Tuesday 24 February 2015

Why I don't edit 'proper books' for grown-ups -by Katie Cotton

 Our guest this week is Katie Cotton, an editor and author of children's picture books. She began her career at Templar and she is now part of the children's team at Frances Lincoln in London, where she is obviously working on some fabulous picture book material! Her blog is a reminder of the passion and enthusiasm to be found on the editor's side of the fence.

I'm quite often asked why I want to edit picture books. Sometimes − if I think the question is a thinly veiled "Why don't you want to edit 'proper' books for grown-ups?" − this irritates me. Sometimes, if the question occurs during an interview, it instantly makes me nervous. However, I always find the question interesting.

There are many reasons why I want to work in picture books. There's a magic in the interaction between the text and the pictures. I'm addicted to the 'turn of the page' moment and, of course, I believe that we need to create wonderful books for children that help them understand, and live in, the world around them.

However, the main reason is that in any reading experience, I'm looking for that indescribable moment when something is expressed so beautifully that the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and this moment − for me − occurs in picture books more than any other genre. 

It could be the moment  when Polly Dunbar's penguin says, 'Everything!', or the moment when you see Shaun Tan's red tree, or the moment when the hungry caterpillar becomes a butterfly. These moments might (if you're anything like me) actually make you want to cry a little bit, but they do that because they make you feel something important, something true.
Polly Dunbar's penguin says 'Everything!', from the picture book Penguin.

Shaun Tan's red tree, in The Red Tree.

 I'm incredibly lucky that there are many, almost equally wonderful, moments in the job of making picture books. One is when you see a piece of art, perhaps at an illustration show or on an agency website, and you just know that it will be an incredible picture book. This was the case with David Litchfield, whose image of a city stopped me in my tracks.

David Litchfield's image of a city.
In the middle, when you're knee-deep in the process of making the book, there are also great moments. In early meetings I always ask authors what they think their book is about. If they could sum it up in a couple of sentences, what would they be? One of the best examples I've heard is Levi Pinfold's Black Dog, whose blurb sums it up perfectly:
'This is a story about being scared. It is also a story about not being scared. It depends on how you see things.'

The cover of Black Dog by Levi Pinfold.
Often, at the beginning of the process, authors can't sum up their book in this way. They might just have an image or a thought in their mind that they want to explore. Or they might have an idea of what the book is, but six or seven months down the line it may have morphed into something different, as books are sneaky things and have a habit of making their own views heard. 

This is all fine and a valuable part of the process; it's completely true that some of the best picture books take the longest time to make. But one of the best moments is the moment when it becomes clear what the book is going to be. It might occur when a character is drawn in a different pose, or during a discussion on the phone, or simply when a crucial sentence is written. Those 'That's it!' moments are worth their weight in gold.  
David Litchfield's debut picture book, The Bear and the Piano, will be published this September, and what a stunner it is too. Both of us, and my colleagues at Frances Lincoln, can't wait, for of course that's another amazing moment: having the gorgeous finished book in your hands. 


Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for such a great post, Katie.

The belief that creating books for adults is somehow more important or worthwhile than creating books for children also irritates me. Picture books give children their first taste of literature. Unappealing picture books can put a child off reading, appealing ones can make them into lifelong readers. And young children are so much more open and receptive to differing perspectives and ideas than adult readers, who tend to me more set in their ways. It’s a delight to create books for such an audience!

I love the look of David Litchfield’s work and will keep an eye out for ‘The Bear and the Piano’.

Moira Butterfield said...

I love the way your passion shines out of your blog, Katie. It's good to hear from an editor who cares so much. Jonathan, that's a really good point that children are open and receptive to differing perspectives - and the books chosen here are good illustrations of that. They are sophisticated and challenging (and beautiful), and deserve to be read by everyone. I wish everybody thought that way, but it's increasingly rare, it seems to me.

Abie Longstaff said...

'Some of the best picture books take the longest time to make'. I MUST remember this the next time I'm getting myself all frustrated! :) Thanks Katie.

Anonymous said...

Thanks all and thanks for inviting me to guest blog. It's a subject I could talk about all day! And I so agree, Jonathan and Moira. Books for children are just as important than those for adults, if not more.

malachy doyle said...

Good one, Katie. Yes, I'm always looking for (and trying to set up) that Wow! page. Every book needs a Wow! page, and not necessarily at the end.

danielle @ this picture book life said...

Yes, yes, yes! Wonderful post.

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks for such an inspiring post. You've encouraged me to ponder the exquisite moments I've experienced in picture books. In 'Varmints' (Ward/Craste) it's a visual and word moment - purposely, the pale hard-to-read text suddenly darkens and clearly we can read, 'And in that endless pause... there came the sound of bees'. So poignant. Whilst in the classic 'Owl Babies' (Waddell/Benson) the final: '"I love my mummy!" said Bill' always choked me up (yup, I'm a softie!). Thinking about it, most of my examples are a bit soppy! In Nicholas Allan's 'Heaven', there's a simple double-page spread which just says, '"Time", said the angel' - so simple, but it was all and everything that was needed. While Jane Yolen's 'Owl Moon' ends with the sentence, 'The kind of hope that flies on silent wings under a shining Owl Moon', which is lovely but would have been even better with a double page spread and more illustration (it sort of fizzles out with just one page). Whilst there's a luscious spread for Oliver Jeffers' ending of 'This Moose Belongs To Me' - I always grin when I read, 'With that in mind, he and moose reached a compromise. The moose would agree to all of Wilfred's rules...' (turn the page) ... 'whenever it suited him' and we see the moose trundling away in a rich scene of wild, natural nature.

Amanda Lillywhite said...

This post is a beautiful and inspirational description of the magic of picture books. I'm going to bookmark it and treasure it.

Paeony Lewis said...

Oops, I got rather carried away with my suggestions!

Michael Wayne said...

I enjoyed this very much. And I've added several of the books to my MUST READ list. Thanks!

Jane Clarke said...

Yes! Thanks Katie, for your wonderful picture-book-affirming, passionate post.

Natascha Biebow said...

Thanks for sharing your passion for picture books, Katie! It's so true that it can sometimes take a long time for authors to figure out just what the kernel of their picture book idea will turn out to be when it's 'cooked'. It's so much fun to edit and coach people, to help them to tease out the stories that are inside of them, and then to see these turn into fabulous picture books that sing for young readers.