SCBWI Bologna 2008 Art Director Interview: Val Brathwaite of Bloomsbury UK

Val Brathwaite is the Art Director for Bloomsbury U.K. Val has a wealth of publishing experience, having worked at Belitha Press, HarperCollins, Kingfisher, Orchard Books, and Scholastic. She lives in London with her husband and two sons. Anita Loughrey interviewed her 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?

VB: I was offered a job with a children’s publisher Orchard Books based in London. After nine years working for an adult publisher, I thought it would be an interesting change.

In your opinion, what makes a good art director?

VB: Good communication and organization. Adaptable creativity.

What makes an artist’s illustrations stand out for you?

VB: Someone who is a good draftsman, who is able to bring their own style and individuality to their work and who is professional in their approach.

Do you think a website is a useful tool for illustrators to showcase their work? How often do you look at a portfolio online?

VB: I think it is very good and often look at work online.

What kinds of things can turn you off of a portfolio?

VB: Bad draftsmanship and a disorganized folder.

What do you believe is the most important part of your job?

VB: Communication, organization, being creative, and understanding commercial needs.

What is your favorite thing about being an art director?

VB: I love meeting and working with the many different artists and authors.

Do you make suggestions for revisions to art work? What sort of suggestions have you made, and how in your opinion have they improved the final product?

VB: I suggest changes when they are needed. Generally, the comments range from specific details not being correct to the inconsistency of characters and/or color in picture books. The revisions ensure the final art is in tune with the story and character descriptions and that the artist has the right approach for each book.

How would you go about matching an illustrator to an author?

VB: We look at the style of the story, i.e. quirky, fantasy, traditional, etc. and then look at different artists’ styles that will match the character of the text.

What are some of your favorite children’s books and why?

VB: I am a great fan of French picture books. I think they are very creative and stylish.

What book(s) are you proudest of having worked on?

VB: I feel proud of most books I have worked on–in particular the new young fiction series we have created at Bloomsbury.

Is there an area on your list that you would like to “grow” at this time?

VB: We are looking at developing color young fiction for early readers. They are more of a fiction format aimed at beginner readers (age 5-7): These around 48 pages with color illustrations throughout but more text than a picture book.

What is the ideal art sample submission?

VB: I am happy to see samples on email, disk, or prints.

How involved in the marketing of the book(s) are you? What is the average marketing budget for a picture book at your house?

VB: We work very closely with our marketing team, but do not market the books–they do that. The budgets vary, depending on the title and author.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

Charlesbridge Editor Yolanda LeRoy joins SCBWI Bologna 2008 Faculty

The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) is happy to announce that Yolanda LeRoy, Editorial Director at Charlesbridge (US), will participate on the panel, “Why I Love This Book and Published It,” at the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008 in Bologna, Italy, on March 30.

LeRoy joins Sarah Odedina of Bloomsbury UK, Carmen Diana Dearden of Ekare Venezuela, Fiammetta Giorgi of Mondadori Italy, Laura Harris of Penguin Australia (interview forthcoming), Giselle Tsai of CommonWealth Taiwan, Pauline Mermet of Bayard France, and Katherine Halligan of Scholastic U.K. for this panel.

Leonard Marcus, author of Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way (Random House, 2007), will moderate the panel discussion.

Cynsations is featuring an ongoing SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series. Due to Yolanda’s late addition to the faculty, she will not be featured in conjunction with that effort. However, Yolanda was previously interviewed about her editorial work and Charlesbridge by Cynsations on Nov. 11, 2006.

Here’s a sneak peek at that interview:

“I think it’s important to remember at all times that as an editor, it is not your book. You take care of it, you nurture the author/illustrator, but your name’s not on the book.

“Of course you’re trying to build your own career, but I do believe the best editors are humble and respectful of the integrity of a work. That doesn’t mean we don’t have strong opinions, of course! But you have to know when you’re holding onto something too tightly.”

Read the whole interview!

Cynsational Notes

The SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008 is organized in cooperation with the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Illustration sessions are made possible in part by a generous professional illustration grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

SCBWI Bologna 2008 Author-Illustrator Interview: John Shelley

John Shelley studied illustration at Manchester under Tony Ross. His first major picture book The Secret in the Matchbox was shortlisted for the Mother Goose Award and received a Parents’ Choice Award in the U.S. Twenty-one years ago, John moved to Japan and became a successful commercial illustrator, as well as continuing to illustrate children’s books, such as King Smelly Feet and The Boat in the Tree. Recently, he moved back to Europe. He was interviewed in December 2007 by Anita Loughrey, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

Are you a writer as well as an illustrator and, if so, which comes first the images or the words?

JS: I write and illustrate, though illustration is my chief profession. I develop ideas both ways, sometimes building up from images, sometimes working from a story concept. Each has its merits and disadvantages. As an illustrator, I’ve found working from pictures up tends to be a smoother process, though the plot and structure may need later work to bring it up to scratch. Working from the story is more of a struggle at the beginning, but gives a more solid foundation to work on later. I suppose the ideal is a combination of both–pictures and story growing together.

What made you decide to be a children’s book illustrator? Did you always want to be an illustrator?

JS: I was set on being a graphic artist from a fairly young age. I had a pretty clear idea what I wanted to be from at least 10 years old. Discovering early 20th Century Golden Age illustrators focused me on children’s books when I was around 15.

What were your other career choices, if any?

JS: I was pretty set on being an artist, but I also fancied being an historian, especially underwater archeology and scuba diving on shipwrecks; and sitting in dusty, old libraries looking up old books seemed like a great way to spend my time. Unfortunately, hunting for shipwrecks on the Spanish Main remains an unfulfilled dream. I suppose there’s always tomorrow.

Do you have favorite medium you work in? If so, did the medium choose you or did you choose it? Can you elaborate?

JS: Pen and ink has always been my core technique; all the artists that have ever inspired me from Rowlandson onwards were “pen people.” As a teenager, I’d fill sketchbooks with observed drawings using black ball pens; I began working with India ink at school on a teacher’s suggestion. I remember the first drawing I ever did in pen and India ink was a copy of a Victorian engraving of Henry Hudson’s last voyage. I never looked back. Learning to paint properly came later. I’ve tried other materials over the years, but pen drawing is still the start point.

What are you currently working on?

JS: Finishing off a 24-page picture book for Japanese publisher Benesse, The House of the World.

What is the hardest thing about illustrating for you?

JS: Procrastination.

Do you have a favorite children’s book that you wish you had illustrated? Why?

JS: Many! Some books I’d like to illustrate because they’re classics and I’d be crossing pens with some of the Greats (The Wind in the Willows, etc.), but I’d particularly like to have a crack at illustrating fantasy novels that have never carried text illustrations before. Children’s novels (in the U.K. and U.S.) are not illustrated to the extent they were in the past, which is a great shame.

How far ahead do you work? Six months, a year? Longer?

JS: For picture books, I like at least six clear months to give planning time to develop fully. Like fine wine, books are generally better if given time to “mature,” though final artwork is usually turned around in three months or less. Black-and-white work for novels is much quicker though, two months or less depending on number of drawings.

Do you have a blog or website to showcase your work, and if so, how often do you blog? Do you get lots of feedback from readers? Has it proved to be useful?

JS: Yes, both website and blog. The former is essential, the second I’ve paid sporadic attention to. It’s been useful as a way to blow off steam and show new work I wouldn’t otherwise put on a website. I’ve not developed enough readers to warrant major effort so far. The blog is currently dormant due to unforeseen changes in my personal life.

If you could be a character from one of your illustrations who would you like to be and why?

JS: The main boy character in The Boat in the Tree is semi-autobiographical (at least for the illustrations!).

What drew you to Japan?

JS: I became fascinated by Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and through that became involved with a Japanese society in London. Eventually after making many friends there I decided it was time to see the country myself, so took a “year off” to soak up the culture. It ended up as 21 years.

Do you speak/write in Japanese or do you have a translator when you are illustrating a Japanese book?

