By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press
The year 2009 was significant for this company—it marked Lerner’s 50th anniversary. But this year is also the 10th anniversary of the Words Are CATegorical series. I wasn’t working for Lerner when the series began, but in Harry Lerner’s memoir, Tenacity Well Directed, he shares the story of how this series came to be:
We also took a risk on books by a writer whose first offering came out of the slush pile—the unsolicited manuscripts that authors used to send to us. As a young editorial assistant, Martha Brennecke was charged with tackling our thousands of annual unsoliciteds. She found one that struck her funny bone. It was called Jamaica Sandwich?, a manuscript of punny verse by Brian P. Cleary. She pushed hard for approval of the acquisition. We published this title and three others in 1996, all illustrated by Rick Dupré.
Brian then sent Martha a new idea: books about the parts of speech, starting with a manuscript on nouns. Martha reminded Brian that we are a series publisher, so he immediately sent her manuscripts on verbs and adjectives. More experienced now, she developed the parts of speech series into a tight acquisition package. She thought it had possibilities as a long, successful series.
Brian P. Cleary
She approached Rick to do the artwork for all three books, with the idea of approximating a fad of the time called Claymation. Rick created many intricate statuettes that turned out to be incredibly labor intensive. Time was running out, and we were nowhere near getting the art done. Finally, Rick had to pull out. We needed a new artist FAST!
As it happened, we had a young assistant designer named Jenya Prosmitsky on staff who had gotten her art degree in Kishinev, Moldova, in the former Soviet Union. She had been showing around her portfolio, hoping to be considered for some freelance illustration. She did a sample, using her house cats as models. Bingo! Martha came up with the series name Words Are CATegorical.
Martha and then senior designer Zach Marell worked closely to envision the art for each spread of the first book A Mink, a Fink, a Skating Rink: What Is a Noun? They were going for wacky, slapstick humor, which they then explained to Jenya in detail so she could get it right. The pace was slow going. Enter Adam, who decided we should publish the books one at a time, starting in fall 1999. We’ve published at least one every year ever since! Librarians love them, and Brian has become a prolific author for us, working with many different editors and artists over the years. After illustrating three books, Jenya gave way to Brian Gable, a Canadian cartoonist.