Monday Interview: Mary Rodgers, VP & Editor-in-Chief of Lerner Publishing Group

Today I’m excited to interview Mary Rodgers, Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Lerner Publishing Group, an independent award-winning publishing house based in Minnesota. Founded in 1959, Lerner Publishing now has several imprints, including the well-known Carolrhoda Books. Lerner Books is known for its amazing collection of nonfiction books. The company also has an imprint devoted to books in Spanish. Some of the imprints do publish fiction ranging from picture books to young adults. Lerner’s Bad News for Outlaws, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, won the 2010 Coretta Scott King award. Congratulations! 🙂

I met Mary at a SCBWI conference, and I have rarely seen a publisher more excited to talk about multicultural books. I am honored that she agreed to this interview.

Nathalie: Mary, thank you so much for joining us today.

Mary Rodgers: Thanks Nathalie. I’m happy to be here.

What are your thoughts on the state of multicultural books in the U.S., i.e. are there “enough,” are they needed, is there a market?

MR: Lerner Publishing Group has been publishing multicultural fiction and nonfiction titles for more than fifty years. In fact, Harry Lerner, founder of our company, is proud that in the 1960s, when bigger publishers weren’t buying true multicultural art (i.e., art in which people of color were a natural part of the story), his little start-up company was.

But to answer your questions, the incredible diversity within the U.S. population creates an ongoing need for multicultural titles. The market for some of these titles may be regional—that is, the sales may cluster where the groups are clustered—but there’s definitely a need.

How does Lerner Books acquire multicultural manuscripts? (Note: is there a quota? Do you specifically look for them?)

MR: There’s no quota. Much of our nonfiction, however, is series driven. When we develop a new series, we make sure that stories about people of color are part of the mix. So in that sense we specifically plan to include multicultural subjects.

As a publisher, what are the challenges you encounter when it comes to publishing and marketing a book showcasing cultural diversity?

MR: We want any multicultural book that we publish to faithfully and fairly represent the culture in question. The visuals, as well as the text, need to achieve this. We avoid stereotyping and try very hard to achieve a balance of ethnicity, gender, and age in our multicultural titles.

What are some of your favorite non-fiction titles, books you think should have a place on every library and family book shelves?

MR: I’m lucky to be able to read strong nonfiction every week in my work. I love a good story, but I also love to browse. On the upper grades side, we’ve published two series that always catch my eye for browsing. One is Images and Issues of Women in the Twentieth Century. It covers the evolution of the roles of women in the 1900s. The other is Decades of Twentieth-Century America. It discussed various aspects of American culture—politics, media, sports, literature, economics—in each decade. I’ve browsed these with family and friends. Both series are fabulous conversation starters. On the younger side, picture book biographies—such as Bad News for Outlaws, which just won the Coretta Scott King Author Award—are a lot of fun too.

What type of manuscript is Lerner Books currently looking for?

MR: Good stories, mainly. Strong multicultural nonfiction, whether offered as single titles or in series, begins with good topics. “Good” can signify that the topic is highly curricular, meaning that young readers need solid, informative material on the topic because they are likely to run into it in their studies. “Good” can indicate that the story is gripping, unusual, or new in some way. Or “good” can simply mean the topic is of high interest to kids and has entertainment value. Strong nonfiction also relies on an authoritative voice that wants to tell a good story.

Last but not least, do you have a message for writers of color and/or writers of books with multicultural content?

MR: Know your topic well and be able to explain difficult or sensitive ideas in an interesting way. Understand your audience—what do they already know? What would surprise them? What would engage them? Look for stories that haven’t been over published.

Dear Mary, thank you very much for being a champion of cultural diversity in children’s literature, for your words of advice and for your time. 🙂

For more information on Lerner Publishing Group, please visit:
o Lerner Publishing’s website
o Learn about LPG’s award-winning imprints here!
o Submission Guidelines
o Lerner Classroom
o LPG’s Blog
o Facebook
o Follow Lerner Publishing on Twitter!

Some of Lerner Publishing Books

Monday Interview: AnnMarie Anderson, Senior Editor at Scholastic Paperbacks

Hi, everyone!

Weeks ago I gave an account of a SCBWI conference I attended in February, and I mentioned meeting a fantastic editor from Scholastic, who made my day by championing and requesting books with culturally diverse characters during her presentation! 😀

AnnMarie Anderson is Senior Editor at Scholastic Paperbacks, the publishing imprint that provides generations of readers with treats such as Goosebumps, Captain Underpants and Dear Dumb Diary, just to quote a few. Among other titles, AnnMarie edits the series Geronimo Stilton, Nate Banks and Poison Apple. I’m thrilled and honored to interview her today, with Ari, from Reading in Color!

