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Kathryn Cole

A life in children's publishing

by Joyce MacPhee

Volume 22 Number 5
1994 October

Meet the woman behind Mollie Whuppie and the Giant, Have You Seen Birds?, The Orphan Boy, The Nightingale and The Dragon's Pearl.

Kathryn Cole, the Publisher of the Stoddart Kids' Division, is not looking for children's stories about monsters under the bed or kids who don't brush their teeth. She's also not looking for one more tale about children who do or do not eat their vegetables.

Overly cute or precious children's stories don't impress Cole, who has overseen the selection and production of several award-winning, critically acclaimed children's books, including The Orphan Boy and The Dragon's Pearl.

Cole has enjoyed a long and successful career in the publishing industry. After she graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1969, her first full-time job was with Scholastic Canada (then known as Scholastic-TAB). She began as a junior artist and progressed to the positions of senior artist and art director, as well as editor of the children's magazine Crackers.

After nineteen years at Scholastic, Kathryn moved to Oxford University Press, where she had a rather unusual position with an all-encompassing roster of duties. Cole bridged the gaps between the artistic, editorial and business aspects of children's publishing.

She has this to say about her experiences at Oxford: "Five years and fifty titles later, I think I can lay claim to a unique and privileged position. Being the only person in the 'division,' I got to reject, select, contract, edit, design, art direct, paste up, and negotiate foreign sales of each book on the list, without having to argue with anyone but myself."

Oxford University Press closed its international children's divisions in April 1993. Stoddart Publishing acquired the Oxford Canadian children's list effective June 1, and Cole was recruited as the publisher of the Stoddart Kids' Division.

Cole was in Ottawa last May and spoke with staff at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library about the selection process for children's books and what happens after a manuscript is chosen for publication.

A tall woman, Kathryn Cole is an animated and knowledgeable speaker who obviously loves her work. She began her talk by emphasizing that it is often a difficult process to decide what will or won't be a successful children's book. Cole gets a lot of enquiries about what she is looking for in a manuscript, but she still finds it hard to define the ingredients of a successful manuscript.

"I think it's easier to say what I'm not looking for. This may sound facetious, but, really, it's amazing how many stories will fall into a pattern," explained Cole. Inexplicably, she receives a huge number of stories about tooth brushing or children who don't look after their teeth. "It isn't really a thing too many more good books can be made of," she said.

Monsters under the bed and variations on that theme are also frequent manuscript submissions, but Cole thinks it's increasingly difficult to find a new twist. She is also wary of preachy, moralistic tales where the message overtakes the story. "You would be surprised reading these manuscripts how many people just kind of go in there and hit them over the head with a hammer. We know messages are something that work, but the stories really have to have something else going for them," Cole pointed out.

Stories featuring animals or insects that talk and find a way to save the environment also arrive regularly. "They come in every day accompanied by the claim 'this is an original approach,' and it isn't," continued Cole. Rhyming books are something Cole avoids but she has published a few, including the delightful Kate's Castle and Purple Hair? I Don't Care!

Cole enjoys stories with elements of humour in them, although she finds some authors write a fair bit of satire that is intended more for adults than for children. She pointed out that the humour in children's books should not be patronizing or make fun of children, because kids can sense a double meaning even if they don't fully understand it. "But if a manuscript can carry humour at two levels, so that an adult reader can enjoy it as much as the child and both can share a joke at no one's expense," explained Cole, "then it's probably a real gem."

In terms of structure, Cole likes satisfying endings, although they aren't imperative. The Orphan Boy, for instance, doesn't have a happy ending, although there is an element of hope. Cole is of the opinion that sad stories have their place, because life is sometimes sad, but stories shouldn't leave children feeling there is nothing but sadness in the world.

Child-centred stories with strong, likeable characters capable of driving the plot so that they at some point gain control of the action are what she favours. "Children like to think they are in control somewhere along the way," said Cole, although she doesn't like books portraying situations where children have more control than is realistic.

She still dislikes having to reject stories and will usually reply with a firm but kind form letter. However, if she sees a spark of creativity in a manuscript that is not appropriate for her to work with, she sometimes refers the author to another publisher.

Manuscripts written by authors who read a lot jump out at her. "They write not page by page and line by line but unit by unit. They can tell a story and see the language and keep it all very concise," Cole enthused. "They generally are people who learned to read as children and who continued to develop their understanding of what a book is about."

