When Norma Fox Mazer’s When She Was Good launched Arthur A. Levine Books back in fall 1997, the editor wrote a letter introducing that novel and his new imprint. In it, he spoke of his goal to create a publishing program centering on “the search for authors and artists who will make books that are emotionally true and beautifully crafted, and to get those books to their audience.” Over the last decade, Levine’s imprint at Scholastic has published 125 books, successfully connecting young readers to an international spectrum of authors and illustrators, among them the once-unknown first-time novelist, J.K. Rowling.
Looking back, Levine remarks that his imprint’s diversity of genres reflects his own reading tastes. “As a child, I was the kind of reader who wanted to read fantasy one day and historical fiction the next—and I still am,” he says. “Each reader has a different entry point in discovering the love of reading, and it’s important to give children a range of reading experiences. What must be consistent is the high quality of the writing and art.”
An integral aspect of Levine’s mission has been introducing American children to writers and illustrators from other countries. His spring 2000 list featured Samir and Yonatan, a Batchelder Award-winning novel by Israeli author Daniella Carmi. Levine published The Book of Everything by Dutch novelist Guus Kuijer in spring 2006. Chinese-Australian author Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, was released this past October. And due out on Levine’s summer 2008 list is Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, a fantasy adventure by bestselling Japanese author Nahoko Uehashi, whose books have never before been translated into English.
And of course there are those Harry Potter imports. “The idea of bringing this great new English author to American readers was one of the things that made me fall in love with Harry Potter,” Levine says of Rowling. “I wanted American kids to have a chance to read something that was so much fun and so distinctive, and when I brought in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone I was not thinking of this as a super commercial book. If I love something enough, enough other readers should love it too, whether they number 5,000 or five gajillion.”
Obviously, an astounding number of readers shared Levine’s response to the Harry Potter tales, which together have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide as of August. Rowling, who describes Levine as “insightful, astute, supportive and funny,” recalls their first conversation. “It was about half an hour after he’d bought the first Harry Potter for what was, to me, a huge sum. Arthur could have said nothing more understanding and empathetic than the very first words he spoke to me: ‘Are you terrified?’ I really adored him from that moment. My other great memories are working our way down the lists of phrases he would query as particularly difficult to understand for an American reader. We had some really good laughs doing those. There’s endless comic potential in incomprehensible slang.”
Levine’s editorial instincts also receive kudos from another of his authors, Lisa Yee, whose most recent novel is So Totally Emily Ebers, published by Levine last spring. Noting that “Arthur rescued me from the slush pile,” Yee explains that Levine felt that her first manuscript wasn’t right for him, but that he liked her voice and eventually signed up Millicent Min, Girl Genius. This Sid Fleischman Humor Award-winner came out in 2003 after what Yee described as “three major overhauls where I threw everything out but the main character.”
Says Yee, “He does this thing where, very casually—always very casually—he’ll ask you a question. And before you know it, BOOM! That seemingly innocuous question has totally discombobulated you and forced you to re-examine what it is you are doing and why. After you’ve revised your manuscript, you think, ‘I probably did exactly what he wanted me to do—only he never told me what that was. Instead he used his special Levine-question-telepathy trick.”
A self-professed “friendship junkie,” Levine places a high value on his relationships with authors and illustrators. “There is a certain special intimacy you have when you’re working with authors on something that is so meaningful to them,” he says.
Levine also emphasizes the importance of a children’s book editor’s relationship with an art director. “This person becomes a close partner in your creative endeavor, along with the author and illustrator,” he says. Levine calls David Saylor, v-p and creative director of Scholastic trade publishing, “a great art director with an almost magical ability to take a sketch or dummy and push it to a beautiful finished book.”
For his part, Saylor calls Levine “one of the most intelligent editors I’ve worked with, perhaps because he’s so attuned to his own responses to a book and can articulate them beautifully. He cares deeply about how his books look; he wants the quality to shine through in every detail.”
Levine also praises the significant contributions senior editor Cheryl Klein, editor Rachel Griffiths and editorial assistant Emily Clement make to the imprint, which he hopes will continue to grow “along the same lines that it has.” Among the highlights of his spring 2008 list are British illustrator Ross Collins’s first chapter book, Medusa Jones, and The Light of the World, a picture book by Katherine Paterson about the life of Jesus. Looking ahead, Levine comments, “I have a real passion for maintaining my own standards and letting that guide my publishing. I feel as though my standards are set and my mind is open. That’s a nice balance, I hope.”