Alice Curry is the founder of Lantana Publishing, a London-based independent publishing company and this year’s UK nomination for the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year. In her role as Publisher at Lantana, Alice has commissioned award-winning picture books that celebrate diverse and multicultural voices, working with authors and illustrators from almost twenty countries. Following a degree in English Literature from Oxford University and a PhD in Children’s Literature from Macquarie University in Sydney, Alice has published a monograph, Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction, and several articles in leading international journals. She is an active member of IBBY UK, a frequent keynote speaker at international symposiums, and has edited a range of children’s anthologies for various international education organisations. In May, she was as winner of the 2017 Kim Scott Walwyn Prize. We spoke to her about what's in store for Lantana and the Children's book industry as a whole.
What inspired you to pursue a career in children's publishing and to launch Lantana specifically?
I started life as an academic lecturer in children’s literature but became frustrated by the inaccessibility of most academic work and the prohibitive cost of journal access, meaning that articles written by me or my colleagues weren’t being shared with many people who might otherwise find them useful, including teachers, librarians and other literacy professionals working with children’s books on a daily basis. Children’s publishing seemed to offer a more practical way to explore the issues I was passionate about – namely the importance of diverse and representative literature – and thus I decided to set up Lantana.
You founded Lantana in 2014 with your good friend Caroline Godfrey, whom you met at Oxford University while studying English Literature. Can you talk a bit about your respective backgrounds and your roles in the daily running of Lantana?
Caroline and I met on our first day of Freshers’ Week and immediately became firm friends. In the decade or so since finishing university, Caroline had become a teacher, experiencing the lack of diverse books in classrooms first hand, and I had developed an academic and freelance editorial career. When I decided to set up Lantana, Caroline took a year out from teaching to work with me in the start-up phase, and her support was invaluable. She has now returned to teaching but remains a non-executive director of the company while I continue to run Lantana on a day-to-day basis ably supported by another university friend, Katrina Gutierrez, who manages our marketing and social media, and a small part-time team.
What does the name Lantana stand for?
The Lantana flower is part of the Verbena family and is one of the few plants that have petals of different colours on one stem. This for me is a lovely metaphor for diversity and a great way to reflect the multiculturalism of our populations.
Despite a growing awareness of the need for more inclusive publishing, books written by BAME authors or featuring BAME protagonists are still frequently pigeonholed and treated as separate from "mainstream" literature. What can publishers, and the industry in general, do to achieve a genuine sea change?
This is a good question. It’s vitally important that authors of BAME backgrounds aren’t pigeonholed into writing only a particular type of book that ‘represents’ their race or that reflects a majority-defined idea of what that culture looks like. Ideally we are working towards a time of far greater representation when there will be no need to segregate a book on account of its cultural origins. If a book by a BAME author or with BAME protagonists is simply a great book, I believe it should, and will, hold its own against the mainstream.
You're operating in a highly competitive and crowded market. Do you see yourself, as an independent and perhaps more nimble publisher, at an advantage when it comes to promoting diverse voices and raising awareness for diversity?
As you suggest, being small and nimble has enormous benefits – we aren’t weighed down by the lumbering bureaucratic machinery of larger houses and can make decisions quickly and efficiently. We can also offer something that competes with or compliments the mainstream, and can therefore look to fill gaps where larger houses might struggle, as well as make personal, long-lasting connections with book buyers.
How do you think children's publishing will change over the next five years?
When it comes to diversity, I think the landscape will look different in five years’ time. More of the larger houses will be tackling this issue – both institutionally and editorially – although I doubt this will make a company like Lantana redundant. Instead, it will enable us to develop a more nuanced understanding of diversity – whose voices are really being heard and whose are marginalised – and adapt to meet new needs as well as existing ones.
You will be celebrating Lantana's third birthday this August. What have your biggest challenges and milestones been so far?
Our challenges are the same as those many other independents face - tiny margins, minimal budgets for advertising, and long production schedules being a few. However, three milestones really stand out for me that make all the difficult bits worth it: the first was winning the Children’s Africana Best Book Award for the first book I signed, Nnedi Okorafor’s Chicken in the Kitchen; the second was being shortlisted for the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher this year; and the third was winning the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for women in publishing. These wonderful accolades inspire me and my team to keep on pushing forwards and remain passionate and optimistic, even when times are tough. But wonderful as these milestones are, nothing can compare to the excitement of unboxing each new book and seeing children’s reactions to the titles we’ve been working on for many months; these are still my best and only real yardsticks for measuring success in this business.
