Editors at the Top! Beach Lane’s Allyn Johnston

The third in a four-part series interviewing editors that run their own imprints.

img_5693Allyn Johnston began her children’s book career as a marketing assistant at Clarion Books and then spent 22 years at Harcourt Children’s Books in San Diego, where she started as an editorial assistant and ended up as Editor-in-Chief. She is now VP & Publisher of Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, that she and Executive Editor Andrea Welch founded on April Fool’s Day, 2008, and which is located on a flower-filled lane near the ocean in La Jolla, California.

Among the many distinguished authors and illustrators with whom Allyn works are Mem Fox, Marla Frazee, Lois Ehlert, Cynthia Rylant, Arthur Howard, Mary Lyn Ray, Jeanette Winter, Jan Thomas, Liz Garton Scanlon, Debra Frasier, Lauren Stringer, and K. L. Going.

Allyn grew up in Malibu, California, and she still can’t believe she is lucky enough to be able to be a children’s book editor in her home state.

Why are picture books important to you? And what picture books do you remember from your childhood?

The grown-ups in my life read aloud to me often when I was little. I loved the rhythm of their voices. I loved the cozy closeness of us curled up in big chairs. I loved the soft light, I loved the wide-ranging stories, and I especially loved the shared private connections and laughs we had through reading and re-reading our favorite books. Parents, grandparents, teachers, babysitters—they were all in on it. And I’m certain those many years of listening to and looking at picture books are why I became a children’s book editor.

Some standouts from my childhood are Ferdinand; One Morning In Maine; The Story of Ping; The Little House; Over and Over; Three Little Animals; Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present; A Hole Is to Dig; Goodnight Moon; The Carrot Seed; The Snowy Day; A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You; The Big Jump; Mabel the Whale; Hurry, Scurry, and Flurry; and The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.

How do you see your role as a picture book editor?

Besides being extremely obsessive about as many details as possible on every book I’m working on at any given moment, I think my most important role is to be open to what the authors and illustrators I work with want to do next. What are the tiny glimmers and fragments and elusive possibilities that have caught them up? What are they hoping to make with them? And what do they need from me now?

Authors and illustrators pull things out of thin air—which is nothing short of amazing. But that can involve a whole lot of insecurities, embarrassments, and anxieties. Especially when they are brave enough to share their ideas with someone. Like an editor. That’s the most fragile, nerve-wracking (and exciting!) time for me—the time when someone shows me something new. I must be as attentive and open as possible. And brave, too. Because if something isn’t quite working yet, it’s hard for me to say the things that need to be said. But I have to do it.

I also push myself to keep in mind the moment when a book will be read aloud and shared between children and the adults in their lives. I want the books I publish to deliver the most irresistible and emotional read-aloud experiences possible. Mem Fox, the great Australian picture book writer, brilliantly articulates this idea in her adult book, Reading Magic, about the power—and the magic—of reading aloud. If you don’t already have a copy, go get one right now.

What’s the hardest part of a picture book to get right?

What is the point? Why should we care?

What picture books do you wish you’d published?

Hattie and the Fox by Mem Fox, illustrated by Patricia Mullins; Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, illustrated by Julie Vivas; and The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller.

What do you most wish aspiring picture-book writers understood about picture books?

That a picture book is more than anything else a piece of theater, with pictures and words unfolding together as the pages turn and turn and turn all the way to that most important and satisfying one—the final turn from pages 30-31 to page 32.

A picture book is not a static piece of double-spaced writing on several sheets of 8½ x 11 paper. It’s also not a chunk of writing that sounds like part of a young middle-grade novel. The text of a picture book is more like poetry than prose. It needs rhythm and succinctness and not a bunch of description and dialog. To steal from Mem, it needs “perfect words in perfect places.” And not too many of them.

If you are a writer but not an illustrator, you of course must leave room for the artist to tell the picture story. But you also must let go of the notion that it is in any way your job to control what happens in the pictures. (No art notes! None. You may think I’m joking! But I’m not.) Your job is to write the best story you can possibly write, one that is so deliciously gorgeous and unexpected and fun in the way it unfolds, and in its emotional power, that no one who reads it can get it out of their heads.

As author/illustrator Marla Frazee has said so beautifully, “It’s the text and the art that are collaborating in a picture book.” It’s words and pictures together that make the whole. Trust each of them to tell its part.

Has running Beach Lane Books changed your acquisitions or editorial decisions from previous jobs you’ve had? 

No. I still look for and publish the kinds of picture books I’ve always loved. My (lofty!) goal is to find books that go straight into the hearts of everyone who reads them.

When my son, Eamon, graduated from high school, he got cards and gifts from many people, including Cynthia Rylant, with whom I have worked for over 25 years. She sent him a William Maxwell novel, a collection of David Huddle poems, and some money, which she insisted he not spend sensibly. In his thank-you note he wrote, “Dear Cyndi, I feel so lucky to have these books from you, and I’m excited not to be sensible with the cash. Thanks for your support through my childhood. Seriously, I don’t know how I could’ve done it without Henry and Mudge.”

