So what's it like for an editor to be at the National Book Award ceremony with two authors up for the same prize? “Of course, you wish they could both win,” says Jennifer Hunt, executive editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “They” refers to Sherman Alexie and Sara Zarr, both finalists for the 2007 prize for Young People's Literature—for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Story of a Girl, respectively—which Alexie went on to win. (“I hope to have another opportunity with Sara,” Hunt adds.)
Two authors up for an NBA would be a coup for any editor, regardless of age, and Hunt, 35, is proving that the nominations were no fluke: a book she inherited when she joined Little, Brown—Laban Carrick Hill's Harlem Stomp—was an NBA finalist in 2004, and The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch, which she also edited, was nominated for an Edgar Award earlier this year. “It's great to get those nods from those people you really respect,” Hunt reflects. “You feel like, 'Okay, I'm not just sitting in my office spinning my wheels.' ” However, she maintains, her foremost goal is connecting with readers. “Your hope is that it's a book of high quality, but that kids are finding it accessible and engaging. Then you know you're on to something.”
Publishing wasn't on Hunt's radar when she graduated from Tufts University with a degree in sociology in 1995, and joined the marketing department at Deloitte & Touche in Boston. “I would go to work every day in a little suit,” Hunt recalls. “It wasn't me. I really had to start thinking about what I wanted to do.”
Her first clue came from independent publisher Beacon Press, which was just up the street and was offering an internship program aimed at minorities. “I would sneak out during my lunch hour,” Hunt says. “They were really great about letting me come for an hour and learn about the business.” At their suggestion, she enrolled in the Radcliffe Publishing Course.
Upon completing the program, Hunt knew publishing was for her, but her career had a few twists and turns ahead. Moving to New York, Hunt initially worked at Money magazine, and then in adult editorial at Crown, before becoming a producer at Time.com. Realizing how much she enjoyed working with writers, Hunt decided to return to publishing, and took an editorial position at Lee & Low Books. “In children's publishing you get a chance to work with incredible writers,” she says, “but there is this other level of creativity that comes along with it, whether it's the way you think about editing or the packaging or your audience.”
Hunt then moved to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, where she has risen to executive editor over the past six years. For Hunt, her personal background—she was adopted and raised by a white family—plays a role in the books that interest her. “Fish-out-of-water and identity stories have special appeal to me,” she says. “Being [raised] in New Mexico and Colorado, where you do feel different a lot of times—there were things during my own childhood that I had to grapple with. So when I run across a manuscript that [speaks to this] so beautifully, something like True Diary, I really feel connected to that story.”
Hunt believes that the biggest way in which her race affects her work is her ability to have frank discussions on the subject with authors.“We don't have to tiptoe around it,”she says, noting,“We still sometimes want to put writers in boxes, [but] I don't think about it that way. I just want to see just inventive stories.”
Hunt's interest in the youth market extends beyond books—she keeps close tabs on children's media at large, and is the development chair of Women in Children's Media. “I feel dedicated to creating things that are substantive, intelligent and engaging,” she says. “Why wouldn't I put all of my efforts into that, even though my audience might be five years old?”