Thursday, December 18, 2008

Adriana Dominguez - New Interview with Freelance Editor (Former Harper Collins Childrens Executive Editor)

A Hispanic Heritage Moment ...

I had the opportunity to speak with one of the most well-liked and respected executive-level editors in publishing today. She is a real and true Hispanic Hero in book publishing. This interview was conducted before Ms. Dominguez left Harper Collins Children's Books to pursue new opportunities. She remains a true force in the industry to reckon with.

Jeff Rivera: Hello, Adriana, can you tell us what it is that you specialize in?

Adriana Dominguez: My formal title is Executive Editor at Harper Collins Children's Books and Rayo and I specialize in children and young adult books, particularly for the Latino market.  I work on books in Spanish, English and bilingual format.

Jeff Rivera: And why young adult? Why children? Why not nonfiction? Why that group particularly?

Adriana Dominguez: Why children? Well, it is my background. I have been working in the children´s market now for about 10 years. So, this is not necessarily something that is new to me. I sort of started with children's literature because  that happened to be where the opportunity to work in publishing came from. But after a while, I realized that I was very lucky to have landed in exactly the right place. When I arrived in the U.S., I was 12 years old and immediately put into a bilingual program at school. I did not speak a word of English at that time. I felt very alienated, and it was a real challenge for me to figure out where I was going to fit in this new culture.  A bilingual teacher helped me to feel that I belonged, and knowing that I could have books in my own language also helped tremendously.

So, I feel that I identify with kids who are reading the books that I help to produce. I know the feeling of being a newcomer, and I am able to encourage and help authors to write from a point of view that these kids can really identify with. In short, I feel that, beyond a career choice, my work is a reflection of my personal growth, and of what I have achieved since  arriving here as a child. I hope that my work will help to bring the same opportunities to new generations of Latino children.

Jeff Rivera: Well, let me ask you this: When you came to this country, you did not speak any English?

Adriana Dominguez: Not at all.

Jeff Rivera: So, does it kind of surprise you when you step back and look like, "Wow!" It hasn't really been that long and clearly and obviously you speak excellent English and look at what you have accomplished!

Adriana Dominguez: Yes, thanks. It surprises some folks, but there is still a part of me that feels like an immigrant. I will always remember something that happened when I finished junior high school: I had to do a speech in front of my entire school because I had done so well and my teachers and the school's administrators wanted me to set an example for the other students.   The speech was very short,  a poem. I still had a very thick accent at that time, and some kids in the front row made fun of my accent. I still remember that event, not necessarily because it is a hard memory, but because it inspires me to help kids who are going through similar experiences. I recently volunteered at a local school and told some fifth-graders my story about first arriving here. I mentioned that I did not speak a word of English at the beginning, and one of the kids in the classroom pointed to a girl sitting at the opposite side of the room and said, "Oh, she doesn´t speak English either." When he pointed to her I thought, Oh, my God. He just singled her out in front of everyone else! I knew what that felt like, so  I went over and I spoke with the girl in Spanish for a while. It is very gratifying to be able to help a child that way.

So I always had a goal to first learn English and assimilate in my own way, so that I could give back to the community that shares my native language and culture. That is what I am hoping that I have done, and what I I will continue to do.

Jeff Rivera: Do you find that, and I find this because I lived in Miami and because my stepfather is Filipino and he did not speak English too, this is my personal question, do you find that there is a little bit of distaste from some Americans that person might be a second class citizen just because they do not speak English?

Adriana Dominguez: Well, that is a tough question. I think that the reality for Latinos now is so much different than it was when I arrived here over 20 years ago. With the growing list of Latino celebrities and award-winnign authors such as Oscar Hijuelos and Junot Diaz, our contributions to to mainstream culture are now more obvious, and I hope, appreciated. This was not always true, of course. I do remember being very self-conscious about speaking Spanish in public when I first got here.  Now, it has become fashionable to speak Spanish, and our language and culture integral part of this country's make up.  That is something I never thought I would see some two decades ago.

So, I think that we are in a different place now,  and that the evolution of the publishing industry and other industries that are now catering to Latino consumers shows that. I hope that this trend will continue. We are changing the face of this country; the numbers do not lie. One in four kids under five years old in the US is of Latino heritage. So we need to look forward, and to continue to look for ways that we can contribute to this society, because we are growing.

Jeff Rivera: That´s very interesting. So, let's talk about submissions in particular.  What do you find is really, really in demand or in need from houses or the houses you used to worked with?

Adriana Dominguez: Well, what I had been telling folks for as long as I was at Harper is something that to me is kind of self-explanatory for anyone who is sort of familiar with Latino literature and the way Latino literature has evolved particularly in the children´s market. There was a time when folks were writing books about what it meant to be Latino and sort of explaining who we are, and dispelling myths and stereotypes and so on.  There were also plenty of books a few years ago that were in fact, reinforcing stereotypes in an effort to do away with them. This was done without the authors or editors realizing it, because there were so few Latinos working in the publishing industry. Those books were not being edited, acquired, or promoted by Latinos, hence there was no one on staff who could point out these problems.

