One reason Sarah Odedina is happy to be in India is the food. “I have masala dosa for breakfast every morning here,” says the publishing director, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, who has worked with J.K. Rowling on all the Harry Potter titles. She traces her fondness for Indian food to growing up in Mumbai until she was six. Odedina is in New Delhi for Jumpstart, an initiative by the German Book Office that brings authors, illustrators and publishers of children’s books together for a series of workshops, She spoke with Lounge about Harry Potter and children’s publishing. Edited excerpts:
Did J.K. Rowling approach Bloomsbury with Harry Potter?
Kid stories: Odedina says there’s a demand for culture-specific books.
Her agent approached Bloomsbury, and the editor at that time of Bloomsbury Children’s Books acquired the right of the first Harry Potter title. The rumour is she was rejected by other publishing houses and Bloomsbury had the vision and understanding to realize what a spectacular book it was.
How much of Harry Potter’s success is due to Rowling and how much because of Bloomsbury?
I think the success is entirely due to her—her talent, skill and brilliance as an author. We, of course, brought our contribution to the process in terms of marketing and publicity, and so on and so forth, but you can’t sell a mediocre book at this level; it is just not possible.
If they had a choice of either reading the books or seeing the Harry Potter films, what would you recommend to children?
Being a book lover, and seeing the passion and pleasure that children get from reading the book, I would encourage children to read the book. A lot of children start from the film and go back to the book; a lot of children start from the book and go into the film.
Any concerns that, over time, the emphasis on global publishing by multinational publishing firms will make children all over the world read the same few books?
No, not all books will travel. There are certain authors that tell their story in such a way that children all over the world can enjoy them, like J.K. Rowling. Other authors’ books are very particular to a time and place. We publish marvellous authors who do very well in the UK but we don’t sell them abroad. I think as a philosophy for the publishing house, (we should) be aware that we need both styles of writing. Children in Scotland really love to read a woman called Cathy McPhail—a very good author, very accessible with great urban, contemporary gritty social stories. But her stories wouldn’t mean the same to a child in Mumbai or Melbourne.
Children’s titles are now dominated by fantasy and sci-fi genres. What about those not interested in these genres?
In the home market in the UK, we have authors like Jackie Wilson. She writes stories about issues and problems that children often have to deal with in their young lives. So there is the fantastic story called The Illustrated Mum about a child who is brought up by a woman who has mental health problems. She is called “the illustrated mum” because she is heavily tattooed.
That’d be aimed at what age group?
Up to about 11, or 12.
Sounds like a mature subject for a child.
It’s the way Jackie handles it. Children have varied lives—they are not all being picked up from school and being given tea and being allowed to watch television. Some of them are dealing with terrible problems—looking after parents who aren’t well, either because of sickness or because of mental health issues; dealing with parents who are alcoholic; dealing with the break-up of their parents’ relationships. Jackie responds to that social reality. But she writes with a great deal of tact and concern for the age of her readers—so the way things are explained and explored aren’t shocking, they are practical.
What are some of the other genres available for children?
There is a lot available for kids in the UK, we publish thousands of titles a year. In fact, it is arguable that we publish far too many books. You can go into a book shop and you can get a book about a child’s perspective on immigration, Superman, talking pets, science fiction, vampires, fantasy, magic, mythology.
Three children’s books that you recommend for adults?
I am going to be very partisan and recommend only Bloomsbury books—the first Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; Holes by Louis Sachar, which is a masterpiece; and No Matter What, a picture book by an artist called Debi Gliori, which is the most touching, wonderful, life-enhancing book about a relationship between a parent and a child and the reassurance they give one another.