JS: I’m a fairly fluent speaker, but regrettably do not read and write quite as well. I can read Japanese texts, but it takes me a long time. For commercial illustration, the briefs are always in Japanese, but for children’s books, often I’m approached by Japanese publishers to illustrate translations of Western texts, in which case it’s naturally easier for me to use the original English version as a guide.

Is it difficult to illustrate somebody else’s writing? Has it ever caused any problems?

JS: I don’t find it difficult. In fact, I prefer working with other people’s texts. Problems are usually smoothed out by the editor (that’s their job!).

Could you talk us through the process of how, after you are presented with a book a publisher would like you to illustrate, you generate your ideas for illustrating that book?

JS: I first go away and doodle a lot, then (for picture books) pull my ideas together using a storyboard. Then I do full size sketches for presentation as a dummy to the editor.

Ideas come from a lot of places–the text often immediately conjures up a strong image in my mind (especially if it’s a novel), or the setting may encourage me to look at a lot of background material which in turn sparks ideas for the illustrations. Occasionally I might have a previous unrelated doodle from my sketchbook which I can fit into the book. Once I get really focused on thinking about a text, I might get inspired by the most unrelated things–something I see on the train like the pattern on a bag or shirt, or something on TV.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

SCBWI Bologna 2008 Agent Interview: Josh Adams of Adams Literary

Josh Adams co-founded the Adams Literary in the U.S., which exclusively represents children’s book authors and artists, with his wife Tracey Adams (agent interview). The agency is affiliated to David Higham in the U.K. Anita Loughrey interviewed him in January, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

What is the book or experience that made you want to work in children’s literature as a literary agent?

JA: I can say with all certainty I would not be working in children’s literature as a literary agent if it weren’t for my wife, Tracey. I’ve always admired her passion and dedication to children’s literature, and even before we started Adams Literary together in 2004, I had accompanied Tracey to many industry events and kept up-to-date on new books and trends.

From day one, I was intimately involved in every aspect of the business except agenting, which I really wanted to do but couldn’t because, in addition to my role at Adams Literary, I was working as a full-time consultant.

It wasn’t until after we moved to Charlotte, N.C., in October 2005, that I was able to start agenting. I’ve always enjoyed my work, but being a part of Adams Literary and helping our clients to accomplish their dreams is the most meaningful and rewarding professional experience I’ve ever had.

Do you have a background in publishing?

JA: I do have a background in publishing: magazine publishing. I was an editor at several national magazines for nearly a decade, most recently overseeing the editorial content for two magazines, and developing new magazine properties and publishing tie-ins, including books.

In 2000, I left publishing to get my MBA at Columbia Business School, and after graduating, I transitioned into marketing and brand strategy consulting for major international companies. I definitely think my experience in magazine publishing and consulting (as well as my MBA), have helped me to be a literary agent, especially when it comes to looking at books and potential client projects from both a creative and business perspective.

In your opinion, what makes a good agent?

JA: Passion, perseverance, an eye for talent, a thick skin, negotiation skills, people skills, ability to multi-task, a long-term perspective, and, last but not least, a sense of humor.

At what point in a manuscript do you “know” you either want to work on the project or not?

JA: I usually know pretty early on–usually by the end of the first chapter, if not the first paragraph. I’m an optimist, so I’ll hope the rest of the manuscript holds up. And of course I’ll want to know what else the person is planning, as we don’t represent clients on a book-by-book basis. It’s really important for me and Tracey to love an author or artist’s work, so that’s our main criteria when taking on a new client.

The hardest part for me is saying “no” to someone who I know is talented or whose work I know will sell (they may even have an offer in hand), but whose work I just don’t fully connect with. But saying “yes” in such a case just wouldn’t feel right to us or be fair to the potential client.

For you, what does the ideal cover letter say?

JA: As little as possible. It should say who the person is, how they came to us (by referral or conference), what they’re submitting, and what else they’re working on. We also want to know that the person has put thought into why they’re submitting to Adams Literary.

If it’s clear it’s a mass cover letter, I will not give it as much consideration.

If it has another agent’s name on it (yes, it’s happened), I’ll throw it away.

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

JA: Unlikeable characters and lack of detail. I need to feel like I can make an investment of time in the characters, and I need to be able to visualize what’s happening.

Do you get involved with the marketing aspect of the book?

JA: We’re certainly involved in marketing manuscripts, and we do as much as we can to promote our clients’ work, highlighting it in our newsletter that goes out to editors and publishers worldwide, film and television producers, as well as people who’ve signed up on our site.

We also produce rights guides for Frankfurt and Bologna, and we attend Bologna annually.

We work closely with our clients, their editors and the marketing departments to facilitate coverage of books and events, and we share the best practices of our clients among them, as we feel authors are often (and certainly should be) the most effective marketers of their own books.

And, finally, we certainly put our clients in touch with marketers specializing in children’s books if and when they want an extra push beyond what the publisher has done.

Do you give any pre-submission editing and revision requests to your clients?

JA: Yes, but my suggested revisions are typically more high-level–I don’t line-edit, as I believe that’s the editor’s job–and they are only recommendations. My comments are aimed at clarifying any questions or issues I think readers will have, giving an overall sense of what I think works well or can be improved, and strengthening the work.

I don’t expect manuscripts to come to me in perfect shape, as I believe it’s my job to see the potential that’s there. Obviously, the more polished a manuscript is at the time of submission, the better the chance there is that an editor will want to acquire it.

Although it doesn’t happen often, I’ll still send something out if a client doesn’t agree with my suggested changes, provided they seriously consider the feedback from editors.

One of the reasons I don’t line-edit is that we could send a manuscript out to five editors, and get five totally different responses, since tastes are subjective. Of course, if we get five responses all citing the same issues I’d mentioned, then I’d ask the client to revisit those issues before submitting further.

You co-founded the Adams Literary Agency with your wife, Tracey Adams, in 2004. Whose idea was it to work together?

JA: It was really a mutual decision. For years I’d wanted to have my own business, but wasn’t sure what it would be, and Tracey at the time felt the need to have more autonomy in her work than she could at her previous (or, for that matter, any other) agency.

We were both excited by the prospect of starting a literary agency specializing in children’s books in a very forward-thinking way. We both share a very “old-school” view of the industry–in that it’s all based on relationships–but wanted to reinvent what we felt was often a very traditional and outdated way of doing things.

For instance, we were one of the first to have a Web site and to publicize our client list. We also continually strive to find new and better ways of accomplishing the routine tasks an agent must do. It’s satisfying to be able to think “out of the box” and try new things without anyone telling us, “Well, we’ve always done it this way.”

As a husband and wife team, how do you compliment and contrast each other?

JA: Tracey’s computer desktop is very messy, and her actual desktop is very neat. My computer desktop is very neat, and my actual desktop is very messy. But, more seriously, we’ve somehow learned to build on each other’s strengths while trying to avoid each other’s weaknesses. I think we’ve both learned a lot from each other, and continue to do so every day.

We were profiled last summer in a Charlotte magazine article about couples who work together, and the writer asked for our advice to couples who are considering working together but have reservations about it.

Our advice was simple: If you have any reservations, don’t do it. It may seem odd to some people who can’t imagine working with their spouse–and we fully appreciate that there are many loving couples who couldn’t–but Tracey and I really never thought twice about working together. We frequently joke that we share the same brain, which isn’t far from the truth.

Describe your working relationship at the Adams Literary Agency?

JA: We really work together as a team on everything. We consult each other about any major decisions or issues, and we keep each other up-to-date on everything that’s happening, so if need be, either one of us can pick something up where the other left off.

Though Tracey or I may handle the day-to-day management of a particular client more than the other, we don’t work with the notion that someone is a “Tracey” client or a “Josh” client. All of our clients are Adams Literary clients.

Tracey and I share the same philosophy about our business, our dedication to clients, and largely our taste in books, and–perhaps because of my background in branding–we work hard to maintain our reputation, and build the Adams Literary “brand” that is based on our philosophy. There are many good agencies and agents out there, and many different working styles and personalities, and I think our philosophy helps to differentiate us from other agencies.

How do you keep your working relationship separate from your home commitments?