Now we have an entirely new set of fantastic Latino editors  who are looking to tell our stories; rather than "explain" who we are.  What I tell my authors is that I don´t want stories that describe who we are. I want you to tell your stories because everybody has a story, and if your story happens to be a Latino story, that is fine and if it does not, that is fine too!


What I was mostly interested in doing during my time at Harper was to help Latino authors get published, regardless of whether their content was Latino or not (whatever that means!), because Latino children and young adults need role models, they need to know that people like them are writing books, and good ones at that! The content of the story to me, is a personal choice. The fact that you are a Latino author should not determine what type of story you write. Write what you know, whatever that is.

Jeff Rivera: So, your personal taste is definitely based on a great story that happens to be written by a Latino.

Adriana Dominguez: Yes, right. There are other considerations as well. When I was at Harper,  I concentrated on acquiring bilingual picture books. I think that bilingual books are at least the immediate future of Latino publishing for the younger set because right now, we are in a situation where we have four or five different generations of Latinos living in the country at the same time, and bilingual books are useful to all of them; the ones who want to pass their language and culture to their own children (and who may not fully know it themselves), and the ones who just arrived and don't want their children to lose it.

Beyond that, there are quite a few non-Latinos interested in learning Spanish, and they use bilingual books as language learning tools. Many caretakers add them to their kids' libraries because they also want to raise their children's awareness of other cultures, especially when those cultures are quickly blending with their own, as is now the case with Latino culture in the U.S.. So, I believe that  bilingual books carry the potential to become all things to all people, not to mention that they are fun to read and to produce! There is a whole set of amazing authors who write them often, such as Monica Brown and Pat Mora, both of whom I have worked with.


Additionally, the 2007 Texas Bluebonnet Award went to a bilingual book, which is kind of a big deal, since the winning book is chosen by kids, some 170,000 of them! This was the first time a bilingual book won the award, and considering Texas' Latino demographics, one may say that it was about time that happened!  I was lucky enough to be there when Joe Hayes, who is not a Latino, but has been writing Latinos stories for a long time, received the award. Joe is a real trailblazer, he has been writing bilingual books for a long time. When he got up on stage he did what he does best: he told a bilingual story.  And that was really great, but the best part of the ceremony for me was when a group of kids got up on stage and began telling the audience why they had chosen Joe's book:  a little kid standing on  this huge stage in this auditorium full of librarians and publishing folk went up to the microphone and said: "What I love about this book is that I can read it with my mom." That gave me chills, but then he went on to say: "She can read it to me in Spanish, and I can read it to her in English. It is something that we can do together." "This," I thought, "is the reason I do what I do!"  


Let's not forget that literacy is a very important issue for Latinos. Latinos still have the highest school dropout index of any other group. So we need to give them books that they can use in any whatever language they need them, and we need to read to them  from the time they are babies. And for parents who are monolingual, bilingual books—and books in Spanish for that matter—will make a world of difference.  As parents read with their kids, and become more involved in their education, we may see a change in this sad trend. Again, from personal experience, I know that my mom could not really help me as much as she would've liked to when I was in school because she really could not navigate the system or speak the language very well. Books that parents enable parents to read to their children can bridge the tremendous gap that now exists between school and home for Latino parents, and the achievement gap for Latino students.

Jeff Rivera: What about submissions as far as what you do not like to see and that you wish that people would stop sending you?

Adriana Dominguez: There are a lot of authors out there who are not familiar with the Latino market, or who think that the present Latino market is still what it was 20 years ago. It is not. What I always say to those interested in Latino publishing is "please read the literature".  Authors need to read in order to become familiar with whatever area or genre they want to work in.

For instance, if you want to write young adult books, you better have read every single young adult book in the New York Times Best Sellers list, so that you know what sells, and what the large publishers want, because that list is often guiding their choices of what to acquire. And the same goes with the Latino market. There are awards like the Pura Belpré Award and the America´s Award that are given every year and have helped to launch the careers of previously unknown Latino authors. Know who those authors are, and what they did to get to where they are now.

Monica Brown is a perfect example of a rising Latina author. When I first signed her on to the Rayo list, she had not yet won the Pura Belpre Honor for her book on Celia Cruz. She won it about six months later. Now, Monica is a superstar with many more books under her belt,  and I know that she will continue to grow. She has three books coming out with Harper, one of them better than the next. She is one of the authors that you need to know if this is what you want to do, the same goes for young adult books. For this category, I would love to see a Latino Sherman Alexie, whose book won the National Book Award in part because it appeals to all audiences, despite the fact that its author is Native American.

There is so much that you should learn before you even begin to write. You cannot contribute into something that you are not fully aware of. So for Latinos writing, be aware of the award winners—at the very least the Pura Belpre winners. Librarians are still some of the biggest supporters of Latino books out there, so go to your local library and ask them to recommend some  books to you. You'll be glad you did!

Jeff Rivera: And as far as non-Latino stories that you might take a look at, what would you say you definitely would like to see more of?

