For the past decade or so, graphic novels have been a rapidly expanding category for children and teens, with a growing number of gatekeepers extolling the value of comics as a form of visual literacy and a powerful means of hooking young readers. Now, a major publisher is getting behind the phenomenon with a dedicated graphic novel imprint. In May 2018, Random House Children’s Books announced plans to launch the Random House Graphic imprint, helmed by publishing director Gina Gagliano. We checked in with Gagliano about her progress, with the list launching in January, in our new occasional series about new children’s publishing ventures.

Gagliano was previously associate director of marketing and publicity at Macmillan Publishing’s First Second Books imprint; she was among the original employees who joined the team in 2005 at its launch. She is well known throughout the comics publishing community and has designed comics programming for the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Splat! Graphic Novel Symposium, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City, and the Toronto Comics Art Festival. Gagliano also co-runs the informal Women in Comics Publishing NYC events series with Abby Denson, and co-hosts the podcast Graphic Novel TK with Alison Wilgus.

In her new role, Gagliano reports to Judith Haut, senior v-p, associate publisher of Random House Children’s Books. When the imprint was announced last year, Haut told PW, “It is a truly exciting and important time of growth for comics and graphic novels within the kids’ market, and we see a distinct opportunity to reach even more readers.”

The imprint’s motto, “a graphic novel on every bookshelf,” exemplifies Gagliano’s mission. “That’s what we really want reading to be in America—not just prose, but also pictures, for all age groups,” she told PW. “I see us leading the way to make sure kids who are reading beyond picture books get titles with pictures when they’re five, 10, 15, and 20. Visual literacy is such an important part of our culture.”

Reflecting on her transition from publicist to publishing director, Gagliano said, “Part of the job of a publisher at a new imprint is constant surprise all the time. There are all these questions every step of the way, every time we do something new. This whole experience has been about change, from moving to a new publisher, different people, a different system, and building a staff here. Each of us is getting to work with people we’d never worked with before. And that’s part of the fun of it.”

Gagliano described her team, which includes senior editor Whitney Leopard, designer Patrick Crotty, and marketing/publicity manager Nicole Valdez, as a tightknit group. “We all work together pretty intensively. It’s very collaborative—everything from pitches to ad design to convention-planning to cover design. We share input as we go along. The idea is we’ve actively built our airplane and then it flies off and brings great novels to all children.” The buzz, both internal and external, has been energizing, she said, “It’s a delightful surprise every time a designer shares a cover, and when our senior editor receives a full manuscript, or gets a nice comment on Twitter, or at a regional conference or festival.”

What unites the staff is their commitment to comics. Leopard was previously an editor at BOOM! Studios in Los Angeles, managing the KaBOOM! imprint that publishes middle-grade and young reader comics and graphic novels. Prior to joining RHG, Crotty was located in Stockholm, where he co-founded the Swedish independent publisher PEOW—a prominent European publisher in the U.S. indie comics landscape. Crotty has also taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. “He brings a fascinating sensibility to us, in his layouts and lettering and covers, and his work with authors and colorists,” Gagliano said.

Ready, Set, Launch

The inaugural list features four titles, with an aim toward publishing 12 titles per year. Gagliano said the emphasis is on discovering and developing emerging talent. “Our list is for the most part new authors, and we really have a focus on building up new people who are starting their careers.”

The first of the launch titles is The Runway Princess by Johan Troïanowski (Jan. 21), a French book in translation about a young princess who sets off on an adventure, to the distress of her protective parents. Leopard said, “We knew that we wanted to start getting books out soon and, in order to do that, we were looking at books that already existed in other countries.” Describing the book, which originally released in three volumes under the series title Rouge, she said, “Not only is it a fun adventure, but the art style is beautiful, and the storytelling feels very interactive.”

Due out on February 11 is Bug Boys by Laura Knetzger, first in a two-volume series that originated as a zine. Leopard, who first encountered Knetzger in the indie scene, said, “She can take a story about two beetles, and have this friendship journey where they explore empathy and world around them. We think this younger chapter book series will stand out.”

Another work in translation, originally published in Belgium and France, is Aster and the Accidental Magic by Thom Pico, illustrated by Karensac, which releases on March 3. Leopard pitched the two-part series as “classic city girl moves to the country—with a magic twist,” and said she was drawn to “the really smart character.” The second volume is forthcoming in 2021.

Finally, Graphic’s debut YA title, Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky, will publish on April 14. Like Bug Boys, Zabarsky’s fantasy started in the self-published zine format. Leopard then had the chance to work with the author on developing her story. Graphic plans to do another book with Zabarsky, as yet to be determined.

Looking at the overall list, Leopard said, “The first thing that usually makes a graphic novel stand out to me is whether the characters are strong. I think that’s one of the main things we look for. Second is, of course, the art. I love to see people take advantage of this visual medium, and I have the privilege of working with a variety of creators who do things their own way.”

On the Horizon

Beyond spring 2020, Gagliano is looking forward to the prospects and challenges that come with overseeing a new imprint. “One of the interesting things about the children’s and YA graphic novel space is that there’s such a content opportunity any way you turn,” she said. “We want those kids who are getting into this format and loving these books to have enough to read, and that includes all genres and topics.”

Part of the imprint’s mission is to create books for young readers of all ages. “For the past several years, graphic novels in the middle grade space have been knocking it out of the park,” Gagliano observed. “What we see is spillover into different age categories, with the success of The Bad Guys, Dog Man, Narwhal and Jelly, Tiger vs. Nightmare, and chapter books for kids who are just starting to read sequentially.” Gagliano foresees the demand for YA graphic novels growing as well. “Just like we saw with middle grade, YA has a way to expand,” she said, pointing to recent titles such as March, The Prince and the Dressmaker, and Bloom as “paving the way for graphic novels.”

In terms of possible pushback from gatekeepers, she said, “I think any time that you do something new, there’s always going to be some resistance; that’s not a reason not to do it. We find amazing advocates, booksellers, teachers, and librarians getting on board with this format. The market started opening up with Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese in 2006, and people have been really excited and inspired, publishing more every year. The books are getting better and better and more teens are reading them.”

Gagliano reiterated the value of working alongside a talented crew. “Graphic novels tend to be very time-consuming to put together, but what’s great is with Whitney, Patrick, and Nicole I have a team who really knows the format inside and out. We love what we’re doing and we’re all super dedicated to making great books; that really gets us ahead in the direction we need to go,” she said. “Having a great team and having amazing authors who are familiar with the format—put those together and what is there that we can’t do?”