SCBWI Bologna 2010 Editor & Art Director Interview: Deidre McDermott of Walker Books (UK)

Interview by Laura Watkinson for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Hello, Deirdre. You are the picture book publisher at Walker Books. Could you talk us through your day at work?

I get up reluctantly, shower, then after breakfast (either a bowl of porridge or wheat-germ toast with peanut butter and a banana), I’ll get a lift to the tube station, squeeze into a train to go over the river to Vauxhall, where I stop to buy a coffee (more for the social interaction than the quality of the coffee), hurry down the embankment along the river Thames to Walker Books, and climb five flights of stairs to the studio.

The picture-book team consists of three editors–Lucy, Penny and Maria–plus three designers–Audrey, Julia and me–and sometimes also Daniel, a freelance designer and creative-techie, who comes in one day a week.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, David Lloyd, our editor-at-large, comes in to create picture books with us, talk loudly, give advice, encourage thinking and, most importantly, tell good jokes. Together we all laugh a lot.

Between us, we manage a list averaging around 70 books a year–front-list hardbacks, paperbacks, re-issues and also, very importantly, buy-ins from our sister companies, Candlewick Press in the U.S., and Walker Books Australia.

There is never a typical day. Usually, I’ll read my emails, respond to the most urgent and then try to move swiftly on to the best part: downloading any images or attachments that have arrived overnight from the artists I’m working with. I’m currently collaborating with illustrators living in Australia, Taiwan, N.Y.C. and Northern Ireland as well as artists in the U.K. Not everybody works by email; some still prefer to work by sketch and post.

The picture books I’m working on at any one time are at different stages. Right now, for instance, I’m still finishing books for this autumn, while running in parallel are the lists we’re creating for 2011, 2012 and beyond.

The very worst and most interruptive calls are the frantic last-minute requests from the printer–usually in the Far East–saying that a file is missing a layer or some type has disappeared from the electronic file; any of these can make your blood literally run cold–cue frantic search and triple checking of computer files to avoid the dreaded “permanently printed typo.” Eek.

Management meetings frequently interrupt the working day, which can be very frustrating.

The best part of my job as a publisher involves concentrated immersion with the words, the pictures and the editor on a book’s actual pages. I like designing picture books; visualizing layouts and using type make me happy.

The most valuable meetings are the creative meetings with the bookmakers themselves–this is what I think of as real work. I invariably prefer the beginning of a project: matching texts with artists, deciding on the formats, supporting the vision of authorial illustrators–the creators of the picture books–and trying to make the best books happen. This is a publisher’s true reward.

Could you tell us about a few writers and illustrators that you are especially proud to have discovered or worked with?

I’ve worked with brand-new artists on their very first books, all the way through to the most established artists and writers. These include Bob Graham, Anita Jeram, John Burningham, Allan Ahlberg, Patrick Benson, Jimmy Liao, Viviane Schwarz, Carll Cneut, Chinlun Lee, Kevin Waldron and Helen Oxenbury.

Do you think that the picture book is one type of book that will resist the advance of the eBook format? Or do you have plans for new electronic developments?

Digital books have the same value and objectives as regular picture books; they’re just delivered differently. As both bookmakers and book customers, we have to recognize that digital books are just another form of expression; ebooks won’t replace physical books, but can and should run parallel to the picture-book experience.

Picture books can thrive in an interactive environment; it’s reductive to believe that a reading experience is solely about a book’s physical form; it is also about the quality of the content.

There seems to be a perception that digital/electronic bookmaking somehow leads to an inferior, lower-quality read, a cheaper experience. But I believe that regardless of the form, a good story is always going to be a good story, a good picture will remain a good picture, and the value of the reading experience will be undiminished.

Walker have produced DVDs and board games based on Walker picture books. Could you tell us a little about your current plans for non-book formats?

At Walker, we will continue to explore non-book formats for key brands. Across the whole range of our list, we’re looking at a variety of tremendously exciting opportunities, including our work with a company to bring some of our best picture books to the iPhone and iPad. These picture-book apps have been uniquely designed to sit side by side with their physical counterparts; they aim to extend the picture-book experience rather than replace it.

You’re a trustee at the fantastic Seven Stories, the centre for children’s books in Newcastle. What does that position involve? And what does the future hold for Seven Stories?

My involvement with Seven Stories (I was formally made a trustee in November 2009) is extremely rewarding; I love the place and admire the people who work there.

