Andrew Karre is unabashedly enthusiastic about the coming season. “This fall’s list is as near perfect [an example] as you are going to get of the range of things that interests me,” says Karre, editorial director of the Lerner Publishing Group’s trade imprints Carolrhoda and Carolrhoda Lab. “It’s very satisfying to look at this list and to think: that’s the balance I’m going for.” Plus, he says, “I like weird shit,” and as a result he consciously strives to build a list that is “provocative in all senses.”
Judging by the descriptions of most of the nine titles Carolrhoda and Lab are releasing this fall, Karre is succeeding his quest. In fact, he admits, some of the books on his list “can be polarizing,” eliciting enthusiastic responses from some quarters, but “kinda savage” feedback from others. “I noticed a trend in books of mine,” he says. “There’s a lack of middling reviews. I don’t know if I should be comforted or if I should make my peace with that. I hope that comes from trying to do new things.”
Karre, who previously served as acquisitions editor for Llewellyn’s YA fiction imprint, Flux, from its launch in 2005 through much of 2008, will in October celebrate his fifth anniversary at Lerner, acquiring and editing children’s and YA nonfiction and fiction titles.
It was happenstance that brought Karre into children’s publishing in the first place. Karre, who began his publishing career in 2002 at Creative Publishing International, in its home improvement book division, says that he initially sought a position at Llewellyn, not because he wanted to acquire and edit children’s fiction, but because he simply wanted to acquire and edit fiction. After almost three years building Flux’s list, Karre decided to “cast [his] lot with children’s books” and to expand his repertoire at Lerner.
“I wanted to try my hand at the whole range of children’s titles,” he recalled. “Llewellyn wasn’t interested in expanding downward and I was.” Carolrhoda’s 20–25 annual releases span the range from picture books to YA; every one, Karre says, is a book that “we feel passionately about.”
This fall’s list, Karre continues, includes everything from the first trade book for young readers on the history of sports-inflicted head injuries – Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment (Sept.) by Carla Killough McClafferty – to two YA novels by authors making their debuts: a modern adaptation of Hamlet told from Ophelia’s perspective, A Wounded Name (Sept.) by Dot Hutchison; and Sex & Violence (Oct.) by Carrie Mesrobian, which, he says, “gets at teen sex in a way few books do.” Sex & Violence, the story of a doomed romance between two teenagers, explores the intersection of sex and violence among male teenagers; it recently received a starred review in PW. The book was acquired after Karre issued a call on his blog, in search of a manuscript about a romance that did not tend towards an eventual marriage.
“I also like when authors do weird experiments, or go off the beaten path,” he notes, citing Believe (Sept.) by Sarah Aronson, a novel about a 16-year-old girl who survived a suicide bombing in Jerusalem when she was six and, subsequently, has become a public figure. “It’s a book about teenage-ness, about identity, and how the process for this character involves an entire country.” As another example, he mentions Losing It (Sept), an anthology edited by Keith Gray, in which ten authors, most of them British, have written “short stories about virginity that, without being autobiographical, emphasize both its cultural and personal meanings.
Describing Carolrhoda’s mission as providing readers with “a larger picture of adolescence,” Karre explains that he doesn’t acquire books for YA readers per se; rather, he acquires books about teenagers. “I’m not interested in the orthodoxy regarding YA and what it is,” he adds, defining YA as a genre that explores the adolescent experience rather than a category for adolescent readers.
“Teenage-ness is a phenomenon. Asking ‘what do teens like to read?’ is a fool’s errand; it’s like asking ‘what do adults like to read?’ A lot of people are interested in adolescence as a subject for fiction.”
Youth culture, Karre notes, is “incredibly fertile for fiction,” intersecting, as it does, life, politics, and art, and, at its core, remaining constant even as its participants age out and are replaced by others.
“You can go right now to Catcher in the Rye,” Karre points out, “and find a passage that will resonate with the Trayvon Martin debate. You can go to A Clockwork Orange and find the same thing. There are relevant themes that endure in [youth] culture.”
A Categorical Refusal
This philosophy about YA literature also influences his views concerning New Adult fiction, a developing genre whose term is generally credited to St. Martin’s Press. In 2009, the house issued a call for more explicit, “older YA” fiction for readers ages 18-25 that emphasizes life post-adolescence, such as college, first jobs, and serious adult relationships.
