Industry Q&A with editor Liz Szabla
Interview by Mark von Bargen
Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.
Mixed Me! by Taye Diggs, illustrated by Shane W. Evans is coming out this fall. It’s the story of a mixed-race boy— a subject both Taye and Shane know well. I like Mixed Me! as a companion to Taye and Shane’s first book together, Chocolate Me! (which we just published in paperback on the Square Fish list), but the two books are meant to stand alone.
Coming in November is the long-awaited conclusion to Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, Winter, which features the mixed-race Lunar princess. Winter’s parents’ relationship is explored in Fairest, which we published earlier this year.
I’m happy to say that we have several books featuring diverse characters due out in 2016, including Gifted by H.A. Swain, a futuristic YA novel about talent and commerce that features several characters of color; and Last Seen Leaving, a YA debut by Caleb Roehrig that is a thriller with LGBT themes. I’m comparing it to Gone Girl and Thirteen Reasons Why.
What is one factor holding you back from publishing more diverse titles?
I don’t feel “held back” at all. The same criteria apply to all of the books we publish: We’re looking for great stories, terrific voices (both new and established), and books that are broadly commercial. Many of the submissions I receive that are touted as diverse are too message-driven, didactic, or inauthentic— qualities I also see in a lot of “issue” books that come across my desk. I try to read widely online, in print, and off the beaten path to find new talent, and sometimes writers’ conferences help too.
Who would you consider to be a diversity pioneer in children’s and/or young adult literature?
I had the honor of working with Walter Dean Myers on several projects. His books were game changers, needless to say, and though he could certainly be called a “diversity pioneer” in our industry, he was also an all-around literary powerhouse who brought a sharp, brilliant point of view to every one of his books, fiction and nonfiction alike. I admire that about his work – it’s easier said than done, and I believe he inspired many authors to discard filters and write from the heart.
When I was with Lee and Low Books, I worked on debuts by artists Javaka Steptoe and R. Gregory Christie – two wonderful talents whose books continue to prove they are visionaries. I also worked with Pat Mora around the time she created El día de los niños/El día de los libros. Her poetry for children and adults is exquisite, and her arts activism is definitely pioneering.
Tell us about your editing process. When you edit cross-culturally, how do you ensure that the book authentically portrays a culture with which you might not be as familiar?
I ask a lot of questions. I listen. I’d rather ask honest questions than assume I understand something that I’m not familiar with. I don’t want to push my sensibility on any author or any character. It’s an intuitive, creative process that is difficult to explain. And it’s different for every book – one size does not fit all. This is true for every book I work on.
If you could receive a manuscript about one culture or subculture that you don’t normally see, what would it be?
I’d love to find a contemporary story featuring Asian American characters. A few years ago we published Lewis Buzbee’s Bridge Of Time, a time-travel middle-grade novel that takes place in contemporary San Francisco, and in the San Francisco of Mark Twain’s time. The two main characters are good friends, and one is Asian American. It’s a great book,but I’d like to see more.
Liz Szabla is editor-in-chief of Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. She started her career as a bookseller in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has been at F&F since 2006.