From the archives: Interview with Helen Chamberlin

This interview, from 2012, still contains many gems from one of Australia’s most esteemed editors and publishers (and winner of the 2014 Dromkeen Medal) – Helen Chamberlin.

Shaun Tan describes her as “wonderful”, Mark Wilson as “brilliant”. Helen Chamberlin’s influence on Australian picture books today, however, is probably best summed up by this quote from the LaTrobe University website:

“Helen epitomises the best of editorship, a quiet voice standing in the shadows behind the public faces, shaping and guiding, challenging and demanding.”

During her 19 years as children’s book publisher for the independent, family-owned Australian publishing company Lothian Books (now owned by Hachette Publishing Australia), Helen built a prize-winning picture book list. Some of the award-winning and shortlisted titles she has worked on include: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival; Neil Curtis and Joan Grant’s Cat and Fish; Narelle Oliver’s Sand Swimmers; and David Miller’s Refugees.


Seven years ago, I emailed Helen a draft of my book The People Upstairs after she kindly agreed to look it over. In March 2009, four weeks after having my second child, I paid her a visit at home to discuss the book. I remember sitting in her slate-floored kitchen and sipping Lady Grey as she calmly went through page after page, explaining her notes and making suggestions.

“So there’s hope for it then?” I quavered, a bit overwhelmed.
Helen looked up: “Oh, I think it’s good. But you have just had a baby haven’t you? When are you going to work on it now?”
“Oh I’ll manage”, I replied blithely, still in the ‘alternative-reality’ state of early motherhood. “I can do it when he’s sleeping”.

The People Upstairs progresses gradually. Helen, however, responded to an interview request in trademark prompt fashion:

Interview with Helen Chamberlin : 2012

Your early background is in child education. How did your years as a secondary school teacher inform your work?
As I was an English teacher of Years 7-12 I kept in touch with that broad age group’s concerns and interests, and their reading tastes. Probably most importantly, I was impressed by the idealism of the senior students which caused a lifelong interest in and concern for young people – plus a continuing puzzlement about what happens to that idealism and why!

You worked in educational publishing for several years before starting at Lothian Publishing. When you reached the position of Children’s Book Publisher there, did you feel you’d arrived in your ideal job?
The reasons I was given that job were quite pragmatic – it was because of the contacts I had established with children’s authors and illustrators in the course of working in educational publishing, and I happened to turn up at Lothian at a time when they were wanting to expand their then tiny children’s list. I gradually realised how much I loved working on picture books in particular, but across the children’s list, because it drew on all my work experience, was allied with my ongoing interest in children and young adults, and meant that I was working with like-minded people in the authors and illustrators.

When you first read a manuscript, do you feel you know immediately when it will make a good picture book? What qualities would it have?
I can by now tell pretty immediately, but it is hard (for me) to articulate, I guess because it feels quite intuitive. That’s not very helpful, I’m sorry! The text would have to convince me instantly, which comes down to an honest, convincing and moving voice for me. Then it would have to be original in content or ‘angle’ – I see so many texts which are competently written and appropriate in tone, but which deal in a conventional way with subjects that have been done a thousand times before. Of course there are universal and perennial topics, but they need to have a fresh, original angle, viewpoint, twist and/or voice.

For many picture books the text is minimal and the meaning may not be clear without illustration. Where a writer has created a book like this, do they provide a storyboard to show how the illustrations will complete the story?
Many picture book writers provide verbal indications of what the picture will show where it is not clear from the text, or in any case. Unless these are needed to make sure the illustrator ‘gets’ it, I prefer not to show author’s illustration suggestions to the illustrators, who need to have their own vision of how a text will work for them to enjoy doing the job.


