Fast Five with Editor Emma Ledbetter
Thank you for serving on the faculty for the upcoming RMC SCBWI fall conference, and for agreeing to this interview. I want to let our participants feel like they know you even before your plane lands at Denver International Airport, so again, thank you for taking the time to answer the following questions:
Here’s the bio info I hijacked off of Atheneum’s website:
ICE BREAKER: You attended Yale, wow! And you have impressive internships under your belt, too,What About Moose by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Rebecca J. Gomez Illustrated by Keika Yamaguchi). Now that I’m in awe of you, please tell me something to make me feel like your BFF. Something only the insiders in your life know:
Thanks Kim, you’re very kind! I love ice cream and frozen yogurt, and my preferences tend toward those of a small child: eg. chocolate with sour patch kids (gross, I know), and strawberry with rainbow sprinkles.
Nice, sounds like my kind of breakfast (we are talking breakfast foods, right?).
1. In your 2014 interview with the MD/SE region of the SCBWI, you said you have a particular love for “picture books of all stripes”. That’s awesome news for our picture book authors. I’d love to hear more. Please provide depth about what captivates you.
Also, does “all stripes” include fiction and nonfiction? Rhyming? Concept books?
I really do love it all when it comes to picture books: stripes, solids, and polka dots. A manuscript or dummy doesn’t have to fall into a particular category to captivate me; I’m looking for things like stellar writing and originality. I want that heart-melty feeling you get when you read something totally fresh and clever, beautifully written and/or illustrated; these qualities can come from all sorts of places. Here are three differently striped examples from my list:
1. What About Moose, which you mention above, is a picture book in rhyme. I bought it because I love the character of Moose, I love the non-didactic, witty message about teamwork, and I’m captivated by the verse, which is lively and fun, uses unexpected rhymes, and reads completely naturally. I’m very sensitive to clunky meter—which never does a story any favors—but Corey and Rebecca’s flows perfectly.
2. A really special book I have coming out this spring is called Ida, Always, written by Caron Levisand illustrated by Charles Santoso. It’s a fictional story about two polar bears from the Central Park Zoo: Gus learns about grief when his friend Ida becomes very sick and dies. It’s quite a tough subject, but the writing is absolutely stunning (as are the illustrations!). This book captivates me because its story is really needed, and importantly, because Caron’s approach is just right—gentle and appropriate and honest.
3. In the nonfiction realm, I recently bought a picture book biography about illustrator and Disney concept artist Mary Blair: Pocket Full of Colors by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, to be illustrated by Brigette Barrager. The manuscript captivated me because a) Mary Blair is a little-known figure who led a fascinating life, and b) Amy and Jacqueline use a clever framework to tell her story—it’s all about color and imagination, and being a girl in a boy’s world, and it’s written with a creative young audience in mind; at no point does it feel like a dull info-dump. (It didn’t hurt that I studied Mary Blair in college and am actually quite obsessed with her, but Amy and Jacqueline didn’t know that when they submitted their project to me!)
(Please excuse this brief pause in the interview as I run to Boulder Bookstore to purchase a copy of What About Moose right now!)
2. To Note or not to Note, This is the Question. I often hear a lot of conflicting chatter centered on making illustration notes. I understand the writer should not dictate to the illustrator about what a character looks like or how to lay out a scene, but sometimes jokes in the writer’s mind are held not in the text but in the illustration (i.e. the text may say, “Mommy loves it when I help” but the illustrations must show the exact opposite in order for the joke to work). How do you feel about the use of illustration notes (art notes) and how do you suggest a writer handle making these notes?
Yes, this is a tough question. If you see the illustrations as portraying the opposite of what the text says, yep, that’s important, not only to the illustrator when s/he comes on board, but also to the heart of your story, and to my understanding of it as I consider your manuscript. So if you write “Mommy loves it when I help,” but you don’t want that to be interpreted literally, you should absolutely include something like: “Art note: Bob is actually doing the exact opposite of helping.” What you should NOT write is “Art note: while Mommy is mixing cake batter in the background, Bob is crawling on the counter, with one hand in the sprinkles, and the other hand smearing pink icing all over the wall.” The first gives us crucial information about the story’s intention and the nature of Bob as a character; the second is encroaching on the illustrator’s freedom to interpret your text.
If you do have that specific of a vision, and there’s a good (GOOD) reason behind it—say, it’s important to the plot that Mommy and Bob make a cake, or even that its icing has to be pink—go ahead and write that. Just think carefully about your reasoning behind each note, and don’t go overboard. Since I’m being totally honest here, if I don’t see certain art notes as strictly necessary, sometimes I just delete them before sending a manuscript to an illustrator to consider. Most artists won’t want to take on a project that doesn’t leave them room to breathe and be creative. Picture books are the ultimate team effort!
3. Please tell me about the list you’re currently building—what you’ve recently acquired, for what publication year, and how you plan to shape that list (pb, er, mg, ya/fiction or nonfiction), including how many books you acquire per year.
See #1 for some examples of what I have coming up. I have a few awesome books trickling out in 2016 (starting with Ida, Always), and my list kicks into gear in 2017, where I currently have 17 books scheduled to publish—mostly picture books, a couple chapter books and a couple middle grades. I’m aiming to have about 10-15 books publish a year (whoops, sorry 2017!) and continue to be most interested in acquiring middle grade novels and picture books.
4. How much importance do you place on authors needing a social media platform, and if you consider a platform extremely important, which forms of social media do you recommend?
Also, I’m scratching my head over your Twitter handle @brdnjamforemma in longspeak, is that “Board and jam for Emma,” or “Bird ‘n jam for Emma” or am I not even close?
I don’t see it as a do-or-die scenario—you should do what you’re comfortable with and natural at—but being an active and creative self-promoter is a definite plus once your book is on the path to publication, because it can really help get the word out.
And I’m glad you asked that! It’s “Bread and Jam for Emma,” a play on Bread and Jam for Frances, which is one of my all-time favorite picture books. #picturebooknerd!
(Ugh! I can't believe I didn't figure that out. I LOVED that book when I was little. I still have my tattered copy!)
5. I recently attended the SCBWI International conference in California where Wendy Loggia peppered a panel of editors with a series of questions. I’m asking you and all members of our RMC faculty to pretend you’re on that California panel, too—picture Los Angeles, the sun warms your face, and you’re about to dash out to the pool bar and order something exotic, but first you must dazzle the audience with answers to the following questions:
a. What hooks you in a manuscript?
Creativity and originality; something I’ve never seen before. Manuscripts that are surprising, exciting, touching, hilarious, charming, sly, weird. (Maybe not all those things at once, but kudos to you if you pull that off).
b. What turns you off when reading a manuscript?
I’ll give a picture book-specific answer: manuscripts that feel formulaic; manuscripts that make me suspect the author hasn’t actually read very many picture books (I can tell); manuscripts that haven’t given any thought to the visual opportunities (eg. an entire story that takes place in one room between two characters will not usually lend itself to good page turns and variety in the illustrations).
I’m also pretty sick of picture book manuscripts that are written as lists, eg. “Eight Easy Ways to Annoy Your Little Brother!” Books of this nature can be very clever, certainly—but they often seem to be formatted this way as an excuse to avoid getting into the good stuff, like character and plot, and therefore they have become a personal pet peeve.
c. What’s on your #MSWL (for those of you on Twitter, #MSWL is where agents and editors post their Manuscript Wish List)?
I’m not so into the #MSWL. On mine are books I don’t even think to want, and then desperately want when they appear in my inbox. These include a picture book about firefighting ducks; a practically-wordless book about a grandmother who uses elaborate methods to deliver a box of cookies to her grandson; a lyrical and thoughtful picture book about all the different parts of a house and where each came from, once; and one about honeybees written in gorgeous, buzzy verse. (I already have these, though; they’ll all be out in 2017).
Can I please have a strawberry daiquiri?
You deserve one (with rainbow sprinkles). Thank you so much for your time!