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Robin Adelson, Executive Director of the CBC and Every Child a Reader, Part 3

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Robin Adelson, Executive Director of the CBC and Every Child a Reader, Part 3

A lot of book jobs are, understandably, inextricably connected to books themselves: writing them, editing them, designing them, publicizing them, selling them...the list goes on. But some book jobs take a step back, and instead focus on promoting literacy and reading itself.

As the Executive Director of the children's book trade association Children's Book Council (CBC) and the nonprofit Every Child a Reader, Robin Adelson has one (well, two) of those jobs. At the CBC, she acts as the face of the children's book publishing industry and makes sure that she addresses publishing professionals' needs and interests. At Every Child a Reader, she works every day to fulfill the organization's mission to "instill a lifelong love of reading in children." 

After heading up the CBC and Every Child a Reader for eight years, Robin is leaving both organizations at the end of 2014. She will surely be missed, and at Teenreads, we wanted to make sure to talk to her about her unique roles in the book world before she left.

Below, find the final part of our interview, where Robin talks about her favorite books growing up, the author she couldn't wait to meet and how her daughters have influenced her work. And if you missed it, read Part 1 of the interview here and Part 2 here!

TRC: What is your favorite part of your job?
RA: Creating programs. Actually I have two favorite elements --- creating programs and hiring young, brilliant people. I’ve always made it a point to hire people pretty close to just out of college, and I think when you give young, hungry people the autonomy to explore and do things the way they want to do, the results can be amazing.
TRC: What’s the most difficult part?
RA: I think the most difficult part is to slow yourself down and remember that you have to check in with the Board of Directors. It’s very easy to get caught up in the momentum and excitement of a new program, and it’s very exciting to just go and make changes across the board. I find for me, it can be really hard to stop myself and say, “Ok, you can’t just make all these decisions yourself. There actually is a Board and you need to check in with the Board and you do need Board approval and support.” One of the biggest obstacles when you’re doing this kind of work is just slowing down to make sure that you’re going through all of the necessary steps.
TRC: Can you talk more about the Boards? How do you work with them, and what are their roles?
RA: A trade association board is responsible for the finances. So it is very important to go over our financial statements with the board, to get board support of a proposed budget each year, to make sure the board knows when we’re over budget or under budget and how the finances are playing out. Because ultimately, if you end up in a situation where your income can’t cover your expenses, the board is ultimately responsible. So fiscal responsibility is a big board issue, and the Executive Director has to keep the board informed. Because the CBC is a trade association and the board members all work at publishing houses, they are really an advisory group for the Executive Director and a reality check. Over the years, there are certainly ideas that I’ve had where I said “We have to do this!” and the Board said “No!”
One of the biggest obstacles when you’re doing this kind of work is just slowing down to make sure that you’re going through all of the necessary steps.
TRC: Can you give a specific example?
RA: We update our website regularly and relaunch every few years, and a couple of years ago when we relaunched, we had a great new searchability function for all of our reading lists. So if you’re looking for a book for any age or any kind of a theme, it’s really easy to find --- it’s very, very searchable. I thought it was the most exciting thing in the world and realized, “We need to develop a mobile app so no matter where you are, you can do that searching and it can lead you to your nearest bookstore or library and you can find it!” And members of the board just looked at me and said, “Clearly, you have no idea how much it costs to develop an app. You don’t actually need an app. You just need your website to be mobile accessible.” So it was very good that I reviewed that with them.

And for another example --- when we were first changing Children’s Book Week, in the first or second year, I decided that we should have a huge outdoor carnival on one of those streets leading up to the New York Public Library, and wouldn’t it be fantastic. We could have a whole reading room in Grand Central Terminal! And both the boards of CBC and Every Child a Reader had people who looked at me and said, “Do you have any idea how much this costs? And even if you are able to raise the money, there are liability issues and there are licensing issues and all sorts of issues.”

So it is always helpful --- they tell you that you’ve sort of gone off the ranch a little.

TRC: And what does the Every Child a Reader Board do?

RA: Generally, you would tell any kind of a board that their role is strategic. Strategic planning of the organization, strategic thinking, that the strategies that are conceived are in line with the mission, etc. And a board generally will not interfere with the operations.

