John Boyne, Malorie Blackman and literary agent-turned-author Sam Copeland were some of the speakers at the Penguin Random House Children’s Showcase with themes around transgender issues, experiences of psychosis and how to cope with anxiety as a small child.
Francesca Dow, m.d. of PRH Children’s, also discussed why children’s books were “needed more than ever” given the current sense of “challenge and dissent” with a number of collaborations and partnerships unveiled.
Joining Boyne, Blackman and Copeland were eight other writers discussing their books published by PRH Children’s in 2019: Sabina Radeva, Humza Arshad, Henry White, Emma Smith-Barton, Dapo Adeola, Nathan Byron, Karen McManus and L C Rosen.
Dow said: “In this current time of challenge and dissent, it can be a good time for creativity because it introduces different voices, and different points of view and different experiences and books in that sense have never been more important. The best children’s books spark empathy and they help children make sense of themselves and the world around them and that’s needed more than ever before.”
Shannon Cullen, publishing director for Ladybird, talked about the publisher’s pre-school plans with many partnerships and collaborations planned, including expansion into the live events scene.
“Throughout 2019 we will continue to be at the forefront of pre-school licensing, looking for and publishing the big brands of tomorrow. Our 2019 publishing also kicks off a huge brand campaign and includes the launch of a huge Ladybird personalised email programme, tailor-made with today’s parents and carers in mind and bespoke to the individual needs of their child.”
“In May, we will launch our industry-leading book club partnership with parent socialising app, Peanut. Later that month it’s Ladybird Rhyme and Rave, our collaboration with family entertainment company Raver Tots, tapping into the huge live experiences scene that modern parents embrace,” she added.
She also hinted of “exciting partnerships for our relaunch year, which we need to keep under our hats for a little while longer” as well as “further collaborations including the new faces of Ladybird, our parenting influencers.
The theme of mental health was prominent at the showcase. Rogers, Coleridge and White agent Copeland, whose six-figure deal for Puffin was revealed in 2017, talked about how the insights gleaned from his psychologist wife helped Charlie Changes Into a Chicken.
“Charlie faces all sorts of problems and as a result is a very anxious child,” Copeland said. “My wife is a psychologist and teaches mindfulness to children. I began to subtly show interest in her work, I carefully noted everything she said then stole all her opinions and inserted them into a book and as all good husbands have done for centuries, stole the credit from my wife.”
Smith-Barton also discussed how her YA book, The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, was driven by a desire to explore mental health issues and the surrounding stigma. “I was inspired by someone really close to me going through a psychotic episode, it was a really tough time and obviously it’s a traumatic thing to go through but then also rebuilding their life and the stigma they faced, there’s hardly any media representation or accurate media representation of psychosis, this is explored in my book so I wanted to do something to that conversation going. I also wanted to write about anxiety, I suffered from this in my early 20s, I had anorexia, at the time there were no conversations so it became a shameful thing I was going through.
Boyne revealed how his own experience of his sharing his sexuality influenced the isolation he wanted to explore in My Brother’s Name is Jessica, about a teenage boy who identifies as a girl. He said: "While I haven’t gone through the experience [these characters have gone through] I do know what it’s like to grow up feeling different to other people and to be frightened about what that difference might mean… when I was starting to realise I was gay, the idea terrified me. I told no one because I didn’t think anyone would understand and it took until I was 20 to be honest with people."
To end the night, Blackman talked about her eagerly-awaited Noughts & Crosses series, revealing she thought she “had left that world” but was inspired by current events.
She said: “In the news there were more reports about more young people in particular being the victims and sometimes the perpetrators of knife crimes. Toby, a minor character in Checkmate, began whispering in my ear ‘Tell me story, tell my story!’ and he wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote it.”