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Q&A: kidlit specialist Vikki VanSickle

You would be forgiven for thinking that children’s literature specialist Vikki VanSickle must never sleep. In February, the Toronto author released Days that End in Y, the third book in her Clarissa trilogy, and she has another middle-grade novel, Summer Days, Starry Nights, due to hit shelves in June (both from Scholastic Canada). She is also a marketing specialist at Harper­Collins Canada, where she manages the company’s school outreach program.

In addition to her day job, VanSickle lectures on kidlit and writes book reviews, and is co-creator of Small Print Toronto’s Story Jams, a series of workshops for kids. Q&Q asked VanSickle about her busy career, and her view of children’s publishing in Canada.

What compels you to work so hard in kidlit? I started my M.A. in children’s literature in 2005 and have been working in the industry  in some capacity ever since. My twin passions “ children and literature “ dovetailed nicely into a career, and I feel lucky to play a role in so many different facets of an industry I love. When things start to compromise my writing time I scale back, but I find it difficult to turn down work that I genuinely enjoy.

How has your marketing job changed the way you promote your own work? I was involved in social media, organizing launches, and booking my own school visits before I started at HarperCollins, but now I have a much better sense of the scope of possibility in marketing and the importance of accurately representing my work to the right market.

The children’s industry has many specific niches. Media, festivals, schools, bookstores, libraries, and bloggers all have different interests and needs. It’s important to recognize this in your marketing efforts. As an author, I can relate to the all-encompassing and often tiring work of self-promotion, which I hope makes me more empathetic to the authors I work with.

What is most exciting about children’s publishing in Canada? The industry is very grants-driven, which provides some financial security and allows publishers the freedom to publish interesting, risky fiction and relevant non-fiction. Our writers are doing intriguing things, and editors are picking up on this. Canadian publishers do not need to churn out high-concept, formulaic series in order to stay afloat, which allows for greater diversity.

What’s most frustrating? The most frustrating part by far is the lack of media attention. Book coverage in general is shrinking, but the lack of children’s coverage is embarrassing in a country that produces such internationally respected children’s literature. When I was a bookseller [at the defunct Flying Dragon Bookshop in Toronto], customers came to me completely overwhelmed, with no idea where to start. In the absence of a devoted bookseller and without quality review coverage, where does the average person looking to purchase a children’s book turn?

Will ebooks be the death of traditional children’s books? More adults are discovering the pleasures of children’s books through digital formats, which is wonderful exposure for our industry. As for apps, I think they will develop into their own genre, a sort of hybrid between computer games and picture books. There are already apps and enhanced ebooks that offer an extended reading experience, much like special features on a DVD.

I think this is all good news for children’s books and literacy. Regardless of the format, we will need good content and creative design. Even as ebooks and apps become more sophisticated, I can’t imagine a time when children won’t crave the sensory, tactile experience of reading a physical book.

What is the climate in children’s publishing right now? The climate is, as always, one of cautious optimism. We are a modest industry, financially speaking. Nobody decides to work in Canadian children’s publishing for any reason but pure passion. How many other industries can say that?