Katie Haworth Interview

Katie Haworth

Children’s Publishing Manager, Oxford University Press

Could you describe your role as Children’s Publishing Manager at Oxford University Press and give an overview of your main responsibilities?

I lead a team of editors who commission and manage OUP’s children’s trade list. We publish picture books and fiction for ages 5-10. We collaborate closely with authors and illustrators and with our exceptionally talented design team. Even picture books and fiction that seem incredibly simple from the outside have usually gone through a rigorous editorial and design process – with so few words and such a selective audience, every book needs to be as good as it can be, and as editors we spend a lot of time working on story structure and thinking about how that interacts with the visual elements. Publishing is always a huge collaborative effort and we also need to be closely aligned to our sales and marketing teams who provide valuable insights into how bookshops, schools, overseas publishers, and media are receiving our titles. It’s an ever-changing market and our strategy is always evolving alongside it.

Tell us about the most visually extraordinary picture book you've had the pleasure of working on.

Honestly, I couldn’t name the ‘most’ because I think that would be unfair on the many incredible illustrators I’ve worked with. But I can name one I’m very proud of working on! I was lucky enough to commission Yuval Zommer’s extraordinary The Wild. In this fable-like story Zommer imagines nature as an ever-changing creature – mysterious and mythological in scope. In this book we see  detailed artwork that rewards young readers who love to linger over every page, but the big picture is that all the components of the Wild make up this living being which people and animals live off. A changing colour palette traces the decline and restoration of the health of the Wild. It’s conceptually monumental but also speaks to children about big issues in a way that they absolutely understand.

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What portfolio advice would you offer illustrators promoting on

When we look at portfolios we’re looking for a number of ‘tells’ that an illustrator is the right person for a job. So if someone doesn’t have children in their portfolio we’re unlikely to try them on a picture book which has human central characters. We’re also looking for range – both emotional and in terms of colour palette across different images. A picture book or young fiction title can sink or swim on the artwork, so if it’s a funny book we need an illustrator who can show comedy, a nature story we probably want someone who can make landscapes rich and inviting. Sometimes you need lots of different elements to work together, and I’ve often heard (and said) things like, ‘The scenes and compositions are lovely, but the characters aren’t engaging.’ It’s also not helpful when there are too many styles in a portfolio – it makes art directors worry about consistency and can be off-putting.

How important is it for kids to explore subjects outside of their comfort zone?

There are many wonderful benefits for children who read, but I think one of the most powerful is that it can help children develop empathy. I can’t think of a better way of understanding what someone else is going through than getting inside a book where you get to experience the thoughts and experiences of a compelling character. But that’s only going to be powerful if some of what children are reading about is outside their comfort zone. Any avid reader will know that so much of the joy comes from going to places and having experiences you never could in real life. Sometimes things might be scary or challenging, but a book is a safe, controlled environment in which to explore some of those ideas for the first time.

Which three titles from across your list would you select to share with our audience and why?

Obviously all of them! But a few which I think are very interesting for illustrators are:

  • The Isadoa Moon Series: This is an internationally bestselling fiction series from storyteller and illustrator extraordinaire Harriet Muncaster. Her artwork is notable for its limited pink, white, and black palette and the elegant and energetic linework.

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  • Martha Maps it Out and Martha Maps it Out in Time by Leigh Hodgkinson. In Martha, Leigh has created a character who draws detailed maps to explain the world. It’s a wonderful example of how the illustration can become the core concept of a picture book.

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  • Reggie Rabbit and the Great Carrot Heist by Swapna Reddy, illustrated by Becka Moor. This is 7-9 fiction with graphic novel elements woven into the storytelling. The artwork is inspired by the Crime Noir genre, and shadows and a limited black, red and yellow palette make this an atmospheric title.

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  • Winnie and Wilbur: Witches’ Sports Day: This is the most recent Winnie and Wilbur adventure from Korky Paul and Valarie Thomas whose first Winnie book appeared in 1987. It’s unusual for a character picture book series to continue for so long, but Paul’s fantastically detailed artwork and the humour and energy he brings to it makes this classic series feel contemporary and fresh.

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Has an illustrator ever brought more to the text than you could ever have briefed or imagined?

I’d say that all the best illustrators do this. In picture books especially a successful collaboration is when you have two storytellers – one the author and one the illustrator – working together in integrated but different mediums. Often we don’t give too much detail in picture book briefs because we want to see what the illustrator will bring to a story without us dictating too much. An illustrator provides the subtext of a story – that’s any part of the storytelling which is unspoken or unnarrated – and that can include characters’ emotional responses, action which plays against what the text is saying, or a composition which builds the world of the story without anything having to be said about it.

Professionally-speaking, what's been your a) proudest moment and b) greatest challenge so far?

I grew up in New Zealand and started my publishing career in the New Zealand book industry, first at Mallinson Rendel in Wellington, and then at Penguin New Zealand. My biggest challenge was when I upped sticks and moved to the UK to broaden my experience. It was a step from a very small market with a local focus to a comparatively huge market with a much more global focus. As well as having to reforge all my industry contacts, I also had to relearn a lot of what I knew to fit a totally different publishing model. I think that doubles as the proudest moment – leaving everything you know to move to the other side of the world is somewhat terrifying but I’m still here ten years later.

Who or what have been some of the major influences in your career so far?

The first one I’d call out is Dame Lynley Dodd, who is the author and illustrator of Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. I started my career at Mallinson Rendel, which was the independent Wellington publisher that originated Hairy Maclary. Lynley is a model of integrity, professionalism, high standards, and kindness and I learned a lot from her.

I’ve also been lucky enough to work with a number of fierce, creative, intelligent women – from my first publishing job under Ann Mallinson who ran a successful independent publisher until she retired at 75, to the brilliant creative team I now work with at OUP. I’m constantly in awe of my colleagues’ ingenuity, dedication, and raw creativity.

What were some of the standout children's books from your own childhood?

I vividly remember Harry the Dirty Dog, Peepo!, Where the Wild things Are, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, The Night Kitchen, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch, The Church Mice and then some more sophisticated picture books as I got older like Cinderella in New York, Henry’s Quest and Rose Blanche.

Looking ahead, what are some of OUP's big titles set to launch this year?

We’ve got an exciting list planned for the year ahead. A few highlights:

Picture books

The Legend of the Wild West Twins by Jodie Lancet-Grant, illustrated by Katie Cottle (May): Meet Buffalo Lil, and Buffalo Lil. These two cowgirl twins couldn’t be more different! A thrilling Wild West setting and an important message about being true to who you are.

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Flow with the Snow by Robert Tregoning, illustrated by Oliver Averill (October): Join Snow on her exciting journey through the water cycle. Lyrical storytelling with stunning illustrations.

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Croaky, Search for the Sasquatch (March) & Croaky, Quest for the Legendary Berry (Sep) by Matty Long: An excitable young frog joins the woggle scouts and adventure ensues! An exuberant new series from the author of Super Happy Magic Forest.

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Gordon, the Meanest Goose on Earth (May) & Gordon Starts a Band (Oct) by Alex Latimer: Gordon is mean. He’s so mean he’s won the ‘meanest goose’ prize eight years running. Can the meanest goose on Earth change? Hilarious 5-7 fiction from Alex Latimer.

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