The Whole Megillah (TWM): When and why did Kar-Ben move into MG and YA publishing? What’s the relationship with parent Lerner and how does that contribute?
Joni Sussman (JS): Kar-Ben has published occasional MG/YA manuscripts but we haven’t made — nor do we plan to make — a concerted effort to seek them out. However, we’ve continued to receive manuscripts for this age group over the years despite our not soliciting them and I’ve reviewed them as I’ve had time and/or if they’ve come from an author or agent I know. We’re more interested in MG than YA, as that’s the age group on the next step up the ladder from picture books. So when I received a fun Passover-themed time travel adventure manuscript from Eric Kimmel, Scarlett & Sam: Escape from Egypt, a couple of years ago, I thought we’d give that a try. It’s done well, so I’ve decided to pursue a few other stories, including a follow-up to the first Scarlett & Sam book. We now have several MG stories in our pipeline, scheduled to come out in the next couple of years.
Regarding our relationship with our parent company, Lerner has always published books for this age group albeit not specifically Jewish-themed titles. However, when a Lerner title happens to have Jewish content, which occurs once in a while, we carry it in our Kar-Ben catalog and vice versa. For example, Kar-Ben’s new spring 2017 title, The Six-Day Hero, by Tammar Stein, who’s written several other well-reviewed MG/YA titles, is about a 12-year-old Israeli boy living in Jerusalem through the ramp-up to the Six-Day War, as his older brother becomes a soldier and the boy learns that there can be many kinds of heroes. That book became a Junior Library Guild selection, and Lerner is carrying it in their catalog, which tells me there’s real interest out there, even in the non-Jewish world, for good Jewish-themed MG stories that have universal content. I think this interest is reflected in the “We Need Diverse Books” movement; middle-graders will read about cultures different from their own as long as the story is good. Some of the MG titles we’re pursuing are geared very much to the Jewish community; others, like The Six-Day Hero have more universal appeal.
TWM: Do you solicit manuscripts or review those that come to you over the transom?
JS: I don’t solicit manuscripts as we already receive many manuscripts for both picture books and chapter books, over 800 submissions a year to fill about 20 publication slots per year. Picture books will continue to be Kar-Ben’s main focus, but we may do a chapter book or two a year. As for chapter book manuscripts, I’m interested exclusively in MG stories — not YA — with word count in the 10,000-30,000 range and subject matter appropriate for ages 8-12.
TWM: Is there anything in particular you look for?
JS: As with our picture books, I’m interested in all Jewish-related topics. There are already many Holocaust stories in the marketplace for this age group, so, despite my personal interest in the topic, I’m less interested in those for now. Other MG chapter books we currently have in the works, to give you some examples, include an All-of-A-Kind style story about a family with many kids that takes place in 1920s Poland, as oldest sister Adina is about to enter into an arranged marriage. Another is about a young girl with an American dad and an Israeli mom who dreads giving up her summer camp fun to go on a family trip to meet her intimidating (to her) Hebrew-speaking Israeli family for the first time. Another delightful MG story in the works, aimed at the younger end of the MG crowd, is a mystery about a stolen Kiddush cup a la the old Nate-the-Great stories.
TWM: Do you work at all with PJ Our Way on MG titles?
JS: PJ Our way, the PJ Library program for kids 8-11, has purchased some of our chapter books for their program.
TWM: Do you foresee your MG/YA program expanding?
JS: I’m looking at publishing perhaps one or two MG chapter book titles a year for now and we’ll see how it goes.