Jennifer Bacheller Interview

Jennifer Bacheller

Creative Director, Sleeping Bear Press

Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming the Creative Director of Sleeping Bear Press?

I graduated from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design many years ago. My first job out of college was working for a large software company in their marketing and design department. After that, I worked in Advertising for a while then over to a small boutique design firm where Sleeping Bear Press was one of our clients. After designing a coffee-table book on former Detroit Tiger Kirk Gibson, they asked if I would consider coming on board as a designer and to (eventually) build a creative department. I was thrilled to join the team at Sleeping Bear Press since I’ve always had a love of book design and children’s book illustration.

How has Sleeping Bear Press evolved since its inception back in 1994?

Sleeping Bear’s publishing program really changed when we released our first children’s book in 1998, The Legend of Sleeping Bear. Prior to that, we were a regional publisher known for our coffee-table books featuring Michigan sights and attractions. The first couple of years after The Legend of Sleeping Bear, we focused on Michigan-based legends and then started work on our popular state alphabet series. Now we publish almost every category of children’s book, from board books to readers, picture books to middle grade offerings. Fiction as well as nonfiction. It’s been exciting to watch our growth.

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What words would you use to describe the children’s books published by Sleeping Bear Press?

Well, as creative director, of course my focus is on art, design, and production, and I am very proud of the standards we have set for ourselves. We pride ourselves on publishing high-quality, beautifully illustrated and designed books, and we are known for that. We are committed to producing distinctive children’s books with rich content, whether it’s a board book series for the youngest readers or a historical fiction middle-grade offering by bestselling author Sandra Dallas. We feel that our publishing program offers something for every young reader.

Talk us through a recent project you particularly enjoyed.

This is tough as there are several that I have recently enjoyed. We just completed a book with illustrator Deborah Melmon, Letters from My Tooth Fairy. Deborah is such a joy to work with and she really went the extra mile to make this book so special, funny, and endearing. I also got the chance to recruit my 12-year-old son to provide the handwriting for many of the letters in the book and write a few articles for a fictional newspaper, the Tooth Fairy Times. So, for me, this book is extra special.

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Are there particular themes or styles you look for when browsing an artist's portfolio?

That depends. If I don’t have a particular manuscript that I’m researching illustrators for, then I like to see a variety of themes. I also look for consistency in an illustrator’s style. When I do have manuscripts, and I’m in need of finding the right talent, I look for themes in their work that might be reflected in the stories I have in front of me. I will typically compile a list of folks and then present them to the editor on the project. Often the editors will weigh in early on and give me an idea of what style they are visualizing for the story. I’ll take that information and try to line up illustrators that reflect their vision, but also give them several more options with artists whose styles they might not have considered. It’s an exciting process and always an adventure finding just the right artist.

What are some of the biggest challenges a Creative Director faces?

I think staying on top of the workload is one challenge that comes to mind. We’re a small company so many of us here wear a lot of different hats. We’re responsible for not only producing books but also all marketing materials. We have to be flexible because one minute we’ll be working on a picture book and the next we’re designing promotional/trade-show materials, industry ads, the company catalog, etc. Also, helping to keep projects on schedule and meeting all deadlines is a challenge for all of us on the production team.

Do you prefer working with established illustrators, or are you a champion of new, unpublished talent?

Both. Established illustrators are always a joy to work. But I absolutely love finding those unknown illustrators out there that want to break into publishing and have incredible enthusiasm and amazing talent. I love to watch them grow and help break them into the business.

Which title is your all-time bestseller?

The very first children’s book we published, The Legend of Sleeping Bear, by Kathy-jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen is our all-time bestseller. This book has become a classic and is now the official children’s book of Michigan. It’s such a beautifully written and illustrated story. As a mother of two boys, I still can’t read it without getting emotional.

What do you most enjoy about the collaborative process with artists? Give a few anecdotal examples.

I love it when one kernel of an idea just bounces back and forth between myself and the illustrator and then you get something really unexpected or amazing that pops out of the back and forth. I really enjoy seeing how the illustrator interprets a manuscript and how the rough sketches evolve over time to become a beautifully illustrated book. Getting to know our illustrators on a personal level is a special perk. We really feel like our illustrators (and authors too) are family.

What exciting new releases can we expect to see from Sleeping Bear Press this year?

We’ve got some really neat titles on our fall ’20 list, a great mix of fiction and nonfiction. We have Acoustic Rooster's Barnyard Boogie Starring Indigo Blume, which is about a little girl struck with stage fright. It’s written by New York Times-bestselling author Kwame Alexander, and accompanies the musical premiering at the Kennedy Center this fall.  

The title that I referenced earlier, Letters from My Tooth Fairy, is about a young girl and her devoted tooth fairy exchange letters, asking and answering questions about some of childhood’s most important moments. It is so sweet and funny!

Two great nonfiction offerings are Tails from the Animal Shelter and Letters from Space. Tails from the Animal Shelter shines a spotlight on the good work of community animal shelters. Terrific art and a great message for kids on how to adopt an animal in need. Letters from Space (illustrated by Susan Batori) is from retired astronaut and national speaker Clayton Anderson and gives a funny and fact-filled behind-the-scenes peek at life in space.

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