Liesa Abrams Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

Sponsored by


You might guess that a children’s book editor who publishes a lot of fantasy grew up loving the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Prydain, but Fear of Flying? Liesa Abrams, Vice President and Editor in Chief of the new Random House Children’s Books imprint Labyrinth Road, talks about how the young reader she was became the editor she is today.

Roger Sutton: Why the name Labyrinth Road?

Liesa Abrams: When I was first thinking about what to call the imprint, I was looking for a name that addressed the fact that the list would be middle-grade and YA fiction; some would be realistic, some would be fantasy. The connecting thread is the idea that books exist as a way to safely escape and also feel seen. When I was a kid, books did both of those things. I had a really traumatic childhood, so I wanted stories that took me completely out of my life and my head, and I also wanted to feel less alone. The idea of the labyrinth is a story you escape into — but labyrinths don’t have dead ends, so you can findyour way back out. Also, there’s an actual Labyrinth Road in Baltimore, where I grew up. I lived in a bunch of different apartments, all within the same radius of Labyrinth Road, so there’s an extra Easter egg meaning.

RS: What books did do that for you, as a young reader?

LA: I was a big fantasy reader. A lot of what you would imagine — Narnia, Lloyd Alexander, Lord of the Rings — big epic fantasy stories. Also, Batman comics. I’m known for being a passionate Batfan. Batman’s example of stoic strength in the face of great loss was a huge source of comfort to me. The Batverse was a welcome escape, and that serves as context for how I approach the worlds of the fantasy series that I edit. Finally (and this may sound odd to some people), when I was thirteen years old, I read Fear of Flying by Erica Jong — it was assigned in a women writers class. I felt seen by the character; she was so frank about sex and relationships and her sense of herself as a creative being, as a woman, as a Jewish woman. There were so many threads in that story where I thought, I didn’t know a book could be this way. The voice felt so real and authentic, as if she were speaking directly to me. As a children’s book editor, I realize that Fear of Flying probably doesn’t come up a lot as a touchstone, but it was formative for me.

RS: I was talking the other day with a documentary filmmaker who’s doing a history of queer depictions in children’s literature. I was casting back in my mind about young adult novels, mostly. Deb Caletti on your list makes me think of this, because one big difference between the so-called frank books of the 1970s and the books of today is that while sex was depicted in the books in the seventies — kids talked about sex, they asked questions about sex, they had sex — but it was never depicted as something pleasurable. Those books never had dirty parts — which Fear of Flying clearly had.

LA: Yup, sex for pleasure was not stigmatized.

RS: That’s something new I’m seeing in books for teens today. Do you think you have more freedom in what can be depicted?

LA: That’s definitely been a hallmark of the YA books I’ve edited. Deb Caletti’s books often showcase a theme of how young women navigate the threat of rape culture, the way a certain type of male gaze can feel threatening and scary on the one hand yet wanting to claim and own your sexual desire. This balance of addressing rape culture while also embracing sex positivity is the backbone of an upcoming novel-in-verse on the list, Dear Medusa, which also explores how these themes intersect with race and queer identities. I encourage authors to show female masturbation on the page; how many times do we see it referenced that a male character masturbates and that it’s a normal act? Not so much for female characters — we don’t see desire represented as something ordinary and acceptable. And to your point, there’s a focus on the Labyrinth list for queer stories and queer authors, because obviously that’s an area where pleasure and desire particularly have been stigmatized in our culture. It’s a big mission of mine to elevate those voices and stories.

RS: Amen to that. Will we see that in your fantasy novels that you publish?

LA: Absolutely. Obviously, it’s contextualized differently in middle-grade books. We have a funny middle-grade title coming up: Alex Wise vs. the End of the World by Terry Benton-Walker. Alex is a young queer Black boy, and for the author, it was really important to show that this is someone you can be, happily and proudly. It’s personal for Terry — he didn’t see himself in books when he was growing up.

RS: Queer-themed books are in more trouble now than I’ve ever seen before. How will you stand up to that?

LA: I hear you, and I see it, and it terrifies me, not so much for myself or the imprint, but for the authors, for the kids who are being affected by what’s happening. For me, the most effective thing I can do is to keep publishing and supporting these books. Happily, no one at Random House has expressed concern that it’s going to be a problem. I’m not so naïve to think that there won’t be challenges, but we don’t want to say that publishing these books is too dangerous. The best that we can do is champion them. Speaking of champions, the first middle-grade book Labyrinth Road published, Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith, features a nonbinary protagonist, and there’s a range of sexual identities among the characters in that story. The reaction has been amazing. Booksellers have embraced this book and support it. I’ve seen librarians and booksellers who have been really loud online about the joys of this story, its world, its characters. That’s part of what feels even more special to me, to be launching this imprint now, when all these challenges are happening. I want to make sure everybody hears that we’re not going to back down.

RS: And it’s important to remember that any particular book is just a drop in the ocean. It will have its readers. It will have its detractors. No one is saying that anyone has to read them. The idea is to broaden our perspective of what’s possible to depict in a book for young people. And if young people want to read that, there it is. If young people don’t want to read that, there’s thousands of other books for them as well.

LA: Exactly.

