Rachel Lawson Talks with Roger

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After about thirteen years of distributing Gecko Press books from New Zealand, the Lerner Publishing Group acquired Gecko late last year, naming Rachel Lawson, formerly Gecko Press associate publisher, as publisher at large to oversee acquisitions for the imprint. I talk with Rachel below about her history with Gecko and her plans for its future.

Roger Sutton: You’re headed to the Bologna Book Fair soon. Do you find many books at fairs like that?

Rachel Lawson: Oh, yes! Bologna is where ninety, ninety-five percent of what we publish comes from. It’s super important. We set up a schedule of meetings every half hour from 8:30 am until 6:00 pm, and then there are dinners in the evening. It’s very busy, quite full on, and really focused. Because we have such a small list, those relationships with key agents and publishers are vital to what we do. We’ll say, “What are the three books you think really suit us, that you love, that we’re going to love?” It’s helpful that we have a defined and clear understanding of what a Gecko Press book is. Julia Marshall, who founded the business in 2005, has been coming to the fair for eighteen years, and she developed some great relationships. We can be quite efficient; people know our taste and what we’re looking for.

RS: When I was the editor of The Horn Book (which I was until two years ago), we knew a Gecko Press book. There weren’t a lot of publishers you could do that with. We could just tell — author, title, look of the book, binding, size.

RL: Fantastic. There is a real sensibility, which probably began with Julia’s sensibility eighteen years ago. The quality of the writing is important, and we look for a beginning, middle, and end — a proper story.

RS: Praise the Lord! You’d think that would be a basic, right?

RL: It’s easy to get distracted, isn’t it? By beautiful illustrations or a beautiful concept. But ultimately, it’s the four- or six- or eight-year-old who we’re trying to please.

RS: You’re not afraid to be strange, which I admire.

RL: No. When Julia started the business, she was living in Sweden and reading Swedish books — those books were fantastic, but no one else in the world had access to them. She also saw books from other countries that had been translated into Swedish but not into English. If you live in those countries, you have a whole world of books. Why can't English-speaking children have the whole world of books as well? That different perspective and way of seeing sometimes feels weird and unusual, but underneath that there’s the fact we're the same, aren’t we? I love that juxtaposition of unexpected and strange and quite quirky. There’s always something where you're relating as humans across these different cultures and countries.

RS: I always sense warmth in your books.

RL: Oh, absolutely. We're not looking for a cool distance; there's a people-ness and a humanity.

RS: When I talk to contemporaries who grew up in India, South Africa, Australia, they talk about reading books primarily from England. Christmas and snow, for example, were exotic to them. This is a big question: What is the children’s book landscape like in New Zealand now? Do you have New Zealand voices? Your list is a mix of books from New Zealand and books that you’ve published in translation.

RL: There’s, like, three different questions in there, Roger, but the first thing I’d say is that we live here, our office is here, but we see ourselves as international. We publish two or three New Zealand books a year because it’s part of the culture and the place we live, but it’s not the identity of the press particularly.

RS: Did you grow up in New Zealand?

RL: I did. The books that made me a reader were the ones with British children and snow and all that, but I don't think I particularly noticed. They were Puffin books from the 1960s and ’70s. Kaye Webb, that amazing Puffin editor, published fantastic books. We had Margaret Mahy, who was a great New Zealand writer, and we read other New Zealand books, but it was predominantly that Northern Hemisphere stuff. Now it's very different. Probably the biggest boom we've had in New Zealand in the last three years is publishing in the Māori language. People are very keen on local authors and Indigenous writers.

RS: Is there a push for more Māori language learning in schools?

RL: There is. Kids in preschool and early primary school learn Māori as a part of the curriculum. There's a big interest culturally amongst adults, as well, in learning the language. Now Gecko Press is also publishing our best-loved books in Māori, which is quite fun. We're looking for the New Zealand books we think can travel out into the world. A recent book, The Observologist by Giselle Clarkson, sold out instantly, and we're reprinting in America. It has a New Zealand sensibility, lovely dry humor, and science, but accessible in a way that works for America and for the UK.

RS: Tell me about your relationship with Lerner.

RL: They were our U.S. distribution partner for more than ten years before they acquired Gecko as a Lerner imprint, so they knew us, and it's a very nice home for us now. Gecko Press books will stay the same. As an international imprint, it's taking Lerner to the UK and into the world in a different way. It’s a lovely, well-run company with good, warmhearted people. It's like a Gecko Press book, you know?

