Coffee & Catch Up With Sarah Odedina

For over two decades, children’s books publisher Sarah has worked with some of the world’s best-loved authors including J K Rowling, Louis Sachar, Celia Rees and Neil Gaiman. She is currently editor-at-large for Pushkin Press as well as editor for SCOOP Magazine. Sarah has two daughters, who are both grown up, and two grandsons all of whom love to share stories.

Q) Who was your favourite author or novel as a child and why?

I wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic reader as a child, and remember finding it hard to get hooked by a book, but I did love stories so once I got into an author I was pretty committed! I loved big epic stories, Robinson Crusoe, Little House on the Prairie, the C.S. Lewis books. I still think so fondly of the excitement of starting on Prince Caspian – partly fuelled by the wonderful cover of a boy on a horse racing along between trees. I wanted to be that child and I carried the book around with me endlessly. Enid Blyton was the first ‘author’ I was aware of as a creative person. That was an important moment – realising that real people wrote these books that engrossed me.

Q) A recent study revealed that children are rejecting the classics in favour of modern titles. What do you think about that and should we care?

I don’t think it matters at all if children are not reading the classics (whatever they may be and whoever gets to make that decision). The world is a changing place and fiction reflects those changes. Perhaps the classics just feel too out of touch for many children, or too slow in terms of how their stories build. Writing styles have changed, voices are different and children’s reading tastes are different too. I think it is more important that diversity is reflected in the books young people are able to read. I suspect it is more likely to engage young readers if they can see something of their own lives in a book and while the books considered classics are often amazing reads, they may not offer a child the kind of engagement that contemporary fiction does.

Q) With such a huge array of children’s books now available, particularly from celebrity authors, as an editor what qualities do you look for and how do you know if a book will be a success?

I look for a compelling story with deeper meanings and themes. I like multi-dimensional stories that work on a number of levels and therefore satisfy readers in different ways. Funny books with heart and soul, socially conscious books with humour. I like it when a book can surprise you and when it delivers its message with subtlety and wit. I also really need characters that are relatable, flawed, real people. Characters whose actions feel plausible and of course a flawed character is so much more relatable as we are all a little bit flawed. You never know if a book is going to be successful in terms of sales, reviews and awards. You have only your enthusiasm to go on. I have published books that I have loved with a passion that have failed to sell well, and others that I have been surprised and delighted by the scale of the response. This lack of certainty is one of the most fun and frustrating things about our business.  In the end, we have to keep the faith in our books and hope that the world of readers will agree with our choices.

Q) Why did you co-create Scoop Magazine and how do you attract such giants of children’s literature to contribute?

We created SCOOP to make a range of great writing available to children in a magazine format, bite-sized pieces of work that a child can dip in and out of complemented with beautiful design and art to give the child a precious and covetable magazine of their own. Children do love the printed format, they are not all reading everything on the screen, far from it. SCOOP is part of our on-going relationship with the printed word. We have been incredibly fortunate receiving the phenomenal support of writers who, like us, feel that there are lots of great ways to share reading with young people. SCOOP is simply another way of offering children great reading and writers are always really keen to support us.

Q) I have to ask about your experience with the Harry Potter series, but there are just too many questions. Could you please share your thoughts on what it was like to be involved in probably the most incredible publishing phenomenon of all time?

Being involved with Harry Potter was a huge gift. The first book was bought by Bloomsbury as we acquired all titles – based on the wonderful voice of the author, her gifts as a storyteller and her vision. It was championed in-house as a book that we felt children would love. Within a very short time of publishing HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE we started to get letters from young readers, lots of letters, asking for more and we knew then that something pretty exciting was going on. Never in our wildest dreams could we have seen the scale of what was going to happen with the series but we did know then, as we know now,  that Jo Rowling is an amazingly talented author with a unique gift for original, funny, touching and important story telling. The success of the series really did move the bar, both in terms of how the publishing industry viewed the contribution of the children’s sector as well as how editors started to think more broadly about the sorts of books that we could publish for young readers. I think that the Harry Potter series changed the world of children’s publishing.

Q) You have worked with so many amazing children’s authors throughout your career. Do you have any advice for parents who struggle to get their children to enjoy read and which authors / books would you recommend for reluctant readers.  

As someone who herself took a while to really grow a love of reading I think parents have to trust that given a range of choices, and no pressure, children will find the books that they are interested in and will go from there. I would not recommend any books to any child without knowing what those children are into – is it dinosaurs, science, football, space travel? Then I would start thinking about books that complement those wider interests. It is only by trying to build links between a child’s interest and their imagination, and showing how reading can feed both, that we can go some way to help children engage with books. There are wonderful booksellers and librarians who can really help with choices when asked for books about specific subjects and they are by far the best people to advise.

Sarah is currently organising a writers conference in London in July to help emerging authors polish their writing skills as well as prepare their work for submission to publishers and agents (writersworkshop.blog). Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahodedina.  

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