JA: This is perhaps the most difficult part of having your own business–especially when it’s run out of your home. Since this is Tracey’s and my livelihood, and it’s our name on the business, there really is no “off” switch. But as much as we love what we do, we need time away from it, too. Tracey is a bit better than I am at switching off work-mode after hours. So even though you might get an email from me late at night and I will constantly check my iPhone for email when I’m away from the office, I do have one hard rule: I don’t respond to email on the weekends.

Cynsational Notes

Don’t miss: SCBWI Bologna 2008 Agent Interview: Tracey Adams of Adams Literary from Cynsations.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

SCBWI Bologna 2008 Author Interview: Susanne Gervay

Susanne Gervay is an Australian author who writes children’s and young adult fiction. As the daughter of Hungarian post-war refugees, a mother, and a cancer survivor, her experiences empower her to write books that reach out to youth on their journey to adulthood.

Her young adult books break into new territory and include That’s Why I Wrote this Song, The Cave, and Butterflies.

Her best-selling younger fiction, I Am Jack, tackles school bullying with humor and insight. Tricycle Press (Ten Speed Pres) has recently bought the rights to I Am Jack for released in the U.S. in fall 2009, with an option for the sequel Super Jack. The book also has been adapted as a play by the premier theater company, Monkey Baa Theatre (it has been placed on the international touring list for 2009 when it will be released in the U.S.).

Anita Loughrey interviewed her in November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

Did you always want to be a writer?

SG: I thought all eight-year-old kids wrote stories and poems. It was something I did for escapism from the turbulent family life of being the daughter of post-war refugees. Sometimes my writing was funny. Other times, it acted as a way of understanding life.

I wrote because that is who I am. I didn’t think of it as a career. I’m always surprised that I became a writer and grateful for it.

What other jobs have you had (that led to being a writer)?

SG: A teacher, journalist, hotelier, daughter, wife, and the mother of two fantastic kids.

What are you working on at the moment?

SG: I have just finished a hectic promotional tour of my new YA novel, That’s Why I Wrote This Song, which took me across Australia from Western Australia to Darwin. So, I’m now considering where to start–a third book in the I am Jack series or an autobiographically-inspired YA novel called Rosie.

If you could be a character from one of your books, who would it be and why this particular character?

SG: I am a character in my books. I’m the Mum in I Am Jack and Super Jack. Of course, I’m an excellent Mum. (My kids think my star jumps are so embarrassing.) My Jack books are inspired by my family, filled with all the funny and sad bits of life, with Nanna who loses her teeth and Rob who washes dishes until they sparkle and Jack who tells great jokes.

I Am Jack was written for my son when he was bullied at school and has become a rite-of-passage book on school bullying in Australia.

How has your childhood influenced what you write?

SG: I often feel that children’s and YA authors are stuck in those turbulent years between childhood and adulthood. It’s as though we live in a dual world where the child and the adult walk hand in hand.

As the child of post world war Hungarian refugees who experienced Nazism, then communism, to escape and find a new home in Australia, childhood was passionate, loving, painful, scary. I wanted to write for young people, so that life is less scary and so they have fellow traveler in life, in the pages of my books.

What was your favorite book as a child or adolescent?

SG: I read To Kill a Mockingbird at 15. It was the defining book for me, as I sought to understand human relations and the great issues of life from family to racism to power.

Is there a book already published that you wish you had written? Why?

SG: It’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, the father is like my father in many ways, with his courage, honor and love. My father was a hero, too. He didn’t know it, like Atticus, but he was. My father appears in many of my books in different ways. He’s the grandfather in The Cave.

How long does it take you to write a book?

SG: Books take me a long time to write. I have to be profoundly affected by something to write about it. I think, rethink, emotionally engage, start to play with story and emotions.

Depending on the book, I research as well. For my YA novel, Butterflies, I spent six months researching, interviewing, understanding burns before I wrote. It is a book about the emotional, psychological, physical, social challenges of growing up with burns.

It was tough writing as I lived inside the world of Katherine to discover her courage and how we can be greater than our “burns.” However, Butterflies is more than burns. It shows the ebb and flow of emotions that affect us all, particularly in the transition between childhood and adulthood.

On average, it takes me a year to write a book. However my latest book That’s Why I Wrote This Song, with music and lyrics by my daughter Tory, took three years.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

SG: Having the courage to start. To jump into a journey that will become my life for a long time. I can’t separate from my characters and story, so it’s like a fantasy book without the fantasy. I slip through the wardrobe like in Narnia, and am in that world. I cry when the characters suffer, laugh when they are funny and grow as they grow. I find the process emotionally challenging.

Do you work with the television, radio, or stereo on? In cafés, nursing a half-cup of lukewarm tea or in isolation?

SG: I usually have music on. It gets me in the mood. When I was writing That’s Why I Wrote This Song, rock music blasted from my study. Usually I’m a Pavarotti girl, not a rock chick. However, this book and music was about the youth music scene, and I was emotionally there at those festivals, music gigs and living the life. So Good Charlotte and Eminem rocked from my stereo.

I write alone in my study on my computer, as I need the space to enter into another consciousness.

You have battled with breast cancer and come out the other side. Were you still writing whilst you were fighting the cancer? If so, what were you writing? Did writing help?

SG: When I told my son that I had cancer, he said, “But Mum you never die.” We laughed because it’s true. Illness is just one of those challenges that has been in my life since I’ve been two years old. For all its hardships, it offers gifts.

Through it, healing has become part of the DNA of my writing. I could not have written Butterflies without it. Butterflies is currently part of a traveling exhibition on “Outstanding Youth Literature on Disability” (IBBY); I Am Jack is a rite-of-passage book in Australia dealing with school bullying and being adapted into a play which will tour regional Australia in 2008.

My recent YA novel written for my daughter, who wrote the lyrics and music that integrate into the text, was completed during a hard time of illness. Nothing would stop me writing it for her. It’s just been published and is a celebration of our relationship and that search for identity intrinsic to youth.

While my books are endorsed by Life Education Australia, The Children’s Hospital Sydney, National Coalition Against Bullying, WAYS (Youth Outreach Services), NSW Cancer Council and other organizations, they are never didactic. They are always story with passions and loves and humor, engaging readers into that turbulent passage between childhood and adulthood in a journey that is theirs.

My books are trade books but are also read extensively in schools and are part of many programs that reach out to youth.

On Tuesday 27th November 2007, I was awarded the Lady Cutler Award for Distinguished Services to Children’s Literature in Australia by the CBC (Children’s Book Council). I am very proud of that.

(See the following article [“Patients Have a Voice”] I was asked to write for GOFUND supported by Nicole Kidman who is a patron. This explains more fully that relationship between illness and writing.)

How much do you think a writer needs to market his/herself/the work? What do you suggest?

SG: A writer has to be a performer today who is prepared to market his/her work. Word of mouth is of course the best form of marketing. If your work speaks to the reader, then that is powerful. However, you have to get your book to the reader first to start the word of mouth process. That’s where marketing is essential.

When I have a new book released, I do a lot of radio interviews especially on the ABC (like the BBC) stations across Australia from Perth to Canberra to Adelaide. I also do newspaper and magazine interviews. Television is difficult is much more limited, and I usually only do one or two segments. I speak at writers’ festivals, conferences and schools.

A launch is a good idea, depending on the book. That’s Why I Wrote This Song is such an innovative book crossing into music and film. So it was good to launch it. We had the event at Bondi Pavilion Theatre overlooking Bondi Beach. Tory and her band Not Perfect performed the songs that drive the book–“I Wanna Be Found” and “Psycho Dad.” It was launched by The Herd, a hip hop band which is popular in Australia and endorsed by WAYS a youth organization that runs Bondi Blitz Battle of the Youth Bands at Bondi Beach.

There were hundreds of people, and it received media coverage and reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald and was a great celebration.

I find there are problems now in balancing the marketing and writing, with talks and media taking increasing amounts of time and preparation.

Do you have a blog, and if so, how often do you blog? Do you get lots of feedback from readers?

SG: My blog is on my MySpace, which readers access through my website.