A good interest in reading styles is also a plus, according to Cole. "At the picture-book level, it's important. You don't have long to make your impact in a picture-book--you don't have many words to do it in--so you need that clarity of language. And often that comes down to plain good style."

Writers who have a good understanding of children's developmental stages and the approximate language skills of various age groups are something she appreciates. Authors who have a good memory of their own childhood are often able to inject small, meaningful touches in their stories.

Those who write with illustrative potential are high on Cole's list, probably because of her background as a publishing house artist and art director. "When I sit and read manuscripts for the first time I really try to picture how they will be illustrated," said Cole.

Cole's approach is a little different from many publishers because she reads unsolicited manuscripts. The up side is that she has discovered and nurtured some wonderful writers and illustrators, such as Robin Muller, Barbara Reid, Paul Morin, Tololwa Mollel, Barbara Spurll, Regolo Ricci and Julie Lawson. The down side is that Cole receives over a thousand manuscripts a year, and reading these in combination with her many other duties makes for a very hectic work schedule.

Cole admits that many of the manuscripts she receives are not very exciting, but occasionally one will come along that is different. "If you're holding a manuscript in your hands that causes some excitement within you, and it starts to say, 'Gee, I am a risk, I am dangerous, I am exciting,' there's something different about it. You know you've got something ... but the fear I have when I hold these manuscripts is what have I got? Have I got something here that is absolutely wonderful or have I got something that is different but not very good? The answer to that can be tricky, because children's publishing is very quirky. The 'safe' books that are almost guaranteed to sell well are the ones that enable the risky ones to be published She has found the risky books are usually distinctive either as successes or as failures.

There are many factors to consider in selecting books for publication, but profitability is an essential one. In Canada, the children's markets are relatively small and quite fragmented. A population base one-tenth that of the United States and a larger land mass make it difficult for Canadian books to compete with imports.

In Canada, a good sale of a children's book is 5000 copies. If a book hits that magic number, one can be reasonably sure of covering the cost of production, shipping, warehousing, distribution, order fulfilment, etc., and still making a profit.

Most of the books go from manuscript to printed version in less than a year, and Cole has worked simultaneously on as many as eighteen titles in different stages of production. With her new position at Stoddart she anticipates two lists a year, fall and spring.

With Cole's extensive art production expertise, she can oversee the production of the artwork and supervise the process from preliminary sketches to completed books. She considers matching illustrators with writers one of her strengths. Cole advises authors not to send illustrations when submitting manuscripts, as artwork often isn't appropriate, for a variety of reasons. But she does sometimes advise that if an author has an illustrator in mind one illustration be submitted as a sample.

Working with the authors can sometimes be a delicate matter. Cole types in the author's manuscript, editing as she goes. "I don't want their story to become my story. I want to make suggestions on how to make it better, and often it's easier for me to do it that way than to sit there and explain and hope they will send four more drafts that eventually will make it better. We generally don't have that kind of time," she said. Cole sends the manuscript back to the author and is often surprised with the positive response she gets, even when the changes have been extensive.

The relationship between the author and artist is sometimes a very happy one; sometimes it's one to keep distant and sometimes it's one that needs to be carefully orchestrated. Generally, the author and illustrator don't work closely together, but Cole will bring them together if she thinks it is appropriate.

When negotiating contracts, Cole pointed out there are important decisions to make, including the advances to the author and illustrator and the royalties as well as the book's format, size, number of pages, number of illustrations, and retail price. Some publishing houses pay the artist a set fee, but Cole prefers that the authors and illustrators share equally in the royalties and act as partners.

Publishers always keep a keen eye out for reviews of books they produce as well as books published by the competitors. Cole does check out the competition once or twice each season, especially the books that receive particularly favourable or unfavourable reviews.

When one of her books receives a bad review, Cole usually does not respond, although she concedes that some reviews have enraged her because they seemed so unfair. Her opinion is that the reviewer has been paid to write the review and it's part of the risk of publishing, although she sometimes disagrees strongly with the criticisms.

"Unless it's something really outrageous I advise the authors and illustrators to be quiet," Cole said. "If the review is that unfair, chances are there is going to be a positive review the next week or in another journal where somebody sees it quite differently."

One review was particularly bothersome to Cole. It was a review of Kate's Castle, a dreamy poem about a girl who builds a sand castle at the beach. The book was intended to be whimsical rather than deep and meaningful, but it could be used as an introduction to marine life for young children since all of the flora and fauna pictured on the beach is accurately portrayed.

