After an already storied career in publishing at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, Christy Ottaviano is launching a new eponymous imprint with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The breadth of Ottaviano’s interests—and her continued commitment to publishing pertinent, imaginative, and previously untold stories across age-ranges, formats, and genres—are apparent in the launch list of five titles. They include a YA novel about a first-generation college experience; a novel-in-verse based on the life of a sculptor; a picture book biography about a hidden historical figure; an illustrated book exploring feelings and friendship; and a magical novel for young readers that examines the impact of loss. While Ottaviano plans to highlight the work of new and emerging authors and artists, she also carries over her longstanding relationships with beloved illustrators and writers.
PW sat down with Ottaviano to talk about her new imprint, the type of books she wants to publish, and what she’s planning for the year to come.
We’re living through profound and tumultuous times. How has the pandemic, the current political climate, and a reckoning over racial inequity impacted your publishing lists?
Our turbulent socio-political climate continues to push forward and inspire every step of our publishing program; as an editor and publisher, I am drawn to books about lesser-known subjects and hidden figures and by a diverse cross-section of creators. In recent years, I’ve published biographies on Katherine Johnson, Maya Lin, Carlos Santana, and now Augusta Savage and Mary Katharine Goddard. I was inspired to publish I is for Immigrants by Selina Alko after the political climate surrounding the 2016 election. An Equal Shot: How the Law Title IX Changed America by Helaine Becker, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, marked the first book I published where a law was the subject; it shines a light on the importance of this legislation in bringing forth equality among genders.
Within fiction, we love to spotlight personal stories through rich narrative formats—for example: Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard by Echo Brown and It Rained Warm Bread: Moishe Moskowitz’s Story of Surviving the Holocaust by Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet, with poems by Hope Anita Smith and illustrations by Lea Lyons. Dinah Johnson’s debut text for the picture book Quinnie Blue, illustrated by James Ransome, was the very first book I acquired while at Macmillan, and it is deeply satisfying that Dinah and I continue to work together more than 20 years later as we are publishing H Is for Harlem on our Summer 2022 list, a picture book that explores the rich history of this important New York City neighborhood, illustrated by Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award-winner April Harrison.
Of course, there is always more work to do, and many more ways we aim to equitably represent and reach the most inclusive array of young readers. For example, I am working to connect with new talent beyond the traditional publishing pipelines, and we’re eager to launch several indigenous talents on our 2023 lists, including Deidre Havrelock and Edward Kay, with Indigenuity: A Celebration of North American Indigenous Knowledge, which details the countless ways Native inventions have laid the foundation for, and expanded, scientific and technological progress.
I look forward to every new voice expanding the tradition of what I’ve always sought to publish: books that encourage imagination and free-thinking; foster a sense of family, community, and history; target the feelings of children; and speak directly to young people’s interests as they explore various milestones—contemporary classics that both challenge and entertain inquisitive readers. The key ingredients that permeate every book we publish are an emotionally resonant voice that touches the hearts and minds of young readers along with imaginative artwork.
What does it mean to you to be able to continue to foster the relationships you’ve previously established with authors and illustrators?
I am proud to work with a stable of prolific award-winning and bestselling house authors. In 2022, I will be publishing my 15th titles each with Elise Broach and April Henry; my 19th titles each with Laurie Keller and Kimberly Willis Holt; and in 2023, my 27th title with Janet Tashjian. It has been hugely satisfying to watch their readership grow over the course of the time we have been publishing together especially as, for most of these authors, I published their very first book.
Longevity in this industry is as rare as it is precious, and these lasting relationships are the cornerstone of the imprint’s publishing philosophy: building author platforms and rewarding careers through a thoughtful succession of meaningful books that will live on the backlist.
It’s clear from the books in your launch list that your focus is quite broad ranging. Do you personally have a favorite genre?
I have been lucky throughout my career to have been able to publish across genres. And perhaps because of that, I’ve never gotten too hung up on genre. It’s the author’s voice, the illustrator’s vision, the quality of storytelling, the whimsy of the humor, and the necessity of the message that draws me to a book. But that’s not to minimize the various genre forms. I am definitely drawn to picture books both fiction and nonfiction. On the fiction front I’m always interested in character-driven stories with an emotional narrative arc. On our Winter 2022 list, that book would be Knight Owl, by Christopher Denise. Other books that have come before in this tradition are: Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie Keller; Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld; Edda: A Valkrie’s First Day of School by Adam Auerbach; and Tough Cookie by Edward Hemingway. Picture book biography is also an important part of the imprint’s focus with the emphasis being on women’s history and hidden figures; a few examples here are Marie’s Ocean: Marie Tharp Maps the Mountains Under the Sea by Josie James and Who Said Women Can’t Be Doctors?: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman.
A defining area on the middle grade front has always been literary mystery and character-driven fiction that brings in some element of the arts whether that’s music, literature, or art history, while also exploring setting and intergenerational relationships. Some examples on our backlist: Masterpiece by Elise Broach, the Book Scavenger series by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, and the Winterhouse series by Ben Guterson. We have new books by all of these authors on our 2022 lists that build on this genre while also meeting modern sensibilities: Duet by Elise Broach; Sisterhood of Sleuths by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman; and The Einsteins of Vista Point by Ben Guterson. And on the YA front, I look forward to building on April Henry’s mystery/suspense line as well as publishing the literary fiction of Patrick Flores Scott (American Road Trip). Additionally, Jessica Anderson explores older teen milestones in the upcoming YA fiction: Dead End Girls by Wendy Heard; and Freshman Year, a debut graphic novel by Sarah Mai.
