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Quick Questions: An Interview with Farrar, Straus, Giroux BFYR Editorial Director Joy Peskin

joy peskin photo march 2015As editorial director of Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, Joy Peskin manages a department of six editors and edits a range of books for children and teenagers. Books she has edited for FSG BYR include Brandon Stanton’s Little Humans, a New York Times Bestseller; Kristin Elizabeth Clark’s Freakboy, which garnered three starred reviews; Leila Sales’s This Song Will Save Your Life, which received two starred reviews; and Rachel Bright’s Love Monster, a #1 Publishers Weekly Bestseller. Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead, which Joy edited, will be published in twenty-two languages around the world, and has been optioned for film by the production team responsible for The Fault in Our Stars.

Before joining Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers in February, 2012, Joy was the associate publisher of Viking Children’s Books and an editor at Scholastic. Her favorite type of books, both to read and to edit, are contemporary, literary, realistic stories about real people facing real challenges. Authors with whom she has worked include Laurie Halse Anderson, Aaron Starmer, and Emily Jenkins.

Joy has also taught writing to aspiring authors, homeless youth, incarcerated women, and teens in a juvenile detention center.

And now, to the questions!

What advice do you have for writers to improve their craft?

As they say, practice makes perfect. The more you do something, the better you get at doing that thing. I was recently at a novel writing retreat at Vermont College, and the wonderful author Kathi Appelt shared advice she had once received: Write for five minutes every day. I loved that advice, because five minutes seems so doable. I also really recommend that writers hone their craft by taking classes and participating in writing programs. I’m still kind of high off of the Vermont College Novel Writing retreat, which was all kinds of wonderful, so I definitely recommend that low-residency MFA program. But folks not in the MFA program there can still attend retreats like the one I just attended.

What’s the best part and worst part of the editorial process for you?

There are lots of best parts. I love finding a new manuscript I feel like I just have to have and rushing into my boss’s office to tell him all about it. And I love that first talk with an author when/if she and I are really connecting over the phone. I also really love digging into a manuscript and giving an author line notes, and writing the editorial letter. I do enjoying writing the editorial letter, because for me, that’s my chance to have a dialogue with the author—to tell her what parts of the story that are really working and what parts I think could be improved upon, and why. And then of course it’s awesome when you get that first finished copy of the book. It’s sort of like magic. Just a few months ago this was a stack of paper, and now it’s this beautiful object. There is exactly one part of the process I don’t like, and that is sharing covers with authors. I want the author to be happy, and I’m so nervous sharing covers that I always do it at the very end of the day, and then I dash from my desk and try not to check my Blackberry until I’m almost at my train. When I hear back right away that the author is pleased, I’m so relieved! And when the author isn’t pleased, well, we work very hard to adjust the cover to make her happy in the end.

What did you read when you were a kid? Does it stand up to the test of time? If it were sent to you now, would you publish it?

I had a few childhood favorites. My mother read me The Velveteen Rabbit many time she and I always cried at the end. I adored that book. I read it to my son when he was a baby and it totally stands the test of time. If it was sent to me now, I hope I would have the intelligence to publish it, even though it’s a bit of an odd format (short illustrated chapter book). Other childhood favorites were Charlotte’s Web, the All-of-a-Kind Family books, and A Cricket in Times Square (which happens to be an FSG backlist gem). I was also into a Scholastic series called The Girls of Camby Hall and then when I was a little older I was all over Flowers in the Attic. I read it again not so long ago and I’m not going to lie: It’s sort of awful, but I enjoyed every page of it.

Taking the need to make money out of the equation, if you could work at any job in the world, would you stay in publishing? If not, what would you do?

Good question! I love what I do. My only complaint about my job here at FSG is that the days are over too quickly. I always wish I had more time with the books and more time with my colleagues. So I would not pick any other field outside of publishing and within publishing, I would not pick any job other than one I have. If I could split into two people who had two different jobs, though, the other me would be a child psychologist.

What’s currently on your manuscript wish list? What’s definitely not on the list?

I’d be very happy to receive a smart and keenly observed MG or YA ms about a character with an eating disorder. As for what I’m not looking for, I’m usually not one for fantasy or science fiction. If the book has trolls or magical lands or talismans or some such, it’s likely not for me.

Thanks for participating, Joy!

Thank you, Linda! This was a lot of fun.


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Inside Scoop: Dish From a Literary Agent Intern… 4 Things I Learned about Picture Books From Visiting a Bookstore


Today I’m going to talk about an experience I had involving a visit to the “mothership” (that’s what a friend and I lovingly call bookstores). I was learning how to write an editorial letter for a picture book and I discovered *gasp* I had no clue what I was talking about! I realized that my conception of what picture books are was stuck in 1995; lyrical, wordy and beautifully illustrated. Although I do believe classics like The Hungry Caterpillar, The Giving Tree, or Love You Forever will continue to have a place in the market, I had to discover what’s happening in picture books today. Here is what I found:

  1. Meta is betta – well not so much that it’s better, but a lot of meta picture books are on the bookstore shelves today. There are tons of books about books, books that involve the readerPress Here in an engaging journey (think There is a Monster at the End of this Book), books that are introspective and just fun for fun’s sake. I was surrounded by books like Press Here that brought me through the book interactively by pushing colored illustrations, which actually made it feel like I was creating the book as I went along.
  2. Quirky is where it’s at – I discovered books that were offbeat and What Does the Fox Sayoutside the box, like What Does the Fox Say. You know, that song by the Norwegian band Ylvis? Yeah, there’s a children’s book about that! I have to say it was great! When I first spotted it, I literally laughed out loud, thinking that it wasn’t going to be anything I would like. But how wrong I was. The Illustrations were so different and entertaining and reading the lyrics was so much fun!
  3. Morals aren’t for everyone – or they shouldn’t be shoved in the reader’s face while reading. Kids (and I think it’s safe to say adults) don’t want to know they are being taught something while reading.  Remember when I said “fun for fun’s sake” like a minute ago? That’s what picture books are about. They might have a lesson, but it isn’t one that is glaring a child in the face saying “look at me, you need to be a good boy/girl!”
  4. Less is more – There are an abundance of picture books out there that don’t even reach 500 words. They are filled with questions, interactive fun, self-searching queries or just nonsense (remember that fun factor I keep bringing up?). The smaller word count and engaging illustrations create a road to discovery that I think gets lost when there are too many words.

When I left the “mothership” I felt I was able to recognize and better understand where the picture book market is at the moment. Now, I’m not saying you should write to a trend. But do you think it would be wise to write an 1,800 word lyrical picture book? Probably not. It probably wouldn’t sell. However, you should allow yourself to be open to what is out there, recognize what is selling, and still remain true to who you are as a writer. If you do, you will do just fine.

Tell me in the comments below one of your favorite picture books on the market today!


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Tricks to Break Through Writer’s Block

Writer's Blocks?Let me start off first by saying I don’t really believe there’s an actual thing that is “writer’s block.” I just put that in the title so people would click the link. Seriously. It’s my belief that there’s always something for a writer to write. You might get stuck at some point in your manuscript, but you can always write something. A list. A character study. Backstory. A description of a place. A blog post about “Tricks to Break Through Writer’s Block.”

Ok, let me be totally honest with you all now: I have a YA story that I desperately want to write and when I sit down at the computer, the blank Word document stares back at me, and NOTHING happens. The story is stuck in my head in bits and pieces, fragments flitting around my days, nudging me, poking me, but NOT GETTING PUT INTO WORDS ON PAPER (or computer).

So, this blog post is actually for ME. And, if you’ve been reading for a long enough time, you’ll know that actually it’s all about me. (I keep telling my husband and kids that it’s ALL about me, but they’re not biting.) So. Here’s my list of 7 tricks to break through writer’s block, even if writer’s block doesn’t exist. I’m writing the list for me. You’re welcome to try some of these tricks, too.

images-11. If you’re stuck for ideas for a story, make a list of stories you’d like to read. Any kind of story. It can look like “a story about a boy from Boise who yearns to swim in the ocean; a story about a girl who’s jealous of her cousin; a story about an alien invasion; a story about a hippo who wants to make pancakes.” Anything. Just make the list. Then pick one of the things on the list and go with it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the “right” one or not. Just start with that one.

2. If you do have a basic idea of the story you want to write, just write down the “what happens.” Again, this is just to give yourself a road map. It doesn’t need to sound good or look good or ever be shown to anybody. Just jot down the basics of your story. Just for fun. Just do it. No pressure.

3. Make a list of any of the characters that you know will be in your story so far. Write their backstory, just for yourself. So, you don’t need to “show not tell” or have it be well written. The plan is not that this will be included in your manuscript. You should spend at least 5 minutes doing this (but 5 hours or 5 days are both ok, too).

images-24. Describe a setting. It might be a room, a vista, a town, whatever. Just describe it in all the detail you can muster; sights, smells, sounds, everything.

blahblahblah5. Write a scene that is all dialogue. It should be at least 2 people talking to each other, but can be more. Pay attention to how each of them speaks and make sure that they sound different from each other.

Family portrait6. Describe the key players of your story. This is different than writing their backstories. This is what they look like, their mannerisms, how they dress, how they speak, wear their hair, what they smell like, their facial expressions, if they have good teeth, a hearing loss, a particular tic or movement they might make, bad skin/good skin, freckles, fat, thin, buxom, well hung, balding, swarthy, eye color, etc… Describe them. Count on the fact that most of this will NOT end up in your manuscript.

maxresdefault7. If you basically know what your story is going to be, write an elevator pitch or query letter for it. I know, I know, pitches and query letters are the hardest things to write. But, if you can get that done now, even before you write your story, it will be like a beacon of light in the muddy muck that writing a novel can be. And it psyches you up for writing the story!

So, that’s a start! Doing some of these things can get you (me) writing about and playing on paper with your story. And now, some inspirational quotes for you!

Our friend Yoda said: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

And our friend Jo March said, “I want to do something splendid…something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.”

And our friend Chandler Bing said, “Hi, I’m Chandler. I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable.”

Ok. That’s it for now. Happy to hear other people’s tricks for breaking through writer’s block in the comments below! (Even though writer’s block doesn’t exist.)


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