Because all children deserve to see themselves in the books they read
Interview by Clive Barnes
Lantana Publishing is a remarkable new publishing venture.
Started in 2014 by Alice Curry (top) and Caroline Godfrey, two friends who first met at Oxford University, its aim is produce books that reflect the diversity of our multicultural world.
Alice and Caroline each bring their own skills to the work: Alice from an academic background in children’s literature (and a longstanding member of IBBY) and Caroline from teaching. They head a young team drawn from across the world and began publishing with three picture books last year, with two more due out in April this year. Their work is dear to IBBY’s heart, so we were pleased that they agreed to be the second interviewees in our publishing series.
Alice and Caroline, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for the website. Can you tell us how you met one another?
We met while we were studying English Literature at Oxford University. In fact, we became friends on our very first day at university and have been discussing books with each other ever since.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to become publishers and what came first, the desire to create children’s books, or to further the cause of cultural diversity in children’s books?
We both have a long-standing interest in children’s books and have been aware of the inequalities in children’s publishing for quite some time. Alice’s work with educational organisations after her PhD hammered home the disparity in publishing opportunities across different cultures and countries where factors such as class, race, socio-economic status and the continuing legacy of colonialism impede publishing opportunities for many people. Caroline’s years as a teacher have given her first-hand experience of the lack of diverse books available in the UK, often leaving children desperate to read stories that reflect their own lives and experiences. Our desire to become publishers was born out of these frustrations.
And why the name Lantana?
The Lantana flower is one of the only plants that has petals of many colours on one stem. What better way to represent our readers? Children of many colours reading happily on one earth.
What do you see as Lantana’s particular contribution to culturally diverse publishing for children?
As far as we know, we are one of the very few publishing houses to focus solely on diversity. This means that our whole team, all of our creative resources and our entire budget are dedicated to one unifying mission – to increase the number of multicultural picture books on the market! We know of some fantastic publishing houses that specialise in particular areas – Tiny Owl is a good example of this, being a publishing house with a specific mission to bring Iranian children’s books in translation to the UK – but we feel that where we can really contribute is to increase the number of picture books that reflect a wide variety of different cultures, geographies and belief systems – working with authors of BAME backgrounds as well as of other nationalities. Alice has written about some of the different types of culturally diverse books currently available on the market; by contrast, we have a special fondness for fantasy writing because we believe that all children – and not just those of privileged backgrounds – should get to go on adventures.
Phoenix Song, written by Tutu Dutta, born in India and living in Malaysia. Illustrated by Martina Pelusa from Italy. A tale of a Malaysian boy and a very special flute. One of Lantana’s first books.
From your website and blog, it seems to me that you see Lantana is aiming to do a lot more than publishing books. What do you see as your wider mission?
Essentially, we’d like to inspire as many children as we can to read and enjoy books. This means many things – working with authors who may not have the opportunity to publish with mainstream publishers, producing books that are reflective of our diverse population (after all, if you can see yourself in a story, you are more likely to engage with that story and be caught up in its magic) and also making sure children who don’t have easy access to books find stories that are relevant and inspiring to them. We see each of the above not as a nice add-on to a commercial agenda but as a cultural and educational imperative. As a former teacher, Caroline is in a perfect position to make our books relevant and accessible to teachers and she has produced a comprehensive range of classroom resources to accompany each book. We believe we have the capacity to make a real change to the reading habits of young people and are excited to be creating a thriving community of passionate and vocal supporters of diversity on our website and social media pages. This year also sees the beginnings of our outreach programme to reach children in under-resourced areas whose access to books is limited – stay tuned for more information!
Can you tell us something about your particular roles in Lantana and what you each bring to the enterprise?
Alice’s previous experiences as a children’s literature academic and publishing consultant have given her many years of editorial experience – whether articles for journals or children’s stories for anthologies – so she takes the editorial helm and works closely with our authors, illustrators and graphic designer to produce the books we publish. Caroline manages the day-to-day activities of running a publishing house as well as finding new opportunities for reaching readers, particularly those in the educational market where her first-hand knowledge of using books in the classroom comes to the fore. Caroline also oversees our relationship with key suppliers and contractors.
You have published three picture books so far, with two more due out in April. Is there a particular reason why you began with picture books and why you chose to commission new books rather than, perhaps, looking for books that might be translated into English?
Some really exciting work is happening in diverse young adult fiction at the moment. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet seen this type of momentum in picture books where old favourites such as Handa’s Surprise tend to be the go-to texts, even though this book was published more than a decade ago! We wanted to give a boost to the picture book genre so have concentrated our efforts here, although we may expand into middle grade fiction in the future. One thing we hope to do sooner than this is to publish translations since we agree that translated picture books are in woefully short supply in the UK market. We really like the idea of bringing the best books that the world has to offer to children in this country and hope to do so very soon.
