Helen Robinson Interview

Helen Robinson

Art Director, Front Street

Could you tell us about how you entered the world of publishing and detail your subsequent rise to Art Director with Front Street?

I happened to be at the right place at the right time. Stephen Roxburgh, the publisher of Front Street (which was then a two person award-winning publishing company with a reputation for edgy YA literature) was looking for an Art Director. And though I had no interest in either publishing or children's books (or so I thought), I was ready to make a change and I reluctantly went to talk to him. I discovered that I not only love children's books, but that publishing has given me a unique creative opportunity that combines fine art and graphic design. That was nine years ago. Since then Front Street has made the transition from independent publisher to imprint of a bigger company, Boyds Mills Press, without loosing any of its creative energy or integrity.

On average, how many children's titles does Front Street produce a year?


How many illustrators do you typically work with per year?

Ten to fifteen.

Of the illustrated titles you have been personally responsible for, which one are you most proud of and why?

I am proud of many and my favourites change all the time. Currently my favourite is The Story of Giraffe, illustrated by Guido Pigni, because by redesigning the cover and editing some of pictures I was able to strengthen the marketability of the book.

Tell us a little about a recent project you have worked on, the stages involved and why you chose the selected illustrator(s).

A Child's Guide to Common Household Monsters, by James Otis Thach, illustrated by David Udovic. David more of a muralist than book illustrator, but he had an oddly quirky style that appealed to us. And in the very early stages while we were still trying to decide on an illustrator he came up with sketches that built and expanded on the concept of the book way beyond the text.

What can we expect from Front Street in 2008?

More beautiful (and some edgy) picture books - among them a book about the Boston Massacre.

Do you work with many illustrators/authors from outside the US?

We work with artists, writers, and publishers outside the US. We co-publish between 6 and 8 picture books a year with Lemniscaat, a publisher in Rotterdam, and we have a list of almost twenty books in translation. We are always interested in developing relationships with artists from other countries - and technology being what it is, there is very little difference in working with an illustrator in New York City and one in Japan.

How are Front Street royalties and advances structured?

We pay an advance against royalties.

Aside from their obvious talent, what personal qualities do you look for when choosing an illustrator to work with?

I look for an illustrator who will be a true collaborator. Someone who will add a whole new dimension to a manuscript, who will make the book theirs - take a project and run with it. I also prefer to work with artists who respect deadlines and can communicate well.

What is your all-time favourite children's book and why?

This also changes, but my current favourite is Jack and the Night Visitors by Pat Schories. This is the third in a series of wordless picture books about a boy and his dog - and what is so amazing about Pat is that she creates a very complex and rich visual world in such a manner that it appears absolutely right and effortless.

Within the last couple of years, which children's book has been the most successful for Front Street and why?

Tumble Bumble by Felicia Bond because the story is fabulous and Felicia is incredibly talented and very well established - a naturally winning combination.

Front Street works regularly with many talented illustrators. Would you commission a fledgling illustrator, or do you prefer only to work with established illustrators?

I am always interested in "fledgling" illustrators, and have worked with quite a few. Established illustrators are wonderful when I'm in a rush, or have a very clear, preconceived idea of what I want a book to look like. An unknown artist requires more time, but more often than not results in an exciting collaboration and a book that feels really "new".

In this highly competitive market, who do you regard as your closest competitor?

Candlewick and Roaring Brook Press.

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