RS: In the forty years I've been in the field, I've seen Lerner change a lot. At first, they were very institutional, very curriculum focused. They’ve blossomed into what I think is an interesting mix of still being able to respond to the institutional market, but at the same time creating books to be read by children, simply recreationally, at home.

RL: Isn't it clever as a company to be able to have those two strands? We see all the stresses and strains of running a small business with just eighteen or twenty books a year, but to be able to have a reliable, solid strand for the school market is very clever.

RS: What’s your story? How did you end up at Gecko?

RL: I've been with Gecko Press for nine or so years. I started off in literary publishing — fiction and poetry. I lived in Australia for a while and worked on illustrated lifestyle books. When I came to Gecko Press, it felt very much like home. Like everything I've done previously has led to the right place with that combination of stories with the visual elements. I've come through the editorial production side, working with print and designers. With Gecko Press I still do most of the production work and working with the translators; the craft of making a book is what's in my bones. That's why I love children's books because you get to combine all those different aspects of bookmaking.

RS: What I like about your books is that those things all come together in a non-flashy way. Sometimes the text is just an excuse for beautiful pictures, but with Gecko Press books, it's clear that the story comes first.

RL: I love that you say that. That makes me very happy. That's how it should be, and that's what we're aiming for. The illustrations are an important part of it, and the production quality and the paper and all the rest. But you’re right, the story comes first.

RS: All of those things have to work together to support the story. The story is the heart of it.

RL: That's right. There's nothing worse than a picture book where the illustrations are just copying what the words say. You want them to be magnificent but not at the expense of everything else.

RS: What’s it like when you’re looking at a book in a different language and considering it for your list? Do you have translations at the time or summaries?

RL: It depends. Julia speaks Swedish, so a lot of the books are from Sweden. I can read German and French at the children’s-book level fairly well. That’s easiest — when you can read the words and get a sense of the writing. Our relationships with the agents and publishers are important. You get to know them, and they get to know you; they know what you're looking for. We'll ask them, “What kind of book is this? What response have children had?” We’re trying to learn about the writer and what they're known for. They often have sample English translations as well, but they're just functional. Gecko Press has a lovely stable of publishing friends, and we look out for other like-minded publishers around the world. There are a couple of German publishers, an Italian publisher, and Swedish publishers — we know what kind of books they do well. It's an array of things to consider in making the decision.

RS: We used to laugh at reviewers who would review a translated book and say something like “smoothly translated from the Swedish.” I'm thinking, You don't speak Swedish. How do you know it's smoothly translated?

RL: That’s right, exactly.

RS: Your boss now is American, but you're not an American company. You're a New Zealand company — but does it matter? It seems like we're all connected in such a different way than, say, twenty-five years ago.

RL: I was thinking about how Lerner is completely happy that I can work from my office in Wellington and still be part of their business. Before COVID that might not have been so easy, but now it's not so different from being in the same city. It's fantastic.

RS: Are you always working at 3:00 in the morning?

RL: No. There are things I can get done while you're sleeping, and then I go to sleep and wake up to one hundred emails. I have a fantasy that I might do the job from France in a couple of years. Wouldn't that be nice?

RS: Sure! I mean, the Horn Book doesn't even have an office anymore. They all work out of their homes.

RL: I don’t know if I'd like that ultimately though. I love being able to look up and say, “What do you think about this or that?” It’s different through email.

RS: I used to hear Book Reviews Editor Martha Parravano shriek from her desk, and I'd race over to see what she was reading. It was often some horror that had been visited upon the office in the form of a book or an email or a blog post. Sometimes we had an article come out of that. It sparks ideas.

RL: Absolutely. When I first started working at Gecko Press, we were in a shared office with a whole lot of freelancers. There was this quiet little man in the corner, who used to pop over all the time and say, “Would Gecko Press please stop laughing quite so loudly?” It wasn't just that we were having fun. Sometimes we were working on our sales presentation, and the three of us had good thoughts about each thing. As part of the editorial process, we always read the picture books out loud. Lots of colleagues from over the wall would say, “God, I love working with you! I sit at my desk and hear this picture book in the middle of the day.”

RS: How often do you think you'll find yourself in Minneapolis?

RL: It would be nice to come on the way to or from Bologna. I go to Bologna every year, and that's already on the other side of the world. Maybe once a year.

RS: I’m trying to picture it on the globe; could you fly via Minneapolis?

RL: It makes it longer. Usually, I go via Dubai.

RS: Ah, the other direction.

RL: Worth it though. A longer trip but worth it.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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