SCBWI Bologna 2010 Agent Interview: Frances Plumpton of Richards Literary Agency

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Before becoming a literary agent at Richards Literacy Agency in New Zealand, you worked in children’s library services.

How did your previous work with children’s literature inspire you to pursue this new avenue?

Following my years as Coordinator of Children’s Services, Waitakere Libraries, I decided to work as a consultant specialising in early childhood literature.

Not long after this, I was approached by Nicki Richards of Richards Literary Agency for some advisory work and which eventually led to an invitation to replace her.

Concurrently, I spent three years reading unsolicited manuscripts for one of our local publishers, giving me a very practical understanding of the range of material received and an awareness of the reasoning behind decisions whether or not to publish.

I have found my experience as a children’s librarian invaluable, forty (gulp!) years of dealing with individual children and their caregivers, public library programmes, especially storytimes and visits to schools.

I always have an audience in mind whenever I pick up a book or a manuscript. What would I say to excite a child about this? Would I choose it for a storytime audience? Would I select this to take into a classroom? Would this work with today’s teenagers? And, on occasion, Wow! I’ve seen so many variations of this storyline over the years, and this is a fresh approach and exciting!

From a library services perspective, what are the kinds of books that appeal most to librarians and how are books usually chosen for purchase?

Public librarians have to consider their entire community from the youngest to the oldest members and the breadth of needs from simple to complex. Even within one library system, individual libraries will differ in the ambience of their collections and librarians are looking for the books that best suit their local communities.

A specialist selection team will work from a well-reasoned collection development policy outlining selection and deselection procedures.

(If you’re interested try searching the term “collection development” as a site search on your local library website).

Books are selected from review journals, publishers’ releases, local suppliers, requests from patrons, websites and discussion lists, awareness of gaps in the collection and a constant general alert–I’ve always found it hard to walk past a bookshop–or anywhere I see a collection of books!

Librarians’ tastes are just as individual as the public, and it’s an advantage to have a colleague really enthusiastic about titles and genre that you personally have to work hard at.

How important are book reviews like those found in The Horn Book when deciding which books to add to library shelves? What sources are most often used to gather book-review information?

Because N.Z.’s (population 4.2 million) publishing output is very small (about 140 trade titles per year–picture books to young adult), New Zealand children have long been exposed to much of the world’s best children’s literature.

Naturally, our initial focus is on books by our own writers and illustrators, and for this, we primarily use a small journal, Around the Bookshops, produced by a N.Z. children’s literature specialist; and an excellent Australian review journal, Magpies Talking About Books for Children, which in recent years has a specific New Zealand insert.

We watch our award shortlists, recommendations from Storylines Children’s Literature Charitable Trust of New Zealand, specialist library suppliers and a very active children’s literature community. We are also very fortunate in New Zealand to have a National Library, Schools’ Library Service with teams of library advisers working actively to help build collections in schools throughout the country and the New Zealand Book Council with book reviews available online.

Unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of ARCs or advance copies of most international titles, so reviews are crucial, and as a selector, I found that there were reviewers that I came to trust.

The major review journals I used were The Horn Book and School Library Journal for U.S. material, Books For Keeps, Junior Bookshelf, and Carousel for U.K. material, Magpies and Viewpoint for Australian and New Zealand material.

In 1989, you were awarded the Winston Churchill Fellowship and traveled to the U.K. to study library services for young children. What were some of your findings during that trip?

I was very fortunate to have the enthusiastic support of Dorothy Butler, who gave me introductions to many of her friends, among them picture book maestro Shirley Hughes and Elaine Moss, whose commentaries on children’s literature I had long admired.

My first venture was to the Federation of Children’s Book Groups Conference, held that year in Brighton, and I am still in touch with friends met there, some of whom I met again when I had the opportunity to attend last year’s conference.

Coming from a city with a high proportion of young families, I was particularly looking at services to younger children, and there were so many to choose from!

I was impressed by Camden’s Under 5’s librarians, which were described as “the cornerstone of their library services,” and loved the Book Festival week I spent with Birmingham Libraries, watching writers, illustrators and storytellers in action and where I was able to participate in reading to children in a local hospital.

