We are excited to be hosting a FREE webinar series this summer dedicated to those all-important first impressions. We call it “First Page Center Stage.” In this webinar series, industry professionals will provide live feedback of participants’ First Pages (for manuscripts) or First Looks (for illustrations). Each webinar in the series will focus on a single category: PB, CB, MG, YA, and NF. The fifth webinar in the series will be led by Penguin Random House Editor Bunmi Ishola, who will be giving first pages feedback for chapter books on August 26. To find out more about the webinar series and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-first-page-center-stage/ and for information about our critique giveaway, keep reading!
In preparation for the webinar, Eastern PA SCBWI’s Assistant Regional Advisor and Webinar Coordinator, Kristen Strocchia, was able to chat with Bunmi recently at our virtual café. Here’s what they had to say:
A Café Chat with Editor Bunmi Ishola, by Kristen Strocchia
Kristen: Hi, Bunmi! Welcome to the EasternPennPoints Virtual Café. Before we get started, would you like a munchie or something to drink?
Bunmi: I’m always down for a cup of lemon ginger or hibiscus tea. And I recently was introduced to dried seaweed and can eat through an entire package in one sitting.
Kristen: Ooh, a cup of plum ginger hibiscus tea does sound perfect right now. And maybe some sesame brittle. As a former middle school educator myself, I know that I often see my classroom experiences seeping into my work. What kind of books would you like to help put in the hands of your former students?
Bunmi: I was always searching for more books that reflected my student’s actual lives and/or fueled their imaginations and helped them dream big. A lot of the “fun” books seem to mostly have white characters, and if you got books with a BIPOC main character, then there was a lot of violence or some level of trauma being explored. Those stories are important to tell, but they aren’t the full story of what being a BIPOC kid is like. I just think it’s important for all kids to be able to have their identity reflected in all kinds of stories. It would be nice to see more BIPOC characters as leads in adventure, sci-fi, and fantasy—although as a Nigerian American who grew up between two countries/cultures, I’ve yet to find books with an African main character that isn’t fantasy. If anyone has recommendations besides Anna Hibiscus, let me know—and on the flip side, it’d be nice to have BIPOC characters in contemporary realistic stories that show a wider breadth of childhood experiences.
Kristen: That insight is so helpful in understanding the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices discussions. And it’s also a perfect segue. Your involvement with The Word, A Storytelling Sanctuary seems very rewarding. Can you share a little about your work with this organization?
Bunmi: The Word focuses on creating a more diverse publishing world, and so all of our programs are geared toward supporting writers from marginalized backgrounds. I’ve been president of the board for the last three years, and also have been the Editor-Writer Mentorship coordinator. While I love all the programs we do, managing the mentorship program is one of my favorite things—and my favorite part is getting to call the mentees and let them know an editor has selected them to mentor. A lot of these writers have been working for years on their manuscripts, and in some cases, have applied multiple times to our program, so getting to hear their excitement and joy on the phone is awesome. We also now have a few former mentees who have gotten book deals, and we love knowing that our program played even a small role in that success. But even if an author is not chosen for mentorship, I try really hard to make sure we’re able to pass on some feedback to every writer who applies, which I think is a unique aspect of what we do.
Kristen: What an amazing thing to get to be the good news bearer. It must be an enjoyable part of acquiring a manuscript as well. So, I know that our members will get a good sense of what you’re looking for during our First Page Center Stage Chapter Book Night, but give us a sneak peek if you could. What kind of chapter book series would be a good fit for your team? Any chapter book-specific MSWL details you hope to find in your inbox?
Bunmi: The best chapter books have really strong characters—big (or at least distinct) personalities that kids can fall in love with and want to follow on many adventures. I prefer books about humans but recognize that animals are a huge draw for kids too. Since I work for a faith-based publisher, we’d be looking for a series that helped kids learn life lessons and values—nothing too heavy-handed, but in a way that real kids would organically learn about the world and how to live out their faith. Or perhaps a series based in Bible times or exploring Christian history in a really fun and unique way could be a cool thing to see in my inbox. Think The Dead Sea Squirrels, or if there was a faith-based version of The Bailey School Kids, The Time Warp Trio, or The Magic Treehouse, or a new take on Psalty, Superbook, or that old Hanna-Barbera show The Greatest Adventure.
