Lauri Hornik Talks with Roger

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Formerly President and Publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers, editorial veteran Lauri Hornik is now...making a splash? testing the waters? diving deep? [Ed. note: STOP it RS] as President and Publisher of Rocky Pond Books, her own imprint in the Penguin Young Readers Group. Join me and Lauri below as we wade into the particulars of her new venture.

Roger Sutton: Why did you pick Rocky Pond Books for your name?

Lauri Hornik: I grew up in Hollis, New Hampshire, and Rocky Pond was the childhood swimming hole. When I was thinking of what might symbolize the kinds of books I wanted to publish, Rocky Pond came to mind, because, to me, Rocky Pond meant growing up and being brave. There were snapping turtles under the raft.

RS: There’s a metaphor.

LH: Exactly. I remember one time at the very beginning of the season, we showed up and there were snakes sunning themselves on the beach. My tagline is “Life is a Rocky Pond; dare to swim.”

Photo credit: Belathée Photography.

RS: What were you reading when you weren’t avoiding the snapping turtles?

LH: Probably a lot of Judy Blume. One of the books I loved the most when I was in middle school was Richard Peck’s Are You in the House Alone? It took me a while to tell him that.

RS: I always said, when I was a young adult librarian, that was the shortest book talk in the world. All you had to do was hold up the cover and say, “It’s called Are You in the House Alone? It’s about this babysitter.” That was it. They wanted it. And then you got to work with Richard.

LH: Yeah. What a dream.

RS: What is it like to work with somebody whose books you loved?

LH: I tried to hide my age from him for a long time, as if it wasn’t obvious. It took me many years before I told him that that was one of my favorite childhood books. He taught me my job as much as I gave him any input. It was something special, that’s for sure.

RS: What was the first book you worked on with him?

LH: It was actually a short story in the book Twelve Shots; the short story eventually became A Long Way from Chicago. When I moved from Delacorte to Dial, he was finishing up A Year Down Yonder. So the first book that he and I really worked on together was Fair Weather, which I love so much.

RS: What will be different now? Besides the fact that you don’t have to go to meetings and run things, which I’m so glad not to do any more.

LH: I was really having a hard time being a supervisor over Zoom when the pandemic started. It was a big shift in what I enjoyed and felt equipped for. I love working with authors and realized that I could make that shift and be fully an editor again. It’s been wonderful. I announced Rocky Pond about a year and a half ago, so it’s been a year and a half of devoting all my time to editing and working on books that I, myself, have selected because they feel close to my heart. I’m so glad I made the change. It’s been even more satisfying and inspiring than I thought it would be. The timing was great, because everyone’s talking about mental health now.

RS: I was looking up this quote from the announcement: “Above all, I am committed to publishing mental health content — books that start conversations, that provide a step toward healing, and that show readers they aren’t alone.” What kind of book is that? To me, that’s kind of every book.

LH: It’s nice that it is so broad. It’s not a narrow list at all. I have fantasy YA graphic novels coming up. I have humorous picture books that have a mental health component. A fantasy graphic novel where the fantasy world is sort of a representation of the character’s anxiety. I can still have quite a varied list with that focus, and on the picture book side, social-emotional learning. Before announcing Rocky Pond, I was already very focused on books that are about relationships, picture books about typical kid steppingstones. I was already, in a way, creating books with that focus. I had in mind, for sure, young adult novels representing the mental illness experience in an authentic way, where the main character is the one who’s contending with mental illness. So often you’ll have a book where the main character is contending with someone in their life who has a mental illness. I really wanted to have that very direct representation.

RS: You’re right. I remember especially in the dawn of young adult novels in the 1970s, so much of it was you had a protagonist, but the problem, whether it was somebody being gay (still a problem in the seventies!), somebody being alcoholic, someone experiencing mental illness, was somebody else’s.

LH: Right. We’ve all made that transition, so now, as I focus on it, I’m not filling as much of a void as I would have been five years ago.

RS: You said that books can provide comfort in a world that feels scary. Does the world feel scary to everyone now? It does to me. It never did in the past.

