SCBWI Bologna 2008 Publishing Director Interview: Laura Harris of Penguin Australia

Laura Harris is the Publishing Director of children’s books for Penguin Australia. She has worked with such highly acclaimed authors as Morris Gleitzman, Melina Marchetta and Mem Fox. She was interviewed by Anita Loughrey in November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

What made you decide to go into children’s book publishing?

I was one of those very fortunate people–it chose me. I had completed my degree in education. My lecturer was a wonderful woman, Dr Susan Moore, who kindly recommended me as one of her ex-students to the prestigious School Magazine, the oldest literary magazine for children in Australia. They were looking for someone to cull books and sort manuscripts for a three-month stint. It was my first year out of university, I loved children’s books, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, and it was a short gig.

There were three editors working on the magazine, and at the end of my three months, I was asked to stay on as a Trainee Editor…so I did. It was like a family working with the editors, authors and illustrators. I loved all five years that I spent there, and I learned so much.

My boss pushed me to leave when I was approached by HarperCollins. I don’t think he was glad to get rid of me, but he believed I might suit the wider world of trade publishing. Since I was quite young, I believe he thought it was time I left home…and it felt like that.

Some of my most enduring friendships were made during my time there, and I now publish at Penguin a number of people who wrote, illustrated, or worked at the magazine.

In your opinion, what makes a good publisher?

A respect for readers, truly liking authors and illustrators, editorial skill, empathy and a big-picture outlook (every writer wants to be read, so just making the book is not enough–we need to get it into the right hands!). Caring about the whole process is key for a good publisher, and a genuine love of storytelling. It helps if you read a lot too, have a visual flair, and don’t mind being a therapist and a firm task master some of the time.

When you’re reading a manuscript for the first time, how long does it take you (approximately how many pages? chapters?) to figure out whether it’s something you want to pursue?

It varies so much. Sometimes you just fall in love with the style of writing in the first few pages, and other times a character intrigues you, although the writing might be very straightforward…

What kinds of things “turn you off” a manuscript right away?

Covering letters telling me what is missing in children’s books, or that this work is the next Harry Potter, or that the writer’s children loved the work…

Children love spending time sharing stories with their parents. You could read them the phone book, and they would think you were marvelous and talented!

And I think those kinds of remarks in covering letters show a lack of respect for the people already publishing wonderful books. For would-be writers, remember that the person you are addressing has probably read many more children’s books than you.

I also think work should be presented well, easy to read, and without errors. It is not about everything being correct, it is about care. Send your very best work to a publisher, not everything you have ever written.

What are the “realities” of children’s publishing?

It is a business, but I think everyone in it is striving for excellence and wants the best for their books and authors. It takes the same effort to make an average book as it does to make a great book, but no one sets out to be average.

I also think that good work does get published. Perhaps not with the first publisher, or the first manuscript, but good writing is discovered and looked after.

What is your favorite thing about being a children’s book publisher?

The people I have met, the stories I have been involved with that have become beloved books, and knowing that what I do has some worth.

I am of the school that agrees with C.S Lewis when he said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I think books are that for so many children, and I like being part of that.

What are some of your favorite books and why?

Some of my favorite books are really about favorite writers. Even from a young age I wanted to read everything a beloved writer wrote, even if it wasn’t a series or I was critical of one title. Once an author gets to me, I am a loyal reader.

The first writer that did that to me was John Steinbeck. I read Cannery Row and wanted to be a marine biologist–I was 12. I read everything of his after that, short stories and all. I went on to John Irving, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, Anne Tyler and Michael Chabon, to name a few. And like many 12 year olds, I fell in love with Atticus Finch.

I loved the picture books of John Burningham as a child–I still have some of them today and continue to look out for his new books. I love the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg, who I discovered as an adult.

Is there a character you met in a book when you were a child that changed your life?

The Cat in the Hat–for irreverence and sassiness and a lust for life. Every grown up should own Oh! The Places You will Go.

Actually, Theodore Seuss Geisel changed my life–as a reader and as a publisher–and his birthday is the day before mine.

Cynsational Notes

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries?