Interview with Denise Johnstone-Burt, Publisher and Associate Director at Walker Books

Founded in 1978 by Sebastian Walker, Walker Books is Britain’s leading independent publisher of high quality books for children of all ages. From a modest start, with just 18 titles in 1980, the company now produces over 300 paperback and hardback titles a year, more than any other children’s book publisher in the UK. A sister company, Candlewick Press, was set up in the US in 1992, and Walker Australia was launched a year later. Publishing purely for children for over a quarter of a century, Walker Books offers a diverse range of books, including picture books, board and novelty books, anthologies, fiction and non-fiction.

Denise Johnstone-Burt, Publisher and Associate Director at Walker and one of Britain’s leading children’s book editors, kindly answered our questions about the company, the children’s publishing industry in the UK, and Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, one of the books selected for inclusion in the 2011 Spirit of PaperTigers project.

Interview by Aline Pereira, former Managing Editor of PaperTigers and currently an independent writer, editor and editorial consultant specializing in multicultural children’s books.

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Please tell us about your path to becoming a publisher and Associate Director at Walker Books.

I joined Walker Books as a publisher and Associate Director twelve years ago from Andersen Press where I was Editorial Director, and where I had been working for ten years.

You run a varied and successful list of authors and illustrators, which includes former Children’s Laureates Michael Morpurgo and Anthony Browne, and Kate Greenaway winner Michael Foreman. When it comes to children’s books, where is your passion? What kinds of stories do you mostly enjoy publishing/reading?

I couldn’t pick one type of book over another – it wouldn’t be fair. I love them all!

The most important thing for me in regards to authors is good quality writing. It doesn’t matter if it is a picture book text, a piece of factual non-fiction or a novel – the quality needs to be there. I also look for emotion and humour.

As far as illustrators are concerned, I look for an artist who understands about telling story through pictures. It is extremely difficult to do, as you know, but when it works (for example with Michael Foreman’s work) the story speaks to the reader, whatever their age.

What attracted you most to Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, when you first read it?

I loved the way A Child’s Garden was about such a sensitive and important idea seen through a child’s eyes. It felt as though it represented a bit of Michael’s thoughts, a special bit that you could partake in by reading the story. A Child’s Garden is spreading the idea that everyone can do something even in the most dire situation.

Can you tell us a little bit about what working with Michael is like, and about the process of bringing A Child’s Garden to life?

I have worked with Michael for more than twenty years, and it has always been wonderful. We always discuss the story, the shape of it, what it’s about and the approach he wants to take. In the case of A Child’s Garden, Michael came in with the story and read it to me and Ben Norland, Walker Books’ Art Director. We knew instantly that this was a story we had to publish – its message was so important. We discussed how the colour in the book should reflect the growing hope expressed by the text, and Michael took the idea and ran with it.

Wherever Michael goes he sketches and records the small moments that he sees around him. Mia’s Story was inspired by the children he encountered during his travels in South America. He brought in his sketchbooks and we developed the book together. We looked at the pictures, again with Ben Norland, and discussed how we could recreate the feeling that we saw in the sketchbook. The resulting book feels like a cross between a sketchbook and picture book, and has an autobiographical feel to it.

Since its publication in the UK and the US, in 2009, A Child’s Garden has garnered many accolades. Where else has the book been published, or have rights been sold to?

The book has indeed been very successful in the UK and the US, and has also been published all over the world. Foreign language editions have appeared in South America, Japan, China, Denmark, Brazil and Spain.

Do you have a favorite among Michael’s books?

It would be wrong to pick out one since Michael has created so many incredible books, but I loved working on A Child’s Garden with him, as it was, and is, such an important book. We also had great fun working on Say Hello (with Jack Foreman) and Mia’s Story.

Has the role of editors changed much since you first started in this industry?