Kristen: It’s exciting to hear that there is a market for more of these stories. I’ve seen that you’ve participated in some Twitter pitch parties. As an editor with WaterBrook & Multnomah, does an author have to write specifically faith-based stories to publish with your house?
Bunmi: An author doesn’t have to write specifically faith-based stories, but there needs to be a clear reason why their book would be a WaterBrook book. If the stories themselves are not explicitly about faith, what elements of the story or author’s background would connect to a faith-based audience? Is the author well connected in the faith space and are they comfortable doing publicity in that space? We definitely have some books on our children’s list that do not have any mention of God, and we have others that are “faith-lite” (where they mention God, prayer, etc. but aren’t necessarily referencing a specific religion or theology), but with every book we choose to publish, we need to have a clear vision for how this fits with our overall purpose as a publisher/imprint.
Kristen: Good to know! It’s definitely important that we creators do our homework before submitting to any house or agency.
Okay, time for a few Lightning Round questions . . .
- Name a book you wish you wrote. Gah! This is so hard . . . and I just want to go on the record that this answer could be different if you asked me this an hour later. But let’s go with . . . Nevermoor, The Vanderbeekers series, The Mysterious Benedict Society, or Front Desk. Although, I would settle for simply wishing to have been the editor for them.
- Favorite childhood read? Depends on what age we’re talking about, but as an adult, I re-read Ella Enchanted and Anne of Green Gables every year (and sometimes more than once in a year).
- Favorite place to read? I’m not super picky. I can curl up anywhere and get lost in a book. (I am dying for a hammock though.)
- One favorite thing each from Texas and Nigeria that you would love to see fused (either in life or in kidlit)? I’m thinking hard about this because both Texans and Nigerians have a lot of pride in their identities, and I mock us but also love it to death. I’m not sure which side would win in a “home pride” face-off! I also have an odd sense of pride knowing that I grew up in the city that has the original Six Flags (if the parks aren’t in Texas then they completely don’t get why it’s called SIX Flags!), and then one of the things I miss most about living in Nigeria are all the fresh fruit trees all around our house (mangoes, guava, tangerines, grapefruit, and so much more!) . . . No clue how Six Flags and fruit trees would fuse together, but those were hallmarks of my childhood.
Kristen: Now that does sound like a fun childhood fusion! Maybe a fruit tree section of Six Flags . . . with hammocks and books! (I’ll keep thinking on it.)
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today, Bunmi! It has been amazing to get to know more about you and the stories of your heart. We’re looking very forward to continuing this discussion on August 26 for our First Page Center Stage: Chapter Book Night.
Raised in Texas and Nigeria, Bunmi Ishola spent most of her childhood reading. She thought she wanted to be an author, but Nigerian practicality encouraged her to pursue journalism instead. After working for different newspapers and magazines, Bunmi left journalism to teach middle school social studies and English. After seven years in the classroom, she decided to take a chance and find a job working with one of her biggest passions: books. She now works as an editor for Penguin Random House, primarily focusing on faith-based children’s books, and serves on the board for The Word, A Storytelling Sanctuary.
To find out more about our First Page Center Stage FREE webinar series and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-first-page-center-stage/.
Eastern PA SCBWI is giving away a written critique with literary agent Kortney Price (Raven Quill Literary Agency) for a Picture Book, Early Reader, Chapter Book, Middle Grade, Young Adult, or Graphic Novel manuscript—both fiction and nonfiction (first 10 pages plus 1-page synopsis) to one lucky Eastern PA SCBWI member! To enter, please comment on this blog post before 9:00 p.m. EST on Friday, July 30, 2021. We will choose the winner at random from those who comment. Must be a current Eastern PA SCBWI member to be eligible. Please include your full name as it appears in your SCBWI membership. If you’d like to comment on this blog post but not be entered to win (e.g., if you are not an Eastern PA SCBWI member or if you are not interested in a critique), simply state that along with your comment. Materials for the critique are due August 13, 2021. The winner will be announced in the comments section of this blog post, so check back after the deadline to see if you’re our winner! Instructions for submitting materials will be sent to the winner.