I get some reader feedback through my blog, but most readers email me directly rather than on my MySpace blog. My website and youtube is getting increasing usage, so while readers may not send feedback, but they are reading my blog.

Can you share your favorite fan mail, if you have one?

SG: When a reader relates to a book, they often feel they know the author personally. It’s like the reader and author are friends. I get lots of fan mail. Here are a few examples:

Dear Susanne Gervay:

I loved your book Butterflies and if this has not yet been suggested it is I think a great idea. The book Butterflies made me cry and a movie would be even greater.

Thanks,
Jessica

Subject: That’s Why I Wrote this song…

IS totally awesome! I started reading, and couldn’t put it down–I finished it in the first two days. I loved the relationship between the girls, and the way you totally captured their world–I’m amazed at how you do that so convincingly and make it seem so authentic…wow.

Sarah

What was it like collaborating with your daughter to write That’s Why I Wrote This Song?

SG: It took three turbulent years to create That’s Why I Wrote This Song. Working as a mother-daughter team was at times hilarious, loving, and very hard.

When my daughter Tory, who was seventeen, asked me to write a book inspired by her, it was such a deep request. Tory and I had been through a great deal together. Illness has always been part of my life, which, as a sole parent, has been tough on my children. Tory was deeply affected. We laughed and had such special times as she dressed my wounds and helped me. So how privileged was I to write for her. Nothing could stop me writing this book, and although it would be fictional, the spirit would be hers.

Tory writes rock songs. Rock is such a powerful form of youth expression as it reaches into the eternal quest of search for identity. That’s what is intrinsic to Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, The Stones, Queen and the many other rock writers and singers over the past decades. My books are always about search for identity in its many shapes and forms. Our book would connect through music.

The title That’s Why I Wrote This Song came from Tory’s rock song “Psycho Dad.” The lyrics of two of her songs “Psycho Dad” and “I Wanna Be Found” would become the driving force in our book. The songs drive the narrative, characters, and themes as the music and lyrics meld with my text.

Once we started the journey of the book, life became very tense. I write honestly and I trod into sensitive areas. It was turbulent and many times in the process, I questioned ever doing it. So did Tory. However, That’s Why I Wrote This Song has finally been released, and it is special and our mother-daughter relationship even stronger.

What sort of research have you had to do to write such cutting-edge young adult novels?

SG: The research is intense. When I wrote The Cave about youth male culture, a survival camp, climbing mountains, and fording streams, I was challenged. I went on trips into our bush–the Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves near Sydney. I cut out articles about RAVE parties and body piercing in the newspapers. I interviewed a friend who knew about “magic mushrooms” for a whole afternoon.

However, the major talks were with my then age-seventeen son. I drove him crazy as talked with him for hours and hours, until I understood the physical demands of rock climbing and kayaking. I felt like I “sucked” out my son’s life. He forgave me and ultimately gave approval for the book, otherwise I couldn’t have written The Cave.

The process is similar for my books. I interview, live the life, go into the experience, so I can emotionally understand that search for identity that is pivotal to young adults. YA readers always know a liar, so my books have to have integrity. I have to know the reality, to write about it.

You deal with a lot of issues in your books, such as fears, sexuality, self-esteem, prejudices, bullying and violence. What message do you hope you are conveying to the young adults that read your books?

SG: That passage to adulthood is a fragile one. Youth are seeking experiences, yet are inexperienced. As they plunge into life, pulling away from the ties of dependence on their parents and childhood’s rules, they face the world with very little armor.

Life can be jagged with peer-group pressure, family break-ups, broken hearts, parental expectations, body-image fears, sexuality, a world which presents the Twin Towers and climate change as the future. Without the experience that life is uneven, that there are hard times, but also good times, young people can get lost. That is where young adult literature can become a friend, providing experience, inviting readers to become participants, to find their own answers and travel the pathway of life and know it’s worth it.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

SCBWI Bologna 2008 Editor Interview: Giselle Tsai of CommonWealth Magazine Group

Giselle Tsai is one of the founding members of the children’s book department at CommonWealth Magazine Group. Their list includes picture books, easy readers and short novels. Giselle was interviewed by Anita Loughrey in January, 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 publishing? Tell us a bit about your background.

GT: I have always cherished a passion for literature. Reading is an indispensable part of my life. I graduated from the English Department of National Cheng-Chi University. Then I earned a MA degree in Children’s Literature at University of Reading in the U.K.

Personally, reviewing or analyzing a book is as enchanting as making a book myself.

However, creating books is also important and something fewer people do in Taiwan. In my role as editor, I hope to introduce those lesser-known works from abroad, as well as to cultivate creators in our own country.

What is the Taiwan Commonwealth Magazine Publishing Group? Do they publish children’s books? If so, what areas of children’s publishing are they involved with?

GT: CommonWealth Magazine Group is derived from a bi-weekly magazine broadly defined as an economic journal. Now it has grown to include three magazines, one publishing department, and an educational foundation.

In the beginning, we published books concerning the economy, health, and education. Some of the books regarding education have been very well received and become influential in Taiwan. Teachers and parents inquired about whether or not we would begin to create children’s books ourselves. Thus, we decided to take the plunge and create our own line of children’s books.

In 2005, the children’s book department started functioning. We began by producing picture books, chapter books, and novels. No matter what genre we touch upon, we tend reinforce concepts by organizing many titles as series. Our editorial work and marketing strategies are closely intertwined, and the response to our books has been favorable from both book lovers and parents.

In 2006, we began publishing non-fiction. Croq’Sciences and Guide pour un Enfant Citoyen are two of the most popular books in this line.

In the long run, we’d like to establish ourselves as a publisher with a wide variety of children’s books. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re working hard.

In your opinion, what makes a good editor?

GT: An editor is more or less like a film producer. First, they should have the talent to distinguish work with potential from those without. With the knowledge of book production and marketing, they merge all the necessary elements to grow a manuscript into polished work.

Moreover, there’s the reader’s part to consider. It’s important to know where the reader is and try to match their needs with creators’ ideas. A published book without readers will pine away. A burgeoning author without readers will also pine away.

Therefore, what a good editor does is to be the bridge connecting authors and readers. In doing so, both sides prosper.

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?

GT: On the whole, I will read the summary of a story, but how the story is told matters more to me. There are few original stories nowadays, so I value “how” more than “what.”

I’ll at least read half of the manuscripts for novels, and three to four chapters for easy readers.

As for picture books, I must read the whole story and closely examine the storyboard before I start any plans for publication. Of course, the attitude of the author/illustrator to revise and work with me also counts.

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

GT:
o A contrived plot
o Loose structure
o Flat characters
o An obvious moral

What is your favorite thing about being an editor?

GT: I enjoy sharing ideas and giving advice to creators. Nothing compares to the moment when all of us, with respect and sincerity, finally finish a book in the end. It’s like merging everyone’s dreams into one and making it come true all at once.

What are some of your favorite children’s books and why?

GT: As a little girl, I loved A Little Princess and The Secret Garden very much. The former gives me a sense of wonder and conveys the power of imagination–I can imagine whatever things I like and to some extent, by thinking of them, they become real. The latter installs a tremendous courage into my heart, as if telling me children can “create” a world of their own without the help of any adult. A seemingly powerless girl can be strong enough to bring others (even an adult) salvation. Both of them left a great impression on me.

After I studied children’s literature, I also became enchanted with the stories by E. Nesbit. The narration in her work can be read in so many different ways, and she’s so good at blurring the boundary between reality and imagination. Her stories create tremendous interest both in kids and adults.

What book(s) or magazine feature are you proudest of having worked on? Why?

GT: I would say it’s an easy-reader series, written, illustrated, and organized all by Taiwanese creators. As the editor, I’m proud to be the one bringing it to life. Nevertheless, there’s still much to be done.

Have you worked with both fiction and non-fiction? If so, how do the processes compare? What do you like most (and/or least) about each?

GT: Most of the time, I work with fiction, but I do have some experience with non-fiction. In our case, fiction is a world well explored while non-fiction is almost a foreign land. Our ideal is actually to add fictional elements to non-fiction and, therefore, make hard knowledge more palatable to readers.

