Editor Interview: Liz Waniewski on Dial Books for Young Readers

Liz Waniewski on Liz Waniewski: “I’m an editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, which is an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, and have been here for eight years. I like to keep my brain thinking creatively so I edit picture books as well as middle grade and young adult novels.

“Some of the recent books I edited include the New York Times bestselling Ladybug Girl books by Jacky Davis and David Soman (2008, 2009), The Brooklyn Nine by Alan Gratz (2009), The Homeschool Liberation League by Lucy Frank (2009), March Toward the Thunder by Joseph Bruchac (2008), and Keena Ford and the Field Trip Mix-Up by Melissa Thomson and Frank Morrison (2009).”

What were you like as a young(er) reader?

I read everything I could get my hands on, especially anything by Diana Wynne Jones and Lloyd Alexander.

I stayed up way too late at night reading, and would pretend to be asleep when my parents came in to check on me, so that I could turn my light on again after they left.

We went to the library every week or two, and I’d take out a stack of anything that looked good–all from the kids’ section because I was not ready for the adult stuff. Sometimes I think I’m still not!

What inspired you to build a career in children’s-YA literature?

When I was in college as an English major, everyone would ask me what I was going to do with that (kind of like that song from “Avenue Q,” “What Do You Do with a B.A. In English?”).

I realized that when I wasn’t reading for class, I was still going to the YA section of the bookstore and library to find new books by my favorite authors. If I could get paid to read and make those books, it would be my dream job because I was going to be reading them anyway! Becoming a children’s book editor really was the best possible option for me.

What makes Dial special? How is it different from other houses/imprints?

The people who work at Dial are what makes this imprint so special. Our team is the most supportive, creative, encouraging, and smart group of people I’ve ever worked with.

My editorial and design colleagues care so much about making great books–and not just making sure their own books are great, but that everyone’s are. Everyone backs everyone else up, ready to do a second (or third, or fourth!) read on a manuscript, or talk through tricky problems, or brainstorm new ideas. I feel lucky every day being able to work with this fantastic group, and I think these qualities show in the kinds of books we publish.

What about it attracted you?

I knew about a certain book of Dial’s long before I knew the imprint. It’s called Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale by Verna Aardema and Leo and Diane Dillon (1975), and was featured on “Reading Rainbow” when I was a kid.

I loved that book, and when I was interviewing at different houses after college, I finally made the connection between book and imprint. If Dial published something I already loved, I knew it would be a good place for me.

What kind of books appeal to you most? Why?

I love that I get to work with all different formats and genres. It takes a different kind of creative thinking to work on picture books than it does to work on novels, and it makes my days exciting to be able to do both.

For me, it is the story that matters above genre and format, and a good story in any genre is a good story. And my idea of a good story is one that looks at a universal kid or teen concern/emotion/situation in a fresh and unique way, that is told with an authentic kid or teen voice, and that keeps me turning the pages and taking me to places I didn’t expect, but that still grows organically from the story itself.

Most importantly, these stories are character-driven and everything happens in them because of the actions, choices, and motivations of the main character (rather than happening to the main character).

What titles would you recommend for study to writers or illustrators interested in working with you and why?

I would recommend studying Dial’s current list, as well as what we’ve published in the last two years or so. This will help you get a good idea about the kinds of books Dial publishes, what we’ve already done, what our illustration style is, and where our gaps might be.

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

Make sure you know the company’s submission guidelines (PDF file). It is easy to find these now by looking at websites. It is also important to study the current books put out by the imprints you are interested in submitting to (as per above).

How about for illustrators?

I would offer the same advice as for writers, but be sure to never send original artwork. You never know when something may get lost in the mail.

Could you describe your dream writer?

My dream writer is someone who is open-minded and ready and willing to revise! It is someone who works with me to make the best book possible.

Which of your new or upcoming books should we look for? What about each of them spoke to you?

I’m very excited about a sci-fi/fantasy called Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, which will be coming out in the new year. This is the first of this genre that I’ve worked on, even though I’m a huge sci-fi/fantasy junkie in my spare time. Because I’m such a big fan, I’m extremely picky when it comes to this genre, and this is the first book that has crossed my desk that totally blew me away. There’s incredible world-building, non-stop action, crazy twists, a tortured hero and a strong-willed heroine, and oh yeah, a sentient prison. Wow.

As for picture books, I can’t wait for Tutus Aren’t My Style by Linda Skeers and Anne Wilsdorf and Name that Dog! by Peggy Archer and debut illustrator Stephanie Buscema. The heroine in Tutus is a girl after my own heart–much more of a tomboy than a ballerina. And the twenty-six poems about different kinds of dogs in Name that Dog! make me laugh and love dogs even more than I already do.

As a reader, so far what have been your three favorite children’s-YA books of 2009 and why?

Okay, this is really difficult! I’m not including any Dial books here, because those are all my favorites and it is too hard to narrow down. But three that have stuck with me so far this year are Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2009), The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline: An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer (Philomel, 2009), and Front and Center by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).

I’m not sure I could read Wintergirls again, but there are images seared into my brain from this book, and the immediacy and beauty of the writing immediately sucked me in.

The Enola Holmes mysteries are fantastic, so smart, terrifically researched, and with one of the most forward-thinking heroines to come along in a while; this is the latest in the series.

Front and Center is the third book in the Dairy Queen trilogy. It made me laugh and cry, sometimes in the same sentence, and D.J. Schwenck is alive to me–the way she is drawn is the way I wish I knew all main characters: intimately, with unique but real quirks, and a voice that jumps off the page.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

I love playing sports, and in the winter I run a pitching clinic for a girls’ softball organization in Harlem, called Harlem RBI. I’m also a big theater fan, especially musical theater, and try to go to as many shows as I can. Living in NYC makes that easier!

If I wasn’t an English major in college, I would have been a history major, so I frequent all the museums in the city too. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is my current favorite.

Cynsational Notes

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