Thirty years ago in 1990 I started as a Commissioning Editor at Butterworth-Heinemann (Reed-Elsevier plc) for the business book list, moved into digital publishing, sales and marketing. After my third daughter was born, I moved to become Publisher Relations & Marketing Director of B.H. Blackwell Ltd. library supply/bookselling for 5 years. In 2000 I started Ingram’s Lightning Source UK Limited as Commercial Director hiring the start-up team and staying for at for nearly 10 years. I wrote the book The Impact of Print-on-demand on Academic Publishing (Elsevier, 2016), while working as EU Sales Director for Lion Hudson from 2011 for five years. Lion Hudson entered a tumultuous period just as I took over as Managing Director in 2016. I then assisted in transferring Lion Hudson’s assets to the AFD Group. Since 2017 I have led the rebuilding the new company team and the publishing programme for Lion Hudson Limited.
I think the Christian publishing industry is quite unique in that we spend a lot more time thinking about what we have in common rather than what sets us apart. I could tell you about how we offer our authors a more personal approach than some of our bigger counterparts, or how the we look to commission books to reach a wider and often more secular audience with the Christian message than some other Christian publishers. But ultimately, we’re united together with our ‘competitors’, and are actually invested in each other’s success. We all want to see great Christian literature for all ages available in the market, and it’s privilege to be working alongside these other organisations in doing that.
There is a lot of demand for quality content for Christians and those interested in Christianity. In many respects the global Christian publishing market is not that dissimilar to the general consumer market. Consumers are evolving in terms of their buying habits, the distribution channels change and adapt over time, and we need to keep pace with all of these things. There are also global Christian trends that we need to tap into; hot topics of conversation that people are eager for content on. So we have many of the same challenges as ‘regular’ publishers – but there is lots of demand! And you never quite know where that demand is going to suddenly appear from
The Little White Horse is a perfect example of when all the elements of a story, such as the plot, writing style and pacing, resonate perfectly with a particular group. You only need to read some of the user reviews to see common themes being repeated. Generally, people have read it in their childhood and were captivated by every element of the book. It has a certain atmosphere, which is hard to quantify. It’s wonderful to see people fall in love with a book in that way – and it’s contagious! It’s the kind of love that makes people want to pass it down from one generation to the next. So there is no need to mess with it. We have just issued fresh new editions as part of our curation of this brilliant, classic book.
‘The Storyteller’ series of books by much loved author and storyteller Bob Hartman is one of our bestselling series. Bob’s The Lion Storyteller Bible (most recently illustrated by Krisztina Kalli Nagy) is now celebrating its 25th year and has been used as a core book for many different initiatives, appeals and campaigns by the wider church over the years. It is beautifully written and illustrated and engages adults and children alike. We have a Family Bible version coming out this year to help families who want to discuss the bible stories in more depth, an audio book with Bob reading, and there are other books in the series such as the ‘Book of Animal Tales’ and the ‘Bedtime Book’. We’re really thankful to Bob for is work. Storytelling is such a wonderful skill and it is brilliant seeing it being gifted to families through these books
Different imprints have different reputations with particular art styles associated with them. Lion Children’s has traditionally published sophisticated art for gifts, traditional bible story imagery or endearing illustrations for younger children. Recently the Lion Kids Comic Bible and the Lion Picture Puzzle Bible moved the Lion Children’s imprint into a more cartoon-oriented space.
The Candle Books imprint has consistently published more cartoon-like styles of illustration and novelty books such as illustrated pop-ups. The Lion Books imprint publishes graphic novel, comic and cartoon-like art styles for an older readership.
Our children’s Senior Commissioning Editor seeks to understand who the target readership is especially in terms of reading age, while considering the buyer of the book (typically a parent, God-parent or church leader). Then she works with the author on the content and writing style, while our Design Manager responds to the design brief and works with the selected illustrator to deliver amazing illustrations. Throughout the process we consult with book buyers to ensure we are on trend and appealing to a variety of tastes.
