My father tells this story about me as a little girl and swears it's true. I don't remember it myself, but I choose to believe him. He said that one night, after he read a selection of books to me at bedtime, I asked him, "Daddy, why does everyone have yellow hair in the books?" He struggled a bit on how to answer, and said something about how that was the way the author and artist decided to make them. "Well," I said, "When I grow up, I'm going to change that!"
Flash forward: after graduating with a degree in Mass Communication from UC Berkeley, and still not knowing what I wanted to be "when I grew up," I decided to move temporarily to Taiwan (where my parents are from originally) to study Mandarin Chinese and teach English. Really, I was stalling for time while doing something productive. After about a year, I started thinking about what I would do when I returned to the U.S. Some of my friends were thinking about going into consulting (that was big back then!) or graduate school, but neither option appealed to me. Then one of my friends said to me, “Well, you’re always reading books. Have you ever considered book publishing?” There was (is) very little book publishing on the West Coast, and so I hadn't really seen it as a viable career option. But when he suggested it, something clicked. I had always loved books and reading, so I decided to look into it.
When I got back to CA, I did a ton of online research. Back then, the internet was just starting to develop, and there wasn’t too much out there, but I did find an extremely helpful website called The Purple Crayon (www.underdown.org), run by children’s book editor Harold Underdown. I also found and bought a book called Making it in Book Publishing by Leonard Mogel (I still have it!):
Since I had absolutely no idea what this industry was about, this book became my bible, and I started outlining my plan. The book said that New York was really the place to be, although there were still a few publishers in Boston as well. The book also mentioned that bookstore and library experience was a plus, as well as publishing internships. So at the time, since I knew nobody in New York City, but a few people in Boston, I decided to first try Boston. When my parents heard of my plan, they told me that my childhood friend, Grace Lin, was living in Boston, so we got back in touch and decided to be roommates when her lease was up in eight months. I also found out that Grace, who had gone to the Rhode Island School of Design, had just gotten her first book contract with Charlesbridge Publishing for writing and illustrating a picture book, The Ugly Vegetables! And her editor there turned out to be none other than Harold Underdown, who had created The Purple Crayon website.
Since I had some time before moving out to Boston, and because I didn't want to live at home with my parents, I decided to move to Oakland, CA where a college friend had an extra room in his apartment for dirt cheap. It was a tiny room in a dingy basement apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood, but it was perfect for what I needed. I got a job as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble, and also took two publishing courses with UC Berkeley Extension--Introduction to Book Publishing and a copyediting course.
While working at B&N, I found myself constantly gravitating towards the children's section, so eventually my manager started putting me there as a children's bookseller. That was when I realized that children’s books were my passion. After I moved to Boston, I transferred to the B&N in downtown Boston where I was also placed as a children's specialist. I then did two unpaid internships, one as an editorial intern at Charlesbridge (Grace referred me to her editor), another as an editorial intern at the children's review journal The Horn Book (I had been referred by a fellow bookseller at B&N). I worked full-time at B&N while doing both internships, and worked seven days a week for a 3-4 month period. Grueling, but worth it. When both of my internships were finished, my supervisor at The Horn Book told me about an editorial assistant position open at Little, Brown, and I applied and got the job. It took about two years to get a job in publishing after returning from Taiwan, and I ended up accruing some major credit card debt to stay afloat, but I have no regrets. I love my job.
I’ve been at Little, Brown ever since, working my way up the editorial ladder, and being relocated to New York along the way. And it took a while, but I finally dug out of debt three years ago. Oh, and remember my roommate from Boston, Grace Lin? Well, she wrote a Middle Grade novel, The Year of the Dog, which I acquired and edited, and is exactly the kind of book I wished existed when I was a kid. Her third novel, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, was awarded the Newbery Honor medal in 2010. What a strange and wondrous journey it is! I hope the little girl that I was would be proud of what I've accomplished so far.