Star Magnet: Neal Porter, the VP/Publisher of His Eponymous Imprint, Discusses "Good Friction" and the Projects that Attract Him

From quiet books that took off to those that just gave him 'that feeling,' Neal Porter takes the lessons of legends and puts his own spin on an award-winning collection of books spanning decades. 


 

It’s been almost five years since Neal Porter left Macmillan and brought much of his eponymous imprint, and its award-winning books, authors, and illustrators, to Holiday House, where they continue to reap accolades.

Most recently, there’s the Caldecott Medal winner and Newbery honor book Watercress (2021) by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin. But one must also note Adrea Theodore’s A History of Me, illustrated by Erin Robinson (Jan. 2022), Tom Gauld’s The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess (2021), and the recent All You Need by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Jasu Hu (Apr. 2022).

As for all the other great books that Porter, vice president and publisher of Neal Porter Books, has published, well, that’s a process. He’s got the knack. The talent finds him. Walk in the park.

He does make it look easy. But despite more than four decades in the business, Porter has never ever rubber-stamped his way to the front of the line.

“There are times when I think it’s time to hang it up, because of the fear that I’ll never see something irresistible again,” he notes. “And then I get that feeling at the base of my spine when I know I’ve found something I have to publish.”

Is “that feeling” harder or easier to come by after all these years?

“I’m definitely having more fun than I did earlier in my career,” Porter says. “But I still struggle with the ever-expanding number of submissions I receive, and with rejections.”

Knowing which book to publish and what will do well is always sleight of hand to outsiders. But when asked if there were books that Porter had a feeling might shine, he came up with a legend.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a very quiet book, was written and illustrated by two relative unknowns,” he recalls. “[It] had no marketing budget but I remember telling the sales team that I thought it might surprise us.”

That’s called understatement.

Philip C. Stead wrote the book for his wife, Erin E. Stead, to illustrate, after she became disillusioned about her art. The book, her first, about how zoo animals tend the zookeeper when he is ill, went on to win the Caldecott Medal.

Porter calls working with the authors and illustrators “almost always congenial. But there is friction, good friction like good trouble,” he notes, “and that’s the fun part. I once argued about a single word with an Australian author for an hour and a half on the phone. Given the time difference, we resolved it at 2 a.m. my time. Exhausting but nevertheless exhilarating.”

Porter credits two legendary editors with teaching him how to do what he does so well.

“Margaret McElderry taught me to be meticulous, and about author care, and opened my eyes to books from other cultures,” Porter says. “And Richard Jackson taught me to trust my instincts, and to have a hell of a good time while doing so.”

Kimberly Olson Fakih
Kimberly Olson Fakih

Kimberly Olson Fakih is Senior Editor, Picture Books, at SLJ. In addition to being the children's book review editor at Kirkus Reviews from 1995-2000, she was the senior editor at FamilyWonder.com, and executive books editor at iVillage. Her novel, Little Miseries, will be out in early 2023.

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