Cecily Kaiser Talks with Roger

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When Penguin Workshop sent me a clutch of books from their new RISE imprint in preparation for this interview with Cecily Kaiser, Director of Preschool Publishing and Publishing Director of RISE, I hadn’t realized how much I was missing the feeling of new books in my hand. And these, largely, were board books, which to my mind have the most satisfactory book-feel in the business.

Roger Sutton: What would you say distinguishes a book published by RISE from another book published by somebody else?

Cecily Kaiser: Starting with the easy ones!

RS: Yup!

CK: I’ve been with large houses and small houses, and it doesn’t matter whether I’m surrounded by hundreds of colleagues or ten — I’m one of those people who needs to start with a mission, a vision, and a framework before I can do anything else. I was the kind of kid who’d always begin at the top of the page and would have to put my name and date on my homework before I could really start. That’s the way I approach this work: I always start from the beginning. Why am I doing what I’m doing? What is the purpose here? What is driving this work? Unlike my esteemed colleagues in publishing, I did not study English, I studied child development.

RS: Oh — I bet that makes for some good fights. When I was studying children’s lit, there were students from the library school, the education department, and the developmental psychology department. Nobody agreed on what a good children’s book was. They didn’t have a basic shared understanding of what they were looking for.

CK: I wish more people who studied child development were in children’s books, because I think that could change the course of how some of these books are developed, especially the ones for very young children. But it’s kind of nice that there aren’t more of us, because it feels like my distinguishing feature, my competitive advantage. I bring that everywhere I go — every book that I publish is considered from a developmental perspective, and always has been. I definitely come to children’s books as somebody who loves children first and books second.

RS: I'm the other way around.

CK: You and most people in the industry, but I think that’s what makes this a rich field. You have to love both, and you have to understand both to make a good book. I’m definitely not a one-woman band, so it’s important that I surround myself with editors who did study English or creative writing or literature; with art directors who studied art and art history. I think of it like the Obama Cabinet — you need experts in each of their fields, and that’s the strength of the whole. I’m coming to books thinking about the child, their age, abilities, capabilities, skills, needs, what they bring to a book — but also I’m thinking about their world, because it’s so important to create books that are relevant and relatable to a child.

RS: The toughest thing now in reviewing from electronic files is about the really young books. So much is tactile, size and shape, and when it’s on your computer, you don’t have a clue.

CK: I know what you mean, and we’re all going to figure this out together. At least for now, the fact that the review copies have gone digital does feel like a huge hurdle for books for zero- to five-year-olds. I have books coming whose formats are difficult to understand unless you hold them or show them in videos or something.

RS: When you are evaluating a manuscript, a proposal, or a project, at what point are you deciding what kind of a format you’ll use? I’m looking at five books and three different formats: board book, bigger board book, and standard picture book.

CK: The first thing we discuss with any project — whether it is art-driven, manuscript-driven, or just a concept — is age. The age range of the RISE list is zero to five. In terms of abilities, development, and interests, the difference between a one-year-old and a five-year-old is like the difference between a twelve-year-old boy and a seventy-eight-year-old woman. If we are making a book and say, “This is more for three-year-olds, let’s say ages two to four, with a sweet spot of age three,” that book is going to look, feel, and be packaged very differently than if it were for older kids. Families Belong is the youngest book on this list, for up to age three. We knew it had to be a board book in a size that a child could hold themselves. We’re looking at the font size, the typesetting, and the amount of words, to make sure the pages will hold kids’ attention before they flip to the next. The Invisible Alphabet is an alphabet book, but really it’s a book of mystery and intrigue and filling in the story between the lines, so it is a more sophisticated text for an older child.

RS: It’s for the kid who already knows what an alphabet book is.

CK: Exactly. And who understands it. They’re making connections. They’re looking at images and trying to figure out sequencing.

RS: I really don’t know anything about developmental psychology, but how much variation within, say, three-year-olds do you have to account for?

CK: Absolutely every child is different, and there’s a wide variation of their abilities. Though we create books with age windows in mind, we’re very deliberate about not printing ages on the books. The average child will match up, but there are going to be parents who purchase books aspirationally, who maybe see The Invisible Alphabet, and say, “This is perfect for my two-year-old.” And then there are families who know that their children have different needs, or are drawn to a book that perhaps would be for a younger child. There’s not only nothing wrong with that, it should be encouraged. You want to follow the child’s lead.

RS: Unless it becomes, “My five-year-old reads at an eighth-grade level. Stop giving her these young books!” We librarians hate that.

CK: Hopefully by now parents and teachers can find a book that interests the child and also matches up with their level. I have a one-year-old, and I’ve read her these books, not just the ones that indicate ages one to three. If it’s a book that the adult is interested in and wants the child to sit on their lap to hear, the child will probably enjoy it. They’ll connect more to some books than others — you just allow them those experiences.

RS: What does a one-year-old get out of a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, may God bless her memory?