RS: I always liked that private part about reading. I was the kind of kid who really wanted to be left alone when I read. I think it’s important that a kid has a variety of worlds, books, attitudes to choose from. I want to go back to what you said about seeing yourself in a book. Sometimes I worry that our definition of what self is has become kind of superficial — focusing on our cultural identities only.

LA: When I talk about what it was for me to see myself in stories, I’m talking about a range of different meanings. Because my childhood was really difficult in a number of ways, I didn’t see myself in the stories where the character’s worst problem was that the person they had a crush on didn’t like them back. There’s a place for those light, fun books, but I couldn’t connect to them. I saw myself in a story if I could see a character facing —

RS: Dragons.

LA: True, both literal and figurative dragons. The stakes had to be so epic for it to feel like both an escape and a sense of: here’s a person who also has to deal with hard things like I do. Whether those hard things were contemporary realistic things like homeless parents or financial hardship, or whether they were actual dragons. I wanted to see them fight those dragons. I certainly agree that people can see parts of themselves in all kinds of characters and stories. That said, for a long time there really has been a dearth of characters from different marginalized identities. It’s true that a queer Black boy can read a lot of books and see pieces of himself in those books, but he wouldn’t have had many books where he could see someone who looked and felt like him specifically. Our goal is to have enough stories out there for everyone — for all different parts of all different identities.

RS: How is a Labyrinth Road book going to be different from other books?

LA: That marriage of personal stakes and big, epic external hooks is specifically true of our titles. I believe we can publish books with high-quality writing and storytelling that are also accessible, kid-friendly stories. I’ve worked on books that have been bestsellers and won awards. That’s the kind of story I’m looking for, a story that straddles. The books I’m publishing help kids see different ways to be a hero in a story. In Alex Wise, the main character’s power is basically a metaphor for empathy. Alex develops this magical power where he can make his enemies feel the pain they have caused other people. He’s a kind, compassionate, empathetic kid and has felt othered because of those qualities; he feels like he doesn’t live up to the cultural idea of masculinity. He uses his power of empathy to defeat the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and help save the world. Our books have high-concept hooks, but the characters go on profound emotional journeys to showcase other ways that we can be the heroes of our own stories.

RS: It’s so interesting to me that Harry Potter really changed a lot in our field, as you know, but one thing it did was it gave publishers encouragement to pursue more high-concept middle-grade and YA books that would go directly to readers without the mediation of librarians and teachers. When I started in this field in the eighties, hardcover fiction for children was only sold to schools and libraries. Very little of it was sold at bookstores. That’s really switched around, so that we have a concept now of commercial children’s fiction that we did not before.

LA: My first job was at Daniel Weiss Associates, now Alloy Entertainment. Our job was to come up with high-concept books and commercial stories. That experience plays a role, for sure, in how I’ve continued to edit since then.

RS: What’s your favorite part about book editing?

LA: Working with authors on new books. I read the manuscript and feel the pulse of the story and the vision the author has for it; my job is to help them realize that. Esme Symes-Smith, Sir Callie’s author, said something to the effect of, “You understand what’s in my brain better than I do,” in response to my edits. It’s an incredible feeling to connect with a story and an author like that.

RS: Do you ever read a submission that you love, but you know your place is not the right one for that book?

LA: Absolutely. In fact, that’s one of the liberating things about starting this imprint. In the past, it was harder for me to say no when I loved something. Now, having some clear lines of exactly what we want this imprint to do, especially in its early years, has allowed me to be more focused. I have passed on manuscripts that I knew would be bestsellers, but I wasn’t the right editor. I’ve passed on books that I loved, but I didn’t have that sense of a vision for it. When I’m reading a submission and already making notes about what I’m going to ask the author to do, then I have to catch myself — I don’t have this book on my list yet — that’s when I feel like I am the right person, and I have something to offer the author. It’s not just: is their book really for me? The question is: am I right for the author? It is okay not to edit every book you love.

RS: What about a book that is right for Liesa but wrong for Labyrinth?

LA: I think when it’s perfect for Liesa, it’s going to be perfect for Labyrinth. A friend said to me about the launch of this imprint, and he meant it in a kind way, “I have never seen a publishing imprint as a piece of autobiographical performance art.” People who know me well can look at any book I’ve edited and see what part of my soul the book came from. A quintessentially Liesa book probably has grief, sexuality, themes about identity and feeling less alone in the world, it probably has some daddy issues. I joke that we are the imprint of daddy-abandonment-issue stories, because I can never make enough kids feel that they can be okay without their father’s love and acceptance. I’m forty-five, and I still know the feeling. I want kids to see stories where you know the parents are going to fail you sometimes. It’s not necessarily going to be a happy ending, where the dad shows up and is full of love, but you can be okay in other ways. Here’s how you survive that. That’s a digression, but yes, a Liesa book is going to be a Labyrinth Road book.

RS: I often think that people who work in our field, whether in publishing or in writing or as librarians and teachers, are often trying to fix something about their own childhood.

LA: I still have that experience where I read something now and think, wow, this is a piece of me I’ve never seen represented in this way before; I’ve never felt understood in this way before. It’s such an incredible feeling because the pain of the things that are missing never disappears. Those reminders that other people have also felt this pain, and other people have survived it — I think that’s the thing. You just want to feel less alone.


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.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.