Sensitivity to the subject matter is something that is critical to the illustrations in our books. In particular, we commission many bible story retellings. When illustrating a bible we therefore we require illustrators to submit a variety of animals (Noah, Nativity and Palm Sunday demand great animals), a variety of faces (we particularly consider the style of eyes) and of course any bible requires a convincing portrait of Jesus. There are so many talented artists out there, and so many fantastic styles to appreciate. But it always needs to be done in a way that lifts the text and works with it. Our Design Manager reviews many online portfolio’s when considering alternative styles to pitch for a particular project and the sales team is consulted with regard to market appeal. Updating your online portfolio regularly, showing a mixture of digital and hand drawn examples and ensuring a variety of subjects will ensure we take note!
We publish one or two Christmas themed and one Easter themed book each year. Our bestsellers are from the My Very First Bible by Lois Rock & Alex Ayliffe Baby Jesus and The Easter Story small books which we sell in multipacks.
Particular favourites of mine are books by Antonia Woodward The Promised One: The Wonderful Story of Easter (2017) and the Christmas story The Extra Special Baby (2016). Antonia’s illustrations are so full of life and loved by everyone. On That Christmas Night (2018) by Lois Rock and illustrated by Alison Jay is a stunning and sophisticated gift book for Christmas. This year we have a beautiful book coming out in August: The Gift of Christmas: The boy who blessed the world by in-house author Mary Joslin and illustrated by Kristina Swarner.
Some other titles that make great gifts around Christmas time are Max Lucado’s stories about the Wemmicks and particularly the various editions of You Are Special. I can’t imagine anyone reading them and not have their heart touched!
I think this ties in well with how we view our ‘competitors’. We’re all in this together, and we love that there are so many fantastic books displaying Christian influences. A few recently published books that I would love to have published but recognising that each publisher brought its own strengths, relationships and abilities to the fore in these projects include (in date order): The Garden, the Cross and the Curtain (The Good Book Company, 2016); Everyone a Child Should Know by Clare Heath-Whyte (10Publishing, 2017); God’s Timeline (CF4 Kids, 2018); Frances Lincoln’s series of biographies Little People, Big Dreams - especially Mother Theresa (2018); and of course Bob Hartmann’s The Rhyming Bible (SPCK 2019). Always easier to pick the winners in hindsight! In fact, I’m overwhelmingly thankful that these books are available for people to buy, regardless of who the publisher is.
I already mentioned The Gift of Christmas (August 2020) above. We continue to refresh, digitally enhance and reissue our classic bibles in new editions and Carolyn Cox’s art from Pat Alexander’s The Lion Children’s Bible will be released in a new My Very Own Bible edition in early 2021. Two gorgeous new prayer books are on their way: ABC Prayers (2020) by Myriam Baudic illustrated by Camille Bernard followed by Deborah Lock’s Prayers Around the World (2021) illustrated by Helen Canning.
We also have a new charming series of bible story retellings featuring Albert, a narrator mouse by Richard Littledale illustrated by Heather Heyworth: Albert and the Big Boat (2020); Albert and the Sling-shot (2020), Albert and the Flour-sack (2020), Albert and the Good Sister (2020) to be followed by Albert and the Journey Home (2021) and Albert and the Big Picnic (2021).
So plenty more illustrated children’s books to come!
Keith: My role as Publisher is to set the direction for each season’s list and often to look for the authors who can bring the list to life. Our core mission has been to help children learn new things and feel empowered while having fun with the stories, whether in fiction or nonfiction formats.
Keith: Red Chair Press Books for Young Readers is our core line with both fiction and nonfiction series and picture books for children ages 6 to 10. Our LOOK! Books line features an early introduction to nonfiction tied to topics children will study in school. Rocking Chair Kids has been an imprint for interactive picture books intended to be read to children by adults. Our newest imprint One Elm Books features single title middle grade novels staying true to the mission of helping readers feel empowered.
Keith: One of my favorite LOOK! Books has to be from the Beginning Biography set, Ruby Bridges: A Brave Child Who Made History because I think it really speaks to the reader in a personal way. From our Books for Young Readers line, a favorite is Mrs. Paddington and the Silver Mousetraps, an historically accurate and gorgeously illustrated picture book about women’s hairstyles in the 18th Century. One Elm Books has my new favorite title releasing in August, Second Dad Summer, an Own-Voices novel about a young boy’s growth in accepting his father’s sexuality and new partner.
