INTERVIEW: Publisher and Editor Sarah Odedina on African YA and Children’s Literature

I have no doubt that the world of children’s literature is just as sophisticated and complex and literary and worthy as the world of adult literature. Sarah Odedina

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he name ‘Sarah Odedina’ is not just a household name in the world of Young Adult or Children’s Literature, but also a promise of a great reading adventure ahead.

Sarah Odedina recently demonstrated, yet again, that she has a keen eye for great stories and understands the need for accurate representation, when she brought the first Young Adult novel, ‘The Deep blue Between’, by Senegal-based author Ayesha Harruna Attah, to Pushkin Press for publication.

After having read and reviewed ‘The Deep blue Between’, we could not help ourselves, and had to speak to Sarah Odedina about the book, the publication and editing process behind it, the publishing of African YA books, and her impressive career so far.

As expected, Sarah’s answers to our, admittedly, sometimes cheeky, questions, were  insightful and intelligent.

So, for more details of what we touched on in our discussion, keep reading and enjoy!

A: Let’s start with the basics, for those who do not know you, could you please introduce yourself – tell us who you are, what you do for a living, what you’re passionate about, and anything else that you’d like to share?

S: I am Sarah Odedina and I am a publisher of children’s books and content.  I have various hats:  I am Editor-at-Large for Pushkin Press where I commission around 8 titles a year for readers from 8 to 18, I am Editor of a bi-monthly magazine called Scoop for readers aged between 8 and 12 and I am a partner in a new venture called Accord Literary which is a mentoring and support literary agency for writers based in Africa who are writing for children. Each of these roles is about children’s reading and encouraging a greater range of voices, a wider style of books and a more diverse network of creators.  I have worked in the field of children’s literature for well over 20 years now and feel that it is one of the most important areas of the publishing world – we get to work on amazing books with hugely talented authors but also get to create a truly literate reading culture.

A: ‘Sarah Odedina’ is a name that many associate with Children’s (or YA) Literature. Could you tell us a bit about your career in publishing? When did you decide to get into publishing, and what made you decide to focus on YA / children’s books in the first place?

S: I started working in publishing in my 20’s when I realised that the PhD I was doing (contemporary African literature with a focus on Nigeria) was thrilling to me but one removed from what really excited me which is the stories themselves – so I got a job in publishing.  I have worked on the sales side and on the editorial side and it was when I got in to the position of working with authors that I realised I had found my niche.  It is such a wonderful job!  I get to work with writers, to talk about stories all day long, to read and read to my hearts content AND to get those books out in to the world and in to the hands of readers world wide.  It is a job I am honoured to have.  I have no doubt that the world of children’s literature is just as sophisticated and complex and literary and worthy as the world of adult literature – but we have the added bonus of engaging with an audience who, once bitten, become readers for life.  Reading is a joy that tends to stay with us.

A: From an editor’s perspective, what do you think the current YA publishing sphere looks like in the UK – especially in relation to books like ‘The Deep Blue Between’, and what would you potentially like to see change? 

S: I think that the publishing scene in the UK is finally genuinely open to books from writers from a wide and diverse range of backgrounds and cultures.  The walls of our rather small minded thinking about what young people want to read and who is reading have been firmly knocked down.  I have championed books by writers from all over the world and all social and racial background all my working career and in the past it was hard to get sales people and booksellers to take notice – now they have finally caught on to the audience who are demanding these books and they are very receptive to books like The Deep Blue Between.  It is a long time coming!  There are still changes that we need of course and we have to make sure that the industry does not sink in to a contented sense of tokenism, that we allow writers to write the stories that they want to write rather than pigeon-hole them and ask them to write books that ‘we’ expect them to write.  We also need to be sure that as an industry we support diverse writers in terms of developing their careers rather than look for the one big hit.

A: Can you tell us a bit about ‘Accord Literary’, what inspired its creation, what position it occupies in the writing to publishing pipeline, and what you hope to achieve with (and through) it in the near and distant future?

