Profile of Editor Alexandra Hightower

Future editor of Freewater.
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Hightower.

On a recent visit to her family home in Atlanta, Alex(andra) ­Hightower came across some papers from her tenth-grade English class. Looking at her essays and the notes in the margins, Alex was struck by how the work she did in that class informed her work now as an editor. Her teacher, Mr. Newman, always encouraged his students to dig deeper and think about how books and media connect to other artwork and the larger world. Alex learned that the best way to understand literature is by asking, “What is this work trying to accomplish?” Now, when she sits down to edit a manuscript, that’s one of two guiding questions Alex asks herself, followed by, “How can I help the author fully realize that vision?”

Those questions were at the top of Alex’s mind when Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson landed on her desk. As Alex made editorial suggestions, she was mindful of the balancing act involved in writing about a topic as painful as slavery and doing so through the eyes of a child. Alex kept a kid reader in mind — someone who might have learned only a sliver of this history. She asked how Amina could tweak the pacing and incorporate additional details to keep that reader fully engaged. Alex and Amina went back and forth in phone calls, emails, editorial letters, and notes directly in the manuscript’s margins, until they agreed that Freewater was exactly where it needed to be.

The novel hit bookshelves on ­February 1, 2022, and nearly a year later was awarded the John Newbery Medal. Amina became only the third Black woman to be awarded that medal in the award’s one-hundred-and-one-year history, and Alex became the first Black editor to edit a Newbery-winning book.

Alex grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the oldest of three, born to lawyer parents dedicated to supporting their children’s dreams. For Alex, that meant attending Johns Hopkins University to study neuroscience and pursue a career in ­medicine. She also took English classes, and often found her more strictly science-minded friends seeking out her help with their own writing. Two years into college, Alex began to question whether medical school was the right next step.

She was ultimately drawn to NYU’s publishing program. She tried internships in managing editorial and marketing/publicity, but neither felt like a fit. Alex moved on to an internship at famed literary agency Writers House and discovered that she liked working more closely with manuscripts and authors. On Alex’s return train ride from shadowing an agent at the annual Rutgers University One-on-One Plus conference, a young editor noticed her reading a Jandy Nelson novel. They bonded over their shared love of the YA author. Thanks to that fateful moment, the editor alerted Alex to an editorial assistant position opening up at Delacorte Press, which became Alex’s first job in publishing.

Once Alex had her foot in the publishing door, she focused on opening it wider for others. She is a founding member of Inkluded, a nonprofit organization that trains and places young people from unrepresented groups into their first publishing jobs, and a member of the We Need Diverse Books Internship Grant committee. Alex demonstrates this same commitment to uplifting marginalized voices in the books she now acquires and edits at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Her list spans a wide range of categories and genres — picture books like The Me I Choose to Be, 2022 CSK/John Steptoe New Talent Award winner; middle-grade fantasies like Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom; YA memoirs like We Are Not Broken; and YA fiction like Love Times Infinity — but all the books she’s drawn to empower and inspire readers.

Alex’s strategic approach to editing, personal warmth, and keen editorial insight have won her universal admiration from authors and colleagues, who also enjoy her sense of humor and infectious laugh. She is a powerful advocate for all the authors in her orbit, which recently came to include her mother, Wanda M. Morris, whose adult novels All Her Little Secrets and Anywhere You Run have been widely acclaimed and optioned for TV. Alex’s eyes shine with pride when she celebrates her family — just as those who know Alex clamor to celebrate her many successes as a friend, editor, and trailblazer.

From the July/August 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2023.

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Lisa Yoskowitz

Lisa Yoskowitz is an executive editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

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