A Passion for Picture Books: Editor Neal Porter | Up Close

Known for his discerning eye and love of theater, Neal Porter has established one of the highest quality picture book imprints in the United States and around the world. 

Since 2002, Neal Porter Books, formerly at Macmillan, has established itself as one of the highest quality picture book imprints in the United States and around the world. This fall, Porter published Yuyi Morales’s Dreamers, his debut title at Holiday House, the imprint’s new home. It is a timely and passionate autobiographical work about the Caldecott Honoree’s immigrant experience. I caught up with Neal in October to talk about the past, present, and future.

Could you tell us how you found your way to publishing?
Like many people in the business, I did not set out to have a career in children’s books, or specifically picture books. I studied dramatic literature and theater history in college and wanted to be a critic. As a child, I was a precocious reader and passed through picture books and onto longer books quite quickly. But I’d like to think that my background in and love of theater informs my work. My route into publishing began in marketing, which has been helpful.

Have you edited only illustrated works?
I have edited some fiction and longer nonfiction titles, and George O’Connor’s graphic novel series “Olympians,” but picture books are my passion.

Do you have a count of how many Caldecott winners/honors you edited?
One Caldecott Medal at Roaring Brook—A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Five Caldecott Honors, including First the Egg, Green, Viva Frida, and Grand Canyon—also at Roaring Brook—and The Graphic Alphabet (for Orchard).

What do you look for in a project?
I publish books, and by implication authors and artists, that speak to me directly, as an adult and as the five- or six-year-old that I was. I look for artists that don’t take the obvious route to a solution, who surprise and delight me. An example might be Hadley Hooper, who took Patricia MacLachlan’s two-sentence text and turned The Iridescence of Birds into a book that celebrates the life as well as the style of Matisse, without subserviently copying it.

You have published books by a diverse slate of artists—did you intentionally look for creators of underrepresented backgrounds?
First and foremost, I approach artists I admire and those I think would be interesting to work with, regardless of ethnicity or cultural heritage. And those include Yuyi Morales, Jerry Pinkney, Shane Evans, Christian Robinson, Jason Chin, and others. The choice of material is of course influenced by the profound need to have more children’s books that reflect the diversity of those reading them.

You are a world traveler and have been to many international book fairs/events—what do you glean from such experiences?
I’m fascinated that in an age of globalization, with identical branches of Starbucks, McDonald’s, and KFC on streets from Kalamazoo to Kathmandu, children’s books are one of the few things that remain culturally distinct. Books that are hugely popular in Scandinavia or Japan land with a thud in this country, or simply wouldn’t be published. And the same goes for many U.S. books abroad. And yet every so often a book comes along that crosses all boundaries and borders. A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a quiet book without a child anywhere in the book, has been translated into 18 languages. And that thrills me.

You discovered Julie Fogliano and published several of her superb works (And Then It’s Spring, When Green Becomes Tomatoes, and others). Could you talk a little about how you started working with her and what is in store for us next?
I think “discover” is too strong a word. I was in the right place at the right time. Julie was one of a handful of extremely talented people working at Books of Wonder (a children’s bookstore) in New York City whom I since have worked with, including Nick Bruel, George O’Connor, Erin Stead, and Jason Chin. She was also a young mother with two small children and limited time to write. As a prompt, and as a birthday gift, George asked Julie to write something every day, even if it was only a line or two, and send it to him. Julie’s first two books, And Then It’s Spring and If You Want to See a Whale, emerged from those daily jottings, and were brought to me by Erin Stead, who ended up illustrating them. Our next book together, Just in Case You Want To Fly, is being illustrated by Christian Robinson and will be published next fall.

What are some exciting titles you’re currently working on?
Phil and Erin Stead have a gorgeous new picture book, Music for Mister Moon, which will be published next spring. Miranda Paul and Jason Chin, who collaborated on Water Is Water, have Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born, also due next spring. As is Antoinette Portis’s first nonfiction book, Hey Water! Then there’s Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann’s follow up to Giant Squid, Honeybee. Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Why?, her first book in watercolor is set for August publication. Susan Cooper and Steven Kellogg’s hilarious picture book The Word Pirates is out next fall, as is Sydney Smith’s first book as author and illustrator, Small in the City.

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the middle school librarian at the Dalton School in NYC and writes for SLJ’ s “Heavy Medal” blog. 

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