Publishing Director, Puffin at Penguin Random House UK
It's an exciting year ahead for Puffin as the imprint celebrates its 80th birthday - congratulations! What plans do you have in place to mark this huge milestone?
Our ambition for our 80th year is to be a loud, proud voice for the power of stories, in all their forms, and this time of enforced isolation has shown that stories, their ability to connect people, and the power of the imagination have never been so important. So we have adapted our original plans to make sure that stories are still accessible to as many children as possible – we broadcast daily Puffin Storytimes (free author readings & illustrator draw-alongs) during lockdown (reaching over one million families); in June we launched a week-long online Festival called the Puffin Festival of Big Dreams (viewed by over 500,000 families); we also launched a Puffin Podcast; and provided as many resources as we could on our own Puffin Schools website, and with partners such as TWINKL and the BBC, to facilitate home-learning.
We’ve also been really interested in understanding how children’s reading has been affected during lockdown, and partnered with the National Literacy Trust on a survey of their reading habits. It was gratifying to learn that 59% of children said that reading made them feel better during lockdown and 50% said that reading helped inspire them to dream about the future. The study also found that the time they spent reading each day had increased by 35%. Children’s enjoyment of reading has also increased, and audiobooks were identified as providing a vital route into stories for more reluctant readers. We hope to help to encourage some of these positive habits into the future.
In September we are launching a wonderful piece of celebratory publishing, The Puffin Book of Big Dreams, which includes contributions from Puffin authors and illustrators new and old, and also from children who attend some of the schools we support with our Puffin World of stories initiative. And look out for a few other surprises intended to inspire children to dream big in 2020 and beyond!
As Publisher, you oversee the Puffin picture books, fiction, non-fiction and licensing teams. Could you give us an insight into what a typical day could look like for you?
Nothing is exactly typical, right now! However, usually my day would involve a lot of face to face meetings, where we’d be discussing a variety of topics, whether that’s live projects (discussing illustrator ideas for new picture book texts, for example), books we want to buy, reviewing the performance of one of our well-established brands, looking ahead at next year’s debut titles and refining our plans, or collaborating with the leadership team on budget planning or strategy. I might also meet an agent or colleague in another part of our business for breakfast or lunch at an actual restaurant…
Professionally-speaking, what's been your a) most challenging b) proudest moment so far?
I think this current situation probably goes down as the biggest leadership challenge I’ve faced – trying to stay in touch with and support the team of nearly thirty editors and react to the rapidly evolving situation, while making the best possible decisions for our authors and books, all from my spare room, has required adjusting my approach.
I regularly feel incredibly proud of the team and our authors’ and illustrators’ achievements so it’s really difficult to pick one. Probably though, I am most proud of being given the responsibility of running the Puffin team, when Puffin has meant such a lot to me throughout so much of my life. To now be looking after a list that includes the likes of Roald Dahl and some of my other literary heroes, plus contributing to creating so many new ones, is not something that I ever imagined for myself back when Puffin books were helping to define my childhood.
Puffin is one of the world's most successful imprints. How has the brand managed to stand the test of time where others have faded away?
I think that’s probably down in large part to the genius of Allen Lane. Choosing the Penguin and, later, the Puffin to represent our books just seemed to capture the public’s imagination in a way few other brands have, and shows the power of great design. And I don’t think we’ve ever forgotten the purpose of our brand, which since it began has been about making stories accessible to as many readers as possible. I think that endeavour is part of our DNA and we’ve been lucky that many readers have understood that and taken it to their own hearts.
Puffin started out as a non-fiction publisher with its first title appearing in 1940. How has the non-fiction market evolved since then and what are some of Puffin's recent titles you are most proud of?
The non-fiction market has been dominated for many years by a handful of authors, and publishers like DK, however recently we’ve seen an expansion of this market into the gifting space, and it’s been brilliant to see the way that consumer and retail appetite for design-led, beautifully packaged non-fiction and reference has grown, together with a desire for books that tackle big subjects.
Puffin started out publishing non-fiction, so we are thrilled to be reviving this area of our publishing. Sabina Radeva (a scientist, author and illustrator) is one of the non-fiction authors I’m very proud to have on the list, in making Darwin’s theory of evolution accessible to a younger audience, as well as Lucy Hawking. Her recent collection, Unlocking the Universe, brings together some of her father’s greatest thinking with that of a diverse number of other scientists - covering a range of topics from climate change, to genetics, to black holes, and more. I love all of Vashti Harrison’s work, and have gifted titles in her inspiring and important non-fiction series, Little Leaders, many times over. Under Penguin, we are also really proud to have published Scarlett Curtis’s conversation-starting and award-winning anthologies - Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies and It’s Not OK to feel Blue and Other Lies.
At Puffin, do you enjoy nurturing emerging artistic talent, or prefer working with established illustrators?
We like to do both! There’s something very exciting about helping to bring someone like Sabina Radeva or Dapo Adeola to wide attention, however equally, watching Quentin Blake or Helen Oxenbury breathe new life into a rediscovered Beatrix Potter, for example, is a complete joy and privilege.
What qualities are required for illustrations to have international appeal?
It’s hard to define this in a few words and I’m not sure there’s a magic formula. We’ve been struck by the success of Tom Fletcher’s In Your Book series internationally - Greg Abbott’s endearingly cheeky characters have had wide appeal across borders. Ed Vere has also had now well over a decade of strong rights sales – his style manages to be at once sophisticated and child-friendly, and of course incredibly distinctive, which does seem to be one of the key requirements. We’re very hopeful for our newest author-illustrator, Al Rodin, whose illustration style also seems to share some of these hallmarks.
Walk us through the creation of one of your favourite picture book titles.
Look Up! is one of my favourite picture books from last year, and unusually, Nathan and Dapo came to us as a pair. We knew the text was really special – it had a wonderful message delivered in a funny and acutely well-observed story, and even though at the time there were just a few character sketches, Rocket totally leapt off the page. Joe Marriott, Editorial Director in the picture book team, and Monica Whelan, Design Manager, worked really hard with Dapo and Nathan on their debut title to keep the freshness of the voice and unique feel of Dapo’s style and deliver a world-class picture book, which was recently named as the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize Overall Winner. We have also just published the brilliant follow-up - Clean Up!
Tell us about your licensing division and some of the exciting partnerships you have in place.
We are proud to continue to work closely with the BBC and to be children’s publisher for Dr Who – we are also delighted to be partnering with them on a new endeavour, which is to create a range of illustrated non-fiction titles based on their phenomenal and award-winning BBC Earth series. We continue to look for new licenses for which we feel we can create really exciting publishing that will genuinely add to and extend story universes of all varieties.
Which book from your own childhood really sparked your imagination?
This is always the hardest question! One of the books I remember going back to time and time again is Shirley Hughes’s wordless picture book Up and Up, and dreaming about being able to fly. I think that was probably my earliest understanding that a story could take you to seemingly impossible places – and I didn’t even need to be able to read it.