Keith: Well we’ve been a remote staff already with people working from various locations, so as far as the offices), we haven’t had to adjust much. We have received quite a few requests from teachers and librarians who wish to record videos and readings of our books to use within their community, which we’re more than happy to grant.
Keith: Some of our most successful and longest-lived titles have come from our early readers dealing with character traits and bullying. But our most successful newer titles include those from our Scary Tales Retold series of retold fables and fairy tales.
Jeff: No, not at all. We actually prefer to try and use a variety of artists using their own unique styles, more in keeping with trade books. We like to mix it up!
Jeff: I prefer to see an artist really work in one style rather than a mix up of all different techniques. I prefer to see samples that show a reoccurring character so I know they can redraw the character throughout a whole book. I want to see what you like to draw not what you think is needed for a portfolio!
Keith: One of the most rewarding experiences has been working on a book about an autistic boy and his brother coming out from One Elm in April 2021.
Keith: Our new Helper Hounds series about emotional support dogs and the children they support has been wonderful experience and we’ve heard such nice things from readers who have sent emails telling us how much they appreciate our inclusiveness featuring a girl with Down’s syndrome or mixed-race families, and same-sex couples. It always touches my heart when we hear from readers who were impacted.
—Finding S.A.M. mentioned above about an autistic teen.
—Silent Journey about a young deaf boy whose greatest challenge is to prove he’s as capable as any other person.
And from Books for Young Readers we have a STEAM-focused chapter book mystery series coming in Fall 2020 that is fun, colorful, — and educational.
My under graduate degree is actually in filmmaking! I loved the art of visual storytelling, but after graduating it took me about nine months of working in the industry to realize that I actually hated the hustle of trying to make it into a profession. So I shifted towards books, going back to graduate school at the University of Edinburgh for creative writing. In 2011 I was hired as the children’s book specialist, and eventually buyer, at the Powerhouse Arena, an independent bookstore in Dumbo, Brooklyn. I was really happy just working as a bookseller, I loved curating the inventory, running a middle grade book club, and hand-selling to parents and kids.
Powerhouse’s parent company, Powerhouse Books launched POW! Kids Books in 2013 under the leadership of Sharyn Rosart, who established it as a dynamic publisher of design-minded, innovative picture books and board books. When she moved on a few years later, our CEO Daniel Power already knew me pretty well, knew I had a writing background, and knew my tastes from what he’d seen in his store, so he offered me the opportunity to be the editor for the imprint. Over the years that expanded to where I am now. A lot of what I know about children’s books comes directly from the retail side, but that old filmmaking degree does help in making illustrated books!
There are a couple of recent titles that I think really represent Pow’s brand, one is Bodega Cat by Louie Chin. Louie is a tremendously talented illustrator who we’d worked with previously on Don’t Ask a Dinosaur. Bodega Cat exemplified Louie’s detailed, contemporary, urban-influenced style. His spreads are packed with so much realism, but framed in delight. I love that this book captures an iconic, yet often overlooked aspect of city life, and really highlights the joy to be found in our diversity.
Another is The Climbing Tree by John Stith and illustrated by Yulia Pieletskaya. While this story may have the feel of a classic fable (which is not something Pow goes for), what made this such a great book for us was its modern sensibilities. I loved that this is a book about vulnerability in boys, and love between brothers. In the last decade we’ve seen SO many picture books lifting up strong role models for girls, which is fantastic, but I was, and still am, eager for more books that speak to the complex emotional lives of boys. This book did that superbly. And then Yulia’s artwork elevated it to a really grand level. She captured that texture of timelessness, but infused it with so many wonderfully unexpected details that gave it vitality. They paired beautifully, it reminds me of a Miyazaki movie.
I think outside the comfort zone is where kids live. Everything is new to them, there is so much analysis and decoding that they are having to do every day. Childhood is not comfortable. And that’s why I think it’s so important to have the upmost respect for kids as readers, and to present them with books that speak honestly about their world. Of course it’s up to the parents to decide what content they are comfortable sharing with their child, and what their child is or isn’t ready for yet, but kids always rise to the occasion.
