SCBWI Bologna 2010 Co-Founder & Editor-In-Chief Interview: Tessa Strickland of Barefoot Books

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Barefoot Books has a delightful and inspiring founding story. How did your experiences when you were starting out shape the values of your company today?

The publishing values of the company have remained a constant since the beginning; I think what has shaped the corporate values of the company is the desire to support and promote writers and artists and in particular to support mothers with young families, whether they want to write or to take advantage of the Barefoot Ambassador programme as independent distributors.

Running a small business with young families taught me and my business partner, Nancy Traversy, the importance of flexibility and the value of persevering and sticking to what you believe in.

One of the aspects that makes Barefoot Books stand out from other publishers is the fact that you have created an ingenious network of Barefoot representatives who embrace your products and sell them in their homes, schools, and communities. How does this aspect of your company affect the quantity and type of books that you choose to develop?

This is by far the most rapidly expanding area of our business. We have invested a lot of time and money in creating an online offer, which anyone and everyone can use to earn money by selling Barefoot Books, both in their local communities and online.

The rise of social media has changed and will continue to change the way in which parents and educators buy books and exchange ideas and experiences; this is now at the heart of our business, and it is exciting to see how quickly it is growing.

How many manuscripts do you receive each year, and what qualities make the good ones stand out?

We bring out about twenty new books a year; we often receive more [manuscripts] than this in a week. Many are very good indeed; to stand out, a manuscript needs to explore an idea or a theme that we don’t already have on the programme; beyond that, everything is in the execution. It can be funny, serious, intimate, exotic; it needs to work on its own terms.

This is easy to prescribe but difficult to achieve; I think a successful children’s writer somehow needs a lightness of touch and, at the same time, the ability to touch on the big issues in a way that makes sense to a young child; the ability to awaken a sense of the mystery and wonder and complexity of life.

What are some of your favorite titles published by Barefoot, and what makes them so?

This is a very difficult question to answer! However, there are three books in particular that my own inner child returns to again and again. They are Hugh Lupton’s Tales of Wisdom and Wonder, The Barefoot Book of Buddhist Tales by Sherab Chodzin and Alexandra Kohn, and The Gift, a new book by Carol Ann Duffy, which is scheduled for publication this autumn.

In quite different ways, each of these authors has written stories that are beautifully crafted, profound, and ambitious in the themes they embrace, and respectful of children’s natural ability to be reflective and curious about their place in the world.

Are there any tips you can give writers and illustrators in presenting their work to a publisher like Barefoot Books?

Presentation matters. So does researching what we do and not sending material which is out of keeping with our offer. For example, there is no point in anyone sending us a fifty-thousand word fantasy novel; we have a very small young fiction programme, and its emphasis is on original stories of no more than twenty-thousand words which offer children a window into different ways of life.

We also work a lot with rhyme for under fives and with stories of between 1,500 and 2,000 words that carry a simple message without moralizing.

It’s important that writers don’t try to attach themselves to illustrators; we do some books with illustrators who also write, but when a good manuscript comes in, we prefer to find the illustrator ourselves.

Barefoot offers a large collection of stories from around the world, however the industry often tells us that multicultural folk tales are a “hard sell.” Can you tell us what your take is on this, and also, why do you think Barefoot is so successful bringing multicultural tales to the market?

When I started Barefoot Books, multicultural folk tales were published in a very dreary way. The retellings were flat and “anthropological” and the presentation dismal. No wonder they were a hard sell.

If stories have stood the test of time for centuries in the oral tradition, it seems to me reasonable to assume that this is because they are at some level conveying quite significant messages about the human condition. If these stories can be presented in an engaging way, with language which attracts young readers and is a delight to read aloud, there is no reason why they can’t sell well.

However, I have found that a certain sleight of hand helps: for example, I have a collection of princess stories – they are all multicultural folk tales, but they work because they are marketed as “princess tales” and because two of the stories are very familiar to adult western readers–(The Princess and the Pea and The Sleeping Beauty). The majority of stories in the collection are quite unusual, but it is the comfort of recognition, I think, that gives buyers the confidence to buy the book.

What advice do you have for writers of folk tales or multicultural stories?

First, it is important to acknowledge your sources and to have at least two written sources for each story. If you have that, you are then free to make the story your own.

I work with a lot of writers who are also professional storytellers because the work they have done “live” with children has often helped them to shape their stories. Practice your craft not just by writing but also by telling your stories to young audiences; you will find nothing helps you create a sense of pace and drama as well as a roomful of children. When you are writing for children, it pays to use children as your critics. They know what they like.

What are some of the top qualities or desired topics that will you be looking for in books submitted to you in 2010?

Stories with environmental themes are doing very well for us at the moment, and we expect this trend to continue.

It’s impossible to talk about Barefoot Books without also acknowledging the colorful, vibrant, playful illustrations contained in your stories. What is your process for finding and selecting illustrators, and how would you recommend that an illustrator approach you with his or her work?

This can be the best and worst part of the job! Sometimes, it can take nearly forever for us to find the right illustrator for a project; at any one time, I have a pile of manuscripts in need of illustrators and illustrators whose work would be great for us if we could find the right manuscript.

What I try to look for is illustrators who have found their voice; it is quite hard to define what this means, but their work needs to be completely their own. It may well reveal influences, but it has to be the kind of art that you look at and say “that must be so-and-so.” It can’t look anonymous or neutral. Electronic submissions are fine in the first instance.

And last, stories of the infamous Slush Pile are told among writers like ghost stories around the camp fire, leaving many writers feeling uneasy about how to navigate this mysterious unknown. Can you tell us a little about your own slush pile — how you handle it, when you tackle it, and what you hope you’ll find when reading it?

Ah, the infamous Slush Pile! I think it is essential for writers to appreciate that they are in a field where supply outstrips demand. Often, manuscripts are rejected because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, not because they are lacking in merit.

I recommend that writers look at publishers’ programmes before they make their submissions; most publishers don’t want to cover the same picture book topic twice. For example, I have a wonderful rhyming story about a small boy who won’t go to bed. I don’t need another picture book on this topic.

There are almost certainly many topics and manuscripts out there which would be just right for Barefoot, but I won’t recognize them until they land on my desk. The process is continually surprising–that is what makes it fun!

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about Tessa Strickland. Peek: “Though I was born and brought up in rural England, I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures, by the relationships between people and their surroundings, and by the stories we share to make sense of our world. I graduated with a degree in classics from Cambridge University and taught English to schoolchildren in Japan for several years. On my return to London, I began my career in publishing, working first at Penguin and later at Random House, where I was Editorial Director of the Rider List.”

Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.