The Jasmine Sneeze, written and illustrated by Nadine Kaadan. The story of a cat and a mysterious flower spirit set in the author’s home city of Damascus. Due to be published by Lantana in April 2016.
These books feature authors and illustrators who are perhaps not that well known in Britain and often pair authors and illustrators from different cultural back grounds. Can you tell us about the thinking behind your commissioning policy and how you found your authors and illustrators?
We have been lucky and privileged to work with some fantastic authors and illustrators whose talents are unmistakable. Yet these authors are generally published by small-scale presses and are unfamiliar to British readers. Nnedi Okorafor, our African American author, is an exception to this rule since she has won widespread acclaim for her middle grade novels as well as several international writing awards. If we love someone’s work, we believe our readers will too, and we don’t think that cultural or geographic boundaries should impede a reader’s access to great stories. We find that the cross-cultural conversations that spring from working with authors and illustrators from different backgrounds – Nnedi’s book Chicken in the Kitchen was illustrated by Iranian-born illustrator Mehrdokht Amini, for instance – can be really productive and eye-opening, providing new facets of understanding to the stories. We are always on the lookout for new writing. We have a submissions page on our website and are constantly receiving manuscripts from around the world.
Chicken in the Kitchen, published last year, has won Best Book for Young Children at the Africana Book Awards 2016 in the USA.
You have a young team of advisers drawn from different parts of the world on your website. Can you tell us something about their roles and how you hope to develop them?
Our advisers are wonderful – they are always on the lookout for authors and illustrators from their own cultures and countries who we may like to work with in the future and they keep us up-to-date on the children’s books that are being published overseas.
To us, Lantana looks like something new, in Britain at least, but I know that you both have a wide knowledge of publishing for children and I wonder if you have taken inspiration from any other publishers either here or elsewhere?
We have always been inspired by publishing houses that make diversity party of their mission: Frances Lincoln and Tamarind Books are good examples of these. Lee & Low in the US, Tara Books in India, Gecko Press in New Zealand – all of these are doing fantastic work in this field. We like to share experiences with other companies whose aims and passions are similar to ours, such as Tiny Owl who we mentioned earlier. And we are always very interested in small independents who are doing inventive things by targeting a niche market, such as Pereine Press and Persephone Books.
Dragon Dancer by Singaporean Joyce Cheng and French illustrator Jérémy Pailler is the third of the books published by Lantana in 2015. It’s a story of Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore.
Do you think Britain is receptive to culturally diverse publishing? What challenges does the market present for you?
Wonderfully, a much wider conversation has grown up around diversity in children’s publishing following the successes of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and the recent #OscarsSoWhite debate has generated even more discussion about cultural representation as a whole (we have written about this debate and how it links to our own mission here). The inaugural Bare Lit event at the Free Word centre in February and the recent introduction of the Jhalak prize for BAME authors are both heartening demonstrations that organisations and individuals are trying hard to turn such talk into action. One of challenges we face, of course, is that industry attention doesn’t necessarily have an obvious or immediate impact on consumer behaviour. We would urge parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians to be as adventurous as they can when purchasing books for young people. As a small independent publishing house, we are at a disadvantage since we are expected to offer the same types of discounts to suppliers and wholesalers as large multi-resourced publishing houses; to counter this we hope to gain loyal, passionate and engaged coterie of supporters who want to see more diversity in children’s publishing as much as we do.
How do you hope to develop Lantana?
We hope to become a thriving press that is well-known for the books we publish – books that are of high quality, beautifully illustrated and culturally diverse. We hope to expand our work with budding authors and illustrators of BAME backgrounds in the UK as well as those abroad, and to make our first forays into publishing translations. If we can get to a stage where we can recruit a new generation of young publishers to help shape the company and develop a team, as well as a portfolio, that is representative of our diverse population, we will consider it a job well done. In the meantime, we will continue to work closely with our wonderful small team and nurture new writing talent, develop our outreach programme and inspire children with our unusual, multicultural books.
Looking for Lord Ganesh, written by Indian-born Canadian Mahtab Narsimhan, and illustrated by Sonja Wimmer, born in Germany and now living in Barcelona. This is a story of a young Indian girl’s adjustment to life in a new country and how she enlists the help of Lord Ganesh. To be published this April.
We are grateful to Alice and Caroline for agreeing to be interviewed. Do visit their website and blog, www.lantanapublishing.com. While it has details of all their books, it is so much more than the usual publishers website, including classroom support materials for their titles and stimulating discussion about multicultural representation, particularly in children’s books but also more generally.