Industry Insights: Mattie Whitehead
By Elizabeth Oladoyin, Elizabeth Guess, Kathryn Smith and Leyla Mehmet
For this issue, we interviewed Mattie Whitehead, senior editor at Little Tiger.
Q. Could you tell us about your journey into publishing?
A. I’ve always loved reading, so a career in publishing seemed perfect! At eighteen I did work experience at the Children’s Books department at Penguin Random House and fell in love with the editorial department. From then on I took any opportunity I could, including working in a bookshop and interning at a range of publishers from legal publications to travel guides. At university I studied Spanish and linguistics, which gave me an insight into language and its power. I was interning in the non-fiction team at Simon & Schuster when a job in Children’s came up. I was an Editorial Assistant there for two and a half years and have been at Little Tiger for four, currently as Senior Editor on the fiction list.
Q. What does a typical day look like for a senior editor?
A. What I love about editorial – especially children’s books – is the variety. I work on books for readers aged five up to young adult, so each project is different! On any one day, I’ll be editing a manuscript, checking layouts for print, feeding back on illustrations, reading submissions, meeting authors (both potential and contracted), discussing ideas with the marketing team, developing series ideas and catching up with the team on the latest publishing news! One of the key elements in the role of a senior editor is the ability to shape a list through acquisitions. It’s a big and important responsibility but it’s also hugely exciting.
Q. Are there any standout books you’ve worked on recently that you think everyone should read?
A. That’s a hard question! I’m extremely proud of all the books we publish – I really do think that each and every one is gold. If any of my authors are reading this, you are all amazing and everyone should read your books! In terms of recent books, there’s Sophie Cameron’s outstanding Middle Grade debut, Our Sister, Again, which is one of the most special stories I’ve worked on. It’s about grief, what it means to be human, family, friendship and love. Sophie’s writing is beautiful and I lost count of the times I cried over this book while also being left with an overwhelming feeling of hope. Working with Sita Brahmachari on When Shadows Fall was an inspirational process. Sita is a wonder and such a joy to edit, the book constantly evolving as the characters grew. We had a very poignant editorial walk in the park where lots of the story takes place and it really brought home the importance of the book. Another beautiful piece of writing is Cynthia So’s Young Adult debut If You Still Recognise Me. Reading it is to be wrapped in a warm hug. Mort the Meek by Rachel Delahaye was the first series I acquired and it’s brilliant. Rachel’s humour is genius and I love how the books celebrate being kind – so important!
Q. What can publishers be doing more of to promote representation and diversity in children’s books?
A. While positive changes are happening, it’d be great to see more concrete action. Something that comes up a lot is how defensive people can be when given feedback. We need to acknowledge our own biases and listen and learn, taking steps to make sure we’re not blinded by them. So often people lash out rather than taking comments on board and making their books the best they could be.
Working on children’s books, I think we have a responsibility to reflect the lives of all children and to promote positive and empathetic behaviour. If we can reach readers at an early age to make them feel seen, as well as instil kindness and awareness, this is (hopefully!) something they’ll take into later life. Long-term investment in authors is important: taking the time to develop ideas and having publishing plans in place to build their career. Publishing an array of stories across genres is crucial as well. Books like Heartstopper show readers that they can be and deserve to be happy and heroes, and they model kind behaviour.
Q. What do you wish you had known at the beginning of your career?
A. Read as much and as widely as you can! I look back at early interviews where I only referenced books from my childhood and I could kick myself. Every month a plethora of AMAZING books for children are published, and it’s important to keep up with the market. Before recent interviews, I’ve gone to bookshops and libraries to browse what’s doing well. It’s important to get a sense of the publisher – what their values are and how that translates in their books – to make sure that they’re as good a fit for you as you are for them. When I’ve been interviewing, what makes a candidate stand out is showing a genuine passion for books, especially those by the publisher, and a thoughtful approach to the readers. I’d always recommend having a few of your own questions up your sleeve!