Books for children were a major career switch for Diana Murray when she arrived back in New Zealand after living overseas. All her UK experience was in publishing academic journals, though she was confident the knowledge gained would transfer over to other fields of the industry.
Her research and preparation for the job interview as Scholastic’s New Zealand Publishing Manager was extensive. “I got stuck in and read lots of children’s books to get an idea of what the market wanted, and got to know the work of our authors.” That must have impressed: Diana has been with Scholastic for over three years and the company’s publishing programme is flourishing.
It is a small team – Diana (pictured left), long-term editor Penny Scown (below right) and more recently, Frith Hughes (bottom right). Yet they produce around 50 titles a year spread over picture books, junior fiction, teen fiction, Maori language publishing and a small number of non-fiction books for children.
When she arrived, Scholastic had just accepted The Wonky Donkey. “That went totally crazy,” Diana says. Illustrator Jenny Cooper had introduced Penny Scown to Craig Smith at a Christchurch children’s book function, and he told Penny he thought his APRA awarded song would be material for a book … the rest is record-number-of-sales history.
One of the first books Diana worked on was the groundbreaking Old Hu-Hu, by Kyle Mewburn and Rachel Driscoll, with its delicate subject matter of love and loss. It was a major critical success, winning the Picture Book category and the overall New Zealand Post Children’s Book of the Year in 2010.
There was further success in 2011 with the Junior Fiction category winner Finnigan and the Pirates by Sherryl Jordan and Best First Book Hollie Chips by Anna Gowan, and in 2012 with Junior Fiction and Best First Book winner Super Finn by Leonie Agnew and Children’s Choice winner The Cat’s Pyjamas. “We took a punt on Catherine Foreman as a new author/illustrator – this was her first book, and for it to win the Children’s Choice Award was just fantastic!”
Scholastic is selective when it comes to authors: they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts by writers whose work has not been published before, or hasn’t been assessed by a Manuscript Assessor.
“The avenues for unpublished writers to have their work read by us are the Storylines Joy Cowley Award for picture books and Tom Fitzgibbon Award which is for fiction up to 13 years. Through the Tom Fitzgibbon Award, new talents discovered include Leonie Agnew, Anna Gowan and Vince Ford.”
Craig Smith and Katz Cowley’s first book was with Scholastic, and Catherine Foreman and Juliette MacIver are other new contributors.
It is rare for Scholastic to just go with an idea from even their well-known author/illustrator duos. “We usually prefer to see a manuscript or a very detailed outline of what it’s going to be. We occasionally come up with ideas that we ask writers to write – for example, David Hill’s The Red Poppy started with a song called The Little Red Poppy, which I sent to him and asked him to write a war/ANZAC story to go with.”
The publishing team has “huge support” within Scholastic New Zealand, says Diana. But they don’t have all the say – an acquisitions committee of the three in the publishing team plus six other Scholastic executives make the final decision on what goes to print.
What is certain is that Scholastic’s New Zealand publishing is being picked up within major overseas divisions. “Australia take most of our titles,” says Diana. Recent highlights of books that have done especially well in the Australian market are: The Wonky Donkey – Craig Smith, Katz Cowley; Willbee the Bumblebee – Craig Smith, Maureen Thomson, Katz Cowley; There’s a Hole in My Bucket – The Topp Twins, Jenny Cooper; The Red Poppy – David Hill, Fifi Colston; Stomp! – Ruth Paul; Dinosaur Rescue series – Kyle Mewburn, Donovan Bixley; and The Littlest Angel, Lily series – Elizabeth Pulford, Aki Fukuoka.
Titles now published in the US, Canada and elsewhere are (no surprise): The Wonky Donkey; There’s a Hole in My Bucket; Stomp!; Dinosaur Rescue (which is also being translated into Hebrew for Israel, and rights sold into Slovenia); The Grumblebee – Kyle Mewburn, Ingrid Berzins; and The Cat’s Pyjamas – Catherine Foreman (also translated into French for Canada).
There has also been e-action on the Kiwi list with three iPad apps released: The Wonky Donkey, Willbee the Bumblebee and Quaky Cat. “We are currently working on our e-Book strategy for fiction,” says Diana. “This will largely follow the lead of our international affiliates.”
With half the year gone, there are still 20 titles to get out before Christmas. One of Diana’s favouritesis the just released Ransomwood by Sherryl Jordan, “a confronting and uplifting tale; the engrossing narration and realistic characters create a deep, lingering story.” She believes the teen fiction will particularly impress the market.
That said, it is actually Christmas 2013 which she is focusing on at the moment. “There’s a lot more to do here, projects I want to see come to fruition, new books to balance the lists and growing and trying new ideas.
“We will continue to build on what we have already established, and keep working with our treasured and talented authors and illustrators to create books that kids love to read, and that adults love reading with them.”
All of which means constant solid work at the office for Diana, Penny and Frith, and a reading pile of around 500 manuscripts a year being dealt with mostly outside of working hours.
“I am inspired by being able to visualise kids throughout the country – and the world! – being absorbed by the books we create,” says Diana. “Books have always been a huge part of my life and that comes from being surrounded by books and readers when I was growing up. I would get so engrossed in books that I’d walk along the street reading, and I mastered the art of reading while in the shower! I want our books to have that impact and influence on our readers’ lives. The children’s book industry is a passionate community of people who share a strong belief in the work they are doing. It is inspirational to be part of it.”