19 June 2013

Onion Origins - SB

In celebration of our 25th anniversary of children's publishing we are delighted to present the eleventh edition of Onion Origins.

Offering a bribe...

In December 1994 - so long ago! - I went to a Little Ark Christmas party where the publisher, Rosalind Price, casually mentioned that she was on the lookout for an editor. Little Ark was the children's books imprint Rosalind had established at Allen & Unwin. She said, 'Whoever it is, they've got to have the right sensibility. After all, I'll be spending more time with this person each day than I do with my husband!'

I'd been freelancing and mothering for fifteen years and longed for something different; moreover, I had been acquainted with Rosalind since the 1970s and knew her quality.

The interview was friendly, but not an unmitigated success and, after a week of silence, I feared the worst. I phoned Rosalind and rashly said, 'I know we could work together, I just know it!' and offered to bribe her with pictures - by sending her my favourite postcards as a starting point for a second interview. She laughed, and said would I at least like to work with her on a three-month trial, to keep things moving while she went to the Bologna Children's Book Fair. I said yes.

Among the books being published at the time were Margo Lanagan's The Best Thing, which I had done a reader's report on months earlier and found extraordinary; various non-fiction titles in the True Stories series; John Nicholson's The First Fleet; Natalie Jane Prior's detective story The Paw in Brazil, illustrated by Terry Denton. I revelled in the variety, the creative collaboration with Rosalind, and the chance to engage with authors (a rarity out there in freelance world). 

Then Sue Flockhart came in for an interview. Rosalind told me that whatever decision she made about Sue would not affect any decision she made about me, but I didn't believe her, and assumed that at the end of my three-month trial, I'd be out. 

At about this time I was offered an editorial job at Penguin. At the second interview with one of the senior people it was suggested I could soon be hobnobbing with famous authors from the adult book world and surfing the net (then a novelty) in a world-class multinational company; why would I even think of working in the narrow world of books for children?

During these negotiations Rosalind announced that she'd loved working with me and would like to offer me a permanent job at Little Ark. I explained about Penguin, and went away to agonise. The nimble, creative small outfit in the inner city appealed more - as did the chance to work with Rosalind - but would a period in the Penguin empire be wiser in the long run? Would I paint myself into a corner if I specialised in children's books?

That was eighteen years ago, and I am still here, and since then I have often had cause to bless the day I tried to bribe Rosalind Price.

Sarah wearing a possum-skin cloak (used by John Danalis in talks at schools) 
at the launch of Riding the Black Cockatoo.

- Sarah Brenan, Commissioning Editor

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