Editor Interview: Audrey Maynard on Tilbury House

Audrey Maynard on Audrey Maynard: “I was a ‘lifer’ at an all-girls school in New York City. I learned to love discussing ideas there, and books were usually at the heart of those discussions. In fact, Blue Balliett (author of Chasing Vermeer) and I were classmates.

“The first word I can remember sounding out as I was learning to read was the word ‘surprise.’ To this day, I love surprises in books, in people, and in life. I am generally open to trying things in new ways. I am an optimist.

“Also, I am generally a very patient and consistent person. For example: I have lived in Maine for 24 years (18 years in the same house), and have been married for 25 years. In recent years, when I meet new people, I have been asked where I am from in Maine. I find this quite amazing. In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent a decade in my twenties living on the West Coast, and in the U.K.”

Were you an avid young reader, or did you come to this love later in life?

Books really were everything to me when I was young. I had the type of childhood that promotes being a reader. My parents limited TV (Sunday night!), disapproved of games, and of course, forbade play with Barbie dolls! However I was allowed to read any type of book. My reading life was completely uncensored.

I have a lot of curiosity, so I read to learn about the rest of the world. My grandfather was a Quaker, and my godmother lived in Asia.

From the start, I was given books to expand my horizons. I read a lot of books about WWII, China, Japan, religious persecution, and what we call now social justice. I remember reading Gone with the Wind, All Quiet on The Western Front, and Valley of The Dolls in the same summer.

Among my favorite picture books were Harold and the Purple Crayon, Huge Harold, and a book called Gwendolyn The Miracle Hen. This last was a family favorite and featured a hen with special powers that saved the family farm from a greedy landlord! When I was in middle school, I actually wrote several children’s stories with a friend.

What inspired you to enter the field of children’s and young adult publishing?

In the late 1980s and ’90s I began to read picture books addictively as a form of relaxation. At the time, I worked primarily as a teacher with low-income pre-school-age kids, plus I had two school-age kids of my own. I was also in graduate school working on my Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education, so I was very busy.

However, I was fascinated to discover that the field of children’s literature was being transformed by larger social trends. Not only were picture books becoming more diverse, but they were addressing subjects that publishers had previously felt were “unsuitable” for children.

To a certain extent, you can trace my “inspiration” to a picture book review I read in 1985 in the New York Times. The book reviewed was Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti. I bought the book and started asking myself lots of questions about children’s interests, and the information that adults share with them. Ultimately, this curiosity is what has guided my professional career.

In Maine, most people don’t get to be choosy about what they do for work. So, I feel lucky to work where I do. I never presumed that I would be able to work in the field of children’s publishing, although when I now tell people what I do, they smile and say that I have found myself the perfect job.

Could you summarize your career to date?

My resume is eclectic–besides teaching pre-schoolers in both rural and urban settings, I have taught college courses on child development and children’s literature.

Prior to working at Tilbury I had great experience consulting with Born To Read, an early reading program at the Maine Humanities Council. The most important thing that I can say about my “preparation” for the field of children’s publishing is that my work experiences cumulatively gave me:

1) Absolute faith in the transformative power of all types of literature.

2) A clear sense of what interests children.

3) A fascination with the question of what is considered “appropriate” for children in our culture.

What led you to Tilbury House?

I met with Jennifer Bunting, Tilbury’s publisher, in the summer of 2001 to discuss the economics of publishing at a Maine Humanities Council meeting. I was clueless about the business and production side. Jennifer and I had a great lunch together. We discovered that we shared passion for the idea of publishing books that would empower kids.

Jen knew that she had job openings coming up, and she gave me a call to see if I was interested in working with her. Before I took the job, I gave a full disclosure of things that I’m not good at. For example, no one would ever hire me as a copy editor. But sales and marketing were something I thought I could tackle. I started at Tilbury the last week in August 2001.

What challenges and opportunities did you encounter at the company?

The business side was all new to me, and so I had a big learning curve when I started. Marketing is demanding, but you have to give it your best shot. Our company has three full-time employees, and five part-time people. We all happen to be women. It’s a pretty cooperative, egalitarian atmosphere.

When I started, we only were doing two children’s books a year (our company also publishes regional non-fiction for adults). Now we are working on three or four picture books a year.

We’re growing, and our children’s books regularly win awards. That’s so exciting!

Still, at the core, I’d say working at Tilbury is more like the experience of working in any small business. Our shipper and part of our inventory is housed amidst our offices.

The goal is simple: we want to create books and see them shipped out. Returns are bad news. There is a lot of redundancy in the book-selling business.

And because we are so small, we can’t spend much on advertising or going to conferences. We are also very low tech. We all work on older turquoise i-Macs. The fact is that this is an expensive; there are all these other built-in costs–like printing and shipping.

When I started out, I did work that was mostly focused on sales and manuscript review. Gradually I have shifted my focus to the editorial side. But starting with sales was important as a reality check! I can and do need to evaluate how “profitable” a book can be for us. A big part is sticking with one’s “brand.” We don’t stray from our mission. And that also keeps life simple.

That said, I knew right away that children’s literature would be affected by the events of 9/11, as so many things were. And I was right. We had already published a number of picture books that speak to the theme of immigration and tolerance. I’m talking about Who Belongs Here, Shy Mama’s Halloween, and the Gita books. A month after 9/11, we had several big orders for these books going out all over the country. A few months later, we brought out The Carpet Boy’s Gift, which also benefited, I think, from being a story set in the Middle East.

How would you describe your list? What sorts of books do you publish?

When I started, Tilbury House was equally known for publishing picture books that explore cultural diversity, nature, and the environment.

In recent years, we have had a bit more difficulty bringing out environmental titles that we were so strong on earlier. We’d like to re-energize that side of our list.

But, in terms of publishing books on cultural diversity and social justice, we’re thrilled with the way things have been working out. It’s important that we continue to grow in this area.

We continue to seek to have authors and illustrators of different classes, color, religion, and region tell stories of universal significance. The fact that we are in rural, northern New England means that we work even harder to find stories that will resonate everywhere!

If you had to highlight three recent titles that would give us a feel for the list, which would you choose and why?

It’s hard to pick! But, I’ll start with Say Something. I always hope that our books will get kids talking to each other more. This truly is a book that invites conversation. It’s about bullying from the bystander’s perspective, I like to think that this is a book that helps improve school culture for those who are “different.” Bullying begets violence, violence begets fear, and fear begets bullying once again. It’s a vicious cycle. Say Something might spark someone to make a difference in his or her community. That’s huge!

Thanks To The Animals was submitted to me on a storytelling and song CD–so it exactly followed the description of a “nontraditional submission” that was talked about in my multicultural literature course in graduate school. Alan Sockabasin wasn’t optimistic about his chances of getting the story published. But I listened when he said that he thought kids would like the story. So I checked it out, and I agreed with him! Kids love this story because it’s exciting. On top of that, this story has built new awareness about Native Americans in Maine. It’s been a gift on so many levels.

Playing War is probably the most complex story we have published, and certainly one of our most important. I’ve watched people pick up the book and read it at conferences, with tears running down their faces. It’s a wonderful example of having just the right book when you need to talk about a difficult subject with children.

Which would you recommend to writers for study and why?

I respect writers who can create characters that will engage children. We need just the right details to make the reader want to find out “what will happen next.” [See editorial guidelines.]

What do you see as your jobs in the publishing process?

My job is to select titles that I think will be good Tilbury House books. This means I have to see how a book really fits on our list. Next, I have to take the story and make the book be as good as it can be–so that it can reach its potential.

Sometimes I joke that I am the book’s therapist. Occasionally, I have to balance the different visions of a book that evolve as the book goes through the illustration process. I need to communicate effectively between all the different parties. Finding the right illustrator is very important, because he or she “delivers” the book to kids in his or her own way. When the illustrator does his/her job, it’s like watching a book learn to dance. I love that.

What are your challenges?

Well, I wish we could have a patron who would just come and buy all our books and place them in schools and libraries around the country. I get frustrated that more people don’t know about our books–so I confess to frustration with the marketing side of things.

All things considered, I believe we do a good job with it. (We call it “publishing by triage.”) Still, I’d love to see what an infusion of capital would do for our company! I actually think we could benefit from being a little bigger, since we have a really good team working here.