Alice Curry Interview

Alice Curry

Founder & CEO, Lantana Publishing

You entered the world of children's publishing from an academic background. Can you tell us more about this unique starting point and explain what led you to set up Lantana Publishing in 2014?

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.

Tell us about your partnership with Lerner.

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%!

What 3 words would you use to describe your list?

Beautiful, evocative, inclusive.

What have been some of your most successful releases to date?

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.

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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.

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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.

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Tell us about your passion for publishing diverse and inclusive content.

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.

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In what way can independent publishers like Lantana be at the forefront of real change within the publishing industry?

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.

You have commissioned award-winning titles from authors and illustrators in almost twenty countries. Select 3 titles you are most proud of to share with our audience.

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.

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Who have been some of your most influential career mentors?

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.

Are there particular illustration styles or subject matters you are interested in when browsing artists' portfolios?

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.

What is your vision for the future of Lantana Publishing?

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.

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