With a grassroots board like Every Child a Reader, you certainly need that board to be thinking in terms of strategy, but that board also needs to be more aware of the operations because it’s all so new and the operations do affect the strategy so much --- you need that kind of closer watch and closer advising.

Also, the people on that board are generally brought on because they’re really passionate about what that organization is doing. The CBC board members may be passionate about what they’re doing at their houses, but they’re on the CBC Board to weigh in on what the voice of the industry is allowed to say and do. The people on the Every Child a Reader Board are really passionate about instilling the lifelong love of reading in children. So the ECAR board is a little more involved in the programs and how they get created, how they get launched, how they appear and how they evolve. So it’s more of a hands-on board in that sense.

CBC as a trade association generates revenue through membership dues, but Every Child a Reader, as a literacy charity, relies on fundraising, so the board of that kind of organization needs to be involved in fundraising, too.

TRC: What was the most surprising part of your job?

RA: That I met Judy Blume! I don’t know if that was the most surprising or one of the greatest highlights or both, but I just didn’t think that I would ever have a chance to meet Judy Blume and I did --- she was a presenter at one of the Children's Choice Book Awards galas. Judy Blume had taught me everything I needed to know growing up!

TRC: I met her at an NCTE dinner, and everyone --- even the other authors --- were freaking out that she was there. It was really amusing --- and cool --- to see that!

RA: And speaking of surprising things, that is a great example. One of the surprising things to me has been how much so many authors and illustrators revere each other. And also how much so many publishers enjoy each other. It’s not the same kind of a cutthroat, competitive environment as it is in other industries. It’s a much more collegial environment, and there’s a lot more support for one another.

The CBC Board took me out for dinner earlier this week as a farewell, and I sat at the table looking around, and they were just so happy to be together. These are all heads of houses that compete with each other, and it was really something to see --- something to appreciate.

One of the surprising things to me has been how much so many authors and illustrators revere each other.

TRC: What would you say are some of your proudest moments as the Executive Director of the CBC and Every Child a Reader?

RA: One: The very first launch of the very first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. That was definitely one of my proudest moments.

Two: 2013 when we exceeded a million votes for the Children’s Choice Book Awards.

Three: Launch of the diversity initiative.

Actually it’s funny --- go back to the launch of the National Ambassador. Because it was the launch of the first, but at each launch for a new ambassador I am very proud. It’s been four launches so far, each in the beginning of January, and each one is something special. Really, really special.
TRC: You’ve led the CBC and Every Child a Reader for eight years. Have you learned anything about leadership in general, or gleaned advice that you would pass on to others about being a good leader and what that means?
RA: I think the most important part of being a good leader is remembering that you’re leading people. You’re not just leading programs. You’re not just leading a faceless organization.
An organization is only as good as the people who carry out those programs and the people you hire, and you’re not a good leader if you forget who those people are and don’t recognize the value that they bring to the table. No one can do anything entirely on their own. Our programs are only as strong as they are because I hire great people and we work really well as a team.
And I think a good leader is interested in the professional development of the people who work for them. Professional development in any sense benefits the work that they do for you. So, I’ve encouraged my staff to take different continuing education programs that are interesting to them --- if somebody’s interested in graphics, go take a course in graphics. No matter what skills they pick up, they’re skills they’ll be able to use here and they’re skills that they can be excited that they can use at some other point in their career doing something else. But at least they’ll know that they were supported in doing that in this kind of environment. So, I think professional development of staff is extremely important for any leader.

I think the most important part of being a good leader is remembering that you’re leading people. You’re not just leading programs. You’re not just leading a faceless organization.

You also have to have a thick skin. I think if you’re a leader in anything, you have to learn not to take things personally. In an organization like this, where you are working with boards and dealing with a lot of competing interests, you just have to stay above that. You have to know not to take things personally, because they’re not personal.

And I think keeping perspective. Leaders who lose the forest for the trees are not very good leaders.

TRC: If somebody wanted to work in the book world, what do you think are some of the benefits of working for a professional trade organization like CBC or a literacy nonprofit like Every Child a Reader as opposed to a traditional publishing house?

