In the spring of 2008, two colleagues brought together years of stellar editing experience to establish their own imprint at HarperCollins. Alessandra Balzer and Donna Bray have since published dozens of delightful, award-winning books for kids of all ages. Donna somehow found time to talk about her own reading life, what she loves best in MG, and what B & B has coming up. (Full, happy disclosure: she’s editor of Tricia Springstubb’s WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET and the forthcoming MO WREN, LOST AND FOUND.)
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I read early and often, voraciously and indiscriminately! I wish I could say there had been a great neighborhood bookstore, a well-stocked public library with a friendly librarian, and wonderful school and classroom libraries when I was growing up – alas, quite the opposite. I mostly got books for my birthday and Christmas, and otherwise trolled garage sales for cheap paperbacks or borrowed from friends. We had lots of books in our house, but keeping me in new books was nearly impossible, so I became an inveterate rereader, especially of JANE EYRE and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. (Great training for a future editor!)
In addition to these classics and others like LITTLE WOMEN, the Little House books, Nancy Drew, and Grimms’ and Andersen’s fairy tales, I also loved Elizabeth Enright, Ruth Chew, E.L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, Paula Danziger… Later I devoured “issue books” about teens with dreadful problems, as well as the likes of Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, and V.C. Andrews (trashy and scandalous, but what great summer reading!). Paul Zindel’s THE PIGMAN and THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. HINTON were a revelation at the time.
What made you choose to be an editor for children, rather than adults?
I’m here by chance, really. An acquaintance of mine casually suggested that maybe I’d like working for a publisher, which strangely had never occurred to me before. I’d had jobs all through college (in New York City) in television and classical music publicity, but nothing struck me as a career I’d want to pursue. Anyway, I applied for any entry-level publishing jobs I could pick out of the New York Times classifieds, and eventually had two offers: one in children’s marketing, the other in adult publicity. The former paid $1000 more, so it was no contest – I was going to work in children’s books.
Once I started that first job at Henry Holt, though, I couldn’t believe how perfect it was for me. I absolutely loved everything about the field. I knew I had to be in editorial though, and moved over to that department within a year.
B&B publishes such an amazing variety of books. When it comes to middle grade, what ingredients do you consider essential?
I’d say humor is important, even in a mostly serious book, and real heart and emotional resonance, even in a primarily funny book. Characters that are real, specific, relatable, memorable. An original, compelling voice. A richly imagined setting you can really live in. I suppose I like to have these qualities in all my fiction! But I guess I don’t have a list that I check off when I’m reading a book. What I’m always looking for is a story that surprises or delights me, moves me, makes me think. I appreciate stories that cross or defy genres (THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY by Adam Rex, THE INCORRIGIBLE CHILDREN OF ASHTON PLACE by Maryrose Wood), or one that touches on familiar themes but approaches them in a fresh way (WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET by Tricia Springstubb).
Besides the ages of the characters, what would you say are the definitive differences between middle grade and young adult?
Not to dodge the question, but Michael Stearns at Upstart Crow recently did a pretty good job answering that question http://upstartcrowliterary.com/blog/. The level of interiority and outward focus, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. all matter. But one simple but pretty foolproof question I do ask myself when evaluating a middle-grade manuscript is: would any 8-to-12-year-olds care about this?
We’re guessing editors are as reluctant as writers to name their own favorite book. But could you mention a few that have given you particular pleasure or satisfaction to work on?
I named a few, above, and some more, below – I’m so proud of those books. But some others in the middle-grade category include WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson – I don’t do a lot of nonfiction, so this book was a real editorial workout for me. I loved the challenge of putting it all together, and I learned so much. The Clementine books were such happy books to work on – Sara Pennypacker and Marla Frazee are so brilliant and thoughtful and care so much, and it shows. Recently I’ve been impressed with the inventive plotting and incredible revision skills of Janice Hardy, author of THE SHIFTER, BLUE FIRE, and the upcoming DARKFALL.
Do your own children’s tastes influence you?
My children, Grace (11) and Liam (9) don’t influence what I publish so much as they educate me, every day, about children’s reading habits and tastes and interests. My daughter’s sudden leap to reading young teen books, and my son’s love of graphic novels and stories of Arctic adventure, are fascinating to me, but I am well aware that my children are not always representative of their age category. I bring home books and ARCs, and it’s great to see what attracts them and what doesn’t. But it’s of course especially gratifying when they love (and reread obsessively, as I once did!) books I’ve edited.
Any upcoming books you want to tell us about?
We have an amazing 2011 list in the middle-grade category! Those that I’m working on now include THE DETENTION CLUB by David Yoo (winter ’11) and the second Incorrigible Children book, THE HIDDEN GALLERY; INVISIBLE INKLING by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Harry Bliss (the launch of a new middle-grade series, publishing summer ‘11), MO WREN, LOST AND FOUND, the sequel to WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET; and WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy and illustrated by Carson Ellis, the first in a major new fantasy series (both fall ’11).
Some great middle-grade coming from the Balzer + Bray/Walden Pond Press team include HOW LAMAR’S BAD PRANK WON A BUBBA-SIZED TROPHY by Crystal Allen; THE FOURTH STALL by Chris Rylander; THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Kevin Cornell (all winter ’11); JUNIPER BERRY by Michael Kozlowsky (summer ’11), and BREADCRUMBS by Anne Ursu (fall ’11).
Thanks so much, Donna.