What’s in store for Lantana in the future? Where would you like to see the company in another 3 years?
This Autumn sees our first big launch into an export market and we hope that this move into the US will greatly expand our reach. In three years’ time, then, I hope that we will have developed the business into a thriving, sustainable company with a presence both here and in the US and possibly also in export markets further afield.
Currently Lantana's list features an amazingly ethnically diverse range of authors and illustrators. Are you considering expanding the list to include books on gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc.?
These are all hugely important facets of diversity and we would like to expand into these areas, however we have begun – while still young and small – with diversity in the cultural sense since this plays well to the experience of our team which has overwhelmingly been in world literatures for children.
Your books tell vibrant stories about children's lives and experiences from all corners of the earth. How do you bridge the gap between telling highly localised stories and making sure they appeal to a global audience?
This is an interesting question and one we are still finding answers to. Our experience tells us that some level of authentic cultural detail – even if unfamiliar – is often appreciated by a global audience to really ignite that story in the cultural imagination, but of course we need to be careful not to alienate young readers by providing too many unfamiliar references. At the same time, we are enormously careful not to include inauthentic details that exoticise other parts of the world based on our own mistaken stereotypes, which is one reason we were keen to include cultural advisers in Lantana’s company makeup. We have also begun exploring ideas of migration, displacement and second-generation belonging – what it means to be from one culture but be living in another – such as is the experience of Anika in Looking for Lord Ganesh and Nimesh in our upcoming Spring 2018 title Nimesh the Adventurer: ideas that resonate strongly in a globalised culture.
Before setting up Lantana, you worked overseas for a time lecturing in Australia and New Zealand. Has your exposure to these international markets influenced your work back here in the UK?
My time lecturing in Australia and then working on freelance editorial projects in New Zealand gave me a wealth of contacts in the literary field – ranging from authors and illustrators to teachers, librarians, literacy professionals and other academics. I developed my passion for international literature at this time and read widely across the spectrum of children’s publishing – from paranormal romances in Samoa to zombie comedies in South Africa! I’ve definitely taken this love of world literature and embedded it in the foundations of Lantana. It was during this time that I also realised just how much of a disparity there is between publishing opportunities across different cultures and countries and this doubled my determination to level the playing field when I returned to the UK and set up Lantana.
As part of your Wisp of Wisdom Outreach Project you have collected folk tales from the Korup region of Cameroon and published them as a book last year. You are also aiming to give 2,000 copies back to local children in the region. Can tell us more about the project and what inspired you to establish it?
The project began when I was approached by children’s author Tom Moorhouse, also ecology lecturer at Oxford University, to publish a collection of animal tales collected by local chiefs and elders from the Korup region of Cameroon – extraordinary tales about blue-bottomed drill monkeys and pangolins and red river hogs. These had been delivered to a local conservation team and passed to researchers at Oxford in the hope that they could somehow preserve them for future generations. I was honoured to join the project and work with eleven fantastic UK authors and a brilliant illustrator to retell these tales, design and print a book in which to showcase them, and most importantly help arrange for the donation of 2000 copies to local children in Cameroon – the first book many of them will ever own. We have also just translated the book into French so the project continues...
Can you give us a sneak peek at some of the books you have coming out soon?
I’m really excited about developing our list over the next few years. Kaya’s Heart Song is out this the Autumn: a joyful story by a Malaysian author about mindfulness, in which a little girl searches for her heart song – the song that happy hearts sing. We also have two real gems coming out in Spring, both of which have been created by BAME authors and illustrators living in and around London: Nimesh the Adventurer, about a little boy with a BIG imagination, and You’re Safe With Me, a story set in India during a spectacular jungle storm. These books give us a wonderful opportunity to work with schools, libraries and bookshops here in the UK to bring truly special stories to new readers. Do look out for them!
A big thank you to Alice for taking the time to give such thoughtful answers to our questions, and congratulations from us all at the SYP for your KSW win and Lantana's nomination for Bologna Best Children's Publisher of the Year.
Kat Krusch and Sophie Waddy