CK: I think the question in this case is: what does the child get out of the reading experience? For a one-year-old, when you’re reading together, it's about having physical contact, one-on-one time, they're hearing the cadence of the adult’s voice as they read, which is very different from the way you would speak to the child. They’re hearing words that the adult likely wouldn’t say to them in a day, under normal circumstances, living life. They’re seeing that you turn the page from right to left, the way the book faces, the way you hold it. They’re probably noticing colors, or pointing out certain things that they recognize. In the RBG book there’s a baby buggy in the picture where she’s at law school and a mother at the same time. Likely a one-year-old would notice the baby. Whether they’re going to walk away knowing who RBG is isn’t the point; it’s that really early connection with books and reading. That’s the ground you build for loving books and becoming somebody who reads.

RS: Board books have really exploded since they first became a part of trade publishing. I’m thinking of the experiments that Tana Hoban did at Greenwillow, Black on White and White on Black in 1993 — they were very simple. Back then we thought board books were books that you left the child alone with. But now it seems like we conceive of them still as a shared book, the same way a picture book is.

CK: I think they can be both. One of the ideas of a board book originally was to create something that wasn’t as fragile as a picture book. Something you didn’t have to keep on a shelf and protect, that you could put into the toy basket.

RS: And no sharp corners.

CK: Nothing that’s going to tear, nothing that’s going to give them a paper cut. And as they’re pulling out toys, they’re pulling out books. My daughter went through a major stacking phase, and she would stack board books as quickly as she would stack blocks. It was all part of being comfortable, getting a physical attachment to books. There are a lot of different ways — I’ve seen many young children who certainly cannot read to themselves take a book and go sit off in a place that’s a little bit hidden or under a table or something and flip through it. You want to create that opportunity for young children to feel comfortable and have ownership over a book. Even a book jacket coming off can be really frustrating for a one- or two-year-old. When you hand them a board book, they can really dig in. They can turn the pages easily.

RS: They can chew on it.

CK: Yes, absolutely. All of those sensory experiences of the book. But the content is just as important as the format. It all works together. I have many strong feelings about the way that board books are regarded in the industry. We have a lot of opportunity to elevate the status of board books. You know, with COVID-19, the death of RBG, and life under this current administration, I have been facing my own mortality and now have a deathbed wish: on my deathbed, I plan to ask that the ALA create an award for the most distinguished original board book!

RS: You’re certainly trying to create contenders! What do you call the format of the Bela Barbosa and Edel Rodriguez book, I Am!: Affirmations for Resilience?

CK: That we call a casebound board book. It has a hardcover case, like a picture book, and then inside the pages are board.

RS: Why would you choose that format as opposed to your other board book format for something?

CK: The main reason that I like to put a case on board books is that it ever so slightly ages it up. Something that happens with board books at retail is that they are often put on the shelf that says “for up to age three.” For a lot of board books, that is true — that is their sweet spot. But more and more, there is content that feels appropriate for a preschooler, like I Am!, or like the Who Was books, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Martin Luther King, Jr. When I say preschooler, I’m really talking about ages two to four, or two to five. You want to put it in board, but you don’t want to make it feel like a baby book. That was the idea behind I Am! — to keep it in a format that would be easily manipulated by a two-year-old and a three-year-old, not fragile, something you could flip through or leave open, that felt chunky and sturdy, but putting a case on it made it feel just a little bit older. Even to adults — I’ve heard rumblings that this book is appealing to the adult market as well as the children’s market, because of the kind of affirmations and the time that we’re in.

RS: The next time my husband gets mad at me, I’m going to try “I am important!”

CK: I don’t know if that is exactly the way the affirmations are advised to be used, but I like it. Try it and blame me.

RS: So then what is the case for the traditional picture book, as exemplified by The Invisible Alphabet and I Am the Storm?

CK: They both feel a little bit older. The art in these books is more detailed and expansive. You can make board books as large as I Am the Storm, but they become quite unwieldy, and also quite expensive.

RS: Heavy, too, I would imagine.

CK: Yes. With I Am the Storm, you can see on the first page with the wind blowing and the sky turning purple, which is what it does before a storm…

RS: It was reminding me of Barbara Cooney. She did all those classic books with Regina Hayes at Viking.

CK: That’s a great comparison! These are new illustrators, and we just fell in love with their environments. The way they were able to portray this doom and gloom, and then at the same time, turn the page and it’s the coziest you’ve ever felt. This was art we wanted the child to be able to fall into, to have this large, luxurious spread that can really surround them. We put this for ages three to five, so it’s in that upper level of the RISE books. In terms of the picture book form, that is kind of the sweet spot age. It felt right. This is a story, read it from cover to cover, pore over the pictures. It has a bit of a different purpose.

RS: One thing that’s always true with books for younger children is that parents or other caregivers play such a part in the selection and the reading. How do you think of them as part of your audience?

CK: This is something where I feel I’ve progressed through a whole set of approaches in my career. The truth is, as I’ve said over and over, I’m very child-focused, but of course there is a line-up of adult gatekeepers the book needs to get past before it gets to a child. You need to create and position a book so that an adult can understand why a child would want or need this book. It is the priority at RISE to create books that are elegant and respectful of their audience, and to work with expert artists and writers and really bring experts into this realm, where maybe they haven’t been before. In doing that, we will kind of automatically create books that hopefully adults will at least find interesting and attractive and intelligent.

