Commissioning Editor (Quarto) + Little People, BIG DREAMS Brand Manager
How did you become a Commissioning Editor for Quarto and have you always wanted to pursue a career in children's publishing?
Looking back, there were signs, but it definitely didn’t feel that way when I was trying to get my first job in the industry. I enjoyed making my own books as a child and I used to write personalised stories for other kids. (I added the imprint information to the inside front cover and got the pages bound at a local stationery shop.) I guess I was a junior publishing nerd – but it’s come in useful!
I studied for a music degree at the University of Southampton and afterwards wondered what to do. I worked at a children’s nursery, which was invaluable for an insight into the power of stories. I then landed a few unpaid internships, where I fell in love with publishing as an industry. It took me a year to get my first job at an educational publisher, Schofield & Sims, where I was mentored by some amazing women. I was then lucky enough to get a job with Rachel Williams and Jenny Broom at Quarto who launched the Wide Eyed Editions list. They have since moved on to new ventures, but have shaped my career with their influence and creativity around what a children’s book can be.
You specialise in children’s non-fiction from ages 0–12. Could you select some of your favourite recent titles to share with our audience?
Little People BIG DREAMS David Attenborough has to be up there! This is for ages 4–7 technically, but I think all adults deserve a copy too.
Big Ideas for Young Thinkers, by Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins. This is a recently published gem, which reimagines philosophy for 8 to 12-year olds. It’s perfect for everyone staying home whose kids are asking hundreds of questions. Who gets to have big ideas? Why do we hold them up? Who has all the answers? What happens when my pet dies? And so on. It gives them licence to ponder life’s big mysteries.
Another book I love is Music Is My Life by Myles Tanzer and Ali Mac. It teaches children about the link between emotion and music and allows them to dip into the library to discover songwriters who’ve been there before. Got your heart broken for the first time? Adele will sort it. Soundtrack your mood with 80 artists and while away the hours discovering songs and artists together as a family. (It’s sure to cause disagreements, too). It’s brilliantly creative and I haven’t seen a book like this elsewhere.
For those illustrators looking to attract non-fiction commissions, what specific portfolio advice would you offer?
First of all, be discoverable. Don’t lose out on that commission because someone couldn’t find the email or your contact form wasn’t working. Test it.
Make sure you have a variety of subjects in your portfolio: scenes, people, animals, nature. If you don’t have one subject then I will assume you can’t do it. That is unfair, but again, don’t lose out.
If you can, create live Instagram paintings or drawings and boost yourself through social communities. Things like that really do help.
Be unique and be authentic. Don’t try to copy anyone. This is something illustrator Aurélia Durand said to me and it rings true. It’s fine to have influences but what will get you that commission is your own unique style and message. Have a personal brand or ethos and think how publishers will pitch you to their book buyers.
Don’t wait for the job, do it now. For example, if there’s a classic book you really want to do a cover for, draw it. Add it to your portfolio so publishers can see your skills.
Have staying power and be adaptable. It’s hard to get published, projects are sometimes cancelled, and publishers are often too busy to give feedback. It’s a tough industry but don’t give up. Be willing to mock up different options (whilst silently screaming in your head about it.)
When the time comes, make sure you negotiate a good fee and read your contract.
Congrats on the huge success of your Little People, BIG DREAMS series (over 2 million copies sold). Could you give us an insight into the making of these books and explain why you think they've been such a massive hit?
Like all great books, they were born out of a need. The author and creator of the series, Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara, wrote the books in 2014 when her nieces were born. She wanted to find books for them about great women who inspired her, but back then – can you believe it?! – there were none.
There was then a massive boom around feminist kid lit, with Fantastically Great Women and Rebel Girls all launching at a similar time, and we all uplifted each other I think, creating that specific shelf in store for the genre. If you tried to make a series now with this theme I think you would struggle – there’s enough out there and the shops are saturated.
