Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Industry Q&A with editor Phoebe Yeh

Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published. 
The School for Good and Evil
by Soman Chainani

For the purposes of this response, I propose that we define “diversity” in a more expansive way.

I suggest that “diversity” should mean more than issue based books by authors of color about protagonists of color. (While I believe that these books are still needed, the definition of diversity in the 21st century needs to be broader. I encourage all of you to read Christopher Myers’ excellent Horn Book piece for more on this subject.

Please consider the work of the debut novelists Korean American Ellen Oh and Asian Indian Soman Chainani. They are part of a growing number of authors of color who are breaking boundaries with regard to the diversity of book content and genre.

In Prophecy by Ellen Oh, our heroine is a girl soldier/demon slayer. Oh based her research on Genghis Khan and feudal Korea. Readers may pick up on the nods to Asian history and culture, or they can be content with reading an action packed adventure with a strong heroine.

Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers, is about the friendship of an aspiring writer, Darius and a runner, Twig, set against an urban landscape. Myers sets the standard for challenging himself as a writer and for giving voice to young people, their fears and frustrations, but also their hopes and dreams. But do not be fooled. These are not “just urban novels for urban teens.” Pay more careful attention, dear reader. Myers’ message is about universality.

In The School for Good and Evil, Chainani skillfully upturns our notions of the good, bad and ugly. Readers will find the travails of Sophie and Agatha uproariously funny but I also like to think that the novel offers another perspective, a broader perspective about identity that maybe, you may have taken for granted.

All three novels were acquired with the slightly subversive intention of pushing us along just a little bit farther as readers.

What is one factor holding you back from publishing more diverse books OR what’s the biggest challenge for publishing companies who want to feature more diverse titles?

I started in children’s publishing in 1986. What was true then still holds true today. Someone needs to buy the books. We can continue publishing the books if people are buying them. All of us who wish to see more diversity in publishing are collectively responsible. So borrow the books from local libraries or purchase them. Fewer sales, fewer books. It’s that simple.

If you accept my more expansive definition of diversity, the news is happier. A glance at the New York  Times bestseller list from Aug 18 shows a range of books by authors of color, not necessarily writing about protagonists of color.  Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell is an illustrated novel, a popular genre avidly consumed by middle graders.  I suspect that Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper is garnering strong institutional sales. Incidentally, Draper intentionally did not specify the ethnicity of her protagonist. A Long Walk In Winter by Linda Sue Park, is based on a true story. The aforementioned School for Good And Evil by Soman Chainani is a post fairy tale fantasy. It is nothing like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie but both novels are hilarious.  And everyone knows, funny books sell.   To my mind, the success of these novels is an indicator that there is a book for every taste, every sensibility.  And popularity and diversity aren’t mutually exclusive.

Who would you consider to be a diversity pioneer in children’s and/or young adult literature? 

The one and only Walter Dean Myers, our current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Why  is he a pioneering genius?  He has mastered both fiction and non-fiction in all age genres: picture book, middle grade and teen. And all subjects: it could be a war novel (upcoming Invasion), a screenplay (Monster), sports fiction (Kick), opera (Carmen). And all formats: short story, novel, poetry.  He’s a skillful poet with a range that spans poetry for the very young (Brown Angels) and prose poetry that is Whitmanesque in scope (We Are America). Since we aren’t bean counters, we won’t enumerate all his awards here. Suffice to say that he has won every single major award in children’s literature. 

Walter Dean Myers has changed the way we write and publish for young people. And he continues to set the standard for excellence. Because kids deserve it.

His upcoming novel, On a  Clear Day, which will be published on my debut Crown list in 2014, is one more example of how Myers consistently pushes himself as a writer. Set in 2035, Myers meets Orwell as his Bronx heroine teams up with an ex rocker, an ex con , an ex athlete. Then throw corporate greed and  a young adult terrorist into the mix. 

Tell us about your editing process. When you edit cross-culturally, how do you ensure that the book gets a culture with which you might not be as familiar "right"? 

Anyone can write whatever they want but it is not easy to get it right.  My job is to advise the author, to remind him or her about what to watch out for and occasionally this may mean rethinking the ethnicity of a character or a plot development. I should be questioning and double-checking, and making sure  s/he is doing the research alongside. I consult others. And the author must do likewise.

You need to leave no stone unturned. And even then, you don’t always get it right.  It’s about collective responsibility.  But here’s one of the first things I learned on the job.  I am a first generation Chinese American New Yorker with a 60s childhood. I have had the good fortune to work with Laurence Yep, a San Francisco Chinese American with a very different background that includes a parent who was raised in West Virginia and a parent who immigrated via Angel Island. We both come from Chinese heritage but it’s still not the same difference.  Being mindful of the difference is key.

If you could receive a manuscript about one culture or subculture that you don't normally see, what would it be? 

This summer I read Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber. I was embarrassed that somehow, I had missed Ms. Abu-Jaber’s work until now, some ten years after publication. When you consider the children’s book genre, it was a timely reminder that there are far too few books about the Arab American experience.

Photo Credit: 
Michael Lionstar
After seventeen years at Harper Collins Children’s Books, Phoebe Yeh moved to Random House where she is VP/Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers. She is launching her first list in Fall 14 with titles by Lou Anders, Suzy Becker, Jon Meacham and Walter Dean Myers. From editing the Magic School Bus and the Big Nate series, she knows what kids like. And she plans to foster diverse new talent in this vein.


  1. Great interview, Phoebe! Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and expertise with us.

  2. Well done Phoebe! You've always been a steadfast supporter of diversity, and it's appreciated.

    Your comment on the universality of these great books is a key point that is often missed in these discussions. I've never experienced incarceration, growing up on a reservation, or the immigrant labor experience, but MONSTER, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, and DRAGONWINGS, spoke to me as I've made bad choices, grew up poor, and my father and father-in-law did work as the modern equivalent of Windrider. Great writing makes us tall enough to see and understand a little bit more of the world.

  3. I suggest that “diversity” should mean more than issue based books by authors of color about protagonists of color.

    I think that's what it actually means to me already. I don't believe that diversity is merely about issue based books, nor about protagonists of color. To be truly diverse, we have to reflect the world, which is surely more filled with variety than that.

    I'm glad to see more diversity headed toward Random House, and really enjoyed this interview!

  4. I really enjoyed this interview and the definition of diversity.