Monday, July 12, 2010

SCBWI TEAM BLOG Pre-conference Interview: Jennifer Rees

I'm particularly excited about interviewing Scholastic Press editor and Annual Summer Conference speaker Jennifer Rees because she got her start in children’s books working as a children’s bookseller at my favorite hometown bookstore, Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

At Scholastic, she acquires and edits fiction and nonfiction picture books, middle grade fiction, and YA novels. Some of the recent titles she worked on  include SWIM! SWIM! by Lerch; FINALLY by Wendy Mass; WISH I MIGHT by Coleen Murtagh Paratore; AFTER EVER AFTER by Jordan Sonnenblick; EVERLASTING by Angie Frazier; SELLOUT by Ebony Wilkins; LIFE, AFTER by Sarah Darer Littman; FEVER CRUMB by Philip Reeve; and MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins. (You might have heard a little about that last one.)

At the Annual Summer Conference Jennifer will offer two sessions--YOUR VOICE IS YOUR VOICE: KEEPING IT REAL and WHAT'S HOT, WHAT'S NOT.

At the 2009 NYC SCBWI Annual Winter Conference you said that you're interested in risky writing. What do you mean by that?

I hear writers say a lot, "I have an idea for a story, but I don't think I could really do it justice" and I think what they mean is that they are afraid of charting new waters or exploring territory they are unsure of, so they think it's better to follow trends (which is why I have a zillion paranormal submissions right now) or some safe formula, rather than striking out on their own. I think they are afraid of their own ideas.

But I'm not looking to publish stories that have been written about in the same way a zillion times over; I'm looking for stories that delve into new terrain (emotional, psychological, genre, format, narratively, etc). So, by "risky," I guess I'm really talking about writing that is personally risky for a writer and which dares not to follow a trend. For one writer that might be taking on a subject that requires a lot of research, for another it might simply be writing about what they know (i.e., what they believe is boring, when of course it's probably fascinating to others).

A great story doesn't have to be a blockbuster or explosive or involve some new creature or new world (though those things certainly have potential). I'm reading THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE right now and I'm fascinated by it. The writing is beautiful, the characters are amazing, and while the story is about everyday things in the life of one girl, the author [Jacqueline Kelly] makes it so very compelling and delectable (and funny!). If that manuscript had crossed my desk, I would have been jumping up and down with excitement!

What wows you in a manuscript? 

That is a very hard question to answer! I think it’s difficult to predict what will wow me. A story is such an enormous fusion of multiple elements. Voice is up there on my list--if I really connect with a writer's voice I will go anywhere they take me. An interesting plot, too. But mostly I'm wowed by stories I can't stop thinking about and ones that I find myself wanting to tell everyone about. I can't tell you the number of manuscripts I read that are fairly decent, but which I've already forgotten about by the very next day. Of course, stories are subjective and what might wow me might bore someone else! That's the tricky part, I guess. But a great story, a truly great story, stays with me forever. That's what I want to publish.

You accept agented material only, correct? 

Yes, and from SCBWI members, though they may get a form rejection letter, and I'm sorry about that, I am, but I'm afraid that otherwise they'd never hear from me ever, ever again. It's a nice letter, I promise.
Before you became an editor at Scholastic Press you worked as a bookseller. Does that experience affect your editorial work? 

Yes! After two years of hand-selling books to readers at the wonderful Joseph-Beth Booksellers, I still rely on that experience. From writing flap copy, to working with the designer to come up with the perfect book jacket, to what I acquire, to sales presentations, my experience as a bookseller informs the way I think about and respond to books, and the way I present those books to our own sales teams. I want to acquire and edit books I love, but I also want them to sell. That's the goal. Being on the floor of a bookstore day in and day out, you see what kids pick up and what people come in asking for. And you get to look at all the books from all the publishers. I visit bookstores a lot now. Once in a while (okay, all the time), I will hand-sell my books to unsuspecting customers. They walk away happy! I miss those days!

Why do you participate in SCBWI events? What do you get out of them? 

I truly enjoy speaking to writers! It's not always easy for me to sit behind a desk. l like hearing the buzz and seeing what people are reading and talking about. It's why I miss my bookselling days, I guess. I also love to hear about what people are working on, and I'm always inspired by everyone's commitment and enthusiasm for what we all do every day. I also really, really hope that I will run into a writer who will send me something terrific that I will publish to great acclaim!

One of your conference sessions is called WHAT'S HOT, WHAT'S NOT Can you give us a teaser?

Very sneaky of you. Well, I can't make any promises, but you're not going to want to miss it, let me tell you!

Any words of wisdom/advice you can offer to those working toward publication? 

Do your research on publishers, agents, and editors, and of course, read, read, read!


Cuppa Jolie said...

Great interview, Alice and Jennifer.

Foxglove said...

Thank you for the very helpful information, specially about taking a personal risk in writing. A wonderful interview