LH: If it didn’t, I would find it strange.

RS: What can books do?

LH: The number one thing I want my books to do is show readers that they aren’t alone in what they’re feeling. I want them to see themselves. One of my real inspirations was my own daughter. She’s nineteen now. When she was in middle school, she developed pretty extreme social anxiety. It was very hard for us to figure out what was going on, who could help, who else might understand this. The books that she found comforting weren’t children’s books. She read and reread The Bell Jar. I was so grateful that she had found a book that felt real to her, but that wasn’t the one that I would have wanted to hand to her. So from that time onward, I’ve had in mind that I want to be publishing those books.

RS: The Bell Jar for middle schoolers?

LH: Yeah.

RS: How do you think, using your daughter as an example, or your own reading as an example, how do you think it works? That someone who is troubled in some way reads The Bell Jar or reads something. How does their reading choice both reflect the situation and how does it help that situation?

LH: I think we’ve all had an experience of feeling seen by an author, of seeing ourselves in what we’re reading, and how nourishing that can be. Kids want to feel understood. A book can do that, and it’s such a relief when it happens. It also provides a way for a reader to start a conversation. If you find a book that expresses your situation, you can then use that as the way to start talking to the people in your life about what you’re struggling with.

RS: And you also get to begin your comfort, begin your therapy, whatever you want to call it, privately. So much of what kids feel, the things that are hurting them the most, they don’t want to talk about to their friends or their parents. They first need a place to try it out in their imagination.

LH: I certainly saw with my own daughter, she talked a lot about how kids often look online for information, and what they find is not offering any comfort or guidance. It really is the Wild West online, so I think it would be nice to provide books that say things in a softer way, in a way that has correct guidance. Not TikTok.

RS: Are you vetting your books with mental health professionals?

LH: I am. All fiction is vetted, and I recently published Where to Start: A Survival Guide to Anxiety, Depression, and Other Mental Health Challenges with Mental Health America. It’s nonfiction, sort of an introductory guide for people who are struggling but haven’t yet found how to talk to people in their lives, how to look for a therapist, what their symptoms mean, how to do any kind of self-care. We took Mental Health America’s materials and put them into book form. It was written by a therapist and social worker at a high school, somebody who’s right there with the kids who need the book. I’m very excited that that book now exists.

RS: I’m reminded of a story School Library Journal’s founder, Lillian Gerhardt, told about going to school after her mother died. She was terrified that her teacher was going to give her some book about how to feel when your mother dies. Instead, the librarian gave her Howard Pyle’s Otto of the Silver Hand, which is a historical novel with adventure and derring-do. And she appreciated that. She saw a kid in the book being able to overcome adversity. It allowed her to come out of herself. What do you think?

LH: I think we have to be ready with both and hope that we can tell what a particular kid or teenager is longing for. I remember when I was newly dating my now-husband, who has three boys; I found some book about going through divorce on the “take shelf” at work, so I brought it home to Peter, and he left it on the bed of one of the boys. Oh my god, was that the wrong move! That was one of the worst moments in the start of my relationship with those boys.

RS: How did you fix it? What did you bring home the next time?

LH: I brought home Oreos.

RS: How do we allow kids to find the books they need for their mental health without intruding on their privacy? Particularly if you’re a librarian or a teacher, you have a very different relationship than if you’re a parent. But also, you don’t want to give bibliotherapy all the time.

LH: That’s the importance of fiction. It’s not a therapeutic book. It’s a story about somebody who is experiencing something that you can relate to. I was talking to somebody recently who was trying to figure out what we should do about keeping YA content away from the younger kids. The person suggested maybe a secret store of books, and they’re ready if you ask the librarian for them. I don’t think that’s going to work.

RS: Makes them more attractive.

LH: Yeah, where’s the secret stash? I was negative about TikTok, but I love that TikTok is such a discovery tool for books now. I hope that continues.

RS: Is that something that you, or Penguin Random House in general, do? Produce content for TikTok?

