Not many editors have their own imprint. Readers of Books for Keeps will know David Fickling Books, of course. And they should know Alison Green Books. Alison Green’s picture book list is published by Scholastic, and, in seven years, has grown to about thirty books, including some very well-known authors and illustrators and some bright new names. How did she go about creating her eponymous list and what is her approach to picture book making? Clive Barnes reports.
When Alison Green was wooed from her former job as Editorial Director of Macmillan’s picture book list, she must have felt some satisfaction at being offered her own imprint. Yet she remembers that, ‘I couldn’t see what difference it would make because no customer walking into a shop says I would like a book published by Alison Green’. Only later did she see at least one reason for it: ‘If you know a book’s got your name on, you’ve got be extra careful and be sure that it’s going to be something that you are really proud of.’
Alison’s experience and achievements were impressive before she joined Scholastic. After an unhappy spell marketing Crosse and Blackwell soup, she came to publishing via temping, eventually getting a foothold at Simon and Schuster. She arrived at children’s books by ‘happy accident’ and found it irresistible: ‘There’s something about working in that world that brings up all those memories of the books that you loved as a child.’ She moved on to Methuen, and then to Macmillan where she worked for eleven years, and notably published The Gruffalo, beginning a continuing association with Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.
She says that wandering through the recent exhibition of Donaldson’s work at Seven Stories was like ‘walking back through my past publishing life’. And one exhibit brought her up short. It was a rough of the cover of Monkey Puzzle festooned with yellow post-its and scribbles in her handwriting: ‘Could we have another leaf here? How about a caterpillar? Can you move this there? We need more room for text. Could we…? Oh gosh, it was so embarrassing.’ Nevertheless she believes every page of every book she works on deserves this kind of attention: ‘I find it very hard to let things go. If you know that for the sake of one conversation you can make it better, why wouldn’t you?’
The process of creation
Her present list is a mix of established names (Nick Sharratt and David Wojtowycz are there too) and newer authors and illustrators, or people who want to try a different direction for their work. Alison says that Donaldson and Scheffler need relatively little editing, and she is full of praise for Axel Scheffler’s skill at characterisation. Some of Nick Sharratt’s books arrive as complete packages. But even with Axel and Nick there are conversations over, for instance, how the Stick Man should look, with him emerging from Alison’s amalgamations of several of Axel’s sketches; and what animal might have the potential to follow in the footsteps of Octopus Socktopus and Elephant Wellyphant; Alison brainstormed with Nick Sharratt to come up with Moo-Cow Kung Fu Cow.
As Alison talks about some of her other titles, it is clear that the process of the creation of a picture book, and the editor’s role, can vary tremendously. Never Say No to a Princess, an amusing moral tale about a spoilt princess who finds happiness with an extraordinary friend who will have none of her selfish behaviour, is an example of what Alison describes as a traditional way of working. Here Alison worked with Tracey Corderoy on the story and suggested Kate Leake as an illustrator. Then, with the art director at Scholastic talking to Kate, and Alison working with Tracey, suggestions and roughs went back and forth until the final book emerged without author and illustrator ever meeting face to face.
Newer ways of working
With other books, newer ways of working have appeared where it’s the illustrator’s vision that provides the starting point. ‘With Helen Stephens’ Fleabag,’ Alison remembers, ‘Helen just sent us a picture of a dog with that name and said, “Do you think there might be a book in that?”’ Alison describes the process that followed as a delightfully creative knocking back and forth of ideas about Fleabag’s character and the possible stories that might arise from it. Largely through Helen’s illustrations, the book steadily appeared, first as just a storyline with suggestions of what should happen on each page, and only finally with the words in the text.
Similarly, Sharon Rentta’s books, A Day With the Animal Doctors and A Day with the Animal Firefighters, which are inspired by Richard Scarry and rely on Sharon’s facility and humour as a draughtsperson, emerged from what Alison described as a ‘free form’ process in which various situations and characters were suggested by the editorial team around the general topic. ‘And then Sharon went away and drew, and drew, and drew. And we created a story and text around her sketches.’
It’s clear that Alison relishes this kind of process where the authorship of the story is shared to some extent between the illustrator and the editorial team. Alison herself is credited as the author of two books on her list: The Fox in the Dark, and Pinkie Mouse, Where are You? both illustrated by Deborah Allwright. When I ask her if having her own list gives her power, she laughs at the naivety of the question. She is aware that she is always working with certain imperatives, artistic, commercial and, finally practical; and balancing them against one another to produce books that readers will enjoy and that will sell.
It’s important to make sure that every book is shown to its best advantage. Alison talks about the search for a cover for one of her favourite recent books, The Snorgh and the Sailor, written by Will Buckingham and illustrated by Thomas Docherty. This is a gentle tale with philosophical undertones, about the discovery of the joys of life, which begins with some stunning illustrations of bleak fenland seascape. ‘It could have looked a bit quiet and downbeat. I didn’t want that. I wanted it to look like an exciting book. The designer came up with this brilliant idea of putting these very bold red and white stripes as a frame around the two characters on the cover. So that it looks like the adventure it is.’
Alison talks about a polarization in the home market, with the reduction in the number of independent and chain booksellers, and the rise of the supermarkets. In this situation, it is important to be promoted by Waterstone’s, as, thankfully, The Snorgh and the Sailor will be, or to be selected as Asda Picture Book of the Month, as Helen Stephens’ forthcoming title, How to Hide A Lion, has been. Some titles rely entirely on the home market – Nick Sharratt’s Octopus, Socktopus, for example, is untranslatable. Some books will go well abroad or through school book clubs, others won’t. All of these considerations, in one way or another, impinge on editorial decisions and on creating a balanced list.
For Alison, the commercial and the artistic come together in the importance of the book’s accessibility to the reader, not only in the attractiveness of the cover, but also, for instance in making sure that the text is clear enough to be read by a parent with only a bedside light to help them. She is very aware of winning and building the confidence of parents in sharing books. While she admires more sophisticated picture book narratives (she uses Emily Gravett and Oliver Jeffers as examples), she feels that they aren’t and can’t be characteristic of the picture book scene as a whole. Ultimately, she sees herself as a ‘craftsperson’: ‘I like finding new illustrators and I like developing new things with the illustrators I already work with. I want to keep making really beautiful books. You want to make books that make people go “Ooh, look at that!” So, yes, I suppose if I’m ambitious, it’s for the books to have that effect. I want people to go “Ooh, look at that!”’
Clive Barnes, formerly Principal Children’s Librarian, Southampton City is a freelance researcher and writer.