RA: When you work somewhere like CBC or Every Child a Reader, you have the chance to work with a lot of different publishers and it exposes you to the nature of the different publishers. Publishing houses have their own personalities. They really, really do. I think we often feel like they all do the same thing at the same time all the time, and there are definitely some things that you see repeated from house to house, but each house has its own personality as does each division of each house.

We have a library at the CBC, and all-new books published by our members come to our library. As the books come in, we get to look at them, and really develop a sense of which house is publishing which kinds of books. An identity forms, and you really become aware of what that identity is. For a lot of people who have passed through here as interns or assistants or whatever role, and then have decided they want to go into a publishing house, it’s given them a chance to really get a sense of which house they want to work at, which I think has been tremendously valuable for people.
And also, some people want to work on the actual books, and some people want to work more on the side of promoting the books and the literacy and with children. It really depends on what your primary goal is.
That said, we’ve had many people who’ve applied to jobs here who couldn’t get jobs in editorial at whatever house, and we’ve had an opening and hired them. And there are a few I can think of who pretty quickly decided that they didn’t want editorial after all. There are some who now work at other nonprofits and some who decided that they did want to stay within the publishing industry but doing something else. So another thing about working here is that you not only get experience working with different houses, but you really get exposure to the different departments in the houses.
TRC: The CBC and Every Child a Reader are obviously all about children’s books! Why do you think that children’s books are so important?

RA: Well, I think most people remember stories they read or were read to them as a child. You don’t remember all of them, but I remember reading THE SECRET GARDEN when I was a kid. I remember reading CHARLOTTE’S WEB. I remember everything Dr. Seuss. I read so many adult books now and I love adult books, but they didn’t form me the same way. I mean, hello Judy Blume! I learned everything I needed to know about being an adolescent from Judy Blume. Children naturally live in their own bubbles, and children’s books are such a great way to expose them to worlds beyond their own experiences. To let them know that their own experiences are normal and to let them know that they’re not alone and they have company, but also to broaden whatever horizons they have.

And everything you do in life requires the ability to read and understand what you’re reading, and you need to develop that as a child. If you don’t, it gets harder and harder to develop and you get further and further behind. So, to me, children’s books are magical in all they offer you from a literary perspective, but also, as Walter Dean Myers said, reading is not optional. They’re fundamental as building blocks. You need to be able to read and decipher a children’s book to be able to understand what jobs you’re applying for and how to apply for them. To understand how to really get along in society. To contribute to society. To be the person that you should be and can be. To me, children’s books are so important. And that spans the offerings from picture books through young adult novels. Each one offers you, if nothing else, a glimpse into how someone else is seeing the world at that particular moment. And right there, it offers you a chance to get outside of yourself and maybe be a little less selfish.

TRC: You already mentioned some favorite books you had as a kid. Do you have any others that you remember? And why do these stand out, in particular?

RA: I don’t know why, I just remember them. I remember reading the Dr. Seuss books with my brothers and acting them out and playing. That then became a thing that my kids did --- my kids would listen to and laugh at the Dr. Seuss books, and then I exposed them to the Jon Scieszka books, and then they started actually acting out the Jon Scieszka books, which I’m pretty sure other people don’t do, but mine did.

I remember reading THE SECRET GARDEN with my mother. Or I think I did --- I might be making that up. But I think she’d be happy either way…she certainly knew I loved the book. I definitely went through a phase where I was very into ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. I’m from Montreal, so there’s the Canadian thing, but I definitely went through that phase, too.

I think, for me, reading was fun because it got me excited about the way other people lived. I don’t think I was ever a child who needed to read about other people like me. I think I found it more exciting to read about people or animals or living on a farm because I wasn’t living that way --- it showed me that other life existed. That there were other ways to live a life --- that that was possible. I think I look for myself in books much more as an adult than I did as a kid.

TRC: What about things that are coming out today? Do you have any favorite children’s books that released in the past few years, or adult books?

RA: WONDER [by R.J. Palacio]. Big, big, big fan. And I won’t even give a list. Just WONDER.

TRC: What about recent adult books that you’ve enjoyed?

RA: I loved ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE [by Anthony Doerr]. I feel like lately I’ve read a lot of  nonfiction, and I enjoy reading nonfiction, but I’d never say they’re the greatest books that I’ve ever read.  I don’t remember if it was last year or the year before, but I loved Amor Towles’ THE RULES OF CIVILITY.

