Esther Cajahuaringa is an assistant editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She’s worked with authors such as Joe Cepeda, Rhode Montijo, and Mo Willems to name a few. As a former educator and non-profit organizer, Esther draws upon her experiences working directly with kids when thinking about today’s readers. She earned her master’s degree in Curriculum & Teaching with an emphasis in literacy from Teachers College, Columbia University. Esther is a daughter of immigrant parents and truly believes in the power of storytelling, because it changed her world.

Ask an Expert is a series of interviews ALP is conducting with experts in a number of fields in order to explore diverse opinions about topics ranging from children’s publishing to the importance of information access.

Q: Tell us about yourself.

A: My name is Esther Cajahuaringa, and I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California (West Coast will always have my heart!) I’m the proud daughter of Peruvian immigrant parents and proud sister to Ruth and David (everyone’s in California, so that might be why most of my heart is out west). I always love to say my second home was the library, because my sister and I pretty much grew up there. Reading, to me, has always been as synonymous with breathing, it’s what I’ve done for as long as I can remember, and now I have the honor of working on children’s books.

Q: Why did you choose to go into children’s publishing?

A: It’s funny because I actually didn’t know anything about publishing, much less the children’s side of it, until I moved to New York almost six years ago now. I had originally come to New York for grad school, and I was in one of my classes that I stumbled upon a little indie bookstore in East Harlem that was promoting this Latina’s writer’s conference. I went to the conference and happened to sit at a table with two editors who brought up children’s publishing. Long story short, those two women helped me get my foot in the door to an editorial internship and then eventually after I finished my master’s degree, a full-time job in publishing.

Even though I had gone to grad school for teaching, I realized that as much as I loved being in the classroom and working directly with young people, I wanted the opportunity to find, shape, and craft stories that would reach young people everywhere. Growing up, I know how much children’s books shaped and impacted me, and if I could play a part in impacting a young person with a book, that would bring me joy.

Q: What are some misconceptions about the children’s publishing industry?

A: There are so many misconceptions! Haha! The two biggest misconceptions I’ll share specifically for editorial deals with the job description and how much time is spent reading on the job. Most people when I tell them I am in editorial, they assume that I work with authors on grammar. Editors either find or receive projects from agents, and work with authors and illustrators on content in terms of character development, pacing, and the overall story itself. Copy-editors and managing editors work on grammar, punctuation, and see manuscripts (a completed story in a word document) when editors have finished working with authors and illustrators.

And as to how much time we spending reading on the job—sadly we do not get to read all day. In fact most of our reading and editing happens after work hours, during our commutes, or on the weekends. Especially in your first few years when most of your day-to-day is understanding the systems of your publishing house, and supporting your manager’s list of projects.

Q: What do you wish students, teachers, and/or parents could know about what it takes to publish a kid’s book?

A: It takes a team of people and it takes time! What an editor does once they acquire (buy) a book is come alongside an author and champion their book throughout every department in publishing—contracts, design, marketing, publicity, sales, managing editorial, and production—to release it into the world. Since there are so many steps and people involved, it takes a few years for books to come out (for example the books that you currently see at your bookstores were worked on years ago). I’m currently working on titles coming out in 2021 and 2022. If you are interested in publishing, consider doing research on the different departments that are available. It might help to think about what part of the book process do you want to be part of because everyone sees the book at different stages.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the diverse books movement in publishing right now? #WeNeedDiverseBooks

A: WNDB amplifies diverse stories, diverse creators and reminds the public and publishing companies that it’s not enough to say we celebrate diversity, there needs to be a call to action attached with it as well. What I appreciate about WNDB is that it looks at the books that are being published and who is publishing those books. It looks at recruitment of POC individuals in the industry, because we are still far and few across the publishing houses.

Q: As the general public, how can we join or champion this movement?

WNDB has reading lists of authors to read, and so the best and easiest thing to do is to read those books! If you’re able to, buy books from diverse authors and creators, support independent bookstores that specialize in diverse books, or publicize the books on your social media. Also, if you’re able to make a donation to the organization, WNDB puts out contests for authors/creators of color.

Q: One thing we want to encourage with our young volunteers is for them to think about access to books – why some people do and some people don’t have access and what that may look like (no school or public library). Sometimes this can be a vague concept, especially to younger children. What are ways we can encourage kids to think about their access compared to others globally? Is this a question that is brought up in your work? 

A: I think about access all the time, especially as a former educator. For me, not having access to books means not having access to knowledge, to dreaming big bold dreams, to imagining a world outside of the one you currently live in, and to asking questions you didn’t even know you could ask. People pick up stories for a multitude of reasons—whether it’s to be entertained, to be inspired, to be moved, or to be awakened—and if there are groups of people not having access to the same books that others have access to, it further creates inequality.