The review, which appalled Cole, implied the book was obscene and that the girl was provocatively placed in Playboy poses. Cole found these charges ridiculous. "How does a little girl play in the sand if she doesn't bend down? She can't do it any other way. This is a girl of about five years old, and we didn't even put her in a bathing suit, we put her in a sunsuit," countered Cole. Although the review of Kate's Castle upset her, she didn't take any action, preferring to let people make up their own minds.

The allegations made about Kate's Castle must have been jarring to Cole, who actively volunteers with the Metropolitan Special Committee on Child Abuse, in Toronto. She believes there is a crying need for books dealing with this subject. Cole praised Julie Lawson's soon-to-be-published book, Fires Burning. The main character suffers abuse from an adult, but she gains the upper hand and is instrumental in her own salvation. For this reason, Cole believes the book is justified. At the same time, Cole realizes that books dealing with sensitive issues such as child abuse have to be done very carefully. "They require a huge amount of care and intuitive research and understanding of the issues concerning abuse and the reactions of children who have been sexually or physically abused," she commented.

Cole says the advent of HIV and AIDS is one example of a phenomenon about which children simply must have more information, and it's an opportunity and a responsibility for publishers to provide it.

Come Sit by Me by Dr. Margaret Merrifield (published by the Women's Press in 1990) is a book that was written for five-year-olds at a five-year-old level about a child with AIDS. Cole considers Come Sit by Me ground-breaking for its time. The story isn't about someone distant like an uncle or aunt, it's about a child, and that strikes close to home in the heart of a five-year-old.

Other issues, such as representing women in a healthy context, gender role playing and physically challenged children, need to be addressed, said Cole. Cultural appropriation is another important issue because there are so many people crying out to tell their own stories in their own voices.

Cole believes there are staggering issues to be faced by children today. She doesn't think children have really changed, but their environment certainly has. "Kids are exposed to very sophisticated things now and to issues that perhaps were never talked about when children were present. Violence of course is one of those things that is rampant in their toys and in their television. Just look at the stuff that is aimed at and consciously geared to two-year-olds. Walk down any aisle of any toy store and you will frighten yourself if you ask, 'What does this really mean?'

"Children develop appetites and leanings towards what they are exposed to, and they expect their world to be reflected in their books," Cole continued. "There have been trends in publishing to go with the flow towards more 'realistic' publishing." She thinks some of these books are healthy, while others tout violence as a quick fix, the attitude being "let's give them this, if this is what they want."

Cole says kids today, influenced by television, movies and videos, are much more sophisticated in terms of what they can see and what they can understand. She noted that twenty years ago a book like The Orphan Boy would have been perceived as far too adult to appeal to children. "When the book was produced it apparently was not too sophisticated, so something had happened either in the adult perception of where kids are or in where kids actually are."

Her own perception of children and literature altered dramatically when she adopted two girls from southeast Asia in 1980. "The children have not only enriched my life outside of work but have brought major insight and better understanding to my work. My 'book sense' was altered entirely and much of what I thought I understood about children's literature was abandoned, thanks to them," said Cole.

She considers herself fortunate to have witnessed the Canadian children's publishing industry come into full bloom. In the late 1960s and early 1970s a lot of children's books were published, although not all were of high quality. The advent of off-shore printing made excellent quality printing available for picture-books at an affordable cost. Many publishers opt for printing in Hong Kong or Mexico because the labour costs are so much cheaper.

Cole sees the acquisition of computer software as a trend to watch. "I think more and more libraries are spending money on software instead of books. Reference books on CD-ROM are a natural because you can cross-reference and break information down into useful chunks so that a child can very quickly have access to information without having to go through indexes and things they don't understand."

While Cole thinks the addition of movement and sound enlivens children's reading material, she is quick to point out there's a danger because publishers may forget that real learning or real processing of information might not be taking place. "I think that children may be able to get information and get their projects done," she predicted. "But I'm not sure what they will come away with in terms of their inner understanding. CD-ROM and computer disks will improve a great deal as people refine the technology, and publishers, especially educational publishers, are becoming involved now."

She sees potential in combining conventional picture-books with new technology, such as interactive games that combine education and entertainment. "But [using computers] doesn't replace the intimate experience of reading a book," she stressed. "Yet the trend, whether we like it or not, whether we want to work with it or not, is here, and it's not going to go away. It's up to publishers to make an opportunity out of it."

