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Mentor Corner: Jennifer Kelly

Art Director, Penguin Young Readers – Dial Books for Young Readers

What was your first job in publishing?

The summer of 2007, right after I graduated from college, I landed a design summer internship with Harcourt Trade Publishers, Children’s division. At the time, I had no idea Book Designer was even a job! I quickly fell in love with the work and was in total awe of all of the original artwork I saw come in from illustrators. After the summer, they kept me on as part-time design assistant, which became full-time junior designer a few months later. I was so excited!

What was your career path like getting to your current role?

Within a matter of months working as Junior Designer at Harcourt, I found myself in the midst of my first big publishing merger experience — Houghton Mifflin acquired Harcourt, becoming Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the spring of 2008. A tragic part of this was the loss of the vast majority of Harcourt’s design department. Which meant that little ol’ me essentially became the Harcourt design dept. for a short period while the company reshuffled, and as a result, I was given the opportunity to take on a LOT more work and responsibility. It was overwhelming and scary, but an incredible learning experience. I was on the learning fast track, that’s for sure!  In February of 2009, I applied for a Designer position at Dial Books for Young Readers at Penguin with Art Director, Lily Malcom. I was SO lucky to get the job—it very quickly became home, and 15 years later, I’m still here! I’ve grown so much over the years, moving through all of the various roles within Dial’s design team to get to my current role as art director. It’s been such a rewarding journey, and still going!

What advice would you give to those who are either just starting out or are in their first few years in publishing?

Ask a million questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want! Take note of what parts of the job excite and inspire you most, and try to do as much of that as possible. 😊  Also, keep in touch!! Publishing is a small world and really one big family. You never know who will connect you to your next great opportunity.

What are some recent projects that you’re proud of?

I’m genuinely proud of all of the beautiful books we create at Dial  — lately our graphic novels and longer format illustrated chapter books really stand out!  A few recent knockouts are: Mexikid by Pedro Martín, The Night Librarian by Christopher Lincoln, and the 6th book in the Dory Fantasmagory series Can’t Live Without You by Abby Hanlon.

What are you currently inspired by?

I know this is a cheesy answer, but I am a mom to two-year-old twins and they inspire me every day. I think because A) there is little extra bandwidth to be inspired by much else, (amiright, fellow moms?) and B) they are genuinely fascinating little humans!!! They are wide-eyed and curious and taking in the world around them. Watching how and what they respond to in books has really shaped how I approach my work—they are an excellent testing group.

What are your current favorite reads?

Like most of us who work in children’s publishing, most of what I read is meant for young readers! But every once in a while I manage to pick up a book actually written for adults, and I recently read and absolutely loved A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet. Totally captivating—I’m still thinking about it. And since I am currently reading and designing and loving this one, I’ll include a shameless plug here for Jandy Nelson’s new YA novel When the World Tips Over coming out with Dial this Fall. It is spectacular!!

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