(Transcript of a conversation between Alice Curry & Alison Hughes, for Just Imagine…)
Could you give us an idea of your back ground & why you have an interest in children’s literature?
I started off as an academic, did a PhD in Children’s literature & ended up lecturing in children’s literature in Australia! I then started doing work for “not-for-profit” organisations, particularly in international children’s literature, collecting different stories from around the world. That got me really interested in different storytelling traditions, different cultures & attitudes towards stories & how easy it is for different countries to publish their stories. There is such a huge disparity, so that got me very passionate about the idea of trying to level the playing field, as it were, and give a greater opportunity to represent different voices in children’s books and that’s how I decided to start Lantana!
Can you tell us a bit more about your decision to start your own publishing company? Why did you think there was a need for that?
I think there has always been a gap when it comes to diverse literature, particularly for children. There are many voices, which for various reasons, have been treated as not mainstream, so I felt that this was a space that I should spend some time working in. I’d met some amazing authors & illustrators through my previous work, working in different cultures & different countries, very little of whose work gets to the UK, or is recognised in the UK and so to address this disparity & try to give a greater equality of representation across voices, I decided to set up a house that specifically worked with authors & illustrators from many different cultural backgrounds.
Can you give us an overview of the list of titles that you are publishing?
Yes, we focus on picture books at the moment and we have done since setting up almost three years ago. We work in the 4-8 (years) range and we tend to work with an author & illustrator from different cultural backgrounds. We’ve found it’s a really interesting cross-cultural conversation that we end up having between the author, illustrator & us (our editorial). We have worked with authors & illustrators from almost 20 countries so far and have just published two books by authors from Uganda & Kenya. This autumn we’re are looking a title coming out by a Malaysian author, which is illustrated by a fantastic Argentinian illustrator! So we are very broad and find we cover a lot of different cultural backgrounds, which is a very exciting way of producing stories – the same story told from different cultural perspectives and that can be a hugely productive conversation.
Could you give us a couple of examples, titles of the books & authors & a bit of information about these stories you’ve published?
We were lucky enough, the very first book I signed, was by an African-American author, whose parents were both from Nigeria and she sets all of her work there. The book is called “Chicken in the Kitchen” and it went on to win the Children’s Africana Best Book Award the year, which we were so excited about. The author, Nnedi Okorafor has also gone on to win countless awards, she’s absolutely brilliant. The illustrator, Mehrdokht Amini, who is Iranian born, but now living in the UK, was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal for this book and has also now been nominated for the BIB (Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava) Exhibition, which is taking place in Slovakia this year. So we are really excited about this title; it seems to have hit a cultural imagination. It’s about a little girl in Nigeria, who wakes up to the sound of a noise & a shadow passing her bedroom wall. She goes to investigate & it turns out to be a giant chicken, which is more than it seems! It’s a very fun book, very colourful & exciting. It is a perfect example of the kind of book we love to publish; very contemporary and set in cultures which we may not know much about, but that is reflective of a modern viewpoint, a modern family and shows the world just how it is, full of magic & full of adventure.
What are you looking for when you are commissioning new work?
We love stories about children growing up today, whether it’s in the UK or elsewhere in the world. Contemporary stories with values that we care about. We love stories that have a strong environmental message, strong feminist message or that are just reflective of a wider sense of empathy, understanding and a love of the fact that we are this multi-cultural population. So we tend to publish books with these values, with mainly a child protagonist, but we also love the odd animal story and anything that is just a good story!
What are the biggest challenges that you face?
Well, being a small independent publisher is a hard thing to be! I think it’s always been hard, but it’s a tough industry & a tough climate in lots of ways, so as well as the struggles that a small business would have in any field, the fact that we are working in diversity has its advantages & disadvantages. The advantages are that we are working to a ‘gap’ – not very many people are working in the space that we are & with the kind of authors that we are, so that means that schools, libraries & people in the education sector are really crying out for this kind of material, so in that way it’s a fantastic opportunity to fulfil a niche. The disadvantage is that diverse literature can be considered not mainstream, so there are various ‘gatekeepers’ who might make the decision that a diverse book is not necessarily something that should be on every shelf and I’m trying to work against this stereotype. All in all, the struggles are there, but we love trying to overcome them. It’s a job you do for the passion that you feel and I get to work with some incredible people, artists, authors & the incredible people on my team, on a daily basis, which I’m very thankful for.
Do you have any specific plans to tackle diversity or raise awareness of diversity (or lack of it) in schools?
We make school visits whenever we can. We contact schools & ask them if they would be interested in our authors & illustrators doing an event in their school, which often is relatively eye-opening for them. We went into a lovely school in Bow recently, where the children are 90% Bangladeshi & to have our Syrian author come to talk to them, from a fellow Muslim country, about her book & various elements that they may recognise from their own culture, was hugely exciting for them.When it comes to encouraging greater diversity & representation on a wider scale, I think it’s really a question of helping promote more widely other suppliers or organisations who are promoting diverse literature. When you have someone like ‘Letterbox Library’ who specifically supplies diverse literature to schools & elsewhere, it’s a question of working together, whether you’re charity-based or a small enterprise like us, being able to cross promote & encourage the schools we know to buy from them can really help.
Is there a message that you would give to teachers & librarians about being bolder in the book choices that they are making within their schools?
I think it’s just a question of not being scared to look at books that on the surface might seem different. If it’s not a great story, it’s not going to work, so there’s no point buying it. If it is a great story, then I’m pretty sure most children, if they even notice it involves a child with a diverse background or with a disability, in the wider sense of diversity, then I doubt they will care! In fact, I think they’d be hugely open to it, which is what we’ve found when we go around to schools & libraries doing events. There are absolutely no barriers there, so if it feels like a risk, take the risk & there may not actually be that much of a risk as it first seems. There are educational supports & resources out there, including from us for all of our books, which might make teachers feel a bit more comfortable talking about a particular culture that the book is exploring. It’s understandable that they would feel a bit nervous that they don’t have all the background & cultural knowledge to bring to the text, but there is support & at the end of the day, if it’s a good story it will see itself through.
We were interested to see that you’d recently won the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize, recognising the achievements of women of promise in publishing. What sort of impact do you think that will make on your work?
It’s an incredibly exciting thing. I was over the moon & very honoured to win it and I hope that it’s going to bring some wonderful recognition to our publishing house and our authors & illustrators. It’s an award that celebrates women who are working to make change within the industry and I think that the fact that me & my publishing house has been recognised in this way is such a wonderful sense that a small independent working in the margins, as it were, has the capacity to make a real difference. We’re really excited about the level of support this shows.