Sponsored by the CBC Mid-Level Career Committee, this new series takes a look at the myriad paths to advancement within children’s book publishing. This week we hear from Connie Hsu, Editorial Director of Roaring Brook Press at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

I used to say that it was the Sweet Valley Twins series that made me a reader. But when I look back now, it goes back even earlier, to Mad Magazine—in particular, Spy vs. Spy

I was seven-years-old, and my parents had started to take my older brother and me to the public library every weekend. They would head to the Chinese language section, to get their fill of Chinese-Taiwanese newspapers and videotapes of TV dramas. My brother and I were left in the children’s section, where the shelves included Mad Magazine. I was a remedial reader at that point, and the wordless Spy vs. Spy comics were unintimidating, hilarious, and easy to understand. It made the library feel more welcoming, and after gaining some more confidence in my reading skills, I felt safe to wander to other shelves that held prose books. Those comics became the gateway.

It wasn’t until I had graduated with a Masters in Journalism (Elizabeth Wakefield left a lasting impression on me) and had at stint as a freelance gossip reporter before I learned about publishing as a possible career. The gossip weekly I’d been working at had just folded, and I was filling in as a substitute first grade daycare teacher, where I read to the students every day and rekindled the love for the books of my childhood. When a friend forwarded me a job opportunity to assist Alvina Ling at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, I figured, “Why not?” and applied.

There was an immediate connection when I walked into the offices. I saw a copy of The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin on a display shelf, and as I waited to be called in, I flipped through the book and thought to myself, “I wish I had this growing up.” At the interview, I learned that Alvina was the editor of that book, and that she’d created it with her childhood best friend, when they were both the only Taiwanese American kids in their class in Upstate New York. It reminded me of my own childhood in Alabama. And then, it clicked. My love of reading, old favorites I reread to those first-graders, a book where I could see myself—all those events led me to that very interview. I had to have that job! The position also supported Cindy Eagan, the editor behind bestsellers such as Gossip Girl, The Clique, and The A-List, and lo and behold, my gossip magazine background and pop culture knowledge came in handy. Who knew?

Because I had that stint in journalism, I was a little older than the other junior editors who started around the same time. I would get anxious about moving up, but Alvina would gently remind me of her favorite saying: Follow your compass, not your clock. I’d try to think more about what made me love my job, and not just when I would get my next promotion (although financially, those were some tough years). But I kept saying, “Why not?” to myself, whenever editorial opportunities came my way, hoping it would direct my compass.

When I started, I wanted to edit middle grade. But I was fortunate to work with managers who had experience in all age ranges, from board books to YA. So I learned a little of everything; the first books I edited independently were two board books illustrated by LeUyen Pham. When fellow assistants started to focus on YA during its heyday, my compass pointed me towards picture books and novelty when I saw an opening for it at the imprint. That pivot led to a difficult learning curve; I’d spend hours going over manuscript to unlock a picture book’s potential. Around this time, I was also tapped to help edit a licensed project with Mattel called Ever After High; I couldn’t say no when Shannon Hale signed on to write it. But what a learning curve that was too! I remember feeling intimidated and overwhelmed all the time, like I knew nothing. Which I guess was good, because I had nowhere to go but up.

Things came full circle when I started working at Roaring Brook Press, where wonderful team at First Second said, “Why not?” and gave me a chance to edit select graphic novels, leading me back to the comics that got me reading in the first place. The first graphic novel I edited was Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham.

I still agonize over my picture books, so I guess some things never change. Now, in a leadership role as the editorial director at Roaring Brook Press, the learning curve continues. I want to remember to always say “Why not?”, take risks, and learn from my mistakes. I want to keep following my compass—and I hope that means I still have nowhere to go but up.

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