I like to imagine wildly with authors when creating a story. It’s simply a natural thing to do. When it comes to non-fiction, I regard it a challenge to see how children first see the world and how they feel about reality. If we can recall how, for the first time, nature appealed to us and such, we may do a better non-fiction book. However, I realized writers in this field are not easy to find and editors are particularly essential.

What does the ideal cover letter say?

GT: Concise and sincere.

Do you look at art samples?

GT: Certainly, looking for a proper illustrator is a constant need, so I’m more than willing to hear from those who are interested in children’s books and capable of illustrating them.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

SCBWI Bologna 2008 Author-Illustrator Interview: Pat Cummings

Pat Cummings traveled a lot when she was young, as her father was in the Army. She has been writing and illustrating children’s books since she graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. She currently lives in beautiful downtown Brooklyn, with her husband Chuku Lee and the ghost of her cat, Cash. Anita Loughrey interviewed her in November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

Are you a writer as well as an illustrator, and, if so, which comes first, the images or the words?

PC: Yes, I write. Usually, the writing proceeds any work on illustrations, but at times the imagery comes first, particularly if there’s something I want to draw.

Two books I’ve written: C.L.O.U.D.S. and Carousel both started with images. In fact, Carousel began as a series of sketches with only a loose concept to tie them together. The writing and art developed at the same time. Short answer: it varies.

Do you have favorite medium you work in? If so, did the medium choose you or did you choose it? Can you elaborate?

PC: More like a reliable one. I work in watercolor and gouache with color pencil waaaay too frequently. I don’t like the idea of being too comfortable with my default media, so if the story calls for it, I try other things. I’ve used acrylics, oil, pen and ink, pastel, even collage at times. I don’t know about being “chosen” by a medium, but there have been times when a particular one seemed to make more sense.

In Carousel, for instance, there are dream sequences that seemed to “need” the luminosity that oil allows. For Storm in the Night, it made sense to work from dark to light in acrylics since it took place at night and the story was illuminated primarily by lightning flashes. With acrylics, applying light colors to the dark backgrounds works. So I could illuminate a night time scene in the way that lightning might: by applying highlights and flashes of light as needed.

How has growing up as an “Army brat” all over the world influenced your work?

PC: Well, I learned early that what appears “foreign” is not by default frightening, so I think I’ve learned to enjoy exploration. Also, constantly lacking familiarity with new surroundings as a child, my imagination tended to generate exactly the sort of stuff that fills children’s books.

Things and imagery have different meanings in different places, so I try to keep that in mind. I remember going into a store in the U.S. after living in Okinawa and seeing a figure of Buddha mounted on an ashtray. After living in Asia, it was like seeing Christ on an ashtray and it struck me as disrespectful.

I generally feel free to incorporate into my work any imagery from any culture or location, but only after doing my homework. I don’t think imagery should be casually appropriated. So, for example, the fabrics in Ananse and the Lizard are based on textiles worn in West Africa, the source of the story, not other regions of the continent.

Constant moving probably reinforced my love of fantasy. When you don’t know anyone, speak the language, or know the terrain, your imagination fills in the blanks. In Germany, my mother read us stories about castles and dragons, then we’d spend weekends touring castles along the Rhine. It wasn’t hard to imagine dragons climbing those crumbling stone walls. Or in Okinawa, I’d see the front page of the local newspapers…grown-up newspapers…blaring headlines about ghost sightings. I’d walk through villages, dodging little old ladies dressed head-to-toe in black, toting bundles of sticks on their heads. Of course I believed in witches.

I think it was a great way to grow up, and, best of all, it made me love traveling. So now it makes sense to go to the locations in my books to get reference… (and, better still, that makes the trip tax deductible). Maybe being called an Army “brat” all through childhood didn’t hurt either. A tough skin comes in handy when there’s a less-than-glowing review.

Is it true your brother was the inspiration behind some of your books and which ones?

PC: Yes, my brother is a frequent inspiration. He’s Harvey in Clean Your Room, Harvey Moon! and the sequel coming out in January, Harvey Moon, Museum Boy. He’s Petey in Petey Moroni’s Camp Runamok Diary. He’s the baby in Angel Baby, and he’s the Artie of Jimmy Lee Did It. His was an “eventful” childhood, so there are quite a few exposes left to write.

Do you model your other characters on any other people you know?

PC: At times. Sometimes there’s a personality trait I want to capture, and sometimes I have friends and family model for the characters.

What are you currently working on?

PC: I’m painting the pages for Ananse and the Monster, another story about the West African trickster. And I’m working on a non-fiction book, a collection of biographies of notable African Americans.

If you were to illustrate yourself, what would you look like? (please feel free to draw yourself–animal, plant, mineral!)

PC: Interesting question. I did illustrate myself, once. It’s on the cover of C is for City. In one tiny window, in one building under a night time sky, there is a little silhouette of a figure. It was 4 a.m., and I was feeling sorry for myself, no doubt. I felt like the only person awake, with no one to call, working all night to meet a deadline. So I put myself in a window in a city scene where every other window was empty (but brightly lit for some reason) late at night. Quite tragic!
What is the hardest thing about being an author-illustrator for you?

PC: Deadlines. Distractions. Getting to all of the stories I’d like to do. Basically, the need for sleep and exercise is the hard part.

Did you always want to be an author-illustrator?

PC: I didn’t know the word “illustrator,” but I was hustling my classmates in kindergarten, selling ballerina drawings. So yes, I loved to draw from the time I was little, and, seeing that it could help me make new friends and even some pocket change, it never occurred to me to do anything else.

The writing came later as a means of revenge. With three sisters and time on his hands, my brother became inordinately creative with his pranks. He’s given me a lot of material I’ve yet to use. Also, I realized at some point that I needed to write my own stories so I could choose whatever imagery interested me.

What were your other career choices, if any?

PC: When I was a junior at Pratt, I actually thought I’d like to go to graduate school to become an archaeologist. I subscribed to an archaeology magazine and checked with one university about their requirements. When I found out how many science courses would be necessary, I decided that the magazine would suffice.

Do you have a favorite children’s book that you wish you had written and/or illustrated? Why?

PC: You mean, other than Harry Potter for obvious reasons?

I recently read a manuscript by one of my students that I think has a wonderful, surprising plot that I would have loved to have imagined. But no, not really.

I see books all the time and think, “Ooooh, I love the way they’ve drawn their characters,” or “I want to use their same color palette for something.” I might read some lines that seem amazingly right or lyrical or funny and wish I could turn a phrase in so succinct a way. But there’s no one book that I wished I done…other than Harry Potter.

How far ahead do you work? Six months, a year? Longer?

PC: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. My record finishing time is four months. That only happened by cutting my sleep to four hours a night max. That was years ago, and my sleep pattern has never recovered. My longest time was eight years. That was Ananse and the Lizard, and I actually traveled to West Africa and did research, which added to the time.

Actually, I have one book I signed up in 1990 so that might be the longest running one if ever I finish it. Of course, I would like to finish in six months. I would like to own a villa in Brazil too.

What does your work space look like?

PC: One editor cruelly referred to me as working “amidst cheerful clutter” on a book flap. It isn’t all that cheerful.

What’s on your wall over your desk or drawing table?

PC: Hmmmmm. Pictures of family. Pictures of spiders, lions, porcupines. Masks, a lei from Hawaii, dried roses. Two postcards from gallery shows. A 2002 calendar with a picture of my Mom and I on a school visit to Germany. A colorful chart showing five books due by Fall 2007. Two are crossed out.

How has your childhood influenced your illustrations and writing?

PC: I suffered a happy childhood. I could have used some angst. I had funny parents and funny siblings. Everything struck me as funny, and anything funny still appeals to me. I’ve been told that everything is not funny. I know there are massively serious things going on in the world. But my childhood has definitely skewed my perspective.

What was your favorite book as a child or adolescent?

