Reka Simonsen is a senior editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, where she edits everything from picture books to young adult novels. Titles she has edited include The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle, Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford, The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio by Lloyd Alexander, Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella by Paul Fleischman with illustrations by Julie Paschkis, The Hollow Kingdom by Clare Dunkle, The Truth About Sparrows by Marian Hale, and Also Known as Harper by Ann Haywood Leal. She is from northern California.
After fourteen years at Random House Children's Books, Jim Thomas has worked on everything from easy readers to nonfiction for teens. His passion, however, is middle-grade and YA fiction, and he now specializes in this area as well as serving as the middle-grade/YA editorial director for the Random House imprint. Authors he's worked with include Jeff Stone (The Five Ancestors), Jeanne DuPrau (The Books of Ember), Joaquin Dorman (Playing It Cool) and Rosanne Parry (Heart of a Shepherd).
What was your journey to becoming an editor?
Reka: I’ve always loved children’s books and had continued to read middle grade and YA novels as an adult, even before I started working in publishing. I didn’t want to write or teach, though, so I’d never really thought about turning my passion into a career until I was working at Books of Wonder, a fantastic children’s book store in New York City. At that time you had to know someone in order to get your foot in the door of a publishing house, so when a coworker of mine at the bookstore offered me some of his freelance work at the college textbook division of HarperCollins, I took him up on it. I worked in textbooks and coffee table books before finally making my way to children’s books, but this is where I’ve always wanted to be.
Jim: I first became aware that there were such things as imprints and publishing houses in middle school. I was an avid SF/Fantasy reader and noticed that many of my favorite books had a craggy mountain peak and the word TOR on the bottom spine. Others said Del Rey in eye-catching style. When I was in college, those exquisite Vintage paperbacks with matte covers drove home the significance of the craft of publishing.
After that it was a summer internship at a small publishing house in my hometown, then straight to the big city. That I ended up in children’s books reflects the important role they played in my life in grade and middle school. Even now, as a gently aging publishing professional, I feel a strong connection to the boy I was and remember well what made him thrill to words on a page.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Reka: I don’t think I could narrow it down to just one thing! What about three? I love that moment when I read a fantastic manuscript for the first time and get a chill up my spine. I love the editing process, all of the back and forth with the author until both of us feel that the story is as polished and perfect as it can be. And I love figuring out the right pairing of artist and author to bring a project to full, glorious life.
Jim: Artistic collaboration is incredibly rewarding, so working with writers is a high point. It’s almost as much fun working with our books’ designers. Even as simple a thing as coordinating with the marketing, publicity, and sales staffs is invigorating. There’s a great satisfaction in the strategic thinking of publishing, figuring out how best to bring a story to market so that it is as successful as it possibly can be.
Tell us about your house. What is in the works for you?
Reka: I’m absolutely thrilled about Ann’s debut novel Also Known As Harper, of course! There are several other books coming up that I’m very excited about too. Margarita Engle has a new historical novel in verse about women’s rights pioneer Fredrika Bremer called The Firefly Letters, and her first picture book is The Summer Birds, a biography of scientist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian that has gorgeous illustrations by Julie Paschkis. Both of those are coming out next spring. So is a powerful new YA fantasy from Donna Jo Napoli called The Wager, about a handsome young man who loses everything and makes a deal with the devil. I’m really excited about two incredible debut fantasy novels for next fall, Under the Green Hill by Laura Sullivan, and Necro Burger by Lish McBride. And I’m thrilled to be working with Clare Dunkle again on The House of Dead Maids, a ghost story prelude to Wuthering Heights with a touch of Brontë family history blended in.
Jim: Submissions tend to follow a feast or famine pattern. Months pass when I can’t find anything that I like or think will work, then suddenly one after another after another comes in, each more exciting than the last! Both scenarios offer challenges.
Random House is a terrific place. With both literary and commercial success, and the best marketing and sales departments in the business, it’s an incredible platform from which to launch new writers and build established ones.
What are your editorial sensibilities? When do you say to yourself, “Wow! This is a book I really need to acquire?”
Reka: For me, it’s always about the writing. There are certain types of books that I’m drawn to, of course—fantasy, especially when based in folklore or mythology; lyrical coming of age novels; mystery; smart humor—but some of my favorite books have been ones where the genre or the topic might not necessarily have caught my attention but the writing just blew me away.
Jim: The market factors into my decision-making, of course, but I find I have less patience than I used to for manuscripts that don’t do something different. I look for a voice or a style that jumps off the page, a concept or a plot that keeps me guessing, that’s truly surprising. What all editors hope for, of course, is that manuscript that pleases not only them but also a host of other readers. Aren’t we all just waiting for that magical “click” to happen?
One question is on everyone’s mind - the economy. How do you see the long term effect on publishing, in general, and specifically, your house.
Reka: At Holt, we’re having to be even more careful about what we sign up. As a small literary house we’ve always been selective, but now we have to be absolutely certain that we love each project and feel it has a strong potential audience. We want each book we acquire to be truly something special. I’ve heard arguments both ways, but my feeling about the industry is that all of us should be trying to make books more special to make them worth buying, rather than going the other route and doing more copycats for Twilight or whatever the current blockbuster title is at a particular moment.
Jim: The economic downturn is making everyone nervous. Books in general, and children’s books specifically, tend to weather hard times better than other industries. Still, we’re curtailing costs wherever we can and working all the harder to do our best as efficiently as possible. We’re looking very closely at what we sign up and what we pay out in advances. Strategic thinking is more important than ever. The industry—the whole country—will emerge from this time stronger for it.
If you weren’t an editor, what would you be?
Reka: I’d be doing something with food or animals or textiles. I’d love to have a bake shop of some kind, except I’m not very good at getting up before dawn.
Jim: If I weren’t an editor? I’d be an even more penniless musician.