Editor Interview: Arthur A. Levine on Levine Querido

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In a world of various career options for smart, charming folks like yourself, why did you choose editing children’s books?

Ha! Nice of you to say. My parents had the same question in 1984.

To be honest, it started when I was a senior in college because I was (slash am) a poet, and I had made all of $10 and a couple of magazine copies selling my poems. I needed to do something else to eat and pay rent, and I wanted to do something I would care about deeply.

Someone suggested book publishing, which I explored, and when I really thought about it, the books that made the greatest impact on me were the ones I had read (and perhaps, in retrospect, the ones that didn’t exist for me to read) as a child.

Now, why editing children’s books turned out to be my true calling did not become clear to me until much later;  it turns out that my love of friendship, my deep desire to hear the stories of other people’s hearts…those were the things that made me love working with book creators, even more than the pleasure I take in book making, or literary advocacy.

You’re also an author. How does Author Arthur (that’s hard to say three times fast) inform Editor Arthur and vice versa?

Well, ya know Author Arthur doesn’t get out much. LOL.

In some ways I think he still exists because of the promise I made myself never to become a “frustrated” writer…to never lose track of the fact that when I’m editing it’s not about me and what I want to write (or read) it’s about the author and what that author wants to say.

Author Arthur can get his time to be the writer in a different context. I also think there are many small experiences I’ve had over the years—both positive and negative—as an author that have helped me learn about the pitfalls and the potential joys of the process.

I’ve received so many of those rejection letters, for instance, containing blunt, confusing, or just unhelpful language that I’ve got to hope I can try to do better when I’m the one doing the rejecting.  Or the editing for that matter.

Congratulations on the launch of Levine Querido! According to the website:

“Levine Querido publishes two lists: The Arthur A. Levine list, seeking out the writing and artwork of exceptionally talented creators, with a distinct focus on building a platform for previously underrepresented voices; and the Em Querido list, a partnership with the renowned Dutch publisher to find the most outstanding authors and artists from around the world, aiming to keep the legacy of Emanuel Querido alive and flourishing.”

Sounds exciting! How did all of this come about?

Thank you! There are many ways to answer that question, but I’ll try to keep it simple-ish.

Levine Querido represents values I’ve always been guided by to choose what I publish: mainly the belief that if a story moves me deeply enough, it will move and please others, too…and that people from a multitude of races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, abilities, all have stories to tell that will be of great meaning, comfort, and inspiration to us all.

I wanted to create a company that would help me find the fullest expression of these values, so I’ve set out to do it with dedicated staff of people—editors, business advisors, marketers, publicists, copyeditors, who are themselves from diverse backgrounds and are as passionate about making great books as I am.

And the final piece is our alliance with a great publisher in the Netherlands who will help me scour the world outside of the United States for fresh talented writers and artists in introduce to American kids.

How do you think about inclusive editing in children’s-YA publishing? What do you want fellow editors and book creators to know about your related philosophy and approach?

I guess I would recommend holding two truths in the front of your mind when editing a book by a person of a background different from yours. One is to start from a place of belief that you and the author have shared emotion and humanity. Don’t exoticize differences to the point where you forget that every person shares a vocabulary of feeling with you.

And at the same time, be curious about, respect and honor those differences. Don’t erase them in your desire to get to a “universal” that really means “like you.”

Universality is found through the profoundly specific. Also, be willing to embrace the vulnerability of your ignorance when you’re discussing the author or artist’s work. It’s not weak or embarrassing to say you don’t know something about the community or background of an author’s story, but it is foolish to pretend you do (and even more foolish to not realize that you don’t.).

Arthur with author Martha Brockenbrough

You’d been at the helm of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic, which has an excellent reputation for groundbreaking, diverse literature, since 1996.

Why this publishing change now? Will the imprint at Scholastic remain, and if so, will you retain some sort of ongoing role in it?

Again, thank you for saying that, Cynthia. I am very proud of what we were able to accomplish at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.

Why change now? I guess the main reason, honestly, is that I’ve been working in large corporations all my career, and though there’s a great deal of good to be accomplished there, I think I just got tired of code-switching every day, of converting what I truly think and feel into what I thought would be persuasive to others in a corporate context.

I’m looking forward to being more “out” in that regard, and working from a place of passion, mission, and determination.

I’m not sure how my colleagues at Scholastic will treat the Arthur A. Levine Books imprint. I think it will remain on the books in the pipeline for this coming Fall. After that, it will probably walk off into the sunset.

Arthur at LoonSong: Turtle Island with editors Yolanda Scott, Cheryl B. Klein, and members of the Native writing community, including author-host Debby Dahl Edwardson and authors Dawn Quigley, Carole LindstromDebbie Reese and Tim Tingle

You’ve been editing for a while—let’s say you’re at a mid-career point. What have you learned during your journey and as a leader in the world of books for young readers? Reflecting on the future, in what ways do you hope to continue making a positive difference?

I hope I’m lucky enough to be in mid-career! And it’s nice of you to call me a “leader.”

I have to learn to embrace that internally a bit more. What have I learned?

Maybe most encouragingly it’s that the underlying qualities of what makes a great book haven’t changed since I started. Not only that, but it’s just as easy to make a great book succeed as it is to sell one that traffics in stereotypes or over-used tropes (maybe even easier).

Conversely, I do still believe, after all this time, that those who give in to cynicism about what will bring them success are ultimately doomed, if not to fail, then to court mediocrity.

I hope to continue to find a thousand different expressions of excellence, and, with them, to surprise and delight readers. To brighten a child’s life like that? What more positive difference could I hope?