Meet your neighbor...Children’s book publisher Christy Ottaviano
WESTPORT — Before Fairfield resident Christy Ottaviano was a children’s book editor and publisher with her own brand, she taught English while young in Boston.
Creative writing was Ottaviano’s favorite class to teach because it allowed her to engage, encourage, and direct student’s on issues of plot and voice in their stories. A lifelong lover of literature, Ottaviano, a Stamford native, began teaching fresh off a masters program in English and American Literature from Boston College and, before that, an undergraduate degree in English from St. Michael’s College in Vermont.
Ottaviano only taught for a year because while she wanted to try teaching to ensure it wasn’t the path for her, it was evident in her graduate school days her heart was in the world of book publishing. Ottaviano’s graduate program mandated she take some courses at another college in Boston and so she signed up for two classes in the children’s literature masters program at Simmons College. One day, a children’s book editor spoke to the students in Ottaviano’s Simmons class and she knew immediately the mix of reading, writing, and editing in children’s book publishing would be a great match for her skill set.
Thus, in the summer after teaching, Ottaviano enrolled in the Radcliffe Publishing Course. Still, following completion of the Radcliffe course,
Ottaviano faced a crossroads. Minted with a graduate English degree, Ottaviano thought she should go into editing adult fiction, but was compelled by her love of children’s literature and the books of her youth- by Ruth Chew, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume, to enter children’s literature.
Ottaviano saw the majority of her peers from the publishing course were jockeying for jobs in adult fiction publishing and so she chose instead to follow her passion for children’s literature, which, at the time, was less competitive than adult fiction, a decision which Ottaviano said has made all the difference in her career’s success.
As a young editorial assistant in Henry Holt’s children’s book division, Ottaviano had to chase talent because, at the time, Holt was a small publishing house and didn’t receive the same top submissions as the larger children’s publishing companies. Later on, once Holt merged with Macmillan Publishers, earned a spot among the top publishers.
Over the years, Ottaviano climbed the many rungs of the editorial ladder due to her shrewd ability to identify and develop talent. Once, she saw a Hallmark greeting card with an innovative caption and artwork and called up the woman who designed the card to see if she was interested in doing a children’s book. The card’s creator, Laurie Keller, said she was indeed interested in writing a children’s. The picture book Keller wrote and Ottaviano edited, “The Scrambled States of America,” has since become one of Holt’s bestselling backlist titles.
The author who put Ottaviano on the map as an editor was Kimberly Willis Holt, who’s 1998 middle-grade fiction book, “My Louisiana Sky,” Ottaviano edited. Ottaviano said she develops deep relationships with her authors always looks to ensure they are inspired and thinking of the next great book. A year after “My Louisiana Sky,” Ottaviano edited Willis Holt’s next book, “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town,” to perfection. The book, about a 13-year-old obese boy and the friendships he forms, won the 1999 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and was later made into a movie.
Ten years ago, Ottaviano was named the Publisher of her own imprint, aka mini-company, within Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and oversees the imprint’s entire operation from identifying talent to editing to marketing the books with the help of her staff.
Ottaviano’s imprint specializes in subjects she’s passionate about, namely biographical picture books and middle-grade fiction. “I have a real penchant for strong women, hidden figures, behind the scenes people who have helped create great moments in history as well as important people that we all know,” Ottaviano said.
She especially enjoys portraying successful people who were misfits, and struggled, such as Ansel Adams who failed out of school because of his disabilities but went on to become a renowned photographer and environmentalist. “I’m interested in those early years of subjects. I think it really helps inspire kids to think that even if you’re having trouble, you can do great things,” Ottaviano said.
Ottaviano and her husband, also in book publishing, moved into their Fairfield home in 2000 when their oldest son was born. They later had a girl and then another boy. Fairfield has been the perfect setting to raise her children, now all teenagers, Ottaviano said, and credits the art and outdoor opportunities in town for allowing her kids to write the story of their own young adulthood.