Inspiring Young Readers
Random ramblings of a small independent publisher
An interview with Anna McQuinn to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Lulu books
I first came across Anna McQuinn in 2014 when she gave a keynote presentation at the IBBY conference at Roehampton University. In her fascinating paper ‘Ebb and flow: The advances and retreats in the battle to make children’s books more inclusive and diverse’ she described herself as a writer, founder and publisher of Alanna Books and a fierce campaigner driven by interests in feminist politics and child development. She talked about how the world of mainstream publishing had made very limited progress with representing minorities in anything but a tokenistic and often biased way. This was despite them being bombarded since the 1970s with well- established research evidence on both the importance and the demand for more inclusive literature as well as projects like the Guidelines and Selected Titles published by The Working Group against Racism in Children’s Resources in 1993, an influential group created by librarians and widened to include people who worked in publishing like herself, Verna Wilkins, Eileen Brown and many other well -known concerned authors. She argued that it was very disappointing to still be having the same frustrating conversations with publishers so many years later. I felt an immediate affinity with this quietly spoken woman who was so passionate about this important subject.
So I was delighted when Anna invited me to interview her for The Letterpress Project in her Slough home which doubles as the base for her publishing company. She was keen to do this as part of celebrating the ten year anniversary of the publication of the first of the wonderful Lulu series of books which have a well- deserved international reputation. I myself have used these as examples of great stories with iconic illustrations when teaching students studying various childcare courses, with children at Letterpress events and more recently with my own little granddaughter, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the eponymous heroine.
Although we have only corresponded by email and Facebook over the past few months, it was like seeing an old friend when she met me in the station car park – strange how that works with some people. In the short journey to her house we had a good easy chat about the dire state of the world and how books might save it from disaster so I was reassured that this was going to be a very pleasant couple of hours.
On the train journey I had been thinking about what I wanted to find out from Anna that I didn’t already know from her conference paper and her website. I had a few loose questions to ask so will use them to structure the following interview, although it has to be said that the whole experience was very informal and more of a friendly rambling conversation over a nice cup of tea and some delicious cakes!
Have you always liked reading and have you any strong memories?
I was born and brought up in a small town in rural Kerry where I lived happily and read avidly for over twenty years. Both of my parents were Primary School teachers but we didn’t own many books, just a few picture books, plus some myths and legends. As a child I was an Enid Blyton fanatic, I particularly remember one big favourite called Mr Pinkwhistle and I read all her other books, mostly borrowed from the local library. When I was still quite young, I remember that I didn’t really understand the idea of chapters and so when an aunt gave me a copy of The Naughtiest Girl in the School, I started in the middle not realising it was one big story.
When I had read everything in the children’s section, Miss Downey, the librarian, gave me an adult ticket as long as I agreed to show her what I wanted to borrow so she could check it was ‘appropriate’ – didn’t think to ask my parent’s permission! So by the age of 10, I was already reading Catherine Cookson and suchlike. There really weren’t any teen or YA literature then so in my early teens I read a lot of Irish and, for no reason I can remember, novels set in Russia: so Liam Ó Flaithearta, Walter Macken and Eilis Dillon together with writers like Daphne du Maurier, Leon Uris and Mikhail Sholokhov were staples. I particularly remember reading one book called Colour Blind which was about a young black girl living in Cornwall – I can’t really remember the story but it made a big impact on me
I’ve recently developed an interest in historical fiction, for example The Swarming of Bees by Theresa Tomlinson which is set in the time of Bede, and I’m in the early stages of writing an adult novel myself and it feels like a liberating experience to be doing something so different. I have been inspired by doing some research when back in Ireland into the life of Daniel O’Connell whom I really admire. He was a huge anti -slavery campaigner and an advocate of human rights in general. I discovered that he was visited by the freed slave Oloudah Equinah who stayed with him for a week in Ireland. I am so intrigued by O’Connell and his influence – did you know that his aunt wrote a very famous long poem called Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire or The Lament for Arthur O’Leary which is well known to Irish children and regarded by scholars as one of the greatest laments ever written?
Where does the Alanna publishing story start and where is it going next?
