“Publishing is in the midst of a much-needed and long-overdue reckoning”: A Word with . . . Emma Kantor

In this edition of A Word With You, we spoke with Brooklyn-based writer Emma Kantor, deputy children’s book editor at Publishers Weekly. She previously served as publicity and digital content manager at the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader. You can follow her at @emkantor.

So . . . how are you?

I’m doing well, all things considered. Fortunately, I’ve been able to continue working uninterrupted since COVID-19 hit in March. The staff at Publishers Weekly transitioned to working remotely without missing a beat.

On the children’s book front, we launched our free monthly School & Library Spotlight e-newsletter at the end of June, for which I serve as editor. The newsletter is aimed at teachers and librarians who work with children from pre-K through 12th grade. We’ve addressed timely issues and challenges facing these professionals, including approaches to distance learning, virtual book fairs, social emotional learning, and discussing current events in the classroom. So far, the response from readers has been positive, and we’re excited for the newsletter to grow in its scope and reach.

I’ve also taken on the role of children’s and YA host for PW’s new Books on Tap Live video interview series. It’s been a blast speaking with authors and illustrators about their latest projects—while getting a peek inside their workspaces! I have such admiration for the creativity and resilience of kids’ book artists, who remain committed to inspiring young readers.

Has the COVID crisis affected how you think about books?

I’ve always seen books, and everyone who plays a part in the life cycle of a book, as essential. If we’ve been living through a crisis of misinformation and misrepresentation, then a stronger foundation in critical-thinking and empathy is going to help get us through it. Enter books.

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

In light of the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster announcement, I think it’s especially important for us to celebrate and support indie publishers and booksellers. On a personal note, I have Idlewild Books in New York to thank for fulfilling my armchair travel needs during quarantine. The store has been hosting not one but two book clubs: Women in Translation, which features novels by female authors from around the world, and the Social Studies Book Club, which offers a survey of global nonfiction. Both are led by book buyer and manager Natasha Gilmore (via Zoom for the time being). Season 2 of Women in Translation kicks off in February, and I’m very much looking forward to it. Idlewild also deserves a shout-out for carrying on its language classes remotely. I’ve been part of an Italian film and conversation group for more than two years with instructor Stefano di Cicco, and it’s a highlight of my week.

What’s the best (or worst) piece of publishing/writing advice you’ve seen recently?

I was talking to a friend about how easy it is as a creative person to fall into defeatist thinking in the face of our current crisis, and she said, “I’m more behind being a writer than ever right now.” I’m clinging to that.

What does trade journalism look like right now? What’s different about how you’re covering the industry right now?

It’s no surprise that the pandemic has been a major through-line in PW’s coverage since February. From book fair and trade show reconfiguring to digital marketing strategies and authors’ experiences under quarantine, we’ve been taking a close look at the impact of COVID-19 on all aspects of the publishing landscape. In terms of trade journalism in general, I’ve found it heartening to see a greater awareness of the ways that publishing intersects with and reflects global issues such as Black Lives Matter, social justice, environmental concerns, and more.

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even when things return to “normal”?

Whatever “normal” looks like after the pandemic, whether that’s returning to the office, working from home, or some kind of hybrid, I plan to keep having periodic check-ins with colleagues, not just for the sake of the job but for camaraderie. I’ve realized it’s also important to check in with oneself to prevent burnout. This year has reinforced the need for self-care and perspective.

What do you hope for the future of publishing?

Like so many other industries, publishing is in the midst of a much-needed and long-overdue reckoning. Author Kacen Callender put it beautifully in their acceptance speech for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature: “This has been the hardest, most painful, most devastating year in many people’s memories. But this has also been an empowering year for many: a year when we’re forced to pause and reflect, not only on ourselves, but on the society we live in—to look at the wounds internal and external and to heal and to grow.” I’m optimistic that the publishing world as a whole will continue to do that hard work of reflecting and growing, with the goal of building a more inclusive and equitable system.

What are you working on and what are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.)?

I’m currently serving as a Middle Grade Fiction judge for the 2020 Cybils Awards, along with fellow members of the children’s book community. I have a special love of books for that age group, and it’s been a pleasure reading many of the incredible middle grade titles I overlooked during this hectic year.

One of the “extracurricular” activities I’ve missed the most in 2020 is going to the movies. While I can’t check out screenings at my favorite NY indie theaters—Film Forum, Metrograph, the Quad—I’ve been watching my fill of the classics (three cheers for TCM!) and new releases at home. And, as I mentioned above, I’m part of a lovely Italian film and conversation class through Idlewild Books. For the past few months, we’ve been doing a close-up on films set in Naples, many of them based on books. I hope to travel there in person someday soon—maybe an extended trip after the next Bologna Children’s Book Fair. . . .

Looking for a way to support independent bookstores? Make a donation to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), purchase a book online from your favorite bookstore, or visit Bookshop.org.

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