that people identify as writers or as visual artists.

Also, we work with a lot of new and emerging talent, so most of our authors and artists come to us before they find representation.

Looking back on your career to date, which of the books you’ve worked on stand out most in your memory and why?

Every book is a unique, amazing experience, but a few recent ones that stand out are:

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow (2006), because of the author and artist’s connection to the subject matter (the Japanese American internment during WWII) and the access we were given to the author’s grandmother’s sketches and artifacts (Hisako Hibi, a prominent Japanese American artist who was interned during the war with her family).

On My Block (2007), an anthology of 15 different visual artists creating artwork and stories about special places in their lives, from their childhoods, or from family memories, which was a project I had wanted to bring to fruition for years, since I first became an editor at CBP.

And The Storyteller’s Candle (2008)(author-illustrator interview), a book about Pura Belpre, the first Latina librarian in New York City, because she has been such a hugely influential figure in the librarian community, and we love our librarians!

The author, Lucia Gonzalez, is a librarian and a storyteller with a strong connection to Pura’s legacy, and Lulu Delacre, the artist, created beautiful collage art using a copy of The New York Times from the period when the story is set, during the Great Depression.

What do you see in your professional future? The future of Children’s Book Press?

I’d love to be able to continue learning and growing and contributing to the children’s book field.

Children’s Book Press is looking to move into publishing board books, and maybe someday we’ll even move into chapter books or young adult…. along with publishing the picture books we’re already known for.

What do you do outside the world of children’s book publishing?

I do a lot of reading, cooking, and singing/playing keyboards in a gigging band.

When my schedule permits, I love to hop back home to New York for my fill of museums and real bagels, or further afield to places like Italy. Actually, it’s been way too long since I’ve taken a vacation like that.