Adriana Dominguez: I would love to see another innovative graphic novel, like American Born Chinese, since I love that genre, and librarians and award committees have also embraced it.  It really is great to see how award committees and librarians have begun to embrace non-traditional genres. Young adult literature is beginning to really open up.

There are also a lot of authors who try to do things online now, create new projects that have an online component or that somehow appeals to an online audience. The Internet is becoming increasingly important in the world of publishing, particularly to children's publishing, since we know that kids spend so much time online. So, I'd love to see a project that uses this medium in a new way.


As an author, you have to first figure out what your forte is. One of the things I find myself saying to writers over and over again is "write what you know." You want to know about the trends and be familiar with them, in part, because you want to write for the right market, but that does not mean that you should write with only the market in mind, completely disregarding what you know and what your strengths are. Trends come and go, and by the time you finish writing the "next" Harry Potter, Twilight, etc. (as if that were actually possible!), the trend will be long gone and publishers will already be looking for the next "big" thing.

On the other hand, if you are true to your own voice, you will write the best book you can possibly write. A good example of this is adult authors who are trying to make the transition to young adult literature. Somehow, many of them had come to the conclusion that the way to write for kids is to  "dumb down" the narrative. This is of course a mistake. Those authors are not really writing stories for young adults, they are writing dumber versions of adult stories!And they are not getting published, of course! Who'd want to read that? Besides, teens are more aware than adults will ever be, so they can see right through that. So again, learn as much as you can about the young adult market and read and absorb it as much as  possible before trying to write into it. A teen voice is not easily achieved, and the reality of it is that some people just cannot do it. This is why I applaud the adult authors who have made that transition successfully into young adult and middle grade literature; because doing so requires a whole new different set of skills, and finding a whole new voice within yourself. That is why Sherman Alexie's book is so brilliant: because it's genuine. And the fact that it came from an "adult" author, makes that so much more impressive.
Jeff Rivera: I have a few quick questions to ask you about formatting. In terms of submissions, if I want to submit a picture book, how do I do that? How many pages generally should that be? Should it be with illustrations?

Adriana Dominguez: That is an excellent question and I am glad you asked it. For picture books, one of the things that you have to realize is that often times, it is the illustrations that inspire someone to pickup a picture book at the bookstore, since they are in fact the first thing they "see," before they read the text or find out what the book is about.  I mention this because if you are an author and not an illustrator, you should not attempt to illustrate a book. However, if you are an author and illustrator and you feel that as an illustrator you have something to contribute, something that is perhaps new and exciting, by all means display your talent fully in your submission!

Jeff Rivera: Should it be submitted in terms of almost like a self-published book or how should that be done?

Adriana Dominguez: Well, generally speaking, publishers hire their own illustrators for their picture books after they have been acquired, hence if you are an author, and not an author/illustrator, you should only submit the text for your story in a word document, and not attempt to illustrate it, as mentioned above, or to make it "look" like a book. A publisher has a large pool of professional illustrators to choose from—many of them award winners— so they don't need your assistance with that portion of the project. They may consult with you during the process of looking for the right illustrator, but they will not need your help visualizing the story, since they probably have their own vision of it, and decided to sign your story to make that vision a reality. You should know that ultimately (with few exceptions that generally don't apply to first time authors), the publisher will have the last word on who illustrates your book.


If you are an author/illustrator your forte is probably illustration. If your forte is illustration, you should know how to illustrate for children and who the best children's illustrators are, and why they are the best.  If you belong to this category, you will want to display your artwork and your idea for the story as fully as you can, as mentioned previously. This does not mean that you should attempt to submit a finished book however. What you want to do is submit your manuscript along with an excellent sampling of your work. Do not try to bind the book, or self publish the book; you will never achieve the level of production quality available to a mainstream publisher. You will instead make your submission look amateurish and lead the editor to think that you know nothing about children's books, or how they are produced. Whenever I saw that type of submission, my first thought was always: "This person has no idea of how the publishing industry works," and if you do not know how the publishing industry works, chances are, you probably have not done enough research, or read enough children's books and that also tells me that you are not ready to write a book for a mainstream publisher. So, be very professional and know that as an author, what is expected of you is to submit a manuscript. For the most part, a picture book is 32-pages long.

Jeff Rivera: Double-spaced pages?

Adriana Dominguez: No. A picture book, on the most part, is anywhere from 32 to 40 pages long, and they have about three lines per page. So, you are talking about an average of a thousand words or less. When I get a picture book manuscript that is single spaced, three or four pages long, I know that its author has no notion of how picture books work because I could fit four picture books into that amount of text! So submit it in a way that clearly lets the editor know that you know the standard format for picture books, and that the goal of that format is to visualize the text, hence, you probably want to divide it into pages remembering  that each page should have only a few lines. Doing  that will also help you realize what the picture book would look like and whether it will work in that format, before sending it to an editor.

Jeff Rivera: Thank you so much, Adriana. This is very helpful information that I think writers, especially Latino writers will find very useful.