And actually, I really like any book that [ founder!] Carol Fitzgerald tells me I should read. She sent me THE CHILDREN ACT [by Ian McEwan], which I loved. She sent me DEFENDING JACOB [by William Landay], which I also loved.

TRC: You’ve mentioned your children a few times in this interview. How old are they, and have they influenced your work at all?

RA: Yes --- my daughters influence everything I do. They’re 16, 16 and 18. And one of my 16-year-olds is a writer. She’s a phenomenal writer, and one day I imagine I’ll be cheering her on at some awards show somewhere, or some awards program. She is in 10th grade and already has written a novel and possibly two. It would be nice to see them get published at some point, but even if they don’t, she’s a writer. She’s a great writer.

I think my kids were the biggest influence in why I came here in the first place --- what I wanted to do and what I wanted to show them.

But my kids always influence me. I think my kids were the biggest influence in why I came here in the first place --- what I wanted to do and what I wanted to show them. And certainly over the past eight years, introducing them to authors has been so much fun. One of my daughters really just loved the book THE OUTSIDERS by [S.E. Hinton], and she then had the opportunity to introduce Sue Hinton as a presenter at the Children’s Choice Book Awards.

So to be able to give my kids experiences and memories like that has been fantastic.

TRC: And what do they like to read?

RA: My younger girls are very big Divergent [by Veronica Roth] fans. They all love The Hunger Games series [by Suzanne Collins], and I think they probably even like Divergent better. They love Divergent.

Oh, and they love THE FAULT IN OUR STARS [by John Green]. Lots of tears. Lots of everything.

And they’ve loved that they get to read a lot of these books before they’re published. So having your mother bring home advance reader copies of books that then become big things is sort of moments of cool here and there that I’ve really enjoyed. With teenage girls you don’t get a lot of moments of cool .

Part of what’s fun with my kids is they also appreciate a really good picture book. I’ll bring picture books home now if I think it’s something that will appeal to them, and they love them. They appreciate them and I appreciate that in them. A couple of years ago I brought them ZOMBIE IN LOVE [by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated by Scott Campbell] and they loved that. They loved THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT [by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers].

TRC: What do you think are some of the most important topics in the kids publishing world today?

RA: You know, it’s interesting. I think if you ask that question to most people, they’ll say trends and they’ll say diversity and figuring out eBooks and pricing. To me, the pricing issue is definitely a hot topic in publishing --- how to continue to make money in publishing is never a given. It’s not an easy thing to figure out how to monetize eBooks.

But I think diversity is really what it is. I think it will continue to be something that we all talk about for a long time, but I also think that just by the nature of the country we live in, we will see things change somewhat organically. I think just people are changing. We don’t even use words like “intermarriage” anymore because everybody’s mixed! I feel like a lot of those issues are going to eventually change on their own. Not that I think they don’t need a push…I do. I think the push is important and valid, and I think we do need to raise awareness of the sensitivities that we would like people to have when they approach all of this. I think it’s the hot topic to discuss, but I think we have to move beyond discussion and focus on action.

Another major issue to me facing publishers is just “what is this landscape” and how best to play it. I think there’s always the conjecture, “the publishing model is irrelevant” and “people can self-publish.” To me there’s no question --- traditional publishing has a really important place. And yeah, there have been a few self-published books that have gone on to do very well, but very few.  There are far more out there that nobody’s ever heard of. But then there are several traditionally published books that nobody’s ever heard of.

As more things flood the marketplace, how do you get consumers to pay attention to your book? Even though you know it’s so great, how do you get them to know?

So I think it’s important for publishers to find that balance --- to figure out how many books to publish that they can really get behind, that they can really make sure are discoverable and known. And I think finding that balance is a very big issue. And when that balance is struck, I think people will stop asking the question “why do we need traditional publishers?”

I think the other big challenge facing publishers is finding alternate channels of trade. Where can you sell books where you’re not currently selling books? And discoverability is one of the big questions. As more things flood the marketplace, how do you get consumers to pay attention to your book? Even though you know it’s so great, how do you get them to know?