Interview with Scholastic Editor Jennifer Rees

By Theresa Rizzo

September 2007

 

Bio: Jennifer Rees, Editor, Scholastic Press, earned her BA at Allegheny College and her MA at Miami University of Ohio.After working at a wonderful childrenís independent bookstore in Cincinnati, she decided to follow her heartís desire and moved to New York City, where sheís been working at Scholastic Press ever since. She likes variety in her role as Editor at Scholastic Press and acquires fiction and non-fiction picture books, middle-grade novels, and YA.

 

  1. Which categories do you acquire?Which category is your favorite?

    Answer: I acquire fiction and non-fiction picture books, middle-grade novels, and YA. My preference generally is for fiction. Honestly I donít have a favorite category! I enjoy editing a wide range of material because I feel it keeps the work ahead of me fresh and fun, and I know I would be deeply saddened if, for example, all of a sudden I didnít have any picture books on my list!

 

  1. In terms of submissions, what are you sick to death of and what would you like to see more of?

Answer: Iím very tired of seeing picture books about peopleís pets or kids or grandkids (complete with photos!). This sounds like a terrible thing to say, but these types of submissions simply are not interesting material for a picture book. I want to publish stories that have universal appeal and can speak to lots of different audiences. Thatís not to say that the story canít be inspired by a writerís pets or kids or grandkids!

I also see a lot of knock-offs in every genre (the ďnewĒ Judy Moody! etc.) and I tend to think, you know, this has been done before and, yes, thereís a reason why itís successful but consumers will always buy the real Judy Moody and not a copycat version. When I see a manuscript that is trying so hard to be something that obviously itís not, it makes my heart sink because I think that writerís true passion has been compromised by what he or she thinks is going to sell or the ďhotĒ topic du jour. Iím only interested in a writerís unique voice and perspective and way of telling a story; I am personally drawn to what is genuine and dares to take a risk and, most importantly of all, comes from the heartóthese are the stories that not only are timeless but live with us forever!

 

  1. Do you accept unagented and/or email queries?

 

Answer: I do accept unagented queries and prefer to receive those by regular post and not email.

 

  1. What key elements do you look for in a query letter?

    Answer: I like to know age range, a very brief plot summary, and the writerís pertinent background information (ie, previously published works, professional experience, etc.). Query letters should be professional and well thought out. The quality of a letter I find will often sway me one way or the other. If you canít keep my interest at a query letter level, Iím probably not going to request to see your story!

 

  1. What are the compelling elements that you think are necessary for a good
    read?†† What particularly grabs your attention?


    Answer: For me itís all about the writerís voice and the beauty and uniqueness of their language and the characters. A writerís voice should be compelling, genuine, strong, and unique. I come across lots of stories that are functionalóthe characters are drawn just fine, the plot elements are all in placeóbut the story lacks voice and spirit. These are the stories that I think, Well, this was decent. But somehow, inside, I feel as if Iíve been let down because I know itís not great stuff, itís not excitingóit didnít really speak to me as a reader. These functional types of stories are the stories that I set down on my desk and forget about almost immediately because there wasnít anything in them that sparkled or was particularly compelling. For me, a story needs to be of a whole piece with all of the necessary narrative elements in the right places, but a story also needs to awaken something deep inside of meóand, yes, it needs to speak to my inner child. I also need to care deeply about the characters. I want to know the characters inside and out; I want to wonder about them long after Iíve finished a manuscript. Thatís the best indicator to me that Iíve found a special story: when I go home at night and find myself still thinking about the characters and wondering what they might say to me if I asked them questions. It sounds crazy, but itís true!††

 

  1. What length synopsis do you prefer to see with a partial?

 

Answer: A synopsis only need be a few paragraphs (or even one solid paragraph). I donít have a lot of time to read these materials. All a writer needs to do is spark my interest. If my interest is sparked, I will hopefully request and read the whole storyóand thatís when I will find out what the story is about!

 

  1. Based on a query letter or pitch, you ask to see a partial. You love it, ask for the complete, but eventually reject the manuscript. What are the top reasons for a manuscript's rejection in such a scenario?

    Answer:Most likely, itís because of one of the reasons I outline in my answer to question #5. The writer probably didnít draw me in enough. Or they did draw me in, but the rest of the story was disappointing.

 

  1. What's your average response time on queries? On requested partials? On
    completes?


    Answer:†† I like to answer queries right away (same week that I receive them) and I try to read partials pretty quickly as well. Ironically, if something looks good I will generally hang onto it longer (2-3 months) because I want ample time to review it. Complete manuscripts can be with me anywhere from 4 months to a year. I hate to keep materials that long, but Iím overloaded with submissions. You should see my office! I have piles of manuscripts everywhere and only so much time to actually sit down and read them. Everyone thinks that editors sit around with their red pens and read all day! (I wish . . .) So most writers canít understand why it takes us so long to get back to them on their stories. In truth, as an editor, Iím working on my own list and, yes, reading new stories for possible publication, but Iím mostly engaged in the time consuming business side of books that is necessary in order to ensure the success of our authors and our books. Unglamorous but true . . .