PC: Hands down, it was C.S. LewisThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Going through a closet into another world was too delicious an idea to resist. Portals in general still interest me. Fantasy books had to offer more that just iconic characters like witches and fairies, I wanted be surprised by some unimaginable, alternate reality.

I think that’s why Harry Potter appeals to so many…. You can’t really imagine all of the twists and turns that come your way.

In adult fiction, books by Haruki Murakami give me the same sensation now, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off.

Do you work with the television, radio, or stereo on? In cafés, nursing a half cup of lukewarm tea or in isolation?

PC: All of the above when I paint: I like old, chatty, plot-heavy movies I don’t have to “look” at to follow. Radio shows that pull my attention so I can paint without obsessing, books on tape, music. I’ve worked recently in coffee shops, but it’s too distracting for the long haul.

When writing, I like absolute quiet or very soft jazz or classical music. Complete isolation is great, but if my husband is home, we work in companionable isolation. We’re in a big loft, and his workspace is in view but quite separate. And lukewarm tea is absolutely mandatory.

Do you have a blog or website to showcase your work, and if so, how often do you blog? Do you get lots of feedback from readers? Has it proved to be useful?

PC: My website has been under construction for years. I know zip about websites. Periodically, I press students or my brother into adding a line here or there. Very chop shop. Mostly, I hear from people who send spam with outrageous headings.

My website is www.patcummings.com, and I would love to receive mail that does not offer to enhance body parts I don’t own.

If you could be a character from one of your illustrations who would you like to be and why?

PC: I really resonated with the character of Alex in Carousel. She went right through her bedroom window into her dream. Fortunately, I have great dreams, so I really knew the sort of feeling I wanted to capture when painting hers.

I think I most identify with the characters I have in front of me though. And right now, I’m in love with the porcupine in the new Ananse book. He has the open, trusting, somewhat gullible demeanor of a four-year-old, and I find that appealing.

I’m determined to keep him guileless and eager to believe the best, particularly because his exterior image implies just the opposite. He looks unapproachable, even dangerous. I do like the idea of a tough exterior: admittedly, the world can be harsh, so it seems wise to keep your quills up. Porcupine in this story is slow to think badly of Ananse.

He’s also prone to stutter. I’d choose him because I hope to believe the best of others. I’d also want protective armor to deal with incoming stress, and I’d hope to be surrounded by friends who accepted me, stutter and all. Don’t know that I’d want the quills though. I sleep on my back.

Is it difficult to illustrate somebody else’s writing? Has it ever caused any problems?

PC: No. I can’t remember any real problems. Other people write stories I would never have imagined, so their work can take you someplace new, which is exciting. I’ve always worked with editors who insulate both the writer and myself.

I might get a suggestion from my editor that was a direct request from the author. But it would never be presented as, “The author thinks you should…”

And the one time I remember having an issue with the text, I told the editor my concern, and two new paragraphs magically appeared that resolved the matter. I’m sure the editor never told the author, “The illustrator thinks you should….”

It’s impossible to draw or write what’s in someone else’s head, so I’ve come to appreciate that the editor stands in the middle. Even if suggestions and questions come to them carved on stone tablets from the author, I’ve been fortunate to have editors filter those comments to allow at least the illusion of total freedom. So, no, I can’t remember any real problems.

Phew. I’ve been very lucky to have the editors I’ve had.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

SCBWI Bologna 2008 Publishing Director Interview: Sarah Odedina of Bloomsbury Children’s Books UK

Sarah Odedina is a senior publishing director with Bloomsbury Children’s Books in the U.K. She has edited and published such highly-acclaimed books as, Witch Child by Celia Rees, A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly, and Holes by Louis Sacher. She was interviewed in November 2007 by Anita Loughrey, 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?

SO: It was very simple. I wanted a new job, and one came up at Orchard Books. The wonderful Judith Elliot, who was publisher there at the time, offered it to me despite the fact that I had no children’s book experience. It was in the Rights Department.

After almost five years at Orchard, I knew I had found the area I wanted to work in, Children’s Books, but I wanted to move in to an editorial position at that point. I was fortunate enough to be employed in that capacity at Bloomsbury. Again, without experience!

In your opinion, what makes a good publisher?

SO: A belief in the books that they publish.

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?

SO: I think the rule of thumb is 30 pages. If something is not exciting me by then, I reckon it probably won’t. I am just an ordinary reader after all, most readers (children especially) don’t want to keep going when things aren’t exciting quite early on.

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

SO: Nothing specific. I suppose I am looking for something that I find original and exciting.

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

SO: It is a hard market. We publish too many books. The realities of the trade in the U.K. are that fewer books are selling to fewer people, and yet we (publishers) continue to pour out thousands of titles a year.

What are some of your favorite books and why?

SO: Holes by Louis Sachar. A quiet and understated masterpiece that combines a fable like quality with humor and a social setting that is utterly contemporary

No Matter What by Debi Gliori. A picture book that, in 32 pages of beautiful art and very few words, addresses the biggest question of all–enduring love.

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

SO: Not changed my life…but enchanted me, yes, Robinson Crusoe! I loved the adventure. I was quite a tomboy, and nothing would have thrilled me more than being stuck on a desert island building tree houses.

What book(s) are you proudest of having worked on? Why?

SO: Witch Child by Celia Rees. It is a powerful story set in the 1700s, a desperate time for some women. This story accurately deals with the historical context and does it in a passionate and compelling way that really appeals to contemporary readers. I have seen young readers at signings clutching the book with heartfelt adoration. It is a book they love about a girl they would love to either know or be!

No Matter What by Debi Gliori–a picture book with universal appeal and one I am sure people will be sitting on beds reading 50 years from now.

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley. We are always looking for something new and exciting, and, with this book, I really think we have found it!–a collection of short stories that is a novel. A classic spooky book that you can rush your way through or savor ever word.

Have you worked with both fiction and non-fiction? If so, how do the processes compare? What do you like most (and/or least) about each?

SO: Fiction…that’s my thing!

What does the ideal cover letter say?

SO: It is brief, it outlines the submission very succinctly, and it doesn’t say “my grandchildren/children/friends’ children loved it!”

Is there any area on your list you’d like to “grow” at this time? Do you look at art samples?

SO: I think we have a very balanced list, and, no, I don’t want to grow any specific part of it. But we are always looking for new authors and great books. Yes, we look at art samples.

How involved in the marketing of the book are you? What is the average marketing budget for a picture book at your house? A YA novel? Etc.

SO: I am very involved in marketing. We don’t have an average budget, as each book has its own budget, which depends on all sorts of things, including the track record and profile of the author, what opportunities the book lends us, and how much we can rely on the author.

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

SO: The fact that I can work on books that are going to be read by generations of children. The fact that I work with authors of world standing. The fact that many of our books are published around the world and will be read and enjoyed by children around the world.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

SCBWI Bologna 2008 Art Director Interview: Martha Rago of HarperCollins Children’s Books

Martha Rago is Executive Art Director for HarperCollins Children’s Books. She has worked on such bestselling titles as 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle, Runny Babbit by Shel Silverstein, Russell The Sheep by Rob Scotton and Diary Of A Spider, illustrated by Harry Bliss. Martha 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?

MR: Publishing as a career was not obvious to me at first, although now I cannot imagine anything for which I would be better suited. I was an Italian studies major with a great interest in European culture, language, history and art. I always drew, painted, and made art in some way without much thought about it.

I tried a few fields after college: fashion merchandising, then fashion design, among them, and soon started going to evening school for illustration with children’s books in mind.

After my first course in typography, it was as though a light went on and my calling was clear. I felt passionate about combining my love of art and language with the beauty of type and the order and clarity essential to good design.

Once I realized what I wanted to do, I put all of my efforts into finding a position and began my career then as the assistant to the art director at G.P Putnam’s Sons.

In your opinion, what makes a good art director?

MR: The art director I first worked with often likened her work to that of a midwife. These many years later I see that as an apt description for what is involved in bringing a book to life. The qualities one would seek in a midwife, an artist would probably want in an art director!

One would want someone with solid technical training for guidance and support in the process of creating the work and with a good understanding and a keen eye for what makes the final work successful.

