Joni Sussman is the Publisher at Kar-Ben Publishing, a division of Lerner Publishing Group. Kar-Ben’s concentration is Jewish content picture books for children, both fiction and non-fiction for preschool through approximately 6th grade, including holiday books, life-cycle stories, Bible tales, folktales, board books, and activity books. In particular, we are looking for stories that reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of today’s Jewish family. Joni has also served as Publisher of Minnesota Parent Magazine, and as Editorial and Marketing Director for Meadowbrook Press, a children’s and parenting publisher. She is a past-president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, where she continues to serve as Chair of Holocaust Education.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you come to be at Kar-Ben?
Joni Sussman (JS): I’ve been in children’s publishing for many years, including Publisher of Minnesota Parent Magazine and Editorial Director at Meadowbrook Press, a parenting and children’s book publisher. I’ve also been very active in the Jewish community at both the local and national levels, so running Kar-Ben Publishing has been an excellent fit for me and for the company. Kar-ben books were favorites of my children almost 30 years ago and I’m delighted to have this opportunity to bring Jewish children’s books to the next level, as we deal with the rich and changing Jewish community in North America.
TWM: What was your favorite book growing up?
JS: In terms of Jewish books, there wasn’t much. I loved the All-of-a-Kind Family series, but also other “family” series such as the The Five Little Peppers and Little Women. My parents were Holocaust survivors and wanted to make sure that I had what they considered to be “classic” American children’s literature.
TWM: What does today’s Jewish children’s lit need more of? Less of?
JS: Today’s Jewish children’s literature needs more books that speak to the contemporary American Jewish experience, fewer shtetl-based stories and more stories about contemporary Jewish families, where the mom might dispense with lacey tablecloth and chicken soup for Shabbat, and yet where Shabbat is still joyously celebrated. Our upcoming book, The Shabbat Princess, by Amy Meltzer, is this sort of story. In a busy crazy household, a little girl teaches her parents about beautifying the celebration of Shabbat in a kid-friendly and non-didactic way. It’s a charming story and speaks to today’s parents, many of whom are learning about (or perhaps being reminded about) Jewish customs and celebrations from their kids who may have learned about the holidays in Jewish preschools. Today’s Jewish children’s books should also reflect today’s Jewish families – working moms, active grandparents, shared household duties between parents, etc.
TWM: What do you look for in a manuscript?
JS: We look for a great idea and great writing. A great idea poorly executed doesn’t work, nor does a well written but blah story. We look for Jewish themes in which a broad range of Jewish kids can see themselves.
TWM: What do you wish more writers would do when submitting to you?
JS: Check to see what other books are already out there, and how recently published, on the theme they’re writing about, easy enough to do by googling Amazon with a particular keyword. Also, check Kar-Ben’s website to see what titles we’ve recently published and if yours is similar, tell me why we should consider another book on the same subject.
TWM: What’s the best way to submit to you?
JS: We prefer e-mail submissions so they can be easily shared with editorial staff, but we do accept mailed submissions as well. We prefer authors not submit illustrations or art direction, just a simple well-written Word document 850-1000 words in length.
TWM: How does Kar-Ben work with Lerner and its other imprints?
JS: Kar-Ben Publishing is one of 12 imprints of Lerner Publishing Group. This gives us the great advantage of having access to Lerner’s experienced and talented art, design, production, electronic media and other departments. We make our own editorial and marketing decisions.
TWM: What’s next for Kar-Ben?
JS: Kar-Ben will be rolling out our e-book program in 2011. Like all other publishers, we’re grappling with the best way to make electronic versions of our books available to our readers. Stay tuned for updates on this!
TWM: What’s next for Joni Sussman?
JS: As technology and e-books continue to evolve, this is an exciting time for book publishers in general and Jewish content children’s books in particular, as Jewish families will likely be among the early adapters of these new and exciting technologies. I’m looking forward to rolling out our e-book program as well collaborating with Sesame Street on an upcoming companion book series for its new Shalom Sesame venture.