David Levithan: The Happy Editor-Writer
by Rachel Deahl -- Publishers Weekly, 2/18/2008
T.S. Eliot famously called the majority of editors failed writers—though he conceded that most writers also fit that description. But not David Levithan. The author-editor who now heads up Scholastic Press and is overseeing the house's ambitious charge into multimedia projects—his lengthy title is executive editorial director of Scholastic Press fiction, multimedia publishing and Push—has, in the 14 years he's been at the publisher, risen to a top executive role while managing to launch his own YA imprint as well as a career as an author. And he's only 35.
Levithan's professional ascent, at least on paper, seems like a charmed rise to the top. It began with a Scholastic internship listing he found in the career library at Brown.
That first summer at Scholastic, when he was 19, Levithan became “immersed” in children's publishing. He worked with Bethany Buck on the Baby-sitters Club series and, because Buck's assistant had recently left, he did meatier work than most interns; he got to try his hand at everything from cover copy to plotting some of the franchise's mystery titles.
Although Levithan didn't grow up dreaming of being a children's book editor, he was always drawn to words. He worked on his high school and college newspapers and, after that first summer at Scholastic, says he didn't find it hard to relate to his readers. “You could wonder what that means, being able to relate to a 10- or 12-year-old, but I think the themes [in children's publishing] now aren't that much different than they were when I was a kid.”
While Levithan works on the full range of titles—he began in paperbacks and does middle grade, YA and even the occasional beginning reader—one of the projects that remains closest to his heart is Push. Launched in 2002, the teen imprint, which does edgier material than Scholastic had heretofore published, was Levithan's baby. Push has released debut fiction about, among other things, self-mutilation (Patricia McCormack's Cut), acid trips (Brian James's Pure Sunshine) and growing up homeless in the Bronx (Coe Booth's Tyrell). The books, in Levithan's description, share “not so much an attitude as a quality and a view of the world.” And the imprint, in addition to putting Levithan on the map, gave Scholastic access to a demographic it hadn't been reaching—13–18-year-olds.
Levithan's career as an editor took a giant leap forward on the same day—February 8, 2002—he officially started his second life as an author. After a friend passed along a manuscript Levithan had written to Nancy Hinkel at Knopf Books for Young Readers—the story became Boy Meets Boy—Levithan got a call during the launch party for Push telling him Knopf was taking him on. “It was funny, because I didn't want to tell anyone at the Push event; the day belonged to my authors. I didn't wanna be like, 'Hey guys, I got a book deal too.' ”
To date Levithan has written eight novels; one, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (co-authored with Rachel Cohn), has been picked up by Hollywood. (Levithan said he and Cohn have a cameo in a diner scene in the film— which stars Juno's Michael Cera and is due out next fall—as “older couple sitting behind Nick and Norah.”)
In addition to all his regular editing duties and heavy involvement in Scholastic's highly anticipated and ambitious multimedia project The 39 Clues (the 10-book series launches in the fall), Levithan is co-authoring (along with YA novelist John Green) a new book, due out next year from Dutton, called Will Grayson, Will Grayson, about two boys living in a Chicago suburb. Still, he isn't ready to entertain the thought of retiring for the writer's life. “I really love the editing too much.... There's as much a magic to figuring out other people's words as to figuring out your own. Luckily, I work at a place, and in a time, where that's totally accepted.”