The first five titles on the list are all so different. Can you speak to any connecting thematic threads that run between them and how they collectively embody the spirit of the Christy Ottaviano imprint?
At the highest level, each of these titles on our launch list features writing and illustration that’s just right for their intended readers. These five titles intersect at various crossroads—each illuminating an important theme of the imprint.
Hidden figures/women’s history connect Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life by Marilyn Nelson, with an afterword by Tammi Lawson, and Her Name Was Mary Katharine: The Only Woman Whose Name Is on the Declaration of Independence by Ella Schwartz, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk. Knight Owl by Christopher Denise and The Einsteins of Vista Point by Ben Guterson comprise heartfelt classics—stories that are emotionally driven in character and story evolution. The Chosen One: A First-Generation Ivy League Odyssey by Echo Brown and Augusta Savage both blend genre traditions to center women on the margins of discriminatory institutions. A terrific sampling of our publishing program, these five titles span picture books through young adult, fiction, and nonfiction, and include both established house authors as well as new talents.
For each of the five titles that launch the imprint, please tell me what first drew you to the individual project and, in your mind, what makes each book exceptional.
The Chosen One: A First-Generation Ivy League Odyssey by Echo Brown: This is the first major trade YA novel by and about the first-generation/low-income college experience. Critics have compared Echo’s style to Nikki Grimes, Maya Angelou, and Octavia Butler. Editor Jessica Anderson feels Echo’s unique blend of autofiction and fantasy makes her exceptionally effective in engaging and inspiring teen readers and beyond.
Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life by Marilyn Nelson, with an afterword by Tammi Lawson: I have admired Marilyn Nelson’s work since reading A Wreath for Emmett Till, so when Marilyn’s agent, Regina Brooks, shared with me this collection of poems about the artist Augusta Savage, I was immediately drawn in by the voice and execution of Marilyn’s talents as a poet. What intrigues me most is how Marilyn captured Augusta’s burning passion to create art in the face of so much adversity.
Her Name Was Mary Katharine: The Only Woman Whose Name Is on the Declaration of Independence by Ella Schwartz, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk: Upon reading the manuscript I was struck by the question—why didn’t I know about this incredible woman? Ella Schwartz gives voice to this hidden figure story of a courageous woman putting her life on the line for her country—a fearless patriot, and so much more. Dow Phumiruk is especially talented at capturing both emotion and historical accuracy in her compositions. I thought of her immediately upon reading the manuscript as the perfect artist for this project.
Knight Owl by Christopher Denise: This picture book has so much heart and completely won me over in its message of how an owl turns his feelings of inadequacy into resourcefulness, and uses his brains to resolve a challenging situation, all while making an unlikely friend in the process. The artwork plays with perspective in such an effective way—it’s such a feast for the eyes!
The Einsteins of Vista Point by Ben Guterson: This novel explores a perennial theme in fiction for young readers—surviving the loss of a loved one. In Ben’s capable hands and through a magical setting intervention, he takes this difficult subject matter and shows two kids dealing with the grieving process in very different ways, and how a family overcomes a year of excruciating pain to ultimately find a sense of hope. I have cried every time I’ve read this manuscript—it’s powerful and moving on so many levels.
Can you tease any additional upcoming titles?
Some highlights on our Summer and Fall 2022 lists include: Dolly!: The Story of Dolly Parton and Her Big Dream by Robyn McGrath, illustrated by Ellen Surrey; Wake Me Up In 20 Coconuts by Laurie Keller, a clever and funny picture book that celebrates the importance of asking questions; Pigeon and Cat by Edward Hemingway, a story about unusual friendships and the creative spark within us all; Cher Ami: Based on the World War I Legend of the Fearless Pigeon by mother/daughter team Melisande Potter and Giselle Potter; Sisterhood of Sleuths by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, a literary mystery that touches on the authorship of Nancy Drew; Hannah Sharpe, Unlikely Detective, a new middle grade illustrated series by Janet Tashjian and Jake Tashjian; The Death and Life of Benny Brooks by Ethan Long: an illustrated memoir that details the author’s childhood growing up under challenging circumstances; and Two Truths and a Lie by April Henry, an edge-of-your seat thriller where a night of harmless fun turns into a matter of life and death.
We also have several debuts forthcoming: Gloriana, Presente: A First Day of School Story by Alyssa Reynoso-Morris, illustrated by Doris Rodriguez, is a lyrical bilingual picture book about overcoming anxiety and finding one’s voice in the classroom; Scroll by Hui Li, is about a little girl who is inspired by her grandfather’s calligraphy and steps into a magical world where Chinese characters come to life; Sparrow Learns Birds by Murry Burgess, illustrated by Tamisha Anthony, launches a STEM picture book series by a wildlife ornithologist that features a curious Black child learning about nature through joyful immersion; Indigenuity: A Celebration of North American Indigenous Knowledge by Deidre Havrelock and Edward Kay details the countless ways Native inventions have laid the foundation for, and expanded, scientific and technological progress; and Miracle by Karen Hsu, is a middle grade novel about a young violinist overcoming her father’s death and struggling with the loss of her music in the face of grief.
What do you hope the next chapter holds for you and your authors and illustrators? What’s your wishlist?
Our goal is to continue to nurture our authors and illustrators as well as to continue to develop new talent across all formats and genres as we publish important and inspiring books that will live on the backlist. Our wish is for the books to be available and enjoyed by the widest possible audience of young people, as well as librarians and teachers. This feeling is clearly shared by our talented and passionate colleagues at LBYR who work with us to make these books, so here’s looking forward to creating more meaningful reading experiences for many readers in the years to come.