Happy Birthday Carolrhoda Lab!

YA-only imprints are not exactly new, but they haven’t been around for decades either. Book and movie adaptation successes like Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and The Fault in our Stars have made publishers finally decide to put more effort into the Young Adult market. This is great for readers of YA, as publishers are putting out more books for teens and taking more risks with interesting stories. Publisher’s Weekly gave a rundown of the YA imprints launched in the last five years and Carolrhoda Lab, while not the oldest on the list, might be the most critically acclaimed.

river of grassLaunched in 2010, Carolrhoda Lab celebrates its five year birthday this year. The imprint from Lerner Books, an independent publisher of children’s and young adult picture books, nonfiction, and hi-lo books, has a mission to  publish, “distinctive, provocative, boundary-pushing fiction for teens and their sympathizers.” One of the first YA books I read as an adult, that wasn’t for a grad school class, was Ginny Rorby’s Lost in the River of Grass, a Carolrhoda Lab book about a girl surviving in the Florida Everglades. I really enjoyed the book and while I didn’t actively seek out Carolrhoda Lab’s books, I remembered the name and started looking into them. Then when I started buying books for my libraries and was familiar with the big name publishers I kept seeing this little imprint popping up on the ALA’s Youth Media Awards and praised on YA blogs.

Since then I’ve read a few more Carolrhoda Lab titles like Lex Thomas’ Quarantine series, The Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick, and Carrie Mesrobian’s great Morris Award nominated Sex & Violence. Sex & Violence was easily one of the best YA books I read in 2014 and is the story of Evan, a teenager who uses girls only as a means to an end until he sleeps with the wrong girl, and her boyfriend brutally attacks him in the bathroom. Evan spends the rest of the book on a lake in Minnesota trying to figure out how to trust people again and how to unlearn his objectification and use of girls for sex. It’s an honest and sad book, but oh so good.

So when I got the chance to ask Alix Reid, Carolrhoda Lab’s Editorial Director a few questions about the imprint and their place in the YA publishing market, I jumped at it. Take a look at our conversation below.

For an imprint that has only been around for five years, Carolrhoda Lab’s titles have won a lot of awards (ALA awards, LA Times, Minnesota Book Awards). I would like to ask about the ALA’s Morris Award for first time novelists. Do you seek out first time novelists on purpose or are they just writing the type of books you like to publish?

We actively seek out first time novelists. We find that they have some of the most original and ground-breaking voices, and are fearless in terms of what they write, in part because they haven’t been immersed in the highly competitive world of publishing yet. I don’t mean to imply that they are naïve in their writing—just that they don’t edit themselves in the way that some more seasoned authors are forced to. They are creating a writing identity for themselves with their first book, and we love to be a part of that.

Your mission is to publish “distinctive, provocative, boundary-pushing fiction for teens and their sympathizers.” The YA book market is booming compared to decades previous, and a lot of that may have to do with adults who read YA. How important are those ‘sympathizers’ to you? Do you feel pulled toward publishing more toward the adults-who-read-YA demographic or teens themselves?

out of darknessWhile we always celebrate adults who read our books—and have had tremendous crossover success with two recent books, The Way Back from Broken by Amber Keyser and Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez, our focus is and will always be on teens themselves. We publish books which speak to the many experiences teens have—from drug addiction, to racism, to broken friendships, just to name a few. Our hope is that our books will give voice to these experiences and help teens find that they are not alone in their feelings and that they will also give them the words to express themselves and what they are feeling.

How do you see Carolrhoda Lab fitting in with the rest of the YA publishers or how do you separate yourselves?

I believe that many YA publishers are excited about publishing distinct voices. However, our stated mission is to focus on ground-breaking fiction, and because we are an independent publisher and have the luxury of being selective, we are able to truly focus our attention on what we consider to be the very best in YA fiction. I believe the numerous awards and starred reviews our Lab books have received are testament to our success.

Many of your books feature diverse characters. The very necessary We Need Diverse Books campaign has been in the news for the last few years–what is Carolrhoda Lab’s stance on diversity in the YA market?

Diversity in YA books is something that we are always conscious of, and have actively looked for writers with diverse backgrounds and writers who take on subjects that are not mainstream. In our Fall 15 list alone we had three books that we felt spoke directly to the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign—Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez, See No Color by Shannon Gibney, and Either the Beginning or of the End of the World by Terry Farish, and we continue to solicit writers who are willing to challenge the mainstream.

Anything you can tell us about upcoming titles?

It’s hard for me to pick a single title, as I’m in love with all of them! I’d like to call out Kara Storti’s debut novel, Tripping Back Blue (Spring 2016), which is about Holden Caulfield-like Finn who is determined to get his sister out of their stifling, poor town by selling drugs, but the choices he makes go from bad to worse. One of the things I love about this book is that while Kara unflinchingly shows us Finn’s downward spiral, she also finds an unexpected way to lift him up and give him, his sister, and the reader hope. It also happens to be exquisitely written.

I’d also like to mention Mary McCoy’s Camp So and So (Spring 2017), which is one of the most brilliant and unique books I’ve ever read. The book revolves around 25 girls who are mysteriously invited to attend a camp where they quickly find themselves trapped in stereotypical camp stories—for example, the camp romance, the camp survival story and the camp ghost story. Reading the book is like entering a mind-bending mystery, part Buffy the Vampire Slayer and part Shakespeare. Mary was inspired to write the story because she felt there were no girls’ adventure stories out there—and now there is one!

52 hertz whaleFinally, any titles from the last five years that deserve more love or that slipped under the radar that you can recommend?

Although I’m delighted that our Lab books have received almost universal praise and recognition since the imprint was established, I do wish that more reviewers had paid closer attention to A 52-Hertz Whale by Natalie Tilghman and Bill Summer. This unusual book explores a boy’s alienation caused—perhaps—by his being on the autism spectrum. What I love about the book and what I think is important about it is that while the boy has a hard time making connections with people around him, he is able, through the internet, to track down an old friend who shares a similar interest in finding a missing whale. I think that while many of us—particularly editors!–assume that words are the only way to connect, for this boy and many like him, the book shows different and equally valid ways to communicate and to find meaningful connections.

If you’re looking for interesting titles with authors and editors willing to take risk, I’d recommend taking a look at Carolrhoda Lab’s books. Here’s to many more years of great YA; Happy Birthday Carolrhoda Lab!

Anna Tschetter

Anna Tschetter

Anna is a teen librarian North of Boston. She runs, sews, eats cookies, and is so obnoxious she names all of her D&D characters after 19th century New England whaling families. Tweetsies: @lcarslibrarian