Of course one needs to be organized, able to prioritize and juggle multiple tasks. But more than practical skills, a good art director needs to be sensitive to the nature and dynamic of the relationships involved in the creative process. The art director should have a positive and effective relationship with the artist, gaging when and how much information will be absorbed and useful. The editor has acquired the text for his or her own strong reasons as a viable project for the publisher. Their point of view and vision about the work is key, though not less than the author who may have his or her own feelings about the imagery.

Everyone brings to the work their personal response, even the art director. So the art director needs to have a good understanding of the dynamics of all the relationships involved. This includes a clear sense of the marketplace toward which the work is being directed, to bring out the best, most appropriate work to satisfy all these needs.

The art director’s task is to apply a broader perspective, with consideration of technical, and practical aspects of the work, to mediate and unify all the points of view into harmony.

A good art director is technically savvy, an effective and sensitive communicator, and then, as needed, a counselor, nurturer, cheerleader, task-master, expediter, and even, yes, a trusted midwife.

Do you think a website is a useful tool for illustrators to showcase their work? How often do you look at a portfolio online?

MR: Absolutely, I refer to websites every day!

What kinds of things can turn you off of a portfolio?

MR: Material that is inappropriate and clearly not for children’s picture books or illustrated books for children such as non-narrative or not character-driven images like still lifes, landscapes, adult-themed pictures.

What do you believe is the most important part of your job?

MR: What is important for an art director differs from publisher to publisher.

At HarperCollins, a major part of my job is managing: keeping the design department on track, inspired, and creative; keeping work flowing on schedule; solving any kind of internal problems as they come and go.

I am at heart, however, a designer. To be happy in my work, I need to feed my own creative spark. I do this by designing a few books every year, so I don’t ever lose touch with the designer in me and to stay on top of ever-changing technology.

I need also to keep on top of the trends and changes in the industry, to be well-informed so my guidance of others is meaningful and I have the fuel to generate creative ideas all around. I visit bookstores and attend conferences and events. I assess the competition and mine the illustration world in any way I can for inspiration and ideas.

What is your favorite thing about being an art director?

MR: Being part of the creative process is tremendously satisfying for me. I really enjoy the discovery of different points of view and personalities through the work we do together. Often the discussions are full of humor and positive energy, simply because making art can be such a pleasure! Not every relationship is complex or fraught with problems–very few, really. And some are almost magical in the way they go so smoothly. Even the challenging ones give you a great sense of accomplishment in the end. The struggle often inspires deeper respect and stronger connections with those involved.

And in the end, when you make a book that you feel is well-crafted, that you are proud of, that will affect the readers in a positive way for many years to come, it is very, very pleasing.

Do you make suggestions for revisions to artwork? What sort of suggestions have you made and how in your opinion how have they improved the final product?

MR: The nature of my relationship with artists is to be a sounding board and offer feedback when I think my suggestions will be valuable and improve the work or give it the best chance in the marketplace. Sometimes requested changes are minor, sometimes they require rethinking a spread or series of images. Of course, we try to vet the sketches and dummies thoroughly so major changes are not made to final art. My input (and really it is the combined input of myself, the editor, and sometimes the publisher and sales department) is most observable in our work on the jacket, the book’s most important sales tool.

David Weisner recently re-illustrated the jackets for the seven classic titles comprising C.S. Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia. In his first sketch for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, David created a beautiful image of the open wardrobe, with the fur coats parted, snowy footsteps leading from the opening into the magical wintery world. It was stunning.

David and I carefully considered the concept further, and we agreed it was static and lacked the energy and the emotion of the story. We wanted something dramatic and that would appeal to both young and old readers, and we needed to follow this direction for six more titles in the collection.

Because of the collaborative nature of the work, I cannot say precisely who came up with what ideas to suggest to him, but when David was presented with the problem, he thought carefully about the solution and came back with his own ideas. He focused on the heart and soul of the story rather than on a symbol and depicted a powerful Aslan with Lucy and Susan at each side nuzzling into his mane. In doing this, he got right to the emotional core of the story in a fresh way. The characters add a sense of tenderness to the grouping, but the focus is on the magnetic gaze and the power and majesty of the lion.

It is appealing to children, but, with its archetypal feel, also works on an adult level. And artistically, the detail and color of the rendering is impeccable. This set a high bar for the rest of the jackets, but it helped make the direction clear and resulted in seven stunning, dramatic and effective jackets, giving a fresh look to these beloved classics.

I never tell an artist what to paint but make observations, present the need for change as a problem to be solved and invite the artists to solve it using their own vocabulary and ideas. I cannot say my suggestions make the jacket work, but it is the artist’s response to my comments that makes the ultimate difference.

How would you go about matching an illustrator to an author?

MR: It is more often an illustrator is matched with an existing text, rather than putting two creative people together and hoping for the right dynamic. But when it works after careful consideration of artist matched to text, such as Jamie Lee Curtis with Laura Cornell, the publisher will want to continue that relationship as long as possible.

After reading the text, I have an immediate visual sense of what it could be as a finished book in terms of artist’s style and often even the feel of the design–it’s a personal, instinctive response. I’ll have in mind a short list of potential artists based on that.

Then I usually frame it within the context of children’s publishing: have I seen this before or is it totally new; what are the comparisons and competitive books available currently; how would this fit into the world in a practical way; what kind of impact could it have? The editor and I discuss our reactions and agree on a direction. Sometimes we spend a lot of time researching and looking at various artists’ work, and other times it’s a clear choice.

What are some of your favorite children’s books and why?

MR: I love pretty much anything written and illustrated by William Steig, who never wrote down to children or became overly sentimental. He used language beautifully and wrote with humor and tenderness. His use of line and color is unmatched.

Dr. DeSoto still makes me laugh, Brave Irene pulls at your heartstrings, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble will definitely make you cry and laugh at the same time.

Others that I consider classics I couldn’t imagine life without: Ezra Jack KeatsThe Snowy Day, The Trip, Peter’s Chair; Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown; Wanda Gag‘s Millions of Cats; The Story of Ferdinand (Munroe Leaf and Robert Lawson); Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson; Marc Simont’s re-illustrated picture book of George Thurber’s Many Moons.

Why do I love these? Distinctive voices, characters, stories that feel true and/or bring you to a new awareness, and wonderful art.

More contemporary favorites are Paul Zelinsky‘s Swamp Angel (Anne Issacs, author) and Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann–both tall tales in their own way, with great characters and a surprising, engaging storyline.

This is just a smattering of the books I love, and more come to my attention every day!

What book(s) are you proudest of having worked on?

MR: Last fall, we published Not a Box by first time author-illustrator Antoinette Portis, and we are following up with Not a Stick this winter. I am proud of these books because they are solid conceptually, fresh and distinctive in their approach and style and were for me a satisfying collaborative venture between the artist, editor, and myself.

Antoinette approached the editor, Margaret Anastas, with her idea, based on the endless imagination a child uses playing with a simple box. We both agreed we had something special that we could develop successfully: a strong concept, an appealing character, and a clear, distinct voice in both the style of writing and in drawing technique.

From the moment we started working together the three of us shared ideas, batted around large and small changes, experimented with colors and techniques, design approaches and production materials. The collaborative spirit of the work together was exciting, and we were thrilled with the final product. It is especially satisfying, too, that Not a Box won the Theodore Geisel Award this year, went on to the New York Times Best Seller list and was chosen as one of the ten Best Illustrated Books from the Times for 2007.

Is there an area on your list that you would like to “grow” at this time?

MR: I would love to find more artists-authors who can create strong character-driven stories.

What is the ideal art sample submission?

MR: As I become busier, portfolio reviews can be cumbersome, and I like to cut to the chase. First impressions are significant. I know within the first two pieces if an artist has the level of skill I am looking for and the individual style that will pull them out from the pack.

An artist should try to evaluate the work with this in mind. It’s important to look at one’s own work critically, and pull out weaker pieces. Keep the selection focused on one’s strengths and on the kinds of projects for which one would want to be considered.