The role of the editor has changed since I first started in publishing although there are things that are reassuringly still the same. For example, the thrill of receiving a story or discussing an idea with an author or illustrator is as exciting as it ever was, and the process of developing the idea and thinking about how to present it to the reader is still an enormously stimulating, exciting and creative process. It is a great privilege to be able to work creatively with authors from the very early stages of a book’s conception.

I always sit down with an author or illustrator when they have a new idea for a picture book, for example, and he or she will talk me through the new idea. Then we discuss what the story is about, what the emotional heart of the story is and whether the shape of the story is right.  We also talk more practically about whether it is the right length, whether there are parts which don’t quite work, and whether we can make them work, and so on. This conversation can continue over many meetings.

Things have changed, though, so it is much more difficult these days to attract attention to a new author or illustrator and to get them established than it was when I first started working as an editor. There are fewer outlets for books, which means we have to be very clear in our minds where a book might be sold and how visible it will be. This involves much more detailed conversation with sales and marketing, at all stages in the process of making the book, than before. There is only a limited amount of money to spend on marketing individual authors and titles, so I often have to discuss with authors what they can do themselves to help promote their work.

What’s a typical day like for you (if such a thing exists)?

I work partly from home and the rest of the time in the office.  For those days when I am in the office, I find that I spend most of my time either meeting with authors and illustrators and discussing their new or ongoing ideas, or working through projects with my fellow colleagues in design and editorial. I spend most of these days in conversation about books. We also have regular meetings with sales, marketing and production where we discuss the programme and the costings of different projects, as well as development meetings where we float new ideas. There is no such thing as a typical day at Walker Books.

What was your favorite book growing up?

I loved so many…The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner, The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson…

Can you give us a snapshot of the children’s publishing industry in the UK these days and how digital publishing is affecting things?

Wonderful books are published in the UK for children, but sadly there are fewer and fewer outlets where they are sold, and not many places where children can browse and choose books to buy. That’s why projects such as PaperTigers are so vital for helping keep children’s books visible.

Regarding the movement toward e-books, many children growing up today have never known a world without electronic methods of delivering information, so as a publisher, it is exciting to me to think about new story platforms. The methods of delivery may be changing, but good stories will always endure. We no longer sit round the campfire but children continue to read and listen to stories, albeit in new ways.

What is Walker’s digital publishing strategy, and how does it fit in with the company’s long-term goals?

After signing up for the iBookstore and with many other visible market places opening up for four-colour content, Walker is assessing suitability from both front- and backlist illustrated titles. We aim to support both fixed format ePub and ePub 3 along with other relevant formats in due course. [ePub is the abbreviation for electronic publication, a widely adopted digital file format.]

Walker has a long history of supporting children’s charities. Please tell us about some of the charity-related initiatives the company has developed or been involved with.

Last year we worked with the UK Children’s Laureate, Anthony Browne and created a book in aid of Rainbow Trust (who work with families of children with life-threatening illnesses) which promoted visual literacy. In 2010 we celebrated our 30th anniversary with a fundraising spectacular, which raised over £30,000 for the National Literacy Trust. We also have a volunteer reading scheme at our local primary school, which pairs Walker Books staff with children needing reading help.

Would you give us a taste of your Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 catalog?

We have some wonderful books coming up, including: The Pied Piper retold by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark; Pop-up London by Jennie Maizels; Aladdin (a magical three-dimensional carousel edition) by Niroot Puttapipat; How Do You Feel? by Anthony Browne, and George Flies South by Simon James.

I am also very excited about the release of the paperback version of Patrick Ness’s new novel, A Monster Calls, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd [read Denise and Patrick’s joint interview to Publishers Weekly, about working together on this unusual project, here].

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Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, Denise. PaperTigers is very grateful to Candlewick Press, the US Sister Company of Walker Books, for its generous discount for A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope in support of the Spirit of PaperTigers project. Congratulations on your great work, and we wish you continued success!

To find our more about Walker Books, visit their website, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.


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