Interview with Kate O’Sullivan, Executive Editor at Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Houghton Mifflin introduced its list of books for young readers in 1937. In December of 2007 the company acquired Harcourt Education, making the combined company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade and Reference Publishing Group the largest K-12 publisher in the world. An imprint of the company’s Children’s Book Group, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children currently publishes approximately 75-100 books a year. Ranging from picture book to young adult titles and everything in-between, its line-up of contemporary authors and illustrators includes Lois Lowry, Sy Montgomery, Claire A. Nivola, Allen Say, and more.

Kate O’Sullivan, Executive Editor at Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, answered our questions about James Rumford’s Rain School, one of the books selected for inclusion in the 2011 Spirit of PaperTigers Book Set, and about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the children’s publishing industry in general.

Interview by Aline Pereira, former Managing Editor of PaperTigers and currently an independent writer, editor and editorial consultant specializing in multicultural children’s books.

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Please tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor.

A college course in mythology had me looking at ancillary interpretations of old texts; I came across illustrated versions of The Odyssey and Argonautica and was hooked by the merging of word and picture to relay narrative. I figured children’s books was where it’s at—not being a writer or artist myself, editor seemed like a good fit.

The publishing industry being as competitive as it is, I worked my first couple of years in college textbook publishing at St. Martin’s Press before getting through the door to children’s trade. That was thirteen years ago and I’ve never looked back!

What makes you passionate about the projects you acquire?

If I laugh, cry, or go goosebumpy, I’m sold. I’m always looking for convincing, authentic stories.

Rain School draws on the author’s experience of teaching in Chad, Africa to portray a village’s commitment to educating its children, against all odds. What first attracted you to Rain School when you first read it? Was the story already illustrated then?

Rain School is such a simple, spare story—but it packs an emotive punch. I love how it shows us that with hard work and determination, the rewards of an education can last a lifetime. And that it does this without ever feeling preachy or forced is no small feat. As with all of Jim’s projects, this one first arrived as a beautiful dummy with exuberant sketches.

Houghton Mifflin has published several of Rumford’s books.  How long have you been working with James, and how is your relationship like?

I’ve worked with Jim since his longtime editor, Amy Flynn, left Houghton in 2003. Since then we’ve worked together on Dog-of-the-Sea-Waves, Sequoyah, Beowulf, Chee-lin, and Rain School. Jim is one-of-a-kind and so are his books; he effortlessly changes his approach and art technique from project-to-project, which keeps things exciting and surprising. There isn’t anything Jim can’t do (or language he can’t speak)! He continuously outdoes himself with each new book and it’s very fun to be in his creative orbit.

Can you tell me a little bit about the actual process of bringing Rain School to life?

This manuscript was ship-shape from the beginning. The real challenge with this project was getting the color reproduction just right in proof. Luckily, the designer, Carol Goldenberg, and our production team are crackerjacks at what they do, so we knew we’d get there.

Is the editorial process of working with an author/illustrator (like Rumford) any different than the process of working with individuals who are solely writers, or solely artists?

Working with authors/illustrators can be a bit more organic and streamlined, as all the pieces are coming from the same source and it’s great to keep the creative flow between editor and creator clear and simple. But each dynamic yields its own advantages, such as the surprises that an illustrator can bring to a text written by someone else.

Can you tell us about some of the accolades Rain School has received since its publication, in October 2010?

Rain School was a Junior Library Guild Selection, garnered a starred review in Booklist, and was included in the Smithsonian Notable Books for Children 2010 list.

How long can the average picture book be expected to stay in print these days?

It’s hard to say. Houghton is known for creating picture books that appeal across generations, so while there are increased expenses now associated with warehousing slow-selling books, it’s always our intention when signing a book that it has a long, vigorous life.

Did you have a favorite book as a child?

I have clear memories of poring over Martha Sanders and Philippe Fix’s Alexander and the Magic Mouse. The artwork was luminous and the story made me want to befriend the misunderstood gator at its center. I also remember staying up late (a lot) with Black Beauty and Mrs.Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. But my hands-down favorite wasn’t discovered until high school: The Once and Future King by T.H. White.

What really excites you, or what do you think there is not enough of on the shelves at the moment?

I’ve always loved illustrated middle grade fiction. As for what I would like to see more of, I’d say literary, non-dystopian, non-supernatural YA fare.

What’s your take on the shake-up the publishing industry has been going through? Are your titles being converted to or co-published as e-books?

There’s no question that e-books are transforming the industry, not least because they’re changing our ideas about books as physical objects—and so presenting us with questions of access vs. ownership. We have a growing team at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt working on converting our books to e-formats—and tackling the unique challenges that children’s books represent in all their full-color, double-page, artful type glory.

In keeping with its position as a leading education company with a truly global network, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has recently launched The Global Education Challenge. Can you tell us about this new venture?

Everyone has an opinion about what’s wrong with the education system. The goal of HMH’s Global Education Challenge, whose submission phase is now complete and which is supported by the HMH Innovation Fund, was to provide a forum for educators, innovators, students, entrepreneurs and families to put forward their best ideas for how to transform education, inside and outside the classroom.

Ideas came from everywhere and are currently being judged by a group of experts. Prizes totaling $250,000 will be distributed among the top three winners, to be announced this month. Winners will also receive a “book allowance” for the school of their choice. You can read more about the challenge here.

I understand HMH is very committed to donating books domestically and internationally. Would you please tell us more about this?

HMH is indeed committed to donating three million books a year to under-served students who lack access to quality educational materials. With the assistance of partners like First Book, the Sabre Foundation and World Vision, it coordinates large-scale book donations, both domestically and internationally. It also gives to a wide range of organizations in the communities where it operates.

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Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, Kate. PaperTigers is very grateful to Houghton Mifflin for its generous discount for Rain School in support of the Spirit of PaperTigers project. Congratulations on your great work, and we wish you continued success!

To find our more about Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, visit the website or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.


3 Responses to “Interview with Kate O’Sullivan, Executive Editor at Houghton Mifflin Books for Children”

  1. J.M. Says:

    Best, most caring editor ever!