I like to see eight-to-12 pieces of art, less if the artist supplies a complete dummy with sketches and text blocked in. In that case, I would want to see two-to-three finished samples of color work related to the dummy and then a few pieces that show the artist’s range–different characters and settings.

The ideal portfolio showcases the artist’s best work. Don’t create a dummy if you don’t have a fresh idea, don’t stretch it out to 12 pieces if four of them are weak. A picture book must have 17-32 terrific images, and I need to see a portfolio that shows me the artist can deliver all the way through.

What makes an artist’s illustrations stand out for you?

MR: I would not underestimate technical skills, which are very, very important: anatomy, composition, and perspective, good use of color and line, and effective use of materials. But I am always looking for someone who has not just the technical skills but a distinct individual style, a clear voice and images that suggest narrative, through context, emotional tone, and the way they relate sequentially.

I look for work that demonstrates a strong narrative and clear characterizations, more than cartoon-y or exaggerated stylization. I appreciate distinctive characters, whether human or animal, that feel “true.” Placed in a context that tells a story and creates a whole world and works sequentially, the work then has the essentials of a good story: character, place, narrative.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org

SCBWI Bologna 2008 Agent Interview: Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children’s Literary Agency

Nancy Miles is the founder of the Miles Stott Children’s Literary Agency. She represents many highly acclaimed authors, including: Ronda Armitage, who wrote The Lighthouse Keeper series; Dominic Barker, who wrote Blart; and Justin Richards, who has adapted the television series, “Dr. Who.” She was interviewed in November 2007 by Anita Loughrey, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

What is the book experience that made you want to work in children’s literature as a literary agent?

NM: I sold rights in children’s books for 15 years. Specializing in children’s literature seemed a natural thing, and negotiating terms is what I knew!

Do you have a background in publishing?

NM: Yes. I worked for various children’s book publishers in London over a 15-year period. My career was preceded by a three-year Diploma in Book Publishing at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes). So publishing has been the plan all the way through.

How did you get your start as an agent?

NM: I made my own start. My family decamped from London to the depths of west Wales with the birth of our third child. I didn’t feel ready to stop working in the industry, and, with limited publishing opportunities in this part of the world, I had to look to myself for inspiration. With a background in rights selling and technology at my fingertips, I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to start my own agency.

In your opinion, what makes a good agent?

NM: I think one of the most important things for an agent to be is a good communicator. An author or illustrator needs to feel that his/her agent is at the end of the phone to listen, to discuss ideas and career paths, and to fight his/her corner where necessary.

Equally your client must feel confident that his/her agent has good relationships with publishers and other third parties to ensure that the right homes are found for their work.

Keeping your client in touch is really important.

Do you represent writers and illustrators?

NM: Yes, but mostly writers.

Do you look at art samples?

NM: Yes. I’d love to have one or two more fabulous illustrators on my list. But probably not more than that.

Do you also represent other publishers or agents abroad? If so, can you tell us which publishers and agents?

NM: Yes. I represent one New York based publisher–Roaring Brook Press. I also represent U.S. agents Rosemary Stimola [interview] and Barry Goldblatt [interview]. I have a reciprocal arrangement with Barry.

How many clients do you represent?

NM: I currently represent 14 individuals, plus publisher and U.S. agents as above.

Do you represent on a project-by-project basis, or do you take on the “whole” writer or the illustrator or even the entire list of a publisher?

NM: I always commit to the “whole” writer or illustrator. Developing a working relationship with your client, working out a career strategy, considering changes of direction, etc., happens over time. I wouldn’t want to share my investment with anyone else, and it’s hard to see how a project-by-project arrangement wouldn’t leave all parties dissatisfied and unfulfilled.

On the other hand, I do take on the entire list of a publisher, though I will cherry pick from that list. It doesn’t do agent or client publisher any good to submit material indiscriminately. And you would try the patience of the U.K. publisher if you were to persist in submitting material which is unsuitable for their list, the U.K. market, or whatever.

At what point in a manuscript do you “know” you either want the project or not?

NM: Usually almost instantly, if it’s a “no.”

The “maybes” are far trickier to judge. In my experience, it’s rare to read an unsolicited manuscript that blows your socks off. More common is the text that shows promise but needs lots of work. You have a stay of execution by limiting the first submission to three chapters. So if it’s a “maybe” you can ask for more–or the whole book if it’s written–and this will invariably answer the question for you.

What does the ideal cover letter say?

NM: Not very much. A brief line or two about who you are, what you’re submitting, and who it’s for. If the author/illustrator has been published, this is always good to know. And, unless there’s artwork involved, I can’t understand why people want their material returned. It’s a waste of everything. So ideally I’d like the letter to say, “don’t bother to return the manuscript!”

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

NM: Quite often it’s the covering letter. I loathe it when people compare their work to books written by established authors. A dreadful title will also put me off. Poor sentence structure and spelling mistakes are the voices of doom.

From an agent’s point of view, what are the “realities” of children’s book publishing?

NM: That’s a big question. One of the first things that seem to surprise a lot of aspirant authors is how difficult it is to write a good children’s book. Writing for children is not the easy option it’s often believed it to be.

Although children’s books have enjoyed a tremendously exciting 10 years or so with an increasing number of high-profile authors making headlines, the market remains intensely competitive, and publishers will expect and require a very good reason to acquire a title, especially from a new author.

There are tons of children’s books out there, and, with publishers spending limited amounts on marketing most children’s titles, it’s incredibly difficult to sell books in volume.

Picture books have been having a particularly tough time, and publishers will rely heavily on co-edition success to make them profitable. Young adult novels suffer from being neither children’s or adult books, and few book stores seem to know how to sell them well. It’s not easy to get published. It’s a long, hard slog, and there are no short cuts.

What was the easiest book to sell and why?

NM: A good book is easy to sell, and a book is good for all sorts of reasons.

Have you ever represented a book that you loved but couldn’t convince an editor to publish? What advice do you give authors in this situation?

NM: Yes. I submitted a lovely, touching novel by an unknown author a few years ago that I could not persuade any publisher to take on. Most of the rejections were “good” ones, and it was a difficult book to pin down in terms of who it was for. Although it could be read on several levels, it was perhaps pitched a bit too high for the target age. It was probably a bit overwritten, too, which is a common problem with less-experienced authors.

In this particular situation, I showed the author the publisher responses I felt were constructive. I encouraged him to come up with new synopsis, taking on board the editorial feedback he’d received.

Are you accepting new clients now?

NM: Yes, especially for authors of young, middle grade, and young adult fiction to balance out my list. I’ve got enough picture book authors for the moment but would love another illustrator or two.

Do you get involved with the marketing aspect of the book?

NM: Yes. Where appropriate, I’ll ask a publisher for their marketing plans at negotiation stage. Although these do not go into the contract, it does concentrate the mind.

By the time publication time arrives, everyone’s forgotten what’s been promised, and you do have to ask questions well in advance of publication. And keep asking them.

Marketing performance will certainly affect my decision on whether to place titles with a publisher.

Do you give any pre-submission editing and revision requests to your clients?

NM: Yes, though this will vary from client to client and from project to project. An established author with an on-going publisher/editor relationship will need less input from me than a first timer. But I will always offer suggestions for revisions, even with an established author, if I feel it will improve the submission and attract a better quality offer.

Do you specialize in any particular genre and/or are you looking for anything in particular at the moment? What are publishers telling you about the market and what they’d like to see?

No and no. I’m always looking for a strong voice and a good, satisfying story, preferably with a good dose of humor. The combination is not easy to find, but it is possible to tease a book out of a good story, even if the voice needs to be brought out. But you need to be prepared to put the work in.

It depends who you talk to! Picture-book publishers are telling me that the market is tough and there’s a dearth of good texts. The market for YA fiction is shrinking, and booksellers struggle to position them effectively in the stores. Strong, commercial series for middle graders are in demand as is fantasy (as ever) and action packed thrillers, especially for boys.

How many new clients do you take on each year?

There’s no pattern. If I have the opportunity to sign up someone fantastic, I will.

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 http://scbwi.org/events.htm and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries? Bologna@SCBWI.org