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Mentor Corner: Diane Earley

Creative Director, Charlesbridge Publishing

What was your first job in publishing?

My first job in publishing involved working as a paste up artist at a newspaper.  Eventually, a colleague suggested that I should interview for an open position at Mastery Education. This company would eventually become Charlesbridge Publishing, and I was hired as their first Production Assistant. It was a lot of long hours of precision work at a light table using wax adhesives to paste lines of type onto a board; one could say that it was a very meditative job. Around the same time, I also went back to school to study graphic design and learn typesetting.

What was your career path like getting to your current role?

Making books during my early career was very different than it is now. Given the process, there was very little opportunity for creativity. However, desktop publishing, which was in its infancy at the time, started to change that relationship between art and text. When the company decided they wanted to explore that avenue of working, I learned it. Page Maker was one of the first programs on the Mac for desktop publishing, and I’ve since then learned every new piece of software that has come up!

While desktop publishing gave us more flexibility, we, at Charlesbridge, also didn’t really have formal art direction. It wasn’t until we hired our first art director that I learned how to look at illustrations in a critical way. Under her mentorship, I learned everything I know about art and creative direction. So, it was a combination of many things that gave me the skills to do my current job and lead me to where I am. It was an evolution, for sure; I originally went to school for television production, and I never imagined myself art directing. Yet, the situation around me presented me with the opportunity to learn, I took it, and ended up loving it.

What advice would you give to those who are either just starting out or are in their first few years in publishing?

Publishing is a much more complicated business than people think it is. I think first off, a person interested in a publishing career needs to learn all they can about it. Being flexible, asking questions and being curious, and listening are all great ways to begin a career. Finding your own working style will help you develop confidence. Get to know people and create connections for yourself.  

In order to move up in publishing design, I think that organization is critical. You can be the most creative and gifted person in the world, but if you lack organizational skills, you won’t be able to keep up with what is happening around you. It’s hard to see the bigger picture, and how all the parts fit together. If you’re not organized, it’s almost impossible to manage yourself and other people.

Lastly, I would suggest that designers try not to rely entirely on technology. Although learning new technology has aided me in my career, it isn’t a substitute for knowledge about typography or the cultivation of a critical eye. I have talked to a number of people who think they can do what we do just because they know the software, but they have no sense of the fundamentals of design. Technology is an awesome tool, but it can’t do the creative part—that’s the designers’ true role.

Excepting the changes in technology in the process of book production, how do you think the children’s book industry has changed?

Kids today have a far more sophisticated aesthetic than they’ve ever had before. I know this question isn’t about technology, but it is really important. There’s such a wealth of different media out there, and one has to keep in mind that books have to evolve in order to continue competing. This is not just about how books look, but also about content.

Children form their visual tastes pretty early, and now they have more agency in choosing what media they consume. Kids are smart, they can recognize when they are being pandered to, and they can also recognize tokenism. I can’t stress the importance of making books that relate to children in a deeper way than ever before, or how much authentic diverse representation can make a profound emotional connection! If we want kids to read, we need to make books they can relate to. If we don’t, then they can definitely find it somewhere else.

What have been some highlights of your career so far?

I just love my day to day; it’s never boring. There isn’t a day at work where I don’t have to learn something new. When working in children’s publishing, you’re almost required to become a miniature expert on whatever topic your current book is exploring. It’s just fascinating sharing the wealth of perspectives, stories, and concepts with our team and creators. I like to think that if I maintain this enthusiastic curiosity about my work and make a book that I would also want to pick up, this will spark something and carry on over to our readers!

Check out more from the Early Career Committee.

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