I started my working life in publishing as a Project Editor with a small company called Tempus Publishing, soon becoming Commissioning Editor and later Acting Publisher. After a couple of years there, I realised that my passion lay in children’s publishing so I wrote to Barefoot Books and was fortunate enough to land a job as their Group Publishing Manager. I was based in their Bath offices in England for seven years but also spent a year in their US office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By then, I had two small children so I took a break from my full-time role to spend more time with my family. I set up Conker House Publishing Consultancy with an ex-colleague which led us to many stimulating and rewarding collaborations from educational resources for Ghana to papers for the World Economic Forum, alongside plenty of children’s books, too. In July 2019, Barefoot Books offered me the role of Editorial Director which I happily embraced so here I am!
I would have to talk about the same project on both fronts. In 2011, we published the Barefoot Books World Atlas, written by Nick Crane and illustrated by David Dean. It is a truly stunning book, packed with information and beautiful illustrations. A project that already felt rewarding and challenging became even more so when we turned it into an all-spinning and all-dancing app. The globe literally spins at the touch of your finger, the soundscape changes as you navigate the globe and it is populated by loads of incredible animations. Needless to say, the world of app development was quite different from book publishing so there were many challenges but we are so proud of the product we created. We have recently upgraded the Barefoot World Atlas App and it has been featured by Apple as ‘App of the Day’!
What I particularly love about the creative process at Barefoot Books is that it is never formulaic. Sometimes it’s a manuscript which captures us all with its language and prose. Other times the visuals can lead the development of a book. Sometimes we start with a concept and build out from there, finding the right contributors and bringing in inspiration from far and wide. We work very collaboratively across sales, design, marketing and editorial so everyone pitches in with ideas including our children. They are often the best at coming up with fabulous concepts!
i) From My Window was released in March 2020 and epitomises all that Barefoot stands for – an #OwnVoices book about the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The book poses the question, “What do you see from your window?” which feels so relevant as we all deal with the current lockdown around the world.
I’d recommend having a good look at the existing Barefoot Books products. We have a very distinct look and feel to all our publishing, with a particular love for a strong palette, rich textures and the ability to capture character. We’d rather see a smaller but well-curated portfolio which is tailored to what we are looking for than a range of too many different styles.
Creating a Barefoot book is a collaborative process from start to finish so we definitely look for artists who are happy to exchange ideas and respond to feedback. Enjoying being creative is really key!
I think the coronavirus pandemic has to be mentioned in answer to this question. We are all still waiting to see what long-term impact it will have on the world of children’s publishing. I really hope that the children’s book fairs will be able to get back up and running again soon.
Having grown up in the Lake District, a picturesque part of England and home to Beatrix Potter, I would have to mention Peter Rabbit and his friends. There was so much to love in the various characters, the intriguing plot lines and the beautiful scenery as a backdrop.
Tessa Strickland, co-founder of Barefoot Books, is someone I have always seen as an important role model. She approaches every challenge with integrity and thoughtfulness – something that I aspire to do, too!
I’d like to think we have several of these in our product development process right now. We are always looking for topics that will captivate young minds, build strong characters and make reading a pleasure and not a chore. A book that incorporates all those elements stacks up to be a dream project in my mind. As I look at the world around me, children’s publishing could not feel more important than it does now.
ii) I Took the Moon for a Walk is a real Barefoot classic and has been a bestseller for many years. Carolyn Curtis’ lyrical text captures young minds while Alison Jay’s imaginative artwork continues to delight on every reading.
iii) Ready, Set, Go! is another recent publication well worth shouting about. Coming from a family crazy about all sorts of sports, this has been great fun to develop alongside Celeste Cortright and Christiane Engel . As ever for Barefoot, the book is diverse, inclusive and opens children up to a whole world of possibilities.
