Ex Libris Online: Q&A with Children’s Lit Expert Johanna Geary

ex Libris MC (2)Every Friday this summer, check out Cola Town {Curated} for book reviews on children’s literature! Summer reading time is here, and there is no better way to inspire your child of any age to read than to introduce them to the exciting stories found in the pages of children’s and YA books. Children’s literature contains the books that first awaken the passion of reading for most individuals. This was certainly the case for me, and while that love of reading has carried me into many other wonderful genres as an adult, I still take express pleasure in a good children’s book (especially when it involves magic!).

For even more book recommendations, check out our article in last year’s June issue, Lighting an Insatiable Fire, where we have a book suggestion and review for every grade level K5-12 as well as a list of book recommendations for children in Elementary, Middle and High School.

To kickoff this exciting series, I was very excited to have the opportunity to sit down with Johanna Geary, Managing Editor at The Folio Society and expert in children’s literature, and ask her a few questions.

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Q: What was your favorite book as a child?

A: My favorite book was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery – and it’s still my favorite book as an adult. When I was young I loved Anne for all the vibrancy of her character. To me she was a real girl, and Avonlea was a real place – beautifully written and completely realised. As I grew older and learned more about Montgomery’s own life, which both overlaps and differs from Anne’s in complicated ways, the novel became even more fascinating.

Q: What inspired you to specialize in children’s literature?

A: Although children’s books are more celebrated than ever before, they are still often considered a lesser form of literature. But for most of us, childhood is when our love of books and reading is instilled. More than that, these are the first books that shape how we think and what we understand about the world around us. For me it’s the most important form of literature.

 Q: What is it about children’s literature that you enjoy most? What do you find most challenging about it?

A: Writing for children both offers limitless possibilities and demands strict discipline. When it comes to material for a story, anything is up for grabs, which means that writers can experiment with genre, setting, and narrative voice. But children are harsh and honest critics. If a story or character doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t matter how inspired or original the idea behind it is. Even while it deals with big ideas and sweeping themes, children’s writing must be economical. A descriptive paragraph may be finely crafted and beautifully written, but most importantly it has to tell the reader something new or move the story forward.

 Q: Why should adults read children’s lit?

A: For the same reasons that we read any form of literature. The best children’s books offer us the same things as the most highly regarded literary fiction: crafted prose, well-rounded characters, gripping stories and compelling ideas. For some writers, children’s literature even offers a freer space to explore challenging or controversial ideas. As Madeline L’Engle wrote, ‘You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.’

Q: What is your favorite part about your job at The Folio Society?

A: A big part of what we do at Folio is to bring classic children’s books to a new generation of readers, particularly through new illustrations and introductions. It’s very rewarding to bring a fresh illustrative approach to a classic text, and a joy to talk to contemporary authors about books they loved as children, and the stories that went on to influence their own writing. Jeanette Winterson’s introduction to The Selfish Giant and Other Stories, or Amanda Craig’s piece on What Katy Did offer insight not only into why a particular book was significant or successful at the time of first publication, but also why these stories are so enduringly popular.

 Q: Could you share a few of your favorite stories from working in children’s lit?

A: Illustration is a tricky business. It can be hard for an artist to compete with the pictures we build in our own minds when reading a story, but when it comes together the results can be spectacular. Working on The Owl Service by Alan Garner was one such project. Garner’s novel is a quietly terrifying story, full of subtle yet startling tension that from the outset seemed impossible to capture in an image. But artist Darren Hopes lived up to the challenge: his evocative illustrations are mesmerizing. When choosing an illustrator for A Wrinkle in Time, we had to be particularly mindful of our audience. Madeline L’Engle’s science-fiction classic is read by older and younger readers alike, and we wanted to make sure that the artwork in our edition would appeal to everyone. Sam Richwood’s vibrantly textured paintings straddle the line between old and young perfectly.

 Q: What tips do you have for parents trying to encourage their children to read more?

A: There is more variety in children’s literature than ever before. It can be tempting to encourage children to only read the books we loved when we were young, but when I was a child part of the joy of reading was the element of discovery. Books you found on your own or chose for yourself seemed to belong to you a different way. I would suggest that parents let children explore their own interests through reading, whether that’s fiction or non-fiction.

Johanna Geary is Managing Editor at The Folio Society, publishers of fine, illustrated editions of the world’s greatest books. Geary has been with The Folio Society since 2007, and works primarily on their children’s, poetry and myth titles. An English graduate from the University of Toronto, Geary has worked in publishing since 2002.

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