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.
I began my career as an academic, tutoring undergraduate students in children’s literature at Macquarie University in Sydney while I completed a PhD. Around the same time I started freelancing for an education charity that produced resources for students, including anthologies of stories and poems, and I was given the job of collecting stories from 54 countries. Although a fascinating task, it wasn’t easy to find stories from such a diverse range of countries – most in the global south – and I became increasingly aware of the gaps in the publishing ecosystem, with some voices heard but others essentially ignored or even actively silenced. This might be through a lack of resources or infrastructure, or it might be through something more insidious like racism or institutional bias.
On a more personal level, my sister married a man whose parents had emigrated from Hong Kong. My little nephew Ryan, who came along some time later, is one of around 2.5 million school children in the UK who identify as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic – that’s a third of the school population. CLPE hadn’t yet produced its ground-breaking survey of BAME representation in children’s publishing with the damning statistic that only 1% of children’s books featured protagonists of colour – that was to come a good four years after I set up Lantana – but it was obvious from looking at the shelves of any library or bookshop that Ryan would struggle to find main characters who looked like him, or recognisable heroes, heroines or role models to look up to.
2014 was the year the celebrated African American author Walter Dean Myers broadcast his question in the New York Times – where are the children of colour in children’s books? – and #WeNeedDiverseBooks registered as a hashtag for the first time. And 2014 was the year I moved back to the UK and made the decision to set up Lantana. Despite never having worked in a publishing house, it was something I felt I had the privilege and therefore, perhaps, the responsibility to do – the only way I could ensure Ryan would grow up seeing himself in the books he read.
Our partnership with Lerner Publishing Group in the States came about a couple of years after we launched and was a huge boost for us since it opened up our books to a whole new, and much larger, market. Lerner take on a select few foreign publishers to represent and distribute, and we were lucky since our introduction to them came just at the point when we had been shortlisted for the Bologna Prize for Best European Children’s Publisher of the year, and when Lerner were looking to expand their picture book range and diversify their list. It has been a brilliant partnership so far; after our first season with them, we increased our revenues by 350%!
Beautiful, evocative, inclusive.
Three titles immediately spring to mind. The first is Chicken in the Kitchen by Nnedi Okorafor and Mehrdokht Amini, the very first title we published. It’s the story of Anyaugo, a little girl who wakes up in her home in Nigeria one night only to find a giant chicken causing havoc in the kitchen. She has to use all her wit and ingenuity, helped (or hindered?) by a nature spirit called the Wood Wit, to find out what the giant chicken wants and save the food her aunties have cooked for the New Yam Festival the next day. The book went on to win the Children’s Africana Best Book Award in the US, with an award ceremony at the Smithsonian in Washington and a book reading at the Library of Congress, and hasn’t stopped selling since.
The second is Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry’s You’re Safe With Me, followed by You’re Snug With Me and You’re Strong With Me. All three books in the series are lyrical bedtime tales about a mother and child, the first set in an Indian forest, the second in the polar North and the third in an African savannah. Both You’re Safe With Me and You’re Snug With Me were shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal (the latter is still on the shortlist so keep your fingers firmly crossed please!) which is a huge honour for a small, independent publishing house, and testament to the outstanding talent of Poonam Mistry who made her picture book debut with You’re Safe With Me.
Finally, Peace and Me by Ali Winter and Mickaël el Fathi is an illustrated non-fiction title for slightly older readers following the extraordinary lives of Nobel Peace Prize laureates from 1901 to the present day, including Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malala Yousafzai. We were thrilled when Amnesty International endorsed the book for showing ‘how standing up for other people makes the world a better, more peaceful place’, and the title has since gone on to sell into several languages. Look out for the second book in the series Science and Me, following the discoveries of a group of incredible Nobel Prize-winning scientists, due out next year.
Can I answer that by telling you a story? Three years ago we published a picture book called Sleep Well, Siba and Saba by Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl and Sandra van Doorn. The book is set in Uganda, where Nansubuga was born, and follows two young and forgetful sisters who lose pretty much everything…except each other. It’s a fun and poetic story full of sibilants, perfect for bedtime reading. We held a book launch at the wonderful Alligator’s Mouth bookshop in London and were overjoyed to welcome a packed room full of young children listening wide-eyed to the story and colouring in scenes from the book. At the end of the launch, a family of West African heritage came up to me and told me they had driven for three hours to attend the launch. I was shocked – three hours! And although I was glad they had, I asked them why, and they replied that their young daughter had never seen a Black author before and they wanted to show her that she could be anything she wanted to be. Diverse and inclusive content, and #ownvoices authors, gives little girls like the one in this family the chance to dream big and imagine brighter futures.
Independent publishers are often at the forefront of any movement towards change because they make it their mission to work from the margins, take risks and call out bad practice wherever they see it. Of course, we live or die by the risks we take; as a small publisher, finding a balance between purpose and profit – between accomplishing our mission statement and achieving commercial viability – is key to creating a sustainable business. We’re proud to call ourselves a social enterprise, and we hope to keep on pushing the boundaries for as long as we can. But to do this, we need help. And help comes in the form of persuading the many gatekeepers – wholesalers, retailers, reviewers etc. – that not only is there a strong ethical argument for buying and promoting inclusive books, but there are sound commercial reasons for doing so as well.
