Molly O’Neill grew up in Houston, TX, and chose to attend Marquette in part because she wanted to see snow. (She saw a lot of it!) She majored in Writing-Intensive English and Elementary Education, graduating in 2000.
Since then, she has worked in various roles in the children’s/young adult publishing industry, including stints at Houghton Mifflin and at HarperCollins, where she acquired and edited the current #1 New York Times bestselling Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Today, she is the Head of Editorial at Storybird, a hybrid tech/publishing platform and community based around visual storytelling. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, and you can find her on Twitter as @molly_oneill.
1. What is your favorite Marquette memory or place on campus?
Like many MU students, I have a deep affection for the Joan of Arc chapel–both its outer beauty and the peaceful masses held inside. I was back on campus this spring and went to a mass at the Joan of Arc and it was like stepping back in time–every part of the experience felt so familiar and unchanged that I almost expected to look over and see my old MU friends, all of us somehow at age nineteen or twenty again! I also have a great memory of the little hilly area between Lalumiere and Coughlin Hall during the winter of my freshman year: it’s the first place I ever made a snow angel, with a bunch of friends after class one day, and as a kid from Texas, that was an enormous thrill.
2. Could you recap for us how your time at MU helped lead you to your career?
At Marquette, I double-majored in Writing-Intensive English and Elementary Education. I spent lots of time in the Hartman Center and in the little Education Resource library in the Education Building, and doing clinical teaching placements in schools all over Milwaukee, and I assumed I’d have my own classroom somewhere after graduating. But I’d always had a deep love of stories, in particular for children’s books, and various professors and mentors in both the Education department and in the English department encouraged me to nurture and explore that passion and curiosity. Eventually, doing so led me to understanding more about the book-making process, and learning that one could actually have a career in publishing.
I hadn’t even known that such jobs or an industry based around them existed when I entered college, but Marquette helped me get an internship with a small publisher in Chicago my senior year that helped me get a taste of the field and what the work in it looks like. I student-taught that year, too (2nd grade at Cass Street School), which was also a great experience. When I stepped back and asked myself what I wanted to do for the next several decades of my life, though, I realized that helping authors and artists create stories was a sort of magic to me, and I just wanted to do more of it. But would I have found my way into the publishing industry without the MU professors who helped me see a potential career in what I’d always dismissed as a silly side interest? Probably not, and for that, and for them, I am immensely grateful.
After MU, I spent two amazing years doing post-graduate volunteer work in youth ministry with an organization called NET Ministries, and then I moved to NYC, the hub of the publishing industry, to see if I could “make it.” For the first few years in my career, I worked on the marketing side of the industry, sort of by accident because it was the first job I could get, but that marketing experience proved an invaluable background when I eventually shifted over to my long-sought-after “dream job” of being an editor. I worked at venerable old publishing houses like Houghton Mifflin and HarperCollins, and expected that my entire career would be at publishing houses like those. But a lot in publishing is shifting and changing due to technological disruption, so when I was offered a chance six months ago to take an executive role at a hybrid technology/children’s publishing start-up called Storybird, it was too interesting an opportunity to pass up, and so far, I’m loving it! (Aside: Storybird is a great classroom tool with a lot of cool features for educators–if you’re a teacher or teacher-in-training, check it out!)
3. What role do you think young adult literature plays in the classroom?
The best young adult literature opens up the world in honest, compelling, sometimes-challenging, often transformative ways, and at a time when its readers are shaping themselves into the people they will be for the rest of their lives. YA literature can certainly help young people to think deeply, and to appreciate the power of strong, evocative writing and masterful storytelling. But perhaps even more importantly, these stories can help them understand the world through eyes and perspectives and experiences different than their own. It cultivates empathy, solidifies personal beliefs, and makes its readers think deeply about how the vivid immediacy and compelling “what-ifs” (both a common hallmark of YA storytelling) of the characters’ lives and experiences relate to the readers themselves.
So not only do I believe that YA literature can sometimes engage students in the classroom in a profound academic way, I think it can help them consider important parts of what it means to be human–and to me, that is the whole point of great work of art or storytelling. It shapes us, it stays with us, and we are perhaps never quite the same for having encountered it.
