Mentor Corner: Phoebe Yeh
Vice President / Publisher, Crown BFYR, Random House Children’s Books
1. What was your first job in publishing?
I was an English major who had been out of college for a year teaching ESL in Taipei City, and really wanted to get a job in children’s publishing. It had to be children’s publishing, thanks to a children’s literature course I had previously taken with the great Jane Yolen! I accepted an editorial assistant position with SeeSaw Book Club at Scholastic, and had many of the same job responsibilities as editorial assistants do today. However, I also had to read every single picture book that SeeSaw offered, which was an invaluable experience as I was developing my own taste and editorial skills.
2. What was your career path like getting to your current role?
I held pretty much every editorial assistant position at Scholastic, then ended up an editor at SeeSaw and was allowed to acquire early on. This is how I came to edit The Seven Chinese Brothers, another picture book retelling of the Chinese folktale but with far more inclusive, empowering illustrations and authentic plot elements than its 1938 predecessor, The Five Chinese Brothers. At the time I was only working on picture books, but did reader’s reports for Brenda Bowen, who was an editor working on middle grade and young adult books. Later, I had the opportunity to work on trade books at Scholastic and was one of two people responsible for editing the Magic School Bus series. (If you’ve ever read the books or watched the show, there’s a character named Phoebe, who was named after me!) Eventually, I got to the senior editor level and knew I would need to leave in order to learn new things, which is how I ended up at HarperCollins managing a larger team.
At HarperCollins, I was able to work on lots of different, powerful projects with various nonfiction and debut writers. The first young adult novel I edited was Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and after that I was working on a book a year with him. I also edited the illustrated middle grade series The School for Good and Evil, and since then middle grade (especially illustrated middle grade) has held a special place in my heart.
Throughout this time, I kept in touch with Barbara Marcus, who eventually approached me with the opportunity to head a Random House Children’s book imprint. She also approached Emily Easton, as at the time I was working predominantly with middle grade, whereas Emily’s list was broader. Before starting at Crown I made it clear to Barbara that working with diverse authors and highlighting diverse voices in children’s books was one of my main priorities, of which she was supportive. Since then, I’ve gotten to partner with We Need Diverse Books, the Smithsonian, Just Us Books, and more.
3. What advice would you give to those who are either just starting out or are in their first few years in publishing?
Keep reading! It may not be immediately clear how the books you’re reading outside the job will impact your career, but it’s important in tailoring your own literary tastes and knowing the market. Anyone, especially anyone new to kidlit, can have a great idea—but no groundbreaking idea happens in a vacuum. It takes time and work.
4. What advice would you give to BIPOC who are new to publishing?
You probably know this all too well by now, but it won’t always be easy or comfortable, and it can often be frustrating—especially when you’re the only POC in the room. But you don’t have to be alone—finding a mentor or network of people of color in publishing is more important than ever and so much easier to do now with social media.