S: Accord Literary is a partnership between myself and Deborah Ahenkorah who is based in Accra.  We both work in the field of children’s literature and feel that there is a space for more African voices in the world of children’s books.  We are also aware that while in the USA and much of Europe there is a wonderful support network open to writers that does not immediately extend to the African continent.  Our plan is to offer workshops and seminars to writers based in Africa and also to work with writers to help them get their books in to a position where they can be published around the continent and internationally.  Our aim short terms is to help develop writers based in Africa by sharing our know-how and knowledge of writing and the industry and our aim long term is to be part of developing the culture of great African children’s literature and to get those stories into the hands of readers world wide.

A: On the back of the Advance Copy of ‘The Deep Blue Between’, it states that it is a ‘Sarah Odedina’ book. Could you tell us a bit about the publishing process of Ayesha’s book, how you came about it, and what made you think that this is a book you would like to see published? 

S: I met Ayesha at Pa Gya! Festival in Accra a few years ago and had read and admired her novel ‘The 100 Wells of Salaga’.  We spoke about her writing for a younger audience and from that conversation we started to work together on her idea for ‘The Deep Blue Between’.  Working with Ayesha was such a wonderful process as she had such a clear idea of her characters, the setting of the novel and the story she wanted to explore.  I loved every moment of it!  One of the things that really drew me to the story was the way in which Ayesha wanted to write about the relationship between West Africa and Brasil in the late 1800’s. I am really interested in the way in which culture from West Africa moved to Brasil with the passage of people, initially taken as slaves but later freely travelling back and forth for trade and religious practise.  I think Ayesha’s story is a wonderful and fresh way of looking at this period of history and showing that Africans at the time had agency and authority – for a western audience this is an important thing for them to realise as the point of view here is one that tends to cast Africans as lacking in agency and authority.

A: Generally speaking, what draws you to a manuscript and what tends to make you decide which books you’d like and to publish and which ones you’ll reject? 

S: I look for voice, I look for originality and I look for humanity.  If a manuscript contains those key elements issues to do with plot and character development are really easy to sort out and as an editor I feel it is my job to help with that end of things.  The books I reject are the cookie cutter books that feel generic or that are following trends and styles.  I love books that start trends and styles!

A: Even though this may be a bit of a cheeky question, we’re really interested in hearing the take of someone like you on this, so we’ll ask you anyway: how do you think a book like ‘The Deep Blue Between’ compares to a book like ‘Children Of Blood and Bone’ in relation to YA readers on the African continent with African sensibilities, African cultural backgrounds, etc.? 

S: I think that both books have a really important part to play in offering YA readers on the African continent an opportunity to enjoy stories that are born out of their world.  Both books draw on history, belief, cultural norms that many young Africans will recognise and both books treat their subjects in a way that is refreshing and fresh and original so that young readers will be introduced to new and exciting ideas too.  While they are different genres and have very different styles they share a proud association with the worlds from which they draw so much.  They will both make young readers feel pride.

A: What would you say is the main obstacle faced by aspiring African writers in the publishing world at the moment? 

S: Probably contacts in the industry. It is a hard industry to get in to as a writer – to get a book noticed and read by a publisher.  Someone once said that everyone thinks that they have a novel in them and certainly many many people are trying to write. Which means too that publishers are sent a huge number of submissions which we do not always get a chance to consider carefully.  Consequently publishers try to control the number of submissions that come to them by only accepting work through agents.  For an African writer to get in touch with an agent and for that agent to take on their work and start helping them find a publisher is a tough journey.  Hopefully Accord will be able to help some writers make this journey but it is hard and it is competitive and the best advice is don’t give up, continue to believe in yourself and your work, and work really really hard to improve.  All the time.  We can all do our things better and writing is not an exception.  AND finally – READ.  Read as much as you can across all genres and age groups.  There is so much to learn from reading other peoples work.

A: Have you ever considered becoming a published writer yourself? 

S: No.  Categorically not (well actually I have and I know it is way way to hard for me!)

A: What’s next for Sarah Odedina?

S: More of the same!  Getting great books in to the hands of readers.  It is the best job in the world.

A: Bonus question: Which existing author, who does not write YA books at the moment, would you like to see come out with a children’s or YA book and why?

S: Two please!  Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie and Wayetu Moore.  They both write amazing books with great plots and wonderful characters the reader really roots for.  I feel they would both write the most wonderful teen novels!

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