Bright Insider: It all began with Alice for Laura Roberts, Commissioning Editor at Macmillan.
Laura Roberts has always had a passion for Children’s books and in particular, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. Reading this blog, I feel a romantic notion that Laura spent her childhood like a little Alice, often on imaginary adventures in a world of pictures and stories. Raised by busy, hard-working parents, who despite this always made time for books, Laura feels that as Commissioning Editor at Macmillan, she is making her contribution in ensuring todays imaginative little souls are never short of a good story or two… LM
Alice, by Bright Artist Flavia Sorrentino, and Laura Roberts with her favourite story book.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and where your love for children’s publishing began?
I grew up very near to Loughborough, the original home of Ladybird Books, so it feels like I’ve always been surrounded by children’s books. My parents ran a pub when I was small, so precious quality time with my mum in between her busy working hours were spent reading with me. She made every story and its pictures very magical. My natural love of words led me eventually to a degree in English and Communication Studies at the University of Liverpool, and after that it was obvious to me that I wanted to work in children’s publishing and give something back to children’s books that I had gained from them.
Can you talk us through your career in publishing to date, including key milestones and your current role as Commissioning Editor at Macmillan?
My first publishing job was as Product Assistant for Scholastic Clubs and Fairs, helping select titles for school ranges. It was a great learning curve to sell books directly to children and see what they’d choose for themselves. Having direct contact with the UK children’s publishers gave me a valuable insight into the entire UK children’s publishing industry and book trends. But my yearning to work in editorial meant a move to Little Tiger Press where I worked for three years learning the editorial ropes on picture books. Then came my move to Macmillan where I’ve been working ever since in the fantastic Picture Books team. I feel very lucky that I get to commission picture books for a job and work with exceedingly talented authors and illustrators, helping them develop ideas and turn them into physical books.
You work with some exceptional authors and illustrators including Ben Mantle, and most recent to join the Macmillan family will be the amazing super-duo, Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet. Are you excited to be working with them, and what direction will you be taking with their storytelling style?
A good working dynamic is such an important part of making a picture book. It’s important that authors and illustrators feel they can trust an editor and designer with their work and enjoy the creative process. Ben Mantle and I have had a lot of fun exploring and developing different story ideas, especially with his new Dinostars series where we drew influence from all our favourite cartoons and characters of our childhoods. I’ve admired Sue and Paul’s work for so long, it’s a dream come true that I will finally get to work with them and witness their picture book mastery in action! They have such a natural ability to find the fun and wit in normal every-day things and then translate that so brilliantly to child readers. I think Art Director, Chris Inns, and I are going to have a lot of fun with them. We can’t wait for Sue and Paul to unveil their first idea to us – so watch this space.
Below, Ben Mantle’s Dinostars, with the second in the series due out in 2017: Ben’s book launch for our local primary school held at The Bright Emporium: Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet, creators of the much loved Supertato, published by Simon & Schuster.
Are there any specific subject matters that writers and illustrators of children’s books should concentrate on? Are there subjects that are not well received and best avoided, or is every story a possibility?
It’s always good to bear in mind that a picture book will usually be a shared reading experience between an adult and a child, so ensuring the story is engaging and enjoyable for both is very important, especially when it is likely to be read repeatedly! Familiarity is comforting, but I don’t believe a picture book story should be restricted by a fear of exploring new and different subject matters. There are of course topics that are best avoided though – nothing too scary or adult in tone. But providing that a story has honesty and heart, it will find readers who’ll enjoy it.
What, for you, makes a great children’s illustrator?
For me, a great picture book illustrator is someone who really understands their characters and makes them believable for readers by setting them in a world that’s realistic to them. I like illustration styles that are accessible – bright in colour, rich in depth and texture, and fluid in movement – so that even the most reluctant readers will be drawn in. But a style should always have a unique edge to give it that special distinction.
What are your favourite books from your childhood?
There are so many to choose from! My absolute favourite has to be The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, and pretty much everything else the magnificent Ahlberg duo created together. I never tired of pulling out the letter in the envelope on each spread as the postman weaved his way from one fairytale character’s house to another. The huge joy this book gave me was one of the biggest influences on my desire to work on illustrated children’s books. I’m also a complete obsessive of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – which is rather lucky since I work for the original Alice publisher. My husband and I even took inspiration from the story to theme our wedding.
One of the many covers made for the original Alice’s Adventures story by Lewis Carroll (centre) and some Alice in Wonderland inspired artwork by Bright artists (clockwise from top left) Jessica Courtney-Tickle, Monique Dong, Karl James Mountford and Grace Easton.
What makes a great character for a children’s picture book?
A good picture book character needs to be believable and most importantly, sympathetic. The more convincing a character is, the easier it is for readers to connect with them and feel engaged by their story.
Could you give us a trend forecast for the next year or two?
If only I knew what the next big trend was going to be, it would make my job a lot easier! With an increasingly commercialised market, seasonal themes such as Christmas and Mother’s Day / Father’s Day aren’t going to go out of fashion. The trick is to make such a book stand out from the rest. Keeping an eye out for big public events and anniversaries, as well as film and toy releases is another helpful way to try and tap into a new trend.
What are the positives of working with an agency like Bright, and would you say that for an artist being part of an agency is beneficial in terms of working with publishing houses such as Macmillan?
Artist agencies are a great point of contact for editors and designers when we have a specific illustration or story requirement. Working so closely with artists means that agents are equipped to know which illustrator or author might be best suited to a project, and they can also open up options which we may not have considered. For artists who are starting out in children’s books, an agent can really help them to develop their style so it is appropriate for the market, and most importantly they can help artists get that first step into a publishing house and open up a relationship.
Thank you so much to Laura for such a great read – a really beautifully written and thoughtful insight into the world of Children’s picture book publishing. If you’d like to keep up to date with Laura and her work, you can follow her on twitter @.
If you’d like to work with any of the illustrators featured in this blog, you can contact us via email – firstname.lastname@example.org