According to the ol’ family lore, my dad asked me as a kid what I wanted to do when I grew up and I simply replied, “read,” so my dad told me to figure out how to do that—and that’s been my goal ever since! I studied English and Anthropology in college, while interning at the Wake Forest University Press, and then earned my MFA at Emerson College in Publishing & Writing, which is how I wound up in Boston. My focus has always been on books for young readers, so I did internships at The Horn Book and Candlewick Press during that time and finally landed at HMH Books for Young Readers.
Happy to! The goal of Etch is to publish graphic novels that make a mark. I am personally so excited for the launch of an imprint that is dedicated to publishing graphic novels for every young reader. Etch publishes authors and artists that exemplify the best in art and storytelling of all genres and reflect the diversity of our readers.
The romantic answer would be that I read all day, sipping tea and staring off moodily out the window. While that is certainly part of it (!), every day really does bring something new. I field a lot of emails, I read submissions and bring exciting titles to our team to consider for acquisition, and negotiate contracts. At the same time, I need to edit manuscripts, review copyedits, write flap copy, search for artists to pair with graphic novel scripts, and offer feedback on cover comps. I love being able to work directly with authors and artists, in addition to my colleagues from design, managing editorial, publicity, and marketing. Making a book is a collaborative labor of love with so many moving pieces!
There is nothing quite like connecting with a submission—that fluttery feeling when you just know you have to work on something. With graphic novels that have separate authors and illustrators, one of those magical moments is when you get to see the artist’s interpretation of the characters and world after working solely on a script for months. It’s such an exhilarating, exciting experience!
As a reader and editor, it feels like we’ve entered a sort of golden age of graphic novels. It’s amazing to not only see all of the incredible books being published across a range of genres and age categories, but also the uptick of graphic novel submissions in my own inbox over the past few years! There appears to be a real hunger for visual storytelling, and the market seems fairly fluid in that readers are reading up and down in age groups. It’s also lovely to see the critical reception and accolades titles have been receiving—Caldecott, Newbery, and Printz Awards and Honors, oh my! Last ALA I was cheering for every graphic novel that was honored, which goes to show how passionate the comics community is. I’m very lucky to have two amazing comics shops in my town—Comicazi and Hub Comics in Somerville, MA—but I’ve also seen the graphic novel shelves grow at my local indie and B&N. The market is really primed to support expansion of this category.
I was obsessed with making stories and illustrating them as a kid (I think my mom has kept them all, and since I am no artist, she has a lot of blackmail should she decide to use it), and I still have a SpongeBob notebook filled with an unfinished comic from middle school. As a teen, my best friend and I would spend hours on the floor of our local bookstore reading manga, and so my love of long-form visual storytelling organically expanded from there. I enjoy reading across genres, age groups, and mediums—serial comics, graphic novels, manga, web comics—and it’s really informed my editorial tastes and the type of projects I want to work on. On the subway a few months ago, I saw a young boy reading an incredibly beat-up copy of Sisters by Raina Telgemeier and as soon as he finished, he flipped to the front page and started again. I got a little misty-eyed seeing that kind of passion—it reminded me of that complete joy and absorption I experienced reading graphic novels as a kid (and as an adult).
Our Etch launch list has seven titles that span various age groups and genres, so there is really something for everyone! There are dinosaurs, video games, an appearance from the elusive Carmen Sandiego (if you can catch her), bird detectives, gods and goddesses going to middle school, and a new edition of the Will Eisner nominee and Asian/Pacific American Young Adult Literature Honor book Ichiro by Ryan Inzana.
If you’re looking for humor, I recommend Dinomighty! written by Doug Paleo, illustrated by Aaron Blecha. If you love mythology, be sure to keep an eye out for the first in the Oh My Gods! series written by Stephanie Cooke and Insha Fitzpatrick, and illustrated by Juliana Moon. For mystery readers, Sherlock Bones and the Natural History Mystery by Renee Treml is a delightful museum romp. I could go on and on! It’s a wonderful list with such talented creators.