I’m looking at Cat and Fish, by Joan Grant and Neil Curtis. The text and illustrations work so perfectly with one another. Did this text come to you together with the illustrations? If so, what happens from there?
Yes, in that case the pictures preceded the text, unusually, and I saw both together and loved the whole instantly. Neil Curtis told me that he actually dreamed the images and drew them all as a series. When he showed them to Joan Grant, it was her idea that they would make a great picture book, and so she proceeded to put them in a certain order to create a narrative and supplied the text. Once the book was accepted (after a battle with the salespeople about the unsaleability of black and white picture books), Neil, Joan and I worked on some resequencing of the images and story, which necessitated a couple of new images from Neil, and on finessing the text, then it went to the outstanding designer, Ranya Langenfelds (now Rita Reiter) who brought it all together with her brilliant judgement, eye and typography.

Memorial, by Gary Crew and Shaun Tan, was an Honour Book in the CBCA awards in 2000, how long had you been working with Shaun beforehand? Both Crew and Tan had worked together before. Does this make the process of completing the book easier?
I had been working with Shaun for a couple of years by the time we did Memorial. Gary was the editor of our After Dark series of macabre stories and one of the authors in the series suggested that Shaun could illustrate his story – he was familiar with Shaun’s work in Eidolon, the science fiction magazine. So Gary and I had chosen Shaun to do several books in the After Dark series, and then Gary wrote The Viewer specially for Shaun to illustrate. It won the Crichton Award. Gary then wrote Memorial, again for Shaun specifically, and they worked very closely and directly together on both books. It is definitely an advantage in terms of the unity of the work to have so close a cooperation and relationship between author and illustrator.


With The Rabbits, did John Marsden choose Shaun Tan to work on his text? What would your role be in this type of collaboration (in particular, I’m thinking how exciting it must have been to see Shaun Tan’s creations as they emerged from his studio)?
I chose Shaun for The Rabbits, in consultation with John, of course, not just for the aesthetic quality of his work but because the text required the hugely intelligent interpretive skill and judgement which Shaun had already demonstrated with the earlier work.

It was always tremendously exciting to see Shaun’s first concepts because of the unexpectedness of his approach and the beauty of the images. In the case of The Rabbits, we first saw his stylised rabbit character sketches, which had been a big challenge with that text – how to portray the colonisers in a symbolic way – and it was so obvious he had nailed it in one, apart from the beauty of the images. Of Shaun’s books, perhaps the most powerful first impression was the first storyboard of The Arrival, which was so complete and moving, though just little black and white pencil sketches.


As the design of picture books becomes more adventurous, the role of the book designer is becoming more prominent. Are most designers working in-house at the publishers, or do the publishing houses use freelance designers? And do you have a favourite designer?
At Lothian and Hachette we always used freelance designers, and that is generally more common than in-house ones for picture books at least. It’s really important, I think, to be able to choose the right designer for a picture book, as they are so critical to the unity of the book. You need a wide choice. I have several favourite designers, one of whom I have mentioned above (Ranya Langenfelds – now Rita Reiter), but I would rather not name any more names for fear of offending others!

What, for you, makes a perfect picture book?
Hard question! I guess it has to be beautiful and unified, in a nutshell – an aesthetic whole in which text and images seamlessly inform one another, but that sounds a bit wanky, I’m afraid!

What books inspired you and your children growing up?
I tend to remember the novels rather than picture books which inspired me as a child way back then, though I remember individual images as having fascinated me – those from the Little Grey Rabbit series, for example, and black and white vignette chapter-opening ‘storybook’ illustrations (not unlike the Windy Hollow logo, actually).
For my son and stepchildren favourite picture books were Where the Wild Things Are, Aranea, Ten Monster Islands, Two Bored Pigs and other titles by Helen Oxenbury and John Birmingham, and anything by Bob Graham; in novels, all Paul Jennings, John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, Foxspell and Space Demons by Gillian Rubenstein, Strange Objects by Gary Crew, The Blooding by Nadia Wheatley.

Are there any recent picture books, such as this week’s CBCA winners, that you are particularly excited by?
Of this year’s winners I love Freya Blackwood’s work, so Maudie and the Bear caught my eye; also Tohby Riddle’s My Uncle’s Donkey and Jeannie Baker’s Mirror; and I am intrigued, as a frustrated graphic novel publisher, by Nicki Greenberg’s Hamlet.


Are there advantages – apart from a larger paycheck – to being a writer/illustrator? If so what are they? Is it a risky approach to take?
I love it when the illustrator and author are one person, even better when they are also a designer – it makes for such great unity of vision. In what sense risky? As long as you are as good an illustrator as you are a writer, it is an advantage. I guess if you had doubts about one side or the other it would be worth considering illustrating a more established writer’s work, when you are starting out, or having a more established illustrator illustrate your text, in terms of being more likely to be published and sell.
But if you are equally passsionate about your writing and artwork, I think it’s worth persevering with the full package.

I hear “you may as well publish it yourself” a lot these days. What would you advise someone planning on self-publishing?
It is so hard to get a foot in the door, to get an agent or a publisher to look at your work, these days and particularly with the market how it is at the moment, that I would say go for it. At the very least you will end up with a published book to show to commercial publishers when you are trying to place the next work. I would strongly advise professional editing and designing though, despite the cost.

I have friends who are collaborating privately on picture books, where one designs and illustrates and the other writes. Do you think, in this situation, it would be best for them to consult with a publisher or editor before getting carried away?
Yes, it would definitely be wise, and the collaborators should also be prepared for a publisher liking the text but not those illustrations or vice versa, as often happens when the two are presented together.

E-books: most of what I see online is not very exciting, but that would perhaps change if well-known authors started to publish online. Do you think E-books pose a threat to traditional publishing?
Ebook publishing is still publishing – an author at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival said ‘it’s just reading the page under glass’. Of course it does pose a threat to print publishing but publishers need to get their act together (some are, of course) and embrace both forms. To me it’s just a new format – it’s still words, text, an author’s voice and vision. However, though I don’t worry about novels, I do worry a bit about the aesthetics of picture books transferred to the small screens of Ereaders.

What advice would you give to someone who mentions to you: “I’ve written a children’s book – well it’s sort of an idea for my kids”?
I would want to look at the work before advising, but in general I feel obliged to tell would-be children’s authors about the market and how difficult it is, especially at the moment, and to ask them to do some homework in looking in good children’s bookshops, libraries and schools, to see what is working (not to mention what has been done before).

Thank you Helen!

Back to our meeting in March 2009 – after providing much-needed encouragement and advice, Helen also gave me some valuable extra feedback:

As I prepared to leave, I began: “I have a few other ideas you know…”. “Oh, yes?” she enquired, ever polite. “Um, there’s this one…”. I passed her the draft text for an original picture book idea of mine, an idea based on a friend’s story about his family’s peach tree. Then I nipped down the corridor to the loo. On my return, she was just finishing the copy.

“So, is there anything in that one?” I asked nervously.
“Oh, not really.” she said “This subject matter has been covered many times before, and also there’s not enough happening. If you were to use the peach tree episode as a backdrop, perhaps to an interesting event in a child’s life, it might work. But there’s not much to go on at the moment.”

Having experienced Helen’s guidance first hand, I’m deeply grateful to her for – in that short meeting – saving me a lot of wasted effort. I realised then that the first idea we have, perhaps the one that inspires us to create words and pictures, the “this would be a great children’s book” idea, is merely a seed. As we grow and learn, many of those “inspired” creations will wither in the early pages of discarded sketchbooks. And this is no bad thing.

Helen Chamberlin now works as a publishing consultant and freelance editor on children’s books and adult fiction and publishes a picture book list with Windy Hollow Books, a small, independent Melbourne-based publishing house. Manuscripts can be sent to her there; details are on the submissions page.

To read more, there’s a great article on JR Poulter’s Crichton Award winning picture book Mending Lucille, where she worked closely with Helen, and it’s always a pleasure to read the background to Shaun Tan’s mesmerising work on his site.

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