I visited many libraries and saw comprehensive collections of children’s books in a variety of languages, Camden Libraries coping with a wider community speaking over 140 different languages and concerned that these families were offered quality publications, not tatty “second hand books for second hand children” as at that time there was a dearth of trade publishers and much available material was well-intentioned productions by amateurs.

I visited the National Library for the Handicapped Child, The Children’s Book Foundation, London and the Book Trust, Scotland.

I even spent a few days at the Bologna Book Fair, noticing the emergence of stunning Dorling Kindersley non-fiction and a swing towards fiction series.

What are some top examples you’ve seen of successful library programming for children and young adults?

At one time I was specialising in services to young adults, visiting year 9 & 10 classes (14- and 15-year olds) in schools across the city. I found booktalking as promoted by Patrick Jones and Joni Bodart particularly effective and even managed to bring Patrick Jones down to N.Z. to share his enthusiasm with other librarians.

Summer Reading Programmes are now well-established in New Zealand thanks to a consortium of small East Coast libraries who initiated the very successful E.C. Read’n programme, now available throughout the country. Waitakere Libraries have developed a very successful summer programme for teenagers, Books in the Wild.

Christchurch libraries have had a number of innovative programmes, at one time partnering the local rugby football players (Canterbury Crusaders) in a very popular reading programme. They have excellent programmes for preschoolers and interactive reading guides on their website. Takapuna Library, North Shore Libraries draws large numbers of tots and their caregivers for its twice weekly Rhymetime.

New Zealand children can get on-line support for homework questions from Any Questions, a collaboration of National Library, Ministry of Education, and public libraries throughout New Zealand.

At Richards Literary, you represent some amazing children’s authors in New Zealand, like one of my all-time favorites, Joy Cowley, who are also highly well-known in other parts of the world. What challenges, if any, do you sometimes face while managing their careers in foreign countries?

Yes, it’s a privilege to work with Joy Cowley and she has traveled widely in the U.S.A. and elsewhere, much of that time generously supporting writers, with the promotion of her own work secondary.

We’re currently seeing the emergence of Brian Falkner, whose The Tomorrow Code was published by both Walker Australia and Random U.S. and has been receiving very favourable reviews in both countries.

Brian’s second YA novel Brain Jack (he has three very successful junior novels as well) is about to be released by both publishers.

Brian was Creative New Zealand’s recipient for the International Writing Programme, University of Iowa Writer’s Residency 2008 and had the opportunity then of working with local schools in Iowa, returning last year to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and will be back again in September.

He was invited to work with The British School in Tokyo (2008) and last year also toured in Australia. He works tirelessly to ensure an international presence through his book trailers and websites.

Do you represent clients who do not reside in N.Z. or Australia? Are you interested in foreign authors who write about your part of the world?

Unfortunately, there’s a heavy workload with local clients, so we are unable to take on foreign writers.

It’s always interesting to see writing about N.Z. by non-resident writers, and some like Karen Hesse‘s Young Nick’s Head (U.S. title Stowaway) are remarkably good, other manuscripts I’ve seen, not so…

You have convened several judging panels for children’s book awards. What are the qualities that judging panels consider when looking at books being considered for awards? What qualities might push one book ahead of another if both are finalists in the judging process?

First and foremost, it’s always necessary to ensure that all awards criteria have been met and the final decision may well come down to the weighting of these.

Selecting finalists is always a challenge, and I’ve found it invigorating to be involved in a debate where several well-reasoned perspectives are considered.

I always look for the overall integrity of a book, that characters, plot and setting are interwoven immaculately and work at the appropriate level for the intended reader. Frequently dialogue or the intrusion of the writer’s voice can be a downfall. Sometimes a book shines at first and then gradually falls apart after several re-readings.

You have served on the faculty at the Chautauqua Writer’s Workshop sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. This seems to be one of the premiere experiences for serious and hopeful children’s writers. What can you tell us about your experience there?

Joy Cowley had long told me how much she cherished being involved with the Highlights Foundation, and it was through her that I was invited to attend to offer a N.Z. perspective to the attendees.

The arts community of Chautauqua, New York; is the setting for an annual week-long intensive inspirational workshop retreat–the ingredients a mix of keynote speakers, workshops, breakout groups, manuscript assessments and mentorships covering the craft of writing for all genres, stirred up with stunning food, local hospitality, developing friendships and sheer pleasure and served up by the amazing Highlights Foundation team.