As the home of Alison Bechdel on the general interest side, HMH has a long tradition with graphic novels. Over in the books for young readers, we have Kayla Miller’s brilliant, funny, and heartwarming Click and Camp (the election-themed next book in the series, Act, comes out this summer!). We also publish the award-winning graphic nonfiction of Don Brown including Drowned City and The Unwanted. And we’ve recently published graphic novel adaptions of Newbery Award–winning titles The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and The Giver by Lois Lowry. It has been incredible to see these beloved books reimagined in another medium.
Personally, there are two things I look for when reviewing artist portfolios to pair with a graphic novel script:
1.) character studies
2.) panel work.
Not every artist can/wants to do everything (nor should they!), so when I am looking for an artist for a fantasy, for example, I love seeing creature sketches—mermaids, wolf people, vampires—or magical locations like moon palaces, haunted swamps, or undersea cities. It’s really helpful to see a range of character expressions (whether human or otherwise) to help determine whether an artist can nail the various emotional beats of a script.
As for panel work, the questions that come to mind when I’m reviewing a portfolio: Are they playing with layout in an exciting, dynamic way? Is there variation in paneling across spreads? How does the artist use white space? Even if it is just a miniature comic, it’s great to see how an artist handles the movement and progression of a scene. I also like to get a feel for whether an artist likes to work in full-color, two-color, or both.
Hmm…this is a tricky one as I feel each project I’ve worked on has been a meaningful experience with its own challenges and triumphs! Regarding graphic novels, I have two forthcoming titles that I’m really excited about: Oh My Gods! and ParaNorthern and the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calypse. Both are funny, heartfelt middle grades, but I will discuss Oh My Gods! here as that title is out first in January 2021 (right around the corner 😉). This series has three creators—two authors and an illustrator—and the team already had existing friendships, so it was incredibly fun to work with them. They are a welcoming and creative bunch! It had such an energy of organic collaboration and humor that it reminded me of being in middle school and making comics with my friends again.
Editorially, we worked on finalizing the script while the artist created a character lineup so we could offer feedback on what was working. Once the script was copyedited, the metaphorical baton was passed to the artist, and our brilliant designer Andrea Miller came aboard to help offer feedback throughout the process. It has been an incredibly rewarding and collaborative project, and I am looking forward to readers meeting Karen and her god and goddess friends (while squeeing over the adorable art!).
Whenever I get this question I completely freeze—you’d think I’d have an answer handy and at the ready! Sometimes I don’t even know a project is a dream of mine until it arrives in my inbox , and you never know what’s going to knock your socks off. But in the interest of answering your question, what type of graphic novel am I dying to read right this second?
1.) A romantic, coming-of-age YA—all those longing glances and blushes on the page! Something hopeful in these trying times.
2.) Having just finished The Great on Hulu, I’d love an anachronistic, hilarious historical, which could be so fun visually with the palaces, period clothing, and decadent food!
3.) I’m always looking for #OwnVoices projects and stories that offer diverse perspectives and experiences in both MG and YA.
We are both prolific writers and readers, and upon having our own children and becoming more engaged in young children's literature, especially, we really developed a passion for a particular type of children's books. They were books that subtly and creatively focussed on the big issues that are critical to the future of society and the planet. E.g. climate change, equality (of all forms), and sustainability etc. We decided we wanted to release our own range of books that focussed on these issues, whilst still seamlessly weaving them into narratives that carried timeless appeal to young children.
The trick is finding an angle that makes these themes accessible/relatable to young minds. In our books thus far, that angle has been using a character that is intriguing to little minds (e.g. Mother Nature) or embedding a protagonist that is sweet, disarming and approachable (e.g. a sea turtle or a young polar bear). Once the little reader is interested in the character, it's easier to extend that interest into the theme that character is exploring or unpacking. We are also very particular about the theme being embedded in the sub-text, rather than an overt driver of the storyline. The intention here is to provide some subtle but meaningful points of conversation that parents can then pick up with their children at the end of the story.
It is critical. Reading is a way to transport the mind anywhere - even to fantastical places - and kids grow and learn the most when they're challenged to think outside the box and leverage their imagination. The majority audience that is purchasing our books are progressive, self-aware parents/grandparents/relatives, who want to instill the same qualities in the next generation.
Alvin was the first illustrator we hired, and his work has been immensely successful. We selected Alvin originally because we felt his illustrative style really nailed the "disarming" element of our books that we noted earlier. Alvin is also deeply passionate about nature and conservation, and having this values alignment meant (and still means) that he was invested in the outcome of our books even beyond the practical level. The most notable work of Alvin's is Stu's book, Remembering Mother Nature, which has absolutely cemented the presence of our business in just a few short months.
Absolutely. The ability to show a diverse style is critical: by "a diverse style", we mean the ability to draw/create a wide range of things without breaking from a distinguishable and consistent aesthetic. Creating people, animals, landscapes, cityscapes etc. and having them all recognisable as "your own" is exactly what we're looking for.
Running an ecommerce business is especially rewarding, above all things. We can work from anywhere we want, whilst automating so much of the customer experience lifecycle. Closer to home, as passionate writers and readers, running a business that is grounded by these things is also emotionally, creatively, and intellectually satisfying. Conversely, yes, the challenges are extreme at times. Given we're still heavily embedded in the mobilisation phase of our business, the workload is extremely high. We both have a strong growth mindset and we're never fully happy with anything, which means we're always refining and optimising - this takes time and is often draining. The ultimate reward, though, is having all the foundations in place - including more staff - which will enable us to focus more exclusively on the creative parts of the publication process, which is what we're most passionate about.
Firstly, and quite simply, that there is a lot to learn and reading is a way to learn it. At the more micro-level, we want children to learn how to question the norm and challenge the status quo. If nothing else, though, we simply want kids to develop a love for reading, and for our books to be the catalyst for this.
We are most positively influenced by businesses that are doing something new, and in a socially-equitable way. We adore brands like Canva for this reason. Perhaps, though, the biggest influence on our business is our own children. Seeing them thrive in reading the books we've published is the most heart-warming and inspiring experience. It's invaluable motivation to push harder and further.
It would have to be anything Winnie The Pooh. Simple, endearing and disarming, these books always demonstrated the power of kindness and acceptance.
First and foremost, we want to remain to true to our vision and only publish books that promote a positive and healthy message. Secondly - and regardless of how large the business becomes - we also want to remain fun, personable, approachable, sustainable, and socially-equitable.
Francisco is a more recent hire, but someone we've had our eye on since before we launched the business. His style is absolutely unique and his alone. The way Francisco draws cities and streetscapes is otherworldly. There is a level of realism, but also a tweak of fantasy and abstractism, that is like nothing else we've seen. His first book with us is actually also the work of the first author we signed-up, Priscilla Pho.
Pris's debut book, Just a Rabbit, explores inequality in the most incredibly fluid and endearing way. The gentleness of her language is beatifully juxtaposed with the progressiveness of Francisco's illustrations, and this combination has created a deeply special book.
I studied Book Art and Design (BA), at London College of Communication (UAL). During my last two years of the course, I had a part-time job as a nanny and was spending a good deal of time appreciating the likes of ‘There Are Cats in This Book’ by Vivian Schwarz in the local libraries, surrounded by toddlers. Yet at that time, I don’t think I would ever have thought to pursue a job in children’s publishing. A change in course leader meant that by my second year at uni, children’s publishing just wasn’t something that was talked about. In fact the new course leader very much looked down on children’s books and once told us that if we submitted an illustration project with talking animals she would refuse to mark the work!
Instead it was pure coincidence (and I’ll admit, sickening serendipity) that through an entirely separate work experience placement at a corporate finance magazine, my CV was kindly passed on to one of the directors at Walker Books. Just a few weeks after that, I interviewed for a rare design internship at Walker and got the job. And thank god I did.
Since starting as a Design Assistant in 2011, I have done everything from making dummies for book fairs, to presenting books at sales conferences and commissioning award winning talent. At each stage of my career I can honestly say that I’ve known without doubt that I was very lucky to have landed here at Walker straight out of uni. After all this time I still count myself fortunate to be here. There are always new and exciting things that happen that keep me inspired and excited to do my job – it’s a very special place to learn your craft.
