Penny Thomas has a BA in English Language and Literature from Keble College Oxford and a lifelong passion for children’s books. She has worked as fiction editor for literary publisher Seren for ten years, where she has edited a number of award-winning titles. She and co-founder Janet Thomas set up Firefly Press in 2013 to publish quality fiction for 5-19 year olds. To date the press has published 20 titles including books by Shoo Rayner, Heather Dyer, Malachy Doyle, Wendy Meddour, Paul Magrs and Rhian Ivory, several of which have been listed for regional and Wales awards. Penny lives in Cardiff with her two teenage children.
Penny Thomas is Horatio Clare’s editor and they have won The Branford Boase Award 2016 with ‘Aubrey and the Yoot’.
How did you feel when ‘Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot’ won The Branford Boase Award 2016?
It was the most amazing feeling. I knew Aubrey was a very special book and had been hoping that the Branford Boase judges would think so too. When it was longlisted and then shortlisted I was delighted but I knew we were up against some great books from big publishers for the winner’s place so I hardly dared to hope. When I heard we had won it was a wonderful moment; I could hardly speak. It was all my Christmasses come at once!
Out of all of the award-winning books you’ve been editor for, which was your favourite and why?
All the other award-listed books I have edited have been for adults, and of course I think they are all brilliant in different ways. But Aubrey is the only book I have edited for children that has won a prize and I think it is my favourite. Horatio’s writing is so clever and funny and beautifully paced and takes you right into Aubrey’s world with his parents, his favourite stories and then into his magical adventures with birds and animals as he battles to help his dad. From the poor confused neighbour who can’t believe the things he is seeing next door, such as a mass squirrel invasion, to the sarcastic heron who delivers the fish and the wonderful wise snowy owl of the north, it’s a terrific story with an amazing visionary ending.
You’ve won lots of awards, which one are you most proud of and why?
Several books and authors I have edited and commissioned have won prizes and others have been shortlisted or longlisted for awards such as the Booker and the Costa, and it’s very exciting every time. There was a political thriller set in Romania, a French feminist noir murder story and a family story set in Hong Kong and Wales in WW2. I’m proud of them all because I love the books and the authors have all become good friends. But the Branford Boase is special because it recognises the editor as well as the writer and no other award I know of does that, so this is actually the first award I have won myself! On top of that this the first award for Firefly Press, the children’s publisher that I and my colleague Janet Thomas set up just three years ago, and I think that is what makes me most proud of all!
Before becoming a fiction editor you worked as a journalist for Welsh daily newspapers, what inspired you to become a fiction editor?
I read non-stop as I was growing up, everything I could get my hands on, from Roald Dahl to The Odyssey and studied English literature at University. When I finished I had a feeling I wanted to try to make a living through writing myself and as I hadn’t written any fiction I went to Cardiff to study journalism. I loved writing for newspapers, and the buzz you got when you found a really good story, but deep down my heart was always with books. When I had children I stopped work and took a proofreading course and was then lucky enough to be offered a job by literary publishers Seren, based in south Wales – where there aren’t many publishers at all! Opening poetry books and novels again for the interview was like coming home and being paid to read fiction seems absolutely the best way to make I living I can think of.
What is your favourite children’s book and why?
That’s very to answer! I’ve just read The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell and that was magical, then there was Harry Potter, Aubrey of course and many great young adult books. I loved reading younger books to my children too, like Owen and the Mountain by Malachy Doyle, Room on the Broom or the Thomas the Tank Engine stories. But I think it’s possible that the books you read as a child yourself stay your favourites, even if they would be very old fashioned now. I loved The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and series like the Silver Brumby books, the Chalet School Books, the Black Stallion adventures, Nancy Drew, books by Francis Hodgson Burnett and so many others. I had a very soft spot for The Little Grey Men by BB, but my favourite was probably A Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, which took you to a place where countryside, seaside and magic mixed so effortlessly there was really no saying which was which.
Why did you want to set up Firefly press?
I’d always wanted to work in children’s books, but there was very little children’s publishing around Cardiff where I live now. I didn’t want to move my family to London, so there was not much I could do. I was very lucky in finding freelance editing work with the terrific children’s publisher Chicken House for several years, and I absolutely loved working on their books. Then I met Janet Thomas who worked with another Welsh publisher and felt the same as me about children’s publishing, so we decided to take the plunge. One of the great things about setting up your own company is that you can largely decide what types of books you want to do and how it’s all going to work. Janet and I both wanted to publish really great, diverse children’s fiction for ages five and up, particularly for 8-12s and young adult and that seems to work very well – while it’s very hard work it’s also a lot of fun!
Firefly Press work with many authors, are there any upcoming books you would recommend to young writers?
Absolutely. If you are interested in young adult books, we have a fantastic autumn coming up with three YA titles, including two second books in trilogies – The Territory, Escape by Sarah Govett , starring the adventures of Noa, Raf and Jack, from The Territory, published last year, and The Martian Girl by Paul Magrs which follows Lora and her family as they struggle to survive in the red prairies of Mars. We also have a new title from Kat Ellis, Purge, for ages 16 and up – a fast and exciting thriller set partly in a virtual reality world. If you are thinking of writing younger books we have a new ‘witchy’ book from Sharon Marie Jones called Grace-Ella, Spells for Beginners, featuring a rather useful black cat. Then next year we have the third and final in our Dragon Gold series – Dragon Red from marvellous author and illustrator Shoo Rayner, and three very different books for eight to twelve year olds including the second Aubrey book – Aubrey and the Terrible Spiders, by Horatio Clare, a Victorian mystery called Gaslight by Eloise Williams, and a mad adventure with bizarre superpowers and an OCD goldfish called Bob, entitled Alex Sparrow and the Really Nasty Stink by debut author Jennifer Killick.
Do you have any advice for young adults that would like to become an editor?
Read as much as you can in all genres, and think about the books and what makes you love them, what makes you want to put them down and what might make them work better. I think an English or language degree, or just learning another language is always a good idea to understand how words work as well as stories. And if you write yourself it will make it easier to appreciate how different authors work. Then try to get as much experience as you can in the publishing world with internships, proofreading courses and work experience before you start applying for jobs!
Congratulations on your award Penny and thank you for answering our questions.