Humor, whimsy, or surprise. Not every book has to be funny, but I think every book has to make your brain tingle a little, so you need at least one of those three essential components. And that’s really the magic of the illustrator. You can take text that’s absolutely flat as a pancake, but if the art has that wink, it becomes something that grabs you. That’s why we all love Jon Klassen so much. My sense of humor runs pretty dry. I thought Esme Shapiro’s Ooko was hilarious, so surprising. And something very simple like Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani will get me. I’m a sucker for cute, disgruntled little faces.
Having a distinctive visual style is so important to us. Being a tiny publisher, it just wouldn’t make sense for us to try to go for mass-market appeal, so to that end, an illustrator either is a perfect fit for us, or just isn’t at all. Put your weird foot forward, so long as that’s genuine for you. Alongside your portfolio and news posts on Childrensillustrators.com please use Instagram! It’s a great way to show more of your talent in a looser setting, and helps me to see what you’re currently up to. The @childrensillustrators feed is fantastic!
The majority of the illustrators we work with are first-timers! Because we keep our list small, just three or four books per season, it gives me the ability to work very closely with the illustrators. I guess you could say I also wear the art director hat (did I mention it’s a small company?), as I’m selecting the artists, and giving them feedback throughout the art creation process. It’s really joyful both to give new illustrators this opportunity to lead and spread their wings, but also to offer guidance and impart what I know from experience.
Lucía the Luchadora. I feel so lucky to have had that book land in my inbox. What a little dynamo. This is the kind of book that you just hope SO much will be a hit, and then to see it take off is thrilling. The response from kids has been the best part. I’ve seen handmade Lucía costumes, Lucía birthday cakes, even a piñata! The first book did so well we made a sequel, Lucía the Luchadora and the Million Masks, which expanded Lucía’s story to include her little sister, another Luchadora in the making. And you didn’t hear it from me, but you might be seeing Lucía in a whole new format. Fingers crossed.
We’re getting ready to launch or spring titles, My Best Friend, Sometimes, by Naomi Danis and and Cinta Arribas, the team behind our 2018 hell-raiser, I Hate Everyone, as well as Auntie Uncle: Drag Queen Hero, a book that’s so near and dear to my heart.
In production for fall we have a number of really fun, stylish board books, and a picture book called The Librarian’s Stories, which I’m really excited about. It’s written by Lucy Falcone, and illustrated by Anna Wilson, who is making her debut. It’s historical fiction, loosely based on the bombing of the National Library of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The story is of an irrepressible librarian who continues to read aloud in the ruins of the town square to bring hope to the people, told from the perspective of a little boy who listens. At its heart it’s a celebration of librarians and the value of their work. The artwork is absolutely breathtaking.
Like so many of my generation, my career was radically shaped by the Great Recession. After grad school, I moved to New York in the fall of 2008 intending to get a job (any job!) in publishing, only to wind up being unemployed for a year. What scant interviews I was able to get resulted in nothing. It was miserable!
The closest I was able to get to the book world was a part-time job as a bookseller at the now-closed Scholastic Store in Manhattan, on the ground floor of their headquarters. I was among the employees who would wear the Clifford the Big Red Dog mascot costume and dance around on Broadway to lure people into the store. I still have a dollar that a guy tipped me for taking a picture with his kids. It was torn and half and held together with tape. Watching nicely dressed young women walk past me to ride the elevator up to their publishing jobs was humbling.
The GOOD part of it was that we were allowed to borrow and read all the children’s books we wanted. I had read and been obsessed with Harry Potter of course, but that was all I knew of contemporary kids books. Once I started reading more I realized how much I loved the material, and that turned into a full-fledged passion. So to try to do something in the industry, I started a blog called TheRustyKey.com, which I then ran for about four years where I would review middle grade and YA novels and conduct author interviews, and really built up a versed knowledge in new titles. It was that website that eventually led me to being hired at Powerhouse.
