Grace speaks to The Publishing Profile about comic publishing, supporting libraries and sharing great stories.
Hi, everyone! I’m Grace Balfour-Harle and I’m the Editorial Assistant for the Beano comic. While this is not a traditional publishing role, as I work in magazines, not books, there are many overlaps, and I still read voraciously! For those who may be unaware, the Beano comic is the longest-running children’s weekly comic in the world, and has been running for 82 years, with over 4,040 issues! We feature well-loved characters like Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger, Billy Whizz and many more!
I have always wanted to work in the media because I love stories. That’s all publishing is, sharing great stories! Studying English and Legal Studies at the University of Aberdeen allowed me to explore my literary interests, and get involved in my student newspaper, The Guadie. I started as a regular contributor, then became the Deputy Editor of the Life and Style section in my third year, and the Deputy Editor of the Features section in my fourth year. I then went on to study at Edinburgh Napier for a Publishing MSc, where I learned more about the publishing industry as a whole, and confirmed that I wanted to go into editorial! My proudest moments were getting a book project of mine printed into a real book and my dissertation being nominated for the Association of Publishing Education’s Postgraduate Masters Dissertation Prize 2018. I also completed internships at various media publishing houses, like the Press and Journal Aberdeen, Dekko Comics, Foodies Magazine, and Connect Communications where I created a mobile application to sit alongside a dance magazine based in Scotland!
Because we’re a weekly comic, every day in my role can be quite varied. In one week, we touch upon 10 different issues at different stages of their production. I could be reading scripts for one issue, artwork coming in for another, proofreading pages for another completely different issue and reading the dummy issue for yet another completely different issue. I write weekly features; I am the regular writer of our joke page, reader letters’ page, and our prank page, plus any other feature content for the characters that I look after. I currently look after the scripts written by our freelancers for the Numskulls, Billy Whizz, Tricky Dicky and Dangerous Dan. I also write a half-page script every week for our popular reader competition to become the Boss of the Beano for an issue, where they get cartoonified, feature in their own strip, see the jokes and prank before everyone else and choose a Star Reader Letter for that issue.
My attitude to reading has changed since starting my current role. Due to my job, I’ve been reminded that reading children’s books and comics is definitely market research! However, I sometimes struggle to get ‘into’ books and definitely worry about reading the ‘right’ things, which is a by-product from my English degree. However, lockdown has reminded me that there’s no right way or thing to be reading, just read what you enjoy, whether it is literary ‘enough’ or not. I’ve been struggling with concentration during lockdown so in my downtime, I like to read something that is totally different from reality at the moment. I love adventure stories - spies, intrigue, murder mysteries, or something infused with a little magic, mythology or fairy-tales. Escapist fiction is a genre that I really enjoy - something that takes you completely out of your reality. But I also read a variety of books through my monthly work book club - each member gets a month to choose a book, so it’s something completely different every month! During lockdown, we’ve read Stoner by John Williams, Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, and are moving onto The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia.
The proudest thing that I’ve worked on as part of my role is our Beano Annual 2021 - I got to write a script for the Bash Street Kids that features in it, which was drawn by our artist, David Sutherland. He’s 84 years old, and has been drawing the Bash Street Kids since the ‘60s! So my work being drawn by this comic legend just makes me want to pinch myself! I also loved working on our 4,000 special issue, which was a gorgeous foiled issue!
I get my books from a variety of places - I’m an avid library supporter, so get books from there (not during lockdown though, sadly), Waterstones, Hive, second-hand bookshops and Blackwells in Edinburgh. I also own a Kindle, so I also read on there. I haven’t gotten into audiobooks in a big way yet - I’m a fast reader, so find them a little slow for my liking and I still love to physically be reading something - even if it’s on my phone.
I can’t decide which is the best book I’ve received as a gift (I’ve been given so many books over the years), but I have been paid in books before! I was a junior mentor on an English high-school summer course for a university the year before I started university and they were unable to pay us in actual cash. But the leader of the course wanted to pay us and instead got the junior mentors a selection of books to repay us for our time. I was lucky enough to get an edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which was possibly the most useful thing I could have gotten! I love having this really nice version of such iconic and ubiquitous texts. I can also tell you the best bookish gift that I’ve received. I had been wanting to read the How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell for a while, and on my birthday a couple of years ago my boyfriend presented me with the first half of the series, but as an extra special element, they were the books that he’d read as a kid! Which I thought was super sweet!
The oldest book on my shelf is a book my Nan got me which is an anthology of selected stories from The Strand Magazine through January to June 1891. She got it in a second-hand bookshop, and it is falling apart. It’s probably the item that I would take to the Repair Shop if I ever got to go on! (If you don’t know, the Repair Shop is a really sweet BBC programme where people take their antiques or special items to get repaired - definitely worth a watch!) I’d like to think it had an interesting past - there’s a stamp from a bookshop that no longer exists on one of the pages and someone has put a sticker on the inside cover with their name on it.
My bookshelf surprises me by the variety of things I will pick up to read - my TBR pile is slightly embarrassing, but then again, so is everyone's! I am definitely not someone who has an instagrammable bookshelf - I’ve been at my parents during lockdown and living in a room that is in the middle of being done up. While I’m reunited with my childhood books, everything’s out of order and muddled up and not easily accessible. This is the outward-facing part of my shelves - the open part is against the back of my bed! I think the book that I’m surprised that I liked so much on my bookshelf was Wilde Like Me by Louise Pentland. I may have had a slightly snobby view of YouTubