On November 7, Julie Just, deputy editor of the New York Times Book Review, becomes children’s book editor, taking over from Eden Ross Lipson, who is retiring after 21 years (and 31 years at the Book Review). Bookshelf spoke with Just about her new position.
What attracted you to the children’s job?
The moment Eden announced she was retiring, I asked Sam [Tanenhaus] for the job. I never lost an intense attachment to the books I loved growing up—they’ve followed me from place to place all my life—and I plunged in all over again when I had children. Also, the job immediately made a better work/life fit—now I bring home books every night and share them with my kids, instead of sneaking off into a corner to read.
How old are your kids and what kinds of books are they reading?
They are seven and three, and both are voracious readers (or page-turners, in the case of the three-year-old). My older daughter likes history and science and myths, but she doesn’t like anything scary. They both like poetry and humor, and beautiful books.
What were your favorite books growing up?
The Narnia books. The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, with Hilary Knight’s drawings. Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl, anything by Gerald Durrell. A bizarre series that my father grew up with by Paul T. Gilbert, about this character called Bertram, like Bertram and His Funny Animals. A hilarious little book by Ellen Raskin called Nothing Ever Happens on My Block. Those last two are out of print, unfortunately.
What impressions have you gathered so far about the children’s industry and the books themselves? Any surprises?
My first impressions are perhaps too upbeat. The bottom-line mentality is certainly a problem in kids’ publishing, as it is in adult books. But I’ve been struck by how many excellent books are being published at every reading level, by huge media companies and small independent houses. In the best picture books, there’s an impressive attention to detail—high-quality paper, experimental techniques, original voices; it’s hard to find such high quality on the adult side now, just vis-à-vis the physical book.
I also happen to be working on a guidebook to classic movies for kids, with my husband [Tom Reiss, author of The Orientalist], and I would say that classic books are doing better than classic movies! Most kids will at some point encounter Maurice Sendak or Roald Dahl; I’m not so sure they’re going to see the Marx Brothers or Michael Curtiz’s films, though I think exposing kids to all forms of great storytelling is crucial. Children’s books have a lot going for them, even compared to adult titles—they have an army of advocates, in the form of librarians and teachers who are committed to reading. That’s a huge advantage.
With 1.7 million readers of the Book Review, who do you feel is the primary audience for your reviews? Who do you see the reviews speaking to, and to what purpose?
Anyone who buys books for children—parents and grandparents; librarians and teachers. Other book review sections may look at what we do, and they might be moved to review a book if we give it attention. The primary purpose, in my mind, is to communicate excitement about interesting books— that’s the basic idea behind the first children’s book reviews in the Times, going back to the 1890s. It’s not the only purpose, by any means, but with the limited space we have, it’s pretty important.
How do you foresee balancing the Book Review’s mission as a critical journal with parents’ need for buying suggestions in bookstores?
Well—they’re both really important. My background is in journalism, so I basically want to get the news out—which raises the issue, is the news always good? No, it’s not. As soon as I got this job, parents I knew were coming up to me with urgent questions about things their kids were reading. They wanted guidance, which is something a book section should be able to give.
What changes do you have in mind for the children’s coverage?
I want to do more on the Web—link to interviews with authors and artists, say, and related readings; more illustrations. I’m adding some pages in the December holiday issue, which I hope will be a permanent thing. I’ll probably do more YA than has been done in recent years; it’s such a fascinating, varied, problematic genre. I think we could use the Web links to get young adults involved in the Book Review—I want to hear their voices and feedback about the books that are being written for them. There’s a great opportunity here to get kids involved in literature outside the classroom and journalism at the same time.
What do you see as the job’s biggest challenges? What are you most excited about?
The challenge is catching up on a couple of decades of interesting work—and not getting caught up trying to please everybody, because I won’t. There have only been three children’s books editors at the Times since 1935, and I’m the fourth. I’m most excited about the books—there’s a tremendous vitality out there. It’s a great moment to come into this field.