 

  1. Does meeting an author face-to-face at a conference make a difference in your response time, the submission process, or the rejection process (ie. Form letter vs a few sentences of advice)?

 

Answer:If I meet a writer at a conference, it is nice to put a face and person to a story and I do tend to feel obligated to get back to that person in a timely fashion. However, because of my workload, thatís not always possible. I always write personal rejection notes to writers whom Iíve met.

 

  1. Besides the writing and the storyóthe talent, what are the most important elements you look for in an author, ie. contest wins, cooperativeness, affiliations to writers organizations, knowledge of publishing industry, promotability, etc?

 

Answer:My dream author is someone who is easy to promote (friendly, professional, well read, well spoken, kind, approachable). Authors are responsible to children and to literacy and thatís a very big job in my mind. I have a rule: I only work with good people and I only work with writers who have childrenís best interests at heart. Iíve come across some authors who simply donít ďgetĒ this. And I think, you know, you are writing for children. Thatís a weighty, big job. Thatís maybe one of the most important jobs on the planet.

Itís not necessary for a writer to know the ins and outs of publishingóthat will come with publication and a willingness to be cooperative and learn what the industry has in store for them and their book if they are published. Honestly, I donít care so much about particular credentials, but an author should be at the very top of his or her game. I once had a writer tell me that she doesnít read kids books, and I thought, What the heck are you talking about? It floored me and made me feel that if I published heróno matter how good her writing wasóIíd be publishing a fraud! Needless to say, I havenít published her work!

 

  1. Is there anything else youíd like authors to know?

 

Answer:Please donít call us! (unless, youknow, weíve asked you to). I am so busy and when a writer calls to check up on something, I canít help it, but I start devising ways to get off the phone as fast as possible which doesnít serve anyone.

††††††††††† And those letters asking for a status on your submission? Please, please donít send those! It creates nothing but work for me. When you submit your manuscript, given that Iíve given you permission to do so, include a self-addressed-stamped postcard with the name of your story on it and Iíll drop it in the mail so you know that your submission has been received. Calling and/or a follow-up letter isnít going to get you a response any quicker; itís just going to frustrate me and Iím a really nice person, I really am, so please be nice in turn and donít send me those follow up letters! I think writers often feel they are being proactive, but the hard truth is, ya just gotta wait for an answer! And itís hard to wait I know. I do understand that!Please do your homework. I get things all the time that arenít for me or for Scholastic and it wastes everyoneís time, not to mention postage!

 

  1. What do you love most about your job?

 

Answer:There are lots of things I love (even adore) about my job but probably the most gratifying, exciting moment is when I hold a finished book in my hands for the very first time. All of the years of work (yes, years!) seem to melt away and there I am holding a beautiful, meaningful, incredibly special book that took so many people and creative energies to create. I imagine a child reading it one day and, I have to admit, I get a little bit giddy. The smell of a book, the feel of it, the gorgeous design -- it takes me back to being a young reader. The excitement I feel as an adult easily equals the excitement I felt as a child when I would check out a book at the library and run home to read it. I'm so happy to part of that process.

 

  1. Which celebrities do you find most fascinating/respect and why?
 
Answer: Um, it's totally embarrassing, but I'm a celebrity flunky Ė I really don't even know who they are! I literally run into them all the time in Soho (where I work) and I always have a friend poking me in the ribs, "Did you see who that was?! How on earth could you miss that?!" If pressed, I'd pick someone like Sarah Jessica Parker, who I think is so
refreshingly down to earth and smart, or Jon Stewart, or Steve Buscemi, or my totally nerd crush Charlie Rose (my husband thinks I'm nuts!) who is the smartest interviewer ever.
 
14.  What's your favorite genre/type of:
 
†††††††† 1. Book: Contemporary adult fiction.
†††††††† 2. Food: Everything! The only two things I refuse to eat are stuffed green peppers and liver (ick!). 
†††††††††††††††††† i. Sweets- Everything and anything chocolate!
ii. Other Food- I'm a vegetarian at heart but put that burger or steak
in front of me and watch it disappear!
 
†††††††† 3. Music:Indie, folk, and blues & jazz
†††††††† 4. Sports:Football!
†††††††† 5. Color:A draw between blue, yellow and pink
†††††††† 6. Movie: Foreign and Indie (not to say I don't enjoy the cheesy blockbuster every once in a while!)
 
15.  What are you addicted to?
 
Answer: Books, hands down.
 
16.  What have you always wanted to do?
 
Answer:Take a year, throw the kids into a van and travel across the US and do lots of backpacking and camping and see it all! Every mountain, forest, small town, and nook and cranny of it! I have actual dreams about it. I'm sure after a month in a van with two small children I'd give up my hard travelin' pretty fast, but one can dream (or make a pit stop at Grandma's house) .