I say all of this to impart to your readers that just because your path is a little weird, or doesn’t look the way it’s “supposed to” look, doesn’t mean it isn’t leading somewhere! There are more doors in than you can see.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, definitely. I wanted to live inside that world so badly. It always disappointed me when the townsfolk leave in the end! What are you doing!? Pizza falls from the sky! It was absolutely the most tantalizing concept to me. I actually hated reading as a kid. I’m still a very slow reader to this day, but back then I thought that because reading was work for me that it meant I was “bad at it”. So stories like Cloudy that were extremely visual were my way in. It actually wasn’t until I read Harry Potter the summer before college that I really learned how to love to read, and then it all got easier. So I feel a lot of connection to the reluctant reader. It’s part of why I believe that there really is a perfect book that unlocks reading for every kid, and I want to help create that.
I was selling foreign rights for a local children’s publisher when a position opened up and allowed me to make the move onto the creative side. A few years later I ended up at Parragon, where I had my first adventures with licensed titles and spent many happy years in Bath before they offered me the opportunity to relocate from the UK to New York to establish a US-based publishing group–of course I jumped at the chance! After a few amazing years in NYC, and with great timing, Phoenix offered me this opportunity in Chicago so here I am.
Some of our bestselling titles are Potty Time with Elmo, a sound book including fun flushing sounds, our PAW Patrol Me Reader, an 8-book set with electronic reader which helps children to make the transition from being read to into being able to read independently, and our Disney Baby My First Library, 12 chunky board books which introduce young children to early learning words and concepts.
Sesame Street are a great partner and always tackle subjects in such a brave and touching way that we loved working with them to represent non-traditional family units for our recent picture book Big Bird’s Road Trip with its message of acceptance and understanding. We also recently launched a new imprint, Sunbird Books, as a home for our non-licensed titles and one of our first series is a range of graphic novels called It’s Her Story which features inspirational women of courage from across history, and I love the warmth of If You’re Happy and You Know It illustrated by the wonderful Julianna Swaney.
Our books are designed to appeal to the senses, they often rely more on pictorial than verbal content, and of course all the fun sounds which we compose and record in our own studios help stimulate kids to understand and interact with the books meaning that many of them work for reluctant readers. We’ve also had some touching feedback from parents of children with autism who report that the songs and music on many of our books really help them to engage and enjoy.
Hunting out the right illustrator for a project is such a privilege and one I really enjoy working on with my brilliant Art Director, Kris Dresen. We’re both pretty good at filing people away for future use, they might not be available, or quite right for the timing but we do often remember and revisit portfolios when we feel the fit is right. We like working with artists to find the best and most appropriate look for our books and having that eureka moment when you all know you’ve found it. There isn’t a blanket one thing I’m looking for, it’s more an emotional response.
All of our projects are fun and I’m immensely proud of them all so picking just one is tricky but I have to confess I loved working with the team on our Merriam Webster picture books Wild Goose Chase, and A Loveliness of Ladybugs which visually represent interesting idioms and animal nouns in fun ways. We all had a lot of fun with those.
We have offices around the world, but most of our creative comes from the team in Chicago and while our main territories currently are the English speaking, we also have fantastic teams who are driving business for us in Germany, Spain, and Latin America.
We always want to make books that make a difference in children’s lives, that always underpins everything we do. We’re best known for our licensed sound books and our amazing partnerships with the biggest and best brands in the world and those continue to be of utmost importance to us, but we also have some great momentum building behind our new imprint, Sunbird Books and I’m excited to see where that takes us in terms of publishing around new formats and topics.
We have access to a lot of data and industry reports from within publishing and the broader business world which help to guide our thinking, and we use our own experiences within our families and our extended networks for inspiration. Plus, we’re regularly out visiting retailers to see how the landscape is shifting and how each retailer is responding to market challenges.
I had a collection of Greek myths which I read and reread endlessly, they did such a great job of keeping the thrills and editing around the less salubrious problematic aspects. And when I was young I absolutely loved The Church Mice series by Graham Oakley who did such a beautiful job with the friendship between Samson the church cat and the adventurous mice by adding details that had me poring over the pages for hours looking for something I hadn’t spotted before. The warmth and gentle humor in these books are so winsome, they’re definitely worth hunting down if you’re not familiar with them, just perfect picture books.