I mentioned some of our most successful titles in the question above, which of course are close to my heart, but there are others I also have a real fondness for because of the wonderful journeys they’ve taken us on or of the stories behind their creation. To give you just one example from our earlier titles (three would take too long!): The Ammuchi Puchi by Sharanya Manivannan and Nerina Canzi. It’s a gorgeously written, lyrical and evocative story about two young siblings who struggle to cope with the death of their beloved grandmother and find a way to turn their grief into something creative and beautiful. As soon as I read it, I fell in love with the story, but I’m not afraid to admit that for a long time I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision in publishing it since it was a difficult book to bring to market – longer than your average picture book, pitched at an older reader, with difficult subject matter etc. – and it struggled to find a readership. However, a couple of years later, I was approached by Penguin Random House India asking to buy Indian Sub-Continental rights to the title. I agreed. And to my delight, it went on to become the fourth bestselling title across the whole of India, bringing happiness to tens of thousands of children. So what I’d considered an early ‘failure’ turned into a wonderful success.
I’ve always admired Verna Wilkins who founded Tamarind Press over 30 years ago, who did so because her five-year old son came home from school having coloured a picture of himself pink because it was ‘meant for a book’. Her determination to make a change and show children like hers their own image in books made her a pioneer in this field; what’s so sad is that it was a version of that same determination that made me start my own press, showing how little has changed thirty years on.
I’m always gratified when we receive wonderful reviews of our books, and more often than not, these reviews centre on the illustrations. We’ve been lucky to have been gifted with words such as ‘stunning’, ‘beautiful’, ‘enchanting’, ‘dazzling’, ‘breath-taking’ and more, and I think this sums up the styles that appeal to us: artwork that has texture and depth, beautiful use of colour and light, excellent composition, and images that just in general help you float away into a fantasy world of your own imagining.
We’re at a difficult and unsettling period in history and all of us are doing our best to weather the storm and keep children reading. Our vision for all children to see themselves in the books they read hasn’t changed, and our hope is that we can continue to publish inclusive stories from around the world long into the future. We have widened our mandate to encompass diversity and inclusion, social equality and environmental sustainability as our core pillars, and we hope to move up in age ranges to include early fiction and middle grade as well as picture books. So while the world is trying to right itself, we are using this period of reflection to discover new ways to reach readers and new distribution channels. Do check out our website to discover our free eBooks, activity worksheets and teaching resources to help our readers stay entertained, informed and connected while we wait for happier times, and do stay safe everyone.
I started out doing work experience at Granta Books in July 1998; my first ‘proper’ job was as editorial secretary – yes, secretary! – starting in Oct/Nov 1998 at Yale University Press (London). I learned an enormous amount about the business from my first boss John Nicoll, MD of Yale UP, who was hugely generous in sharing his experience with me; he was an important mentor and we’re still friends more than 20 years later.
I started Pushkin Children’s Books almost immediately on taking over the business in spring 2012, and the first books in the imprint appeared in April/May 2013. Today, books for the list are acquired by me, commissioning editor Daniel Seton and editor-at-large Sarah Odedina. Sarah focuses on English-language titles, mainly middle grade and YA, while Daniel and I mostly acquire books originally written in other languages for all ages.
This year’s children’s list includes books originally published in Japan, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Finland, which I’m hugely proud of! We are always looking for the best stories from around the world and constantly discovering gems of all kinds. Perhaps the book we’re most proud of at the moment in this content is Lampie written and illustrated by Annet Schaap. This award-winning book in the Netherlands – where it was a huge bestseller – has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and is the first ever book in translation to be shortlisted for the Carnegie! Other titles include The Beast Warrior – sequel to The Beast Player – by Nahoko Uehashi. And one of our first picture books is the extremely funny The Secret Life of Farts from Finland!
Personally, I love original, voice-led middle grade fiction. And though we publish some books with sequels and a couple series, I’m most drawn to stand-alone books. I also love original illustrations, and this autumn we have a gorgeous wordless picture book from Holland – The Wanderer by Peter van den Ende which may be the most beautiful book we ever publish on any of our lists!
Originality combined with accessibility.
Well, it varies between English-language originals and translations. With translations, we work hard to find the perfect translator and then the translation has to be carefully edited, and we often use the original foreign-language cover or adapt it. Though sometimes we do commission our own original covers even for books published elsewhere (as with The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior). English-language originals usually go through more than one draft before being copy-edited. There are many people involved in every book – editor, assistant, cover designer, managing editor, translator, etc.
I’m going to say Sarah Odedina our Editor-at-Large, Beverly Horowitz at PRH Children’s Books in NY and the recently retired editor Gallimard Jeneusse co-founder Christine Baker.
Too many to count! But I’d pick out From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler which I loved as a kid and still can’t believe was able to bring back into print in the UK a few years back – and it continues to sell and sell and reprint; a wonderful book! I loved all of Lloyd Alexander’s books, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, Watership Down, Charlotte’s Web. I could go on and on but hope that gives some idea of what I was reading as a kid – and Tintin too of course!
As a children’s publisher publishing The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt in English for the first time. It was one of our very first acquisitions for the list in 2012 – it came out in 2013 – and it continues to be our bestselling children’s book to date. It just came out as a Netflix series this spring too, all thanks to our edition. This would never have happened without Laura Watkinson, translator extraordinaire who drew it to my attention in the first place. Thank you again, Laura.
More of the same plus we are adding a small line of picture books – from abroad and originals – starting this autumn. And we’re also introducing a new series of originally commissioned non-fiction adventure stories called True Adventures. We’ve commissioned 8 titles so far and the first are out later this year.