Telling NLA stories: Meet the publisher - Part 2

Telling NLA stories: Meet the publisher - Part 2
NLA Publishing tells amazing stories from the Library's collection—here's how
15 October 2015

I have always been passionate about children's books and their capacity to teach through entertaining. I wanted to bring the collection to a young audience (our Trove users of the future!) and their parents and this was why I started the children's list at the National Library of Australia in 2005. It's a creative use of the collection to suit a younger audience. When I talk about our children's books at preschools, many parents don't realise that the Library collects more than just books and are surprised to see maps, paintings and photographs used in our children's books.

After some smaller ABC and colouring books, the first book that really took off was the simple flap book I wrote myself to kickstart the list, Guess Who? It uses John Gould's animal illustrations from 1863, which through the use of clever book design (lots of close-ups) are as appealing today as they were when they were created.

In order to create it, I visited a few preschools and talked to the teachers and the children about their favourite books and successful formats. It was fascinating talking to the kids about the books they chose to take home from the preschool library! There were always favourites, but any book that the teacher had read aloud became one of the top choices, possibly as the teacher had brought it to life and engaged them with the content. So, when you are publishing books for young children, you are really publishing books that have to appeal to the age group, but also to teachers and parents. All our preschool titles are road tested in schools by some kind teachers who read them aloud in ‘mock-up' stage.

Susan Hall's notes for Guess Who?Guess Who? mock-up

My notebook showing sketches of ideas for Guess Who? alongside an early design mock-up with flaps.

Based on these visits, I decided to create a book about Australian animals with ever-popular flaps for discovery. Guess Who? is still selling well and I have great affection for it, but now the list has some wonderful established writers and contemporary illustrators.

A good example is Tea and Sugar Christmas by Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen,which has won a swag of awards. This book uses a wonderfully written fictional story, which has its base in history represented in the collection. The Tea and Sugar Train ran along the Nullarbor Plain, servicing all the settlements along the line. At Christmas time, Father Christmas rode the train and delivered presents to all the children. The train last ran in 1996. We used the traditional picture book format of story and illustration, and added our collection items at the end in a child-friendly information section. Robert Ingpen's wonderful cut-away illustrations show the baker and butcher carriages on the train in great detail. The use of flaps in the book was a result of a working meeting between Jane, Robert and Jacinta (Jane's agent), where we workshopped various production options and decided that flaps would be a great way to use Robert's wonderful pencil sketches of the characters, which would open to reveal the full-colour historical scene underneath. Kids love flap books, although of course they do get damaged more easily through use. The paper stock has to withstand handling by small fingers!

Double-page spread from Tea and Sugar Christmas

One of Robert Ingpen's beautiful drawings of the Tea and Sugar Train showing the book's main character, Kathleen, pushing a wheelbarrow.

This Is Captain Cook by Tania McCartney and Christina Booth is another picture book created in a similar way, with a fictional story and commissioned illustrations followed by an information section (in this case showcasing the Endeavour journal and other Cook items we have in the collection).

The NLA Publishing team comes up with book ideas based on wonderful things we see in the collection, but authors can also make a submission based on the collection for consideration by the Library's Publications Committee. We like to publish a range of authors—from historians to journalists. For example, you might be surprised to find that H.G. Nelson is on our list! He has written the commentary to our book about Aussie slang, Fair Dinkum.

I believe that a book as a tangible object should be usable, beautiful and long-lasting. There is still a place for beautifully produced quality books in the modern ebook world. We take great care in our editorial and design stages, which sometimes means our books take quite a long time to produce: on average, 18 months to 2 years from delivery of manuscript. We know that our customers have certain expectations of a book from the National Library of Australia.