In Children’s Books, a World of Diversity

A woman in a black-and-white dress sits in front of a book display
Allison Hooban
Jenny Bak ’97

When she was growing up in New York City, Jenny Bak ’97, the youngest child of Korea-born parents, rarely saw herself in the books she loved, like “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “The Westing Game.” That’s why, after begging for a blond, blue-eyed Cabbage Patch Kids doll, she was disappointed to receive one with darker features.

“For me at 9 years old, brown hair and brown eyes were not pretty,” Bak says. “That breaks my heart, looking back on it.” Now that she’s a mom herself, she’s determined her 3-year-old daughter, Scarlett, will have a different experience.

In November, Bak became executive editor at the Viking Children’s imprint at Penguin Random House — home of such classics as “The Outsiders,” “The Snowy Day” and “Madeline” — where she oversees middle-grade and young-adult fiction. She’s committed to signing authors of color, and acquiring books that feature more-inclusive characters and stories. “White, straight authors will never be ignored,” she says. “It’s those underrepresented authors who might have to struggle a bit more.”

Bak had the same goal in her former role as editorial director at JIMMY Patterson Books, the children’s-book imprint founded by author James Patterson, which she helped launch in 2015. She oversaw more than 30 Patterson-authored chart-toppers, including books in the “Maximum Ride,” “Middle School” and “I Funny” series. But she brought other titles onboard, too, championing novels like Natasha Ngan’s “Girls of Paper and Fire,” a YA fantasy about concubines of a demon king who fall in love with each other, which became a New York Times bestseller. Bak was thrilled the novel did so well: Not only is it an LGBTQ romance, most of its characters are Asian.

At Brandeis, Bak majored in English and American studies. She was active in promoting Asian American culture on campus through the Korean Student Association and the Brandeis Asian American Students Association. A senior-year internship at a small children’s publisher sparked her interest in a publishing career and led to her first job at Highlights for Children. She went on to earn a master’s in mass communication from Boston University, then landed positions at New York- and London-based publishers, as well as an interactive book app startup.

Today, Bak looks for books that include a positive message. “Some kids are going through some pretty worrisome stuff in their lives,” she says. “If books can give them escapism, or hope, or even some help in any way, I would feel like my job is done.” Stories also need to captivate young readers. “I have a good feel for what sounds authentic,” she says. “Kids can quickly sniff out a voice that’s too adult.”

What ingredients make a book a hit? Says Bak, “When I read a submission, I ask myself if I am losing myself in it. Am I loving it? Is this something I would have wanted to read as a kid? And if a character ends up feeling like a good friend, chances are other readers are going to feel the same way.”

— Heather Salerno