I didn’t have the good fortune to be the editor of the Henry and Mudge books, but I sure read them aloud to Eamon a bazillion times, and those characters and their world were part of our family. That sort of connection to real children and their real lives is what I aspire to with every book I publish.

In 2008, I spoke at the 12th Annual Charlotte S. Huck Children’s Literature Festival in Redlands, California. Over the course of the two days, speaker after speaker began their talks with images of adored childhood books they credited with not only bringing them to where they are as writers, illustrators, and editors, but also with helping shape them as people. The thought that books I’ve edited in my career might have that sort of impact on people’s lives is what inspires me the most about this job.

Will you close with sharing some new Beach Lane picture books you’ve edited?

Of course!

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The Bossier Baby by Marla Frazee

There’s a new CEO in town. . . .

 

 

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Yellow Time by Lauren Stringer

A fall-leaf extravaganza!

 

 

 

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Is that Wise, Pig? by Jan Thomas

Counting—and the silliest soup recipe around

 

 

we-love-you-rosie-9781442465114_hrWe Love You, Rosie! by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Linda Davick

Opposites, siblings, love—and a weinerdog

 

 

 

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The Secret Project written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter

The chilling true story of the invention of the first atomic bomb

 

 

 

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Heart 2 Heart by Lois Ehlert

A rebus-and-pun-filled valentine for everyone you love!

 

 

 

Thanks Allyn for your time and thoughtful answers! It was a joy talking to you for the first time!

Picture Book Builders Note: Stephanie Lowden, you are the winner of our book giveaway, Lisa Wheeler’s THE CHRISTMAS BOOT. Please immediately contact Lisa through her website to receive your copy.

Barb Rosenstock

Barb Rosenstock

Barb Rosenstock loves true stories best. She’s the author of award-winning nonfiction and historical fiction picture books including the 2015 Caldecott Honor book The Noisy Paint Box illustrated by Mary Grandpré. Upcoming titles include: Blue Grass Boy with Edwin Fotheringham (Calkins Creek) Vincent Can’t Sleep with Mary Grandpré (Knopf) The Secret Kingdom with Claire A. Nivola (Candlewick) and Discovering the Deep with Katherine Roy (Little, Brown)

25 Comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt interview. It makes me want to be a better writer.

    This was my favorite line in a post filled with favorite lines:

    “I want the books I publish to deliver the most irresistible and emotional read-aloud experiences possible. “

    • Talking to Allyn made me want be a better writer too! I think that’s what the best editors do…turn us into our best writer-selves.

      • “It makes me want to be a better writer.”
        I felt the same way! And was reminded of hearing her at an SCBWI-IA conference a few years back – and how I felt the same way then. What a gift to have that effect on people. 🙂

  2. Hey, Allyn! Great to have you here at PBB. Thank you both for a wonderful interview, and for the eloquent reminder of why we do what we do.

  3. A beautiful reminder of why we do what we do! Thank you!!

  4. Lovely interview!! Thanks for sharing, Barb. Allyn would be my dream editor. I heard her speak along with Marla Frazee on how they collaborate at an SCBWI meeting years ago–such amazing synergy! And I once received a wonderful handwritten rejection from her on a manuscript I subbed long ago– 🙂

  5. Thanks Barb and Allyn, I love Beach Lane’s books.

  6. Wonderful interview! Thanks, Barb. And thank you to Allyn, too!

  7. Useful and succinct interview! I will now force myself to STOP with the (very spare) art notes that I often include on manuscripts. Gulp! 🙂

  8. Picture books are treasures. As a teacher, my favorite time of the day was reading aloud. It was the most important thing–getting kids hooked on books.

  9. great article!! Thanks! Refreshes and reinforces the essential!

  10. So inspiring and touching. Thank you for sharing your heart about picture books and editing. I think my eldest son might say something similar about Henry and Mudge. He learned to read off of those books.

  11. Yay. I’m so glad you were able to connect. It’s a lovely interview, Barb 🙂

    • The best part of being a children’s author- well, other than the fact that I’m working in my PJs right now- the other caring, creative people you get to know, right? Thanks for connecting us, Liz!

  12. Wonderful interview! Thank you for sharing this and inspiring us all to write better.

  13. Thanks for the inspiring interview. I’m holding on to the image of reading aloud and sharing special moments with an adult.
    Thank you.

  14. Thanks for the inspiration. I am off to find my copy of Mem Fox’s, Reading Magic. It’s time for a reread.

  15. Great article, my goal is to go to the library and read all Mem Fox’s books. She has been writing since, 1983! What an assortment. Love all the tips. Cheers!

  16. So inspiring. I like to keep an eye out for Beach Lane books because they’re so wonderful.

  17. Sure, “Authors and illustrators pull things out of thin air”. But they need a great editor like Allyn Johnston to help them do it!

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