LH: Penguin Teen produces very regular and fun content. But the miraculous TikTok where somebody, a reader, is crying over a book and it goes viral, we can’t produce that. We’re very fully on TikTok and share our books with people who have big followings.

RS: I’ve gotten to look at two of your forthcoming novels: The Do More Club, about a swastika at school, and The Dreamatics, about the Minions-like characters who perform in a girl’s dreams.

LH: And I have a debut YA called Ever Since, which is the closest to what Rocky Pond’s focus will be. It’s about a teenage girl who was sexually abused when she was young and is now trying to find her voice to admit it and move forward. It’s so beautiful.

RS: How do you edit a book like that? I think of Are You in the House Alone? this way too; it speaks to a young person who is in the situation, or in danger of being in the situation, but at the same time, to those who are just curious. Are You in the House Alone? certainly had its readers who thought, Ooh, salacious stuff, great. How do you balance that?

LH: Really the right author, I would say. The author of Ever Since, Alena Bruzas, lived it and writes exquisite prose. I’m so excited by her talent. She writes such real characters, so many different characters who are all alive, coming off the page. Line by line beauty. She also uses a device of fairy-tale retellings as empowerment for this main character and uses that in an interesting way. For me, I was really conscious of wanting the book to be an enjoyable read, even though it’s extremely intense, traumatic content. She straddled that in an amazing way as well. And the two middle grades that you mentioned: The Dreamatics by Michelle Cuevas is a fantasy about a girl whose dreams are created by a whole theater troupe in her head, and it’s also a book about grief. That Michelle can do both of those things — amazing. It’s cinematic too. Dana Kramaroff’s The Do More Club is my side interest for Rocky Pond — Jewish content. I’ve become much more involved in my Judaism, and I think there’s room for more books with Jewish content, so I’m looking for those too.

RS: How did that come about? I’m curious, because I rediscovered my Catholicism in recent years.

LH: It was when I started dating Peter. He was very involved in the synagogue, and I was a completely non-practicing Jew. I just started going because he was interested, and I really found the richness in it. No one was more surprised than me.

RS: I know that Arthur Levine often complains that we don’t get enough books for and about Jewish kids that don’t have to do with the Holocaust. More contemporary, everyday life fiction.

LH: Yeah, I agree. Although I love reading books about the Holocaust.

RS: It’s the same kind of topic, where you have this horrible, horrible thing that happened, that has serious moral ramifications, but you still have kids who are into those books.

LH: With a setting like that, it really highlights character. Often the book will highlight someone who has been heroic, someone who has persevered, and we all want to learn how to be better versions of ourselves and imagine who would we have been in the same situation. Kids sure do.

RS: Do you think reading can make you a better person?

LH: Yeah, for sure.

RS: How do you think that that works? How does reading make one a better person?

LH: By example. A book will have examples of people making the right choices, being in relationships in a full way, so you can notice that, and strive to be the same. When kids read books, they’ll latch on to one that really is aspirational. It helps to truly home in on what you are aspiring to be. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Hope for the Flowers. It’s about a caterpillar who wants to be different from all the other caterpillars, who are mindlessly climbing a hill. In the end, this striving, dreaming caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

RS: Don't they all?

LH: That’s a bit of an odd failing of logic. But apparently I so wanted to be something different and be noticed for my specialness, and that book just put it into words for me.

RS: It said that it was okay for you to have that feeling.

LH: Right.

RS: What do you say to an author who comes up to you at an SCBWI conference and asks what you’re looking for?

LH: The quick answer is that I’m looking for authentic representations of the mental illness experience that will make a reader feel seen and offer some gentle guidance. And then I have more specific wish list stuff. I would love for some of those books to take place in a therapeutic setting, a psychiatric hospital, or wilderness therapy, just to show readers what the options are. I don’t think that books have focused on the psychiatric treatment experience as much as they could. That is very interesting to me. And always, character first.

RS: Always. But also, it sounds like you’re interested in normalizing the mental health journey. You don’t need to be afraid to ask for help.

LH: We all have our good times and our struggling times, and I want to honor the struggle.


Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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