As a Senior Designer I am involved in scouting new talent, formats and publishing opportunities, which includes commissioning projects. (I’ve always loved the fact that at Walker we have two publishers who come from a design background.) I support the Senior Art Director, Louise Jackson, with various management and coordination tasks – like helping our team meet publishing schedules and planning ahead for various editions of each project. And (to my geeky satisfaction) I’m tasked with rolling out any new in-house systems and training newer members of the team (normally with a bit of mentoring thrown in, where needed). Working as I do in such a dynamic and busy publishing team, often means having to dip in and out of other designers projects to help them reach the finish line when workloads are over stretched or when book fairs and sales events approach.
I am also assigned to certain picture book authors and illustrators (Emma Yarlett, Simon James, Marcia Williams…), offering continuity and crucial support both when developing new projects, and advocating on their behalf for past projects. It’s a responsibility that I cherish.
And of course I do the same job as any other book designer! – where aside from doing the actual designing (i.e. coming up with visual concepts and plans), I will source the right illustrator for a project, and brief and art direct them. A huge part of a designer’s role includes project management and collaborating and communicating with editors, art directors, production teams, sales and finance etc. It’s a very involved job.
I’d start with ‘There Are Cats in This Book’ by Vivian Schwartz (art directed by Ben Norland) because it was the first children’s book that I really appreciated as an adult in charge of a child. It’s very clever, yet also very simple – the art, the text, the design; they all work together in perfect coordination. Plus the book, as an object, is part of the narrative which is genius! I think for these reasons it’s a really good book to look at if you’re trying to write and illustrate for children but are feeling overwhelmed with where to start. Sometimes the simplest concept can produce really great results!
The second would have to be 'Dragon Post’ by Emma Yarlett. It’s a book that I helped commission, after a long period of trying to develop something with Emma. The story is wonderful and it's fabulously illustrated, and like ’There Are Cat’s in This Book’, it's another novelty book. Alex, the character in the story, receives letters and in the book these are presented as closely as possible to real ones. The detail and the imagination that Emma has poured into the project is to an exceptional standard – and although I had coveted Emma’s work for a long time, even as her art director I was blown away by what she produced. From stamps and air mail stickers, to hand drawn addresses, it’s a real lesson in how to go the extra mile and create a fully formed world that children will love to explore.
Next would be 'My Red Hat’, by Rachel Stubbs, who won the Sebastian Walker prize a few years ago. She’s a very exciting new illustrator that I helped bring onto our list with publisher Denise Johnstone-Burt. I just love Rachel's work. Her illustrations are emotive and rich, and yet light and open all at once. The story in this picture book debut is both beautifully quiet and imaginatively playful. It’s a genius offering of balance and opposites, and I think it’s a book illustrators will especially love to explore.
The fourth book would be 'A First Book of Nature’ by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Mark Hearld (art directed by a genius Walker alumni, Liz Wood). As a designer of illustrated books, there are some things that I get particularly excited about. One of those things is colour and I don’t think I can appropriately explain how well the colours in this book have been treated. Mark’s work is utterly faultless and the production quality is superb – I feel like the artwork literally sings on the paper (which isn’t always easy when you’re dealing with print). You’ll have to grab a copy to really see it for yourself, but I think it’s a great example for illustrators who are struggling with how to use colour in their work.
I’m struggling to pick a 5th book as there are so many to choose from! But something very different to the aforementioned would be the Football School Series, illustrated by Spike Gerrell. This is a great example of illustrating what you love – because it makes all the difference in the outcome. The series is art directed by Laurelie Bazin.
A good picture book illustration has to say the right thing at the right time. In my opinion the illustration should compliment and communicate what is happening in the text, telling the story consistently and truthfully. But it should also manage to both fill the spaces that the text leaves behind and also leave enough unsaid. What a paradox!