I think specifically people relate to these books as they are so gorgeous. You can display them on the shelf and they are a great new baby gift to inspire little ones about who they can be. The author is innovative in picking illustrators. Each book has a different style, that sometimes matches and sometimes creatively clashes with what you think should have been done. (Think Rudolf Nureyev with the cute rounded bodies and Frida Kahlo with the strong, quirky style.) I just love how they are all so engaging, and children can really see themselves in the books.
What have been some of the best reactions to the books you've been involved in?
World Book Day is a highlight! I love seeing kids dressed up as the characters we commissioned for Little People, BIG DREAMS. My favourite thing is seeing readers be inspired. Sometimes people make cakes, dolls, outfits of the books – it’s wonderful. They inspire me and inform my future decisions.
Other than that, it’s nice to get big wins with review coverage you value. This Book Is Anti-Racist won a starred review from Kirkus, and Young Gifted and Black was featured in the New York Times review of children’s books.
Tell us about your bestselling Story Orchestra series.
It’s a dream to work on this series! Each book has 10 sound buttons with real music from a classical orchestra. At the time they came out, no-one else was doing that.
The story links to the music and interacts in a gorgeous way. It’s a perfect primer for getting your kids interested in music.
Jess Courtney-Tickle, the illustrator, makes it a beautiful gift-package too. I write the story and brief her with the design team, but she will often put little clues into the illustrations that I then pick up on and weave into the text. In that way, it’s very collaborative.
Who do you admire in the children's publishing industry?
I greatly admire people in the industry who are shaking things up and doing things differently: Knights Of and the whole team and Round Table Books are doing amazing work.
Rachel Williams, Jenny Broom and Nicola Price, all previous colleagues who have gone on to launch female-led indie Magic Cat.
Katie Cotton, publisher at Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. Katie writes her own books and manages to bring picture book magic to everyday life. You couldn’t ask to work for someone who is kinder or fairer than Katie.
And finally, all the authors and illustrators I work with who take this craft so seriously and are so fun to work with. Sometimes I come to them with a hardly formed idea and they make it real.
Professionally-speaking, what's been your a) proudest moment and b) greatest challenge so far?
Probably when David Attenborough went straight to the top of the children’s non-fiction TCM in the first week of publication. This was the first time a title had charted for me and a big moment for the list. (I also got a letter from the man himself, which I will be keeping forever.)
Greatest challenges are numerous! This is something you have to get used to in this industry. Things change all the time and often very quickly – and people always want books made quicker and quicker.
However, the greatest challenge is the one coming up: how we respond to the loss of trade from the lockdown. Health and safety is a priority but next is income, i.e. jobs and work. I know everyone will pull together to be creative and resourceful. Books are evergreen and we will come back stronger.
What books from your own childhood do you still treasure?
Anything that plays with the book / game format: The Jolly Postman by the Ahlbergs, Annabel’s House by Norman Messenger. I always go back to my own childhood when I’m thinking about commissioning.
There’s something nostalgic about the style of Old Bear by Jane Hissey that makes me want to hug the page.
Finally, I have an old treasury of Paddington stories that my brother read to me when I was a baby. The book was bigger than me. It’s memories and associations like this that make books truly special. It’s my aim to create that for someone else one day.
Looking ahead, what are some of Quarto's big titles set for launch in 2020?
It’s always exciting to look ahead to the next Little People, BIG DREAMS characters. We have LPBD Greta Thunberg coming out in May, which is sure to be popular with our audience. I am excited about our 50th title in the series in October: Elton John. We are picking out special finishes for it as I speak…
Natural History of Fairies by Emily Hawkins and Jessica Roux is coming out in September 2020. It looks at the secret lives of fairies and their important roles in the natural world. Learn anatomy, life cycle, habitats and more. If there’s one book I wish I’d commissioned… it’s this one! It’s everything I love about children’s publishing, in one cloth bound, sprayed-edge, gold-foiled package.