“The most diplomatic way I can put it is that it’s not for me,” Karre says in response to PW’s query. “I don’t get it. My concern is that [it] loses the connection with the adolescent part.”
He elaborates on his reasons for rejecting the category: “[New Adult] is the wrong reaction to everything we’re hearing about the audience for YA, that 55% of the people who buy and read YA are not young adults themselves. What that tells me is, ‘Oh, it’s stupid to try and make the subject matter and the characters mirror the audience; so let’s not do that at all.’ ”
“Maybe it’s selling and maybe it works,” he says. “But it’s outside of what I’m good at and what interests me. We’re a children’s publisher. New Adult doesn’t make sense for us.”
What does make sense to Karre is the evergreen popularity of dystopian and paranormal YA fiction. Such stories, he argues, provide a prism through which to explore the realities of being a teenager. Dystopian and paranormal fiction are popular in YA, Karre says, because “they’re like the biggest campfire that you can imagine.”
“There’s something for everybody in those books,” he explains, adding that vampires exemplify the extremes of the physical and psychic transformations that accompany adolescence, including that sense of invincibility peculiar to teens. Plus, Karre notes, not only do vampires possess typical teenage attributes, albeit exaggerated ones, they also are “sparkly and good-looking,” further enhancing their appeal.
As for dystopian fiction, Karre says, “The end of things is something incredibly relevant to teenagers. The end of adolescence is the thing you see coming; it’s the slow approach to the end of childhood, this big cataclysmic thing.”
While Karre, who estimates that he has published 150 teen novels in total for Flux and Carolrhoda, is most closely associated with YA, his books for younger readers also tend to be unconventional; this fall’s picture book offerings, with their offbeat subject matter, are no exception. Not only does the list include the sixth installment in a series of picture books featuring athletic dinosaurs, Dino-Wrestling (Oct.) by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Barry Gott, but it also includes Hey Charleston!: The True Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band (Nov.) by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by Colin Bootman; and The Bramble (Sept.) by Lee Nordling and Bruce Zick, about a boy who tumbles through a bramble into a mysterious world.
“If I could do only two things, I’d do picture book nonfiction and YA,” Karre says, explaining that Hey Charleston! was inspired by the true story of a former slave in South Carolina, who first opened an orphanage in 1891 and then formed a band there, using donated musical instruments last used by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. “The swords into ploughshares image is what I love about it,” he says. “There’s never been a picture book before about Reverend Jenkins, and it’s such a cool story.”
The Bramble, the story of a young outcast who discovers a magical world, also appeals to Karre, who praises wordless (or, in The Bramble’s case, nearly wordless) picture books, “especially the ones that play with form.” They can’t be replicated in digital format, he insists; “it has to be a picture book.”
Despite the encroachments of digitization, Karre is optimistic about the future of children’s book publishing. “Books, particularly children’s books, are going to get through the digital transition,” he says, noting that even the most digitally savvy young readers are also interested in print, and that there’s less of a drop-off in recent years in YA hardcover sales than there is for adult hardcovers. He even sees the silver lining, declaring that digitization has “clarified what a gorgeous thing a print picture book is, what’s awesome about print picture books.”
Despite the challenges, including the tendency towards chasing after popular trends, children’s publishing is, Karre concludes, a “small but robust” industry that is made more sustainable by the strong sense of camaraderie that he’s not so sure exists in book publishing in general.
“If a prominent children’s author dies tomorrow, no other children’s author is going to spend the next six months on Twitter, writing nasty things about him or her,” he says, exaggerating the feuding that sometimes arises in the adult book world.
In contrast, he notes, children’s book authors are “taking risks; they’re doing brave work and they’re supporting one another. It’s all very collegial.”
“It’s exciting, and it continues to be exciting,” he says. “It seems like they’re not having as much fun in adult publishing.”
Even though every author who’s been published by Carolrhoda Lab has also been published by larger houses, and although he has lost authors whose careers he’s launched to competitors, Karre maintains his belief in children’s book publishing as a community of friends. He insists that the author-publisher relationship is an “at-will” relationship, and that the reality is that a larger house can often do more for an author than a medium-sized company like Lerner. But YA authors are a prolific lot, he says, and some of them are best served by having multiple publishers.
Of course, “it’s rewarding when someone comes back to work with me,” he says. “I like to be the one they come back to when they do strange things.”