AnnMarie, thank you for joining us on Multiculturalism Rocks! I was impressed when, during your presentation at the Asilomar Conference (2010), you specifically mentioned multicultural series in your wish list; however I often hear from agents or publishers that “multicultural books are hard to sell.” Do you share that point of view?

AMA: Not exactly. I do think that sometimes it can be hard to sell multicultural books if kids look at them and think they are too didactic, or if it seems as though the book’s main purpose or theme is that it’s a multicultural story. But if there’s a book out there that’s just a really great read, with vibrant, believable characters and an exciting plot, and the characters happen to be people of color, then I don’t think that book will be a tough sell.

What elements are you looking for in multicultural paperback series?

AMA: Generally, I’m looking for the same elements that I look for in any paperback series. It’s important that the characters are well-developed and believable; I love characters that really leap off the page. Since paperback series are very commercial in nature, I’m also looking for plot-driven, action-packed stories that really draw kids in and keep them turning the pages.

Are there any pitfalls you would warn writers against when writing characters with culturally diverse background?

AMA: To me, the most important thing to keep in mind when writing any fictional character is to be sure the character feels real and believable. When I’m editing manuscripts, I’ll sometimes mark a line of dialogue and write a comment in the margin: Really? I’m not sure this character would have said that. I don’t believe it. The vocabulary and expressions your character uses have to seem realistic. If they don’t, readers will see through it. The second a reader feels like a character isn’t authentic, he or she will lose interest in the story and will lose his or her trust in the author as a storyteller.

Note: the following questions are from Ari, a well-known teen blogger and book reviewer. She advocates for culturally diverse books on her blog, Reading in Color (http://blackteensread2.blogspot.com/)

Ari: Are there actual statistics kept by publishing companies that show how well books about people of color (POC) sell? Are there also stats about the more popular covers; the ones with POC on them? Or the ones without POC?

AMA: I’m honestly not sure. There are so many different factors that contribute to a book’s success—there’s the story, the cover, the price, the marketing and publicity, and any self-promoting the author might do. Trends in the marketplace can also have a big effect on sales.

Ari: Why do you think there is a lack of literature representing POC? Are writers not stepping forward? (I want to get to the bottom of this question). Are editors not selling the books to publishing companies?

AMA: As an editor, I would like to see more submissions from writers with diverse backgrounds. And I would love to see all writers including more people of color as characters in their books. Ultimately, I believe what all editors (and readers) are looking for is a really good story. If a book is too good to put down, it won’t be hard to sell it to anyone, whether that person is a publisher, a bookseller, a teacher, a parent, or a child.

AnnMarie, thank you once again for your time and for sharing your experience. I look forward to Scholastic Paperbacks upcoming titles!

Notes on AnnMarie Wish List and Scholastic submission guidelines:
AnnMarie is looking for boy-friendly content materials that will be appealing to the reluctant reader (Captain Underpants is a great example), for stories with animal characters (good examples are Warriors and Bunnicula the vampire bunny), for stories that will make her laugh out loud. It is safe to suspect that if the well-written characters happen to have culturally diverse backgrounds, you will definitely get noticed. 🙂
I posted a link below regarding the submission guidelines, however it mostly relates to materials that will be helpful in the classroom. Do not miss it, especially if you are an educator.
Scholastic editors regularly attend writers and illustrators conferences, and meeting one seems the most realistic opportunity to send a manuscript if you are unagented, since editors from big publishing houses generally welcome unagented submissions from conference attendees for a short period of time after the conference. I also encourage consulting the current Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market guide, which is available in the closest bookstore and in your local library. It is really helpful and details how to best contact Scholastic in regards to the genre of your manuscript. I cannot reproduce the Guide’s content on the blog.

Some of Scholastic helpful links:
o Scholastic Website
o Scholastic Website in Spanish
o Submission Guidelines (Teaching Ideas)
o Scholastic International
o Act Green

o Follow Scholastic on Twitter
o Join Scholastic on Facebook. Note: Scholastic launched Kids In Distressed Situations (K.I.D.S.). The company donates one book to a kid in need for every person who likes/joins Scholastic on Facebook. Please, spread the word.

Some of the books mentioned in this post:

Thanks again to AnnMarie Anderson for her time, thank you Ari for your collaboration, and thank you all for reading! Have a great week,

Nathalie
PS: Secretly doing an inventory of paperback series with culturally diverse characters; AnnMarie’s wish list got me curious. I hope that this interview inspired you. 😀

Edited at 3:43 to update the wish list.