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Harriet Birkinshaw Interview

Harriet Birkinshaw

Senior Commissioning Editor, Nobrow / Flying Eye Books

Tell us about your background and how you came to your current role as Senior Commissioning Editor at Nobrow, an independent publisher of comics and graphic novels, and its children’s imprint Flying Eye Books.

After graduating with a degree in English and American Literature, I interned at several children’s publishers before I landed a job as editorial assistant at Andersen Press. While there I had the pleasure of working for the inimitable Klaus Flugge and had a hand in producing picture books created by David McKee, Tony Ross and Quentin Blake, to name a few. I’d long admired Nobrow’s books so when I heard they were starting a children’s list I knew I had to get in touch, and soon after I was hired. There wasn’t actually an editorial department when I started at Nobrow, so it’s been amazing to create a new department which has grown to a team of three within the four and half years that I’ve been here. 

With offices in London and NYC, can you introduce us to the team behind Nobrow and Flying Eye Books and explain how the two offices collaborate?

Nobrow and its children’s list, Flying Eye Books, was founded by two graduates of Central Saint Martins, Alex Spiro and Sam Arthur. For a while they were the only ones producing the books, but the UK office has since grown to a team of thirteen people, passionately working across editorial, design, publicity, marketing, accounts and foreign rights. We also have a sales office in the US where a team of three work to market and publicize our books in America while also liaising with our US distributor, Penguin Random House. 

When did it become apparent that the company was destined for great success?

As a small and fairly young company we are still learning our way, but we have had some successes of which we are proud. One in particular that comes to mind is when Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2015. More recently we’ve had success with The Secret of Black Rock by Joe Todd-Stanton, which won this year’s Waterstones Best Illustrated Book. But success for us isn’t just about winning awards, it’s about creating good quality books that sell well domestically and all over the world.

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Books often sell very differently on both sides of the Atlantic. What insights can you offer into the differing markets?

This can be true, but we do often notice a correlation between our bestselling titles in the US and the UK and I think this comes down to the globalization of publishing. However, the US market is much bigger so our sales expectations are higher, especially in certain areas such as Graphic Novels. This area is still quite niche in the UK, but we appear to be having a golden age in illustration which is opening the UK market up to different types of visual storytelling. 

Nobrow and FEB are known for originality, experimentation, design and storytelling. Can you select 3 recent projects to share with our audience, explaining why you chose to highlight them?

Arthur and the Golden Rope by Joe Todd-Stanton, of which we recently published the paperback edition, is an example of how we have experimented with visual storytelling. It’s a hybrid between a children’s picture book and graphic novel, which is set in the world of Norse Mythology. It’s been particularly successful for us as it reaches an age group of 5-8 year olds and schools have loved using the book in class. At its core it tells the tale of an unexpected hero, in the form of shy and awkward Arthur who manages to battle gods and beasts to save his village. We paired text and illustration in a slightly unusual way but it’s worked out well and it is accessible to children who might be reluctant readers. 

This month we’re celebrating ten years of Nobrow, and have released a special anniversary 10th edition of the Nobrow magazine. The magazine was one of the very first projects to be published by Nobrow. In this edition 70 contemporary illustrators from all over the world have responded to the theme of ‘Studio Dreams’, and it’s printed in four spot colours. It’s been incredible to see the range and variety of art styles and interpretation of the theme by all the artists, and I could look through the book for hours! 

In June, we are publishing a creative non-fiction book called Skyward: The Story of Female Air Pilots in WWII by Sally Deng. It’s a stunning book that tells the unrecognized story of female pilots from Great Britain, USA, and Russia. Set during the Second World War, Sally Deng sensitively tells the story of three women who all had a passion to fly and faced enormous obstacles along the way. This is a book I would have loved to have read as a child myself, especially as I had no idea women flew during WWII. 

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It's clear you have a very nurturing approach to working with illustrators. Can you give a recent example of how you've helped a new artist to develop their work into a publishable narrative?

This can vary from project to project and it’s hard to describe exactly. Mostly we work with illustrators who are visual storytellers, but don’t find the writing part so easy. We’ll often work on the overall arc of the story and help the illustrator to write the text and make sure the book works as best as it can. Or sometimes I’ll send an illustrator a story or a visual reference for inspiration. Creating stories can be a long process, as sometimes original ideas by new voices take time to develop. 

Creative non-fiction is the fastest growing market. Which titles from your list have proven the most successful?

Shackleton’s Journey by William Grill is our most successful creative non-fiction title. It pairs inventive visuals and a fascinating historical story about survival and teamwork. When it was published in 2014, there were very few books out there like it – so it’s been wonderful to see how successful it has been.

How important is it that children's books speak not just to children but also to an adult audience?

I think the best children’s picture books are about universal experiences, whether that is something funny and silly or emotional and heartwarming. At their core children’s books have to appeal to children, but that doesn’t mean an adult can’t enjoy the book either, especially if they are going to be reading the book aloud every night to a young child!

Were you a fan of illustration from a formative age?

Like most children, I was read to, and read a lot of illustrated books. These books have always stayed in my memory because they were some of my very first experiences of reading. However, it wasn’t until I started interning at children’s publishers that I realized my skill set was much more suited to working on illustrated books.   

What illustration styles or subject matters are of particular interest to you and what exciting new projects do you have coming up?

My taste in illustration styles is hard to define, as for every editor it is quite a subjective thing. I would say it’s often when an illustration provokes a response from me. I tend to like illustration styles that are warm and full of character and expression, like Emily Hughes’s art. Lately, I’ve been drawn to lots of diverse subject matters, but in particular I like simple stories with important and relevant themes, be they social or environmental. 

I’m particularly excited by a non-fiction book we are publishing in October called Everest. It tells the story of the world’s tallest mountain, from its early beginnings, to the flora and fauna which survive on it and the legends that surround it. It’s written beautifully by the talented Sangma Francis and illustrated by the incredible Lisk Feng, whose illustrations are bold and mystical. It’s been an ambitious project, but it’s truly breathtaking – in my humble opinion! 

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