My position involves attending meetings of the board and the acquisition subcommittee. I find it incredibly stimulating to work with and share the museum’s aims with non-publishing professionals: the other trustees come from a wide variety of different fields, including the law, banking, education, drama and the Arts Council. I think of them as True Book Believers, and I’m pleased to play even a small part in Seven Stories’ collective and unique experience.

Seven Stories is the first and only museum in the U.K. dedicated to the art of the children’s book, protecting and celebrating children’s literary heritage. Visitors to the museum explore the world of children’s books through a changing programme of exhibitions, events, performances, workshops and hands-on activities inspired by the original manuscripts and artwork of Britain’s favourite children’s authors and illustrators.

When Seven Stories was founded in 1996, there was no other literature, academic, heritage or arts institution in the U.K. with a similar remit, so authors and illustrators were selling or donating their archives to institutions overseas (especially in the U.S.) or to private collectors, or were simply disposing of them.

Walker Books were involved right from the heady beginning and since those early days, the Seven Stories Collection has grown rapidly, and is now the U.K.’s largest collection of its type in public ownership, comprising the original artwork and manuscripts of over 70 writers and illustrators for children.

Seven Stories are now working towards achieving national-museum status, to affirm the Collection’s importance to the nation’s heritage and to recognize its innovative approaches to engaging children, families and educators in the art of children’s books.

You’ve worked with Carll Cneut, a fantastic Flemish illustrator with a very distinctive style. How did you come across his work? Do you work with many illustrators from outside the English-speaking world?

Carll simply sent his work in, saying he was going to be in London and wondering if he could pay us a visit. We loved his painting, and–very unusually and serendipitously–we had a text, Antonio on the Other Side of the World Getting Smaller, that we thought would complement Carll’s vision. Luckily, its author Malachy Doyle thought so too!

My work with illustrators from the non-native English-speaking world is very enjoyable. As well as Carll, Jimmy Liao and Chinlun Lee, both from Taiwan, are two such artists I’ve worked with a lot. Working with an artist for whom English is a second language is a different, and equally rewarding, bookmaking experience.

Interestingly–and I’m realizing this only as I write–all three, Carll, Jimmy and Chinlun, have become great personal friends, whom I continue to see and communicate with quite apart from our professional lives.

What are your thoughts on stories in rhyme? I’ve heard that writers are discouraged from creating rhyming stories for picture books, as they’re tricky to translate and so it’s difficult to sell the rights abroad. Is that true? Would you encourage a new writer who wanted to present a story in rhyme?

Good rhyme, like good writing, will always work. Everything depends on the story you’re trying to tell and how that story works with the pictures. What we find with stories submitted in rhyme is that the author can get taken over by the cleverness of the rhyme, and end up forcing the story to serve the rhyme rather than the other way around.

You said in a Booktrust interview that “we are in a golden age of publishing.” It’s wonderful to hear such enthusiasm. Could you perhaps expand a little?

There are ever more authorial artists creating and telling stories–perhaps especially in this digital age. The ease and immediacy of digital technology mean that stories can now be told and visualized in many different ways. Illustrators are able to work very quickly and explore their vision rapidly. Publishing can be far more immediate and reach a much wider audience almost instantaneously–it’s exciting!

One tip that you’ve given for illustrators is to “leave space,” so that books don’t get too busy and confuse readers. Do you have any other helpful tips for writers and illustrators of picture books who are hoping to make it past the slush pile?

What I really meant about leaving space is for writers and illustrators to be aware of the “emotional space”–that invisible space between the words and the pictures.

That’s what the editor and the designer aim to do: leave space. We’re sort of in charge of that invisible space, working between the words and the pictures, reading the text aloud, editing by ear–what we hear and the sound of the rhythm in the language–good language and how this interacts on the page with what we see in the pictures. The story is in the words, in the sounds, and the story is also in the picture.

Words and pictures should serve each other, but they don’t both have to fulfill exactly the same function. An illustrator doesn’t have to draw exactly what the words are telling the reader, and the author doesn’t have to describe exactly what the pictures are showing the reader.

Simply, there should be a gap, an invisible space left for the reader’s imagination to expand and interpret the story in his or her own way.

Anthony Browne, the current Children’s Laureate, is published by Walker and, of course, he’s an author and illustrator of picture books. Could you talk a little about the role of Children’s Laureate?

It’s particularly great for picture books that Anthony Browne is the current Children’s Laureate in the U.K. His own pictures are so powerful, and he speaks so well about them, that his Laureateship can only publicly affirm the importance of illustration and the value and need for visual literacy.