Books Produced Since 1989

Allix, Hereward. The Maladjusted Jungle. Illustrated by Graham Bardell. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Baker, Kent. Finster Frets. Illustrated by H. Werner Zimmermann. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Bedard, Michael. The Lightning Bolt. Illustrated by Regolo Ricci. Oxford University Press, 1989.

The Nightingale. Illustrated by Regolo Ricci. Oxford University Press, 1991.

The Tinder Box. Illustrated by Regolo Ricci. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Blohm, Hans. Egg Carton Zoo II. Illustrated by Rudi Haas. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Bottieri, Bob. Kid Made: Easily Made Sets for Action Toys. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Bourgeois, Paulette. The Many Hats of Mr. Minches. Illustrated by Kathryn Naylor. Stoddart Publishing, 1994.

Brott, Ardyth. Jeremy's Decision. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Bruchac, Joseph. Fox Song. Illustrated by Paul Morin. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Charles, Veronika Martenova. Hey! What's That Sound? Stoddart Publishing, 1994.

The Crane Girl. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Dunn, Sonja. Gimme a Break, Rattlesnake! Illustrated by Mark Thurman. Stoddart Publishing, 1994.

Friedman, Amy. Best Bedtime Stories. Illustrated by Jillian Hulme Gilliland. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Gaitskell, Susan. A Story of Jean. Illustrated by Laurie Lafrance. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Godfrey, Martyn. Is It OK if This Monster Stays for Lunch? Illustrated by Susan Wilkinson. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Harpur, Tom. The Terrible Finn MacCoul. Illustrated by Linda Hendry. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Harris, Dorothy Joan. Rumpelstiltskin. Illustrated by Regolo Ricci. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Helmer, Marilyn. The Boy, the Dollar and the Wonderful Hat. Illustrated by San Murata. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hume, Stephen Eaton. Midnight on the Farm. Illustrated by Regolo Ricci. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Jackson, Carolyn. The Flying Ark. Illustrated by Graham Bardell. Oxford University Press, 1990.

James, Betsy. The Mud Family. Illustrated by Paul Morin. Stoddart Publishing, 1994.

Johnson, Odette and Bruce Johnson. Apples, Alligators and Also Alphabets. Oxford University Press, 1990.

One Prickly Porcupine. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Rainbows Under the Sea. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Lawson, Julie. The Dragon's Pearl. Illustrated by Paul Morin. Oxford University Press, 1992.

--. Kate's Castle. Illustrated by Frances Tyrrell. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mabin, Geraldine. Cookie Magic. Illustrated by Lynn Seligman and Mark Thurman. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Manning, Linda. Animal Hours. Illustrated by Vlasta van Kampen. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Mollel, Tololwa M. The Flying Tortoise. Illustrated by Barbara Spurll. Oxford University Press, 1994.

The Orphan Boy. Illustrated by Paul Morin. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Rhinos for Lunch and Elephants for Supper. Illustrated by Barbara Spurll. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Morgan, Allen. Ellie and the Ivy. Illustrated by Steve Beinicke. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Jessica Moffat's Silver Locket. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Stoddart Publishing, 1994.

The Magic Hockey Skates. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Morgan, Nicola. Louis and the Night Sky. Oxford University Press, 1990.

--. Once in a Blue Moon. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Page, P.K. A Flask of Seawater. Illustrated by Lászl&oaecut; Gál. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Robertson, Joanne. Sea Witches. Illustrated by Lászl&oaecut; Gál. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Stinson, Kathy. The Fabulous Ball Book. Illustrated by Heather Collins. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Who Is Sleeping in Aunty's Bed? Illustrated by Robin Baird Lewis. Oxford University Press, 1991.

Trottier, Maxine. Alison's House. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Watts, Leslie Elizabeth. The Troll of Sora. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Young, Dianne. Purple Hair? I Don't Care! Illustrated by Barbara Hartmann. Oxford University Press, 1994.

Zimmermann, H. Werner. Alphonse Knows... A Circle is Not a Valentine. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Alphonse Knows ... The Colour of Spring. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Alphonse Knows ... Twelve Months a Year. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Alphonse Knows ... Zero is Not Enough. Oxford University Press, 1990.

Joyce MacPhee writes for Feliciter, published by the Canadian Library Association

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