For the latest in our series on the new publishing reality under COVID-19 and how our alumni are adapting and adopting a new mindset, we reached out to a children’s book editor. Read on to hear how she got where she is today, and how today is changing.
April 30, 2020
WFH: View From an NYU SPS Publishing Grad, Part Two
Alexandra Hightower, Associate Editor, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, NYU SPS MS in Publishing, Class of 2017
You always loved children’s books as a student in the program! How did you get to your current position?
I tried on different hats—I interned in marketing and publicity at a small press for art and illustrated books, and at Writers House where I learned valuable lessons about agenting; I worked part-time for the book reviewer Public Books and engaged in fact checking and light copyediting; and I eventually joined Delacorte Press at Penguin Random House as an Editorial Assistant (and eventual Assistant Editor). This diversity of experiences helped me narrow my interest in the wide world of book publishing, and I learned some lessons on professionalism along the way.
Through these experiences, I’ve learned to balance thoughtfulness and an open mind with clarity and efficiency. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to edit books with the goal of meeting kids where they are. Regardless of genre or age category, successful books need to speak to readers and not down to them. In order to grow as an editor and reach my current position, I’ve made speaking directly to kids the focus in all of my acquisitions.
What are your special interests in the world of children’s literature… and do any of them relate to your background in neuroscience?
I have a wide range of interests—I’ve always loved realistic stories that explore rich intergenerational relationships and diverse family structures, as well as dark, genre-bending books that break the mold. However, I definitely think that my undergraduate degree in neuroscience (unusual, I know!) is responsible for my burgeoning interest in nonfiction. I think there’s a great deal of potential to bring scientific and health understanding to kids, even to picture book readers. I’d love to find a project that delved into these concepts (fiction or nonfiction, in fact).
In addition, I developed a strong level of academic discipline while studying neuroscience in undergrad. There’s an incredible amount of neural circuits within the human body to memorize and understand. So, that might have contributed to my ability to speed read and retain details!
We see that you just bought a new book, Adam Borba’s The Midnight Brigade, so clearly business is moving forward. What’s the same, and what’s different, for an editor as we all work remotely?
Publishing is definitely proceeding, but each publishing house is navigating this unprecedented landscape differently. At Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, because all of our meetings are now remote, our managing editorial, production, and design teams impressively created an electronic workflow for our division. But here’s what’s stayed the same—as editors, we’re still reading furiously and acquiring great authors. While life will look different in the future, the world (especially kids) will always need stories.
What are the hot categories now in children’s publishing as kids are home from school and parents are sometimes home schooling?
We’ve noticed an upswing in books that discuss emotions and mental health—which is great! Kids and teens have always needed books that help them understand their feelings, and with the uncertain situation we’re all living in, those titles are gaining ground.
E-books are clearly gaining readership as physical books are harder to get. How does this affect the children’s market?
We’ve noticed great opportunities for e-books and series. Binge-reading has reached a new level, especially on devices, so publishers are making sure that these titles are available (and sometimes packaged together for ease). And, physical books are still feeling the love too! Lots of independent booksellers are pivoting and coming up with creative ways to entice readers—whether that’s shipping mystery book boxes, curbside pickups, or virtual events. Support the indies!
Thinking back to your time as a publishing student, was there a course or moment that resonated with you and helped shape your career pathway?
I’d say that Justin Chanda’s Children’s Publishing course greatly impacted my career pathway. I was interested in children’s publishing from the beginning of my time at NYU, but his commitment to walking students through the kid lit world by age category convinced me that this was the publishing sector I should join.
We would love to hear your suggestions for a few great children’s books that might resonate now, today, for different age groups.
It’s hard to pick a few! For YA, I encourage everyone to read With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo. The writing is so warm and vivid, and I love how Acevedo invites readers into teenage motherhood and all of its complexities. For middle grade, I recommend Strange Birds by Celia C. Pérez for a story of friendship with an interesting activism thread. And my picture book pick is The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff—it’s a great read aloud to discuss how we’re all connected, even in the face of grief or anxiety.
To learn more about the NYU SPS MS in Publishing: Digital & Print Media program visit our homepage here. Applications for Fall 2020 enrollment are due July 1, 2020.