Writing and illustrating can be lonely activities. The SCBWI helps people to connect and provides opportunities for networking and professional development. Do you have any suggestions as to how writers and illustrations can make the most of these events and connections to build up a network for support and feedback?

Make good friends who have similar values, find points of interest and reference with each other, share your experiences and, most important, be creatively generous with your peers.

When you think back to your own childhood, which picture books still stand out?

There weren’t very many picture books to buy in Ireland in the ’70s, so the grey-and-blue mobile library was an extremely important part of my week. I distinctly remember climbing the steep red steps of the bus to its book-lined interior and choosing my very own books to take home with me.

Miffy stories, anything by Dr. Seuss and the large Richard Scarry compendiums were among the first books I had…the smell of the pages, the thick cellophane covers and the saturated colours of the interiors remain particularly vivid in my memory.

Sometimes, I received yellow parcels of books from my Uncle Pat, who lived in Mississippi; inside were small squarish books with shiny golden spines, and I loved these American stories about raccoons, puppies, bears and princesses.

American picture books from the ’50s and ’60s remain very inspiring to my own work now. These books have an immediacy and freshness that’s very compelling. The child, the reader, is cared about.

At Walker, we try always to be similarly conscious of what the child ultimately reading the book is going to enjoy.

Comics also played a huge part in my childhood. My two brothers and I devoured (and fought over)–Twinkle, The Dandy, The Beano, Whizzer and Chips, Bunty, Mandy, Judy, Misty, Warlord, 2000 AD–all bought with our weekly pocket money in the next town on Saturday morning. I suppose that I learnt to draw from the pages of these comics, and I learnt humour and how to tell stories and jokes, and also how to read words and pictures together, side by side.

And do you have any recommendations of great new picture books for our reading lists? Which new Walker picture books are you particularly excited about?

Check out a young German bookmaker living in England, Viviane Schwarz. Viv also has a brilliant new book, on which she collaborated with Alexis Deacon, coming out next spring.

Kevin Waldron and Chris Haughton are both brand-new Irish illustrators whose vision I much admire.

Polly Dunbar is a prolific bookmaker; she makes picture books that are full of humour and wit for the under-4s. See Doodle Bites and Penguin as prime examples of her work.

Nonfiction picture books for the very young are another way of capturing a child’s imagination, and the books by Martin Jenkins and Vicky White are no exception.

I adore Lucy Cousins’s art, and her two recent books Yummy and I’m the Best are fine examples of pure and powerful storytelling for the very young.

A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton is very charming and amusing.

Any picture book by the lively and anarchic team of Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman will make you laugh out loud. The Pencil and The Runaway Dinner are just two examples.

And finally, a book that I’ve been very privileged to work on–the first-ever collaboration between John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury–There’s Going to Be a Baby, which is a truly tremendous picture book; look for it this autumn in your local bookshop (or mobile library).

Finally, what advice would you give to writers and illustrators who are visiting the Book Fair in Bologna for the first time?

Do exactly what I’ll be doing myself: see everything you can in all the different halls. Note the publishers whose books you like. Look at picture books in a language different from your own; see if you’re able to read the story through the pictures. If you can, take heed and pay attention to what that illustrator is doing in their visual storytelling.

Cynsational Notes

Deirdre McDermott is the Picture Book Publisher at Walker Books, the largest independent children’s publisher in the U.K. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, she has been designing picture books for Walker for over 20 years. After completing a Visual Communication degree at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Deirdre traveled and lived in Toronto for a year before coming to London, where she joined Walker Books as a junior designer. Not long afterward, she became assistant designer to Amelia Edwards, the founder Art Director. Deirdre was appointed Picture Book Publisher and Associate Director in 2002.

Within the small, dedicated picture book team of designers and editors at Walker, Deirdre has worked closely with scores of brilliant bookmakers including Anita Jeram, Helen Oxenbury, Thacher Hurd, Michael Rosen, Carll Cneut, Bob Graham, John Burningham, Allan Ahlberg, Jimmy Liao and many others. [See author/illustrator links above.]

Laura Watkinson is a translator, from Dutch and Italian into (British) English, and an occasional writer. She translates children’s books for all ages, from picture books to YA/cross-over novels, and has recently completed projects for Piccadilly in the U.K. and Arthur A. Levine in the States. She’s a champion of books in translation and loves making different cultures accessible to younger readers.

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.