It is more than likely that any baby or toddler of your acquaintance would, if they were able to speak, extol the virtues of Usborne's That's Not My . . . series. The board book series, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year, is certainly popular with their parents, selling more than two million copies in the UK on Nielsen BookScan. August sees the publication of the 30th title, That's Not My Polar Bear, which continues the tradition of bright pictures with patches of different textures to develop babies' sensory awareness.
The author is Fiona Watt, also editorial director at Usborne, who is quick to share the credit for the series' enormous success when we meet in her office, bookshelves crammed with all the titles she's worked on (over a hundred as author including the entire That's Not My . . . series) and artwork in progress piled high. "That's the thing about Usborne, as we do everything inhouse I don't see myself as a great author in the conventional sense of being an author. Although people try to tell me I am," she laughs. "It's very much an Usborne product, even though we have our names on the spine."
"We've been amazed by the sales" she says, "they just seem to appeal. I think partly it's Rachel's very, very simple artwork, its bright colours— we haven't gone for the soft baby pinks and blues, we've gone for the strong colours." Rachel Wells, formerly an inhouse designer at Usborne but now based in Scotland, has illustrated every That's Not My . . . title over the past decade, and Fiona says they work closely together to develop each book: "It's very much a team effort between the two of us."
Each That's Not My . . . book starts life in a "new ideas" meeting attended by senior Usborne executives, and once a subject has been settled on Watt will come up with a list of attributes— so for Polar Bear, it is ears, claws, nose. It's not as easy as you might think to come up with a suitable subject as Watt notes: "People might say 'Why don't you do That's Not My Dolphin?' but they don't actually have enough attributes that you can 'cut off' and put touchy-feely bits in. This is what we've tried to do compared with our competitors, quite often they'll just cut a patch out of the side but we won't do that."
Watt is able to indulge her love of fabrics and materials and she shows me a book of samples with infectious enthusiasm: "I pick up things all over the place. I'm always begging samples in shops." She has been known to send a corrugated cardboard sleeve from a take-away coffee cup to the printers asking them to match it. Variety is the key when it comes to the words and the fabrics "so you haven't just got fluffy things, or soft things".
Watt was interested in art from an early age, and originally wanted to become an artist, but made the pragmatic decision to train as a teacher at Exeter University rather than go to art school. While still at Exeter she was approached by a company who developed teaching materials for children on educational visits at museums, stately homes and zoos. She then took teaching jobs in Sevenoaks, Kent, and Holland— "I was very keen to do something different and, with a teaching background, it was easy to get a job in Europe". She applied for a job as assistant editor at Usborne while still in Holland, having made the decision to leave teaching, and has worked her way up.
To have stayed for 20 years must mean she loves her job. She smiles: "It's a great place to work. I remember years and years ago Peter Usborne saying that he always wanted a company where nobody would get that Monday morning feeling. And, having taught, I knew what that Monday morning feeling was. It's just a happy team. Being an independent publisher we have a lot of say in what we do."
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