Good questions to ask are; does the illustration represent a truthful experience, both in the world of the story and in the world of the audience? Does it communicate well? AND – does this illustrator fit with the project? Are they right for the author and are they right for the audience (even if they aren’t expecting it!)?
Much of choosing an artist comes down to whether they are the right fit for the project, so it would be impossible to make any rules when it comes to portfolios. Any art, no matter what style, has it’s place.
It is true however that there are aproaches to illustration that in an unsolicited portfolio can seem tired, overused, or dated – and therefore it’s important to present your best, most exciting and engaging work. I’d suggest looking at current publishing trends when it comes to subject matter (right now this would include a lot of non-fiction and biographies), but also make sure you include things that you are passionate about and enjoy illustrating. Where possible show character designs (preferably both human and animal) as well as examples of composition and sequencing. And don’t be afraid to mix up the age range too (you might think you are best suited to illustrate picture books, but a designer may be able to spot an altogether different potential in your work, say for fiction covers for example). This will give you the best chance,no matter what your art style.
Taking a look across a publisher’s backlist of books will also give a really good idea of what the publishing teams enjoy working on, and whether your work would naturally fit within their list going forward. This doesn’t mean however that they will only be looking for the same as before – of course they will want to be innovative and exciting too, and finding new talent is so important for this!
In terms of sales, the most successful project I have worked on has been 'Dragon Post’ by Emma Yarlett. Since 2018 we have printed over 250k copies worldwide, in more than 10 languages – it’s been phenomenal.
The journey began in 2016, when I reached out to Emma to see if she would like to work on a project with us at Walker. It took a few attempts, but in February 2017 Emma sat at our creative meeting table with a dummy book embossed with the words “Dragon Post”. Denise Johnstone-Burt, Emma’s editor and publisher, started reading the dummy and before she’d reached the last line of the book it was clear that this was ‘the one’. We swiftly contracted the book and soon after began work on the edits, reworkings, rough sketches and dummies of the story, to check that everything worked as well as possible before Emma started painting the artwork. (It’s this stage that can often take the longest time – but it’s so vital and prevents any problems with colour art at final delivery stage.)
Once the structure of the story was in place, Emma started to look at how to characterise Alex, the protagonist and narrator of the story, and also the dragon, which was perhaps the trickiest task of all. After some thought we decided to use a neon pantone red for the dragon to really help him seem as magical and other-worldy as possible – and give an extra level of pizzazz to the book! We did some print tests at this stage and I also spent time working on creating cutter guides and glue points for the inclusion of the letters that the reader would be able to open and read as part of the story.
By November 2017 Emma had delivered all of the art and together we digitally added the pantone colouring to the dragon, making the final touches to the book just before Christmas. Once the book had been proofed we made some small tweaks to a few colours that had suffered in the printing process, and final files were signed off in March 2018 when the book went to print.
Since 'Dragon Post' was published we’ve also continued the series with 'Beast Feast' in 2019 and an exciting new title will be published later in 2020.
Some of the most challenging parts of my job are –
The most enjoyable parts of my job are –
"Your value is not only in the work you create.” (A lesson I’m still trying to learn!)
I think when you work in a competitive creative industry such as publishing, and you appreciate how lucky you are to do what you love, it can be easy to feel a huge amount of personal pressure. This can make it hard to put boundaries in place. But at the end of the day, whilst it’s good to be invested and to go the extra mile, we’re still just making books – we’re not saving lives – so it’s ok to go home and switch off!
I have always valued the input that I get from my manager, Louise Jackson, at Walker. She has worked on some incredible books and won many awards, so she’s a real inspiration. Similarly across the company there are many other colleagues who I have learnt from and been inspired by in various ways, not just in design. Caroline Muir, our Forign Rights Director, is someone I very much admire – she's a role model in how to build and lead a team that consistently outdoes their own performance.
It’s also my peers and my friends at work who at the end of the day challenge me and encourage me – normally over a cheap glass of wine!
Charlie Moyler portrait (c) Donna Ford 2020