But aside from that, it is truly important to think about the gatekeepers when you are choosing a title, and when you are creating a cover. You have to think about who is actually going to pick this up in the bookstore or in the library and bring it home. I spent part of my career publishing books with such a developmental priority where I ended up creating books that felt perfect for children, but no adults were buying them. So then you swing the other way. You start creating books you think adults will be drawn to, but that’s not going to work, either. They’re not going to have any kind of staying power unless they actually resonate with your audience.

RS: Right, there is a sort of subgenre of books for young children that really are for adults in the first place. They’re just using this odious winking attitude to be published as children’s books. I hate them.

CK: I hate them, too. As you can imagine, that is a thing that gets under my skin. To me, the worst thing you can do is create a book for young children that’s condescending, and a whole lot of them are. What we do, publishing books for kids under five, is this immense responsibility. It’s been proven, again and again, this is a critical time in human development, when you develop self-love and confidence that allows you to have empathy and compassion and be resilient, and be somebody who’s going to grow up and make change for the better in the world. If we fail children at this age, I think we are in many ways seeing the way this plays out in this country. Not every child is going to have adults or peers around them who build them up. But they can have books that build them up. We have that power to create books that will make them feel confident and smart and loved and safe. That opportunity is what motivates us. The keyword for each of our books and for our mission statement is empowerment. Every one of our books is about empowering the child, because from that comes everything else.

RS: How have you found having a child of your own, your own little lab rat right there in the house? How has that changed either your thinking about publishing or about the developmental stuff you already knew?

CK: I appreciate that question. I have two children, a five-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. In the last five years, I have been a parent; I have been publishing books for this age group for twenty years. I have always been someone who is surrounded by children, even before I had my own. I have a godson and a goddaughter; I have nieces; I have neighbors; I babysat way longer than you would think an adult would be a babysitter. It’s why I studied child development. I feel as though I’ve always had a very intimate sense of my audience. I will say, though, that living with two of those audience members — especially right now, where I’m with them twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week — I get a lot of ideas. It’s only upsides. I read to each of them every day. I see the way they react to certain books. I hear the questions that my five-year-old asks about the topics he’s into.

I Am the Storm in large part happened because, strangely for where we live in New Jersey, we had a tornado warning. We had to wake up our children and bring them to the basement — I was on a chat group with a bunch of parents in the neighborhood, and everyone was like, “Are you waking up your kids? You are? Oh my gosh. Do I have to?” Everybody woke up their kids, which is the worst thing you can tell a parent to do, and brought them down to the basement and stayed there for an hour. And we had a grand old time! My son was thrilled. It was extra time to hang out with his parents. We had a bunch of books in the basement.

But the next morning, of course, he woke up and was just terrified, asking what would have happened if a tornado touched down, what would have happened if we didn’t get to the basement — he was spinning on it. He couldn’t let it go. It got me thinking; tornados don’t really happen where we live. Knock on wood, forest fires don’t really happen here either. Hurricanes happen here, but not as severely as they do in the South. However, we live in a country where this is happening everywhere, and there are four-year-olds who are asking these questions. Out of that story came the idea for this book. This is a long answer to your short question of how my publishing has changed. I have more ideas. I’m also very careful not to make any decisions based on the subset of my kids!

RS: Oh, good.

CK: That’s a dangerous thing to do.

RS: I’ll be on a book award committee, and the librarian will say, “Well, the kids at my library hated it, or the kids at my library loved it.” Are we going to let these ten kids determine what’s going to win this prize?

CK: It can’t. The only thing we can take away from all of our experiences with kids is ideas. They’re full of them. They will lead you to really wonderful unexplored places if you let them.

RS: That sounds like a great place to end, but I have one last bonus question. This is from my neighbors downstairs, who have two young boys. What do you do when the kid’s interest in hearing the book has far, far outpaced the parent’s interest in sharing it?

CK: Well. It depends on who you ask.

RS: You can put on both hats, either hat.

CK: I definitely have friends who will hide books when they cannot possibly read them another day. And I don’t blame them. But there is a wonderful quote, from Bettye Caldwell, one of the driving forces behind the creation of Head Start, who passed away a few years ago. She said about young children, “They need new experiences. They need to repeat experiences they enjoy.” I think about that almost daily. Because if I have to play dinosaurs where diplodocus is meeting a new friend one more time—every single day, that’s what my son wants to do. But I really try hard to give him that privilege of repeating an experience if he wants.

RS: You could play: Here comes the comet!

CK: I’m trying that tomorrow morning. I think that when a child wants to hear a book again, they are either feeling something from the words or the pictures or the way that you’re reading it, or maybe they’re actually starting to put together the words they’re hearing with the words they’re seeing on the page, or maybe they’re starting to understand another level of the book that they didn’t understand before. I don’t think there is anything negative that can come out of reading a book again and again and again, other than the parent might be very tired of it. I leave it to the parent. Listen, if you’re tired of it, do what you want to do. Find something else to read. I’m sure they’ll love that, too!

 

Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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