4. Which of the three Divergent books was your favorite and why?
Working on the first Divergent book was probably my favorite–watching the story transform through the editorial process from the original submitted draft into the book it is today was amazing, and I have so much respect for how its author, Veronica (who herself was still in college when she wrote the first draft!) was able to craft a story that was simultaneously epic in its action and plotting, provocative in its themes, and also a deeply personal tale for its main character. The book-making process is a slow and complicated one, so during the year or so between my acquiring the series and the publication of Divergent a tremendous amount of exciting things happened–the movie rights sold! It got some of the most amazing early praise I’d ever seen for a book! Rights sold to a huge number of foreign countries before the book even came out! A fan community started growing organically, just based off of early advance copies of the book, before it even was for sale in stores!–all this is once-in-a-career type stuff for any editor, and the fact that I was still fairly early in my editorial career when it all began made coming to work everyday just thrilling.
I look back now and think, “Wow, millions and millions of copies of the series have now sold in record-breaking numbers all across the world, and in March it will be a movie in theaters, but I remember when Divergent was just a big stack of paper on my kitchen table in my little studio apartment in Brooklyn, and I was one of only about five people who had ever read it!” It’s still phenomenal to think about, and a privilege to have been a part of of bring that story–and so many others, too–into the world.
5. What are your top three book recommendations?
Wow, this is a hard question for a book-lover. Are you sure you don’t want my top three hundred recommendations? But actually, the folks at the Marquette Magazine just asked me for a list of recent favorites for holiday book-buying, so I will link you to that as my answer.
6. What part of your education degree do you use today?
I learned so much about the developmental side of childhood in my Education coursework–the psychology of childhood and the adolescent and teenage years, and methodologies of learning and self-expression–and that knowledge has absolutely helped me to publish and stories that ring as true as possible to what it authentically feels like to be a small child, or a pre-teen, or a teen in the world today. I also learned first-hand the challenges and joys that educators face daily in their work, and so I often have them in mind when I’m thinking about a story’s potential audience.
Teachers and librarians are some of the best advocates that books and their creators have–they are often the “gatekeepers” who help the exact right book and the exact right reader find each other at the exact right moment for a story to have a lasting, sometimes life-long impact. They also help students fall in love with reading and nurture their own creativity: they’re growing the next generation of storytellers, really. So they are enormously important to those of us who are in the business of storymaking! We’re different faces of the same goal, in a sense–helping students grow into thoughtful human beings, and into people who value stories and the way words and art can help reflect our experiences and expand our horizons.
7. What is your perspective on the quality of YA lit today? It seems be more popular than ever with Harry Potter,Twilight, The Hunger Games, and now Divergent. What do you think is driving this popularity?
There are sort of two different categories of YA books right now. There are the extremely commercial, popular ones like you mentioned, and for many readers–whether teen or adult–those books act as gateways to discovering how great storytelling can be. Those books have cinematic plots and intensely relatable main characters and there’s an immediacy to the story and its telling that makes it something people want to talk about and discuss endlessly with their friends. The anticipation of waiting for the next book in the series to see what happens next just adds to the excitement around them. But if you dig deeper into the genre of young adult literature, or even its little brother/sister, middle grade literature (books for late elementary/middle school students), there is an incredible depth and breadth to the sorts of stories being published, about really meaningful topics. Sometimes people want to be dismissive of YA literature as frivolous or silly or less important “real” grown-up books, but I think they’re usually the ones who have only encountered the top-most layer of the genre, and I hope for them that they’ll keep reading deeper, too, to discover the many, many incredible books and authors beyond the commercial bestsellers.
Adults are enjoying YA books lately, too. I think these stories remind them of their younger selves and the sense of possibility that you feel when you’re a young adult, and the world is opening up around you, and it’s constantly thrilling or terrifying or sometimes both at once! And a hallmark of the children’s/YA book genre is that, no matter how grim or real or challenging the subject matter of a story may be, there’s always a sense of hope, too–not an unrealistic one, like in an after-school special, but the sort of hope that keeps us all alive and striving. And as humans of any age, I think we’re drawn to hope.
Now it’s your turn to share your thoughts on how YA literature can be useful in education today: the College of Education has 15 copies of Divergent to give away! In order to win, just leave a comment letting us know how you would use young adult novels in the classroom. And check back in January for a chance to win one of two collector editions of the second book in the series, Insurgent!