Week of January 6, 2013: An Interview with Maria Modugno
Monday, January 7—An Interview with Maria Modugno, Part I
This is the first installment in a four-part interview with Maria Modugno, Editorial Director, Picture Books, Random House Books for Young Readers.
Rob Sanders: Maria, thank you for revisiting our interview from last year, and congratulations on your new position at Random House. Tell us about your new responsibilities and what you are doing at Random House.
Maria Modugno: I’m Editorial Director for Picture Books at Random House Books for Young Readers. I'll be originating new picture books as well as acting as a resource for other editors in the RHBFYR group who might acquire a picture book. The various programs and series, such as Step into Reading and Magic Tree House, are handled by other editors. Schwartz and Wade is an independent imprint, as is Knopf, but we all fall under the same President, Barbara Marcus.
I'm specifically looking for picture books with minimal text and fully-developed stories. I have a particular interest in developing characters who can be introduced in the hardcover picture book format and then extended into easy readers and 8 x8s. (SPLAT THE CAT and PINKALICIOUS are two good examples I originated.) Describing a good picture book manuscript is a little bit like describing porn—hard to define but I know it when I see it. I'm looking for timeless stories told in a fresh, new way.
RS: Maria, in your opinion, what ingredients combine to make a well-written picture book?
MM: Start with a good story, one with a real plot. Appealing characters that are stand-ins for the audience. Spare writing. Perfect illustrations that complement the text. Fun. A reason a bookstore will find the finished book irresistible. An editor has to fall in love a little bit to pursue all that it takes to get a picture book acquired and published.
RS: You mentioned “a reason a bookstore will find the finished book irresistible.” Tell us what you think bookstores find irresistible and tell us a bit about promotional hooks that might “hook” a book seller.
MM: If I knew the formula for making a finished book irresistible, I would be a millionaire. Even after years of experience, I find it hard to anticipate which titles will really take off. I always pause when I have the first bound book in my hands and celebrate that achievement. What the market thinks is out of our control. Nevertheless, most bookstores use the top seasonal holidays as a hook for a display. Back to school is another important season for picture books. It goes without saying, that the publisher has priced the book competitively and the trim size is right for the story, i.e. some books are “lap books” that can be spread across the laps of two readers; some illustrations call for vertical size and others for landscape.
RS: You’ve mentioned to me in the past that publishers have the need to establish characters in the minds of retailers and to make it possible for bookstores to know “the spot” where a picture book fits on the shelf. How do you recognize those kinds of characters and stories? What makes a book find that spot on a bookstore shelf?
MM: Wow. Another hard one. I think the characters featured in a picture book need to be appealing and well rounded (not stereotypes, but more like real kids). They should be involved with kid-like concerns and interests. It helps to have a distinguishing feature such as Fancy Nancy’s love of words or Pinkalicious’ passion for pink.
RS: The age-range for the picture book audience seems to have shifted lower. What age-range do you consider to be the audience for the picture books you publish?
RS: How much do you consider age-range when choosing a manuscript to publish?
MM: I want the subject matter to be appealing to the target age range for a book but it’s idiosyncratic. I’ve yet to meet two five-year-olds who are alike.
Is your appetite whetted? Are you ready to learn more? Me, too!
Come back tomorrow for more wisdom from Maria!