After completing a BA at Cork University, I trained as a secondary English teacher and then did a Master’s degree based on a Feminist reading of the Gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. Like many others, I made the decision to come to live in England in my mid- twenties for economic reasons and my life then took a different direction. I wasn’t able to teach here as my qualification wasn’t recognised but by then I was very keen to get into the world of publishing. My research into the Gothic novel had shown me how the publishing (of the novel in particular) had opened up the world of writing to women who now no longer needed patrons or an academic education in order to write. As literacy rates improved and publishing presses made literature available to the masses rather than limiting it to the elite, helped to shape and change people’s lives for the better. Publishing books was still potentially revolutionary, powerful and meaningful, and I wanted to be part of it.
I was lucky to eventually find a job working for NFER –Nelson as an editor and then in 1991 joined the staff of the innovative children’s publishing company Child’s Play. I went on to work for several other publishers over the next ten years or so until I was made redundant in 2002.
When I wrote Lulu Loves the Library in 2004, I took the early development to the Bologna Bookfair. I sold the US, Dutch and Danish rights, but I really struggled to find a publisher in the UK. As I finalised the print for those editions I thought, this book needs to be in the UK so I founded Alanna Books. Since then I have published four more with another in the pipeline. I have also expanded to publish other authors – to date these have been from Denmark, France and the US. In total I publish approximately two titles per year. This is plenty as running a publishing company pretty much on my own from home is hard work and time consuming.
What inspired you to write and publish the first Lulu book?
I worked as a Community Librarian for 13 years as part of the Sure Start programme in Acton which is a great job because it involves lots of hands-on sessions with children and their parents. During this time I realised that many parents had not been to a library since they were children and didn’t realise how welcoming it was to even very young children now. I wanted to write about an ordinary little child doing ordinary things but I really wanted her to be a booklover, just as I had been as a child. Everything Lulu does includes consulting at least one book because I want children to see how important they are.
Why do you think the Lulu books have been so successful?
They are certainly very successful with librarians who love Lulu primarily because of the first title, Lulu Loves the Library and they continue to be strongly promoted in libraries. The hardback edition of Lulu Loves the Library sold out very quickly. They are also used widely in many Sure Start Centres and are recommended by many Early Years specialists. They are very popular in the US, Holland, Denmark and Brazil, all of which countries hold publishing rights, and they sell very well in several other countries too. On the other hand, UK bookshops seem to be less enthusiastic because I think they regard them as ‘institutional’ books rather than regular picture books.
This is quite frustrating as they have been widely praised for being warm, child friendly and’ naturally inclusive’. I didn’t consciously decide to make Lulu a Black child, she just turned out that way. When Rosalind Beardshaw showed me her initial ideas for the illustrations – I just knew immediately that was what she looked like.
In the past, Black and other ‘non-white’ children mostly featured in stories that were set in the past or in far-away countries, which often perpetuated ideas of exoticism. There has been great improvement, and many more children are included in modern stories set in the UK. But I am concerned that it continues to be the case that there often needs to be some reason to make a Black child the hero of a story – that they are expected to deal with racism or the story has to teach children not to be racist or some other ‘issue’ in order for a Black child to be included. Amazing Grace was 25 years in print in 2015. It was hugely innovative in the issues it tackled when it was first published and continues to be an important book today, but I feel passionately that we need more stories where Black children get to be at the centre of a story which is not about racism. I’ve tried to make Lulu the hero of an ordinary, everyday world, and she is the hero because she’s a book lover!
Lulu is also at the centre of the story so that she has agency and power in her life, the adults are there to help her to achieve what she wants to do rather than to tell her what to do. I think this is important as I think some literature for very young readers can be patronising.
Will Lulu stay the same age?
I think she needs to stay aged about three and a half because there is still so much for her to do. Books about children of that kind of age are also helpful for parents to be less worried about common problems like coping with a new baby, getting them to sleep etc. I think that story books can be so much more helpful than the traditional ‘parenting advice’ books as they can give the message that life with children is to be enjoyed! I can always introduce older children as relatives or friends to give another dimension.
After our long and very interesting conversation, Anna took me upstairs to see her office where the magic happens. Just an ordinary back bedroom shelved with multiple copies of Alanna publications, including the newest books in the Lulu series: Lulu Loves Flowers and Zeki Can Swim. Most exciting of all, she also gave me a glimpse of the next work in progress on her computer screen, but I am of course sworn to secrecy.
Before I left, she very kindly presented me with a big bag full of books including a signed copy of Lulu Loves Flowers for my granddaughter. Look out for reviews of these on The Letterpress Project website over the next few months. And congratulations to Anna for 10 years of Lulu (so far) and founding such a successful thriving publishing company with the apt slogan ‘Alanna Books …because everyone loves a good story’