Erica Wagner on her life in books & publishing

We were delighted to share news of Erica Wagner’s award of the Dromkeen Medal for outstanding achievement in the creation of Australian children’s and young adult literature. Her acceptance speech about her love of books and fascinating career in publishing was too good not to share with a broader audience, so you can enjoy it below:

Thank you so much to my colleagues, Anna McFarlane and Eva Mills, who nominated me, to the fantastic team at Allen & Unwin – whose cleverness and sense of fun I appreciate so much every day – and to every author, illustrator and colleague I’ve ever worked with – this is your medal too!

I also want to thank my family, my children and grandchildren, my darling Craig Smith, who have shared this adventure with me, give meaning to everything I do and without whom I would not be here today.

This Robert Ingpen created medal symbolises so much for me. I’m conscious of the calibre of the previous recipients, and their formidable legacies, and feel honoured to be part of the Dromkeen story.

I’ve thought a lot about what I wanted to say today – so much thinking, and over thinking, that this 5-minute response was in danger of turning into 5 hours. While it was tempting to tell you about every book I’ve ever worked on, replay the sweet moments of triumph and vindication, and confess to every publishing error and indiscretion I’ve been involved with, I ended up returning to a simple question.

Why is it that I’ve spent so much of my life involved with children’s books… almost 40 years in fact, if you start counting when I was 15, crushing boxes at the back of a bookshop in Brighton… ? What has held me here?

The answer is short: books bring together my two great loves, literature and art. Books are the perfect package, still as relevant today as ever. And they have been the steady heartbeat to the dramas of my interior life since childhood. I cannot imagine living life without them.

I was a timid child, so books gave me language for my emotions. They enabled me to be a prince, a pharaoh, a wild white stallion! I grew up in a German-speaking household and so German fairytales, and the anarchic words and pictures of Struwwelpeter, Max und Moritz – very cautionary tales about very naughty children – remain indelibly imprinted in my psyche. I read everything – the entire oeuvre of Enid Blyton and endless animal stories, Mad magazines and Donald Duck comics. My siblings and parents all read to me – my sister reading the entire Hobbit and Lord of the Rings when I was 7… Even my attempts at stealing were book related… it was a copy of Black Beauty that I pushed up my jumper one dark day when I was 10… intrigued at how easy that was to do…

I have been so lucky to have found – as Agnes Nieuwenhuizen said so eloquently – the right book at the right time.

It now seems perfectly natural that my teenage bookshop job continued on and off for 10 years while I studied briefly, travelled, lived in a tent and worked on a tomato farm in north Queensland. I wanted to get a life! Be a writer, be an artist… I’m sure my reading of Tolstoy and romance novels was in part responsible for me marrying a poet at 20 and having two children in quick succession.

And it was in the bookshop, where I’d returned again to work when my children were small, that I had an epiphany – that I wanted to be an editor – that is, I wanted to work with books but not with the public. I had no idea what an editor did, but I wrote to Penguin and asked, what do you have to do to be an editor? The reply I received – to get any job in the publishing industry and work your way up, and that secretarial skills would be useful – is why I felt able to apply for a trainee editor position in the newly formed children’s department at Penguin books.

I didn’t get that job – my friend Janie Godwin did! – but a few months later, in July 1988, Julie Watts rang, asking if I was still interested… and did I want to come in for a chat … For some reason, she saw something in the young woman I was then – 25, 2 little kids, wearing a rainbow-coloured jumper and feather earrings (my smartest outfit), pretending I was just a little rusty with my non-existent typing skills. Thank you, Julie, I owe you so much, for teaching me everything about editing and giving me that magnificent lucky break.

I still remember my first day at Penguin, so scared that I would be asked to type 100 letters in triplicate, but instead Julie gave me a Victor Kelleher manuscript to read, and Janie kindly showed me (a few times, until it sunk in) how it was that one put paper into a typewriter…

Those were heady years. I was somewhat star-struck by the famous authors and illustrators striding through the corridors of the offices in Ringwood. The creative process remained a mystery, but I did learn quickly that everyone making a book needs something to help them get their work done… and it’s the editor’s job to find out what that is. I discovered that some authors effectively need to be left alone, some need to brainstorm and bounce ideas off you, some need gentle nurturing and some, stern intervention! Later I was to learn that illustrators could construct epic stories inspired by one hero image.

There were launches, conferences and festivals, and the famous Dromkeen dinners – so many ways to feel part of the wider Australian children’s book community – which remains so strong and supportive even today. I was incredibly lucky to work on seminal books with brilliant authors and illustrators – many in this room today – learning on the job, learning to trust the creative process.

At the end of the 90s, a turbulent time in my personal life, I left Penguin to start Silverfish, a new children’s list for Duffy & Snellgrove, at the same time heading overseas to my first Bologna book fair and some months in the US on the Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship. So much happened in that year – things I couldn’t have learnt any other way – but it did end up being a stretch too far, and I finally landed, somewhat bruised, in a new life, with a new blended extended family, at the Rathdowne Street office of Allen & Unwin. My first day was Valentine’s day in the year 2000 – and for the first few months I shared Rosalind Price’s handmade table. Thank you, Rosalind, for picking me up when I was down, and for being such a constant creative support and inspiration.

Allen & Unwin moving to the House of Alien Onion in East Melbourne was the start of yet another chapter, and over the years – as the competition ratcheted up, the book industry was rocked by the GFC, the market became more volatile, and as we realised that things just didn’t work the way they used to, new technology and systems were introduced, our team expanded and changed, we learnt to adapt – some of us kicking and screaming more than others … If this sounds somewhat chaotic, it was…

We had to go back to basics and ask again: What are books and stories for? Of course, they are for children. But where do they fit into the world of screens and endless chatter? Is there still a place for the quieter heartbeat of stories that encourage reflection, a deeper connection? At the most prosaic level, how do we help to keep our company afloat as it wrestles with the relentless financial pressures of rising costs, punishing trade conditions, an increasingly litigious culture. And definitely a more censorious one.

These are crucial moral issues, when so many people depend on you – not just in-house staff and creators, but the entire ecosystem of freelancers – editors, designers, photographers – printers, booksellers and our core champions, teachers and librarians, who are under enormous pressures of their own. And it does have an impact on publishing decisions, as we try to balance commercial imperatives with the very different work of nurturing creative people to fulfil their potential…

I honour the creators and champions who have gone before us. And I’m proud of the writers and artists who continue to take chances with stories, with daring imagery, with subject matter. I cheer on the next wave of editors and publishers who remain passionate about Australian voices, who are bringing a fresh perspective on our complex society, who are determined that books should not only reflect our society but inspire readers to be engaged citizens, beyond the algorithms of Facebook, to be thinking and feeling – kind! – humans who can face up to the truth of our past as we head into the future.

I believe in our youth, and I believe there is nothing you can’t say to a child – you just have to find the right way of saying it. So they in turn are equipped to find the right book at the right time.

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