What can I say? For me as for many others, it was a memorable experience.

With all that you do, you still find time to volunteer your expertise to SCBWI as the ARA for the Australia and New Zealand Chapter! Can you tell us something you enjoy about being a part of SCBWI?

We do a half week at the agency so that does give me some additional time. I have always been very passionate about N.Z. children’s literature, and being a member of SCBWI has given me an insight into the realities of the international children’s publishing industry.

I just love the community and collegiality of SCBWI; Chris and Susanne are always tremendously supportive and very generous in sharing their expertise, and I see this as my opportunity to be an advocate for New Zealand members.

And last, can you tell us a little about the children’s publishing scene in your country? What new trends are you observing in kids lit there? What is the children’s book art scene like? And, how do you view New Zealand’s place in the world of children’s publishing?

Sadly, the opportunities to be published locally have been diminishing over the past year. Our two highly regarded independent publishers have been sold–Ann Mallinson has retired and her list gone to Penguin N.Z., and another imminent retirement has seen Longacre become an imprint of Random N.Z. N.Z.’s publishing output of approximately 140 trade titles (picture books to YA) will probably be considerably reduced.

That said, for a population of just over 4 million and a small publishing output, we have always punched high in the international children’s market with our stellar authors Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Dorothy Butler.

We’re now watching recent international publications from Bernard Beckett (Genesis, Longacre N.Z./ Quarto, U.K.), Helen Lowe (Thornspell, Knopf), Sally Sutton (Roadwork!,Walker Australia/Candlewick), Jill Marshall (Jane Blonde Spylet series, Macmillan U.K.) and Brian Falkner (The Tomorrow Code and Brainjack, Walker Austrailia/Random U.S.).

However, we are delighted with the successes of boutique publisher Julia Marshall’s Gecko Press, specialising in English translations of award-wining children’s books and now branching out with some New Zealand titles.

Some of our illustrators are well-known internationally in educational markets–Elizabeth Fuller (Mrs. Wishy-Washy), Robyn Belton (Greedy Cat), and David Elliot in trade publications with his illustrations for Joy Cowley’s Chicken Feathers (Philomel) and Brian JacquesRedwall series (Philomel).

There are not a lot of opportunities for young illustrators but we are watching the emergence of the partnership of Ali Teo and John O’Reilly (Kiss! Kiss! Yuck! Yuck! Scholastic N.Z./Peachtree U.S.) and Ben Galbraith (The Three Fishing Brothers Gruff, Hodder U.K).

Storylines, Randomhouse N.Z. and illustrator Gavin Bishop have just launched the inaugural Gavin Bishop award for emerging illustrators.

New Zealand is very fortunate in that we have a long tradition of school journals published for the Ministry of Education, and distributed free of charge to all schools in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. This is the platform for many of our writers and illustrators and where Margaret Mahy’s writing was first discovered by Helen Watts in the late 1960s.

Much of our publishing has a strong local focus and recent trends are for quirky kiwiana-themed picture books but we also have some strong fantasy/sci-fi forthcoming, both for junior and young adult fiction. And watch out for Tessa Duder’s compilation of Margaret Mahy’s poetry Word Witch, illustrated by David Elliot (HarperCollins N.Z.)

More about New Zealand’s children’s literature can be found on the website of Storylines Children’s Literature Charitable Trust of New Zealand and in New Zealand Children’s Books in Print.

Thank you so much, Frances, for taking the time to share your tremendous knowledge about children’s publishing in New Zealand and Australia.

We’re excited to hear more from you at the 2010 SCBWI Bologna Symposium. See you there!

Cynsational Notes

Frances Plumpton had a long career as a children’s librarian in public libraries in Auckland, New Zealand, before joining Richards Literary Agency in 2006, and now representing many of New Zealand’s outstanding children’s writers and illustrators. She has judged and convened judging panels for both of the New Zealand children’s book awards, and is a founding member and trustee of Storylines Children’s Literature Charitable Trust of New Zealand. Frances was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship in 1989, traveling to the U.K. to study public library services to young children, and in 2006, was the recipient of the Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award for services to children’s literature. She is the New Zealand ARA for the Australian and New Zealand chapter of SCBWI.

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.