Q&A with Emily Mitchell
What is your favorite part of your job?
- WHITNEY HOUSTON ANSWER: I believe that children are our future, so I love being part of the creation and discovery of new stories that spark a connection in a kid, showing him or her new possibilities or reinforcing deeply felt beliefs.
- JIMINY CRICKET ANSWER: When I help an author or illustrator bring a book to market, I’m making someone’s dream come true. That makes me feel like I’m doing good in the universe.
- NSFW ANSWER, COURTESY OF MY HUSBAND: “You get paid to read. That’s like a nymphomaniac hooker.”
What kind of manuscripts do you typically like? Are there types of manuscripts/genres that aren’t the best match for you?
I have a soft spot for funny middle-grade fiction and chapter books (think Ramona, Clementine, Louis Sachar, e.g.). I like contemporary stories and historical stories, and I’m a sucker for good nonfiction. I’m not a great fan of high fantasy. I also have a pet peeve for extra-long books: in recent years we’ve seen an epidemic of 300-, 400-, 700-page books for young readers that don’t need to be that long. Precise and concise language is, to me, more impressive than a sprawling epic.
What is the most single most important element in a manuscript or illustration in attracting your attention?
Far and away, it’s voice: something that makes a story distinctive and recognizable, without crossing the line into gimmicky. E. L. Konigsburg has voice; so does Dav Pilkey. Jacqueline Woodson has it across multiple genres, from picture books to adult fiction. Voice isn’t just a text thing, either—artists have voice, through their line, use of color, and choice of medium. You can tell a Christian Robinson book from across the room, no matter the subject matter: that’s voice, too.
What are your particular preferences or pet peeves regarding submissions? Is there anything that might make a query irresistible to you?
Pet peeves: spelling errors, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, typos. Everyone makes them—I certainly do—but queries and manuscripts with obvious errors are harder for me to take seriously. On the flip side, if you can make me laugh, you have a leg up.
What excites you about the industry at present?
We Need Diverse Books is shining a light on an obvious problem in children’s publishing: 85% of professionals in the industry look like me (white, female, heterosexual, cisgender, upper-middle-class). No matter how good my intentions or how hard I work to recognize and name my own biases, I still look at the world through the lens of my experience and my privilege. That lens is too common among editors, agents, art directors, sales & marketing professionals, and executives, and it affects, consciously and unconsciously, the kinds of books we put into the world. As an industry we are moving, inexorably but still too slowly, toward a collective bookshelf that encompasses all readers, and I’m grateful to all the creative artists and industry professionals who are promoting and effecting real change, from paid internships to people from underrepresented backgrounds, to fill the professional pipeline; to workshops, panels, and conferences highlighting authors and artists of all colors, genders, and physical capabilities; to the refusal to stay silent in the media in the face of injustice.
Digital publishing has thrown monkey wrenches into almost every part of the publishing ecosystem—how we acquire, how we distribute, how we account, how we discover, and how we consume. It hasn’t changed the essential character of storytelling, however, or the timeless equation of story + reader + moment. The ongoing evolution of, and interactions between, story and format make for exciting times in the industry.
I’m also continually amazed by the human capacity to find and tell new stories. The anonymous, grouchy author of Ecclesiastes may believe “there is nothing new under the sun,” but I see new things every day.
Are there life experiences that you would say influence your viewpoint?
I’m a Midwesterner, a mom, a singer, an Episcopalian, a little sister, a baseball fanatic, a terrible eater, a reluctant runner, and, in my heart of hearts, a twelve-year-old boy.
Can you share some of your favorites to give a fuller picture of your range of interests?
–Movies WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (not a movie, I know, but I don’t care)
–Plays A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
–Books TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (one of the Great American Novels), THE WESTING GAME (I love puzzles! And smart kids!), CLEMENTINE (it makes me laugh that silent-open-mouthed-hysterical-heaving laugh), AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES (again with the smart kids!), CLICK CLACK MOO (funniest use of the word “ultimatum” in all literature)
–Gadgets My desktop coffee-mug warmer
–Vacations Rio de Janiero, UK (especially Oxford, Canterbury, and Stratford)
–What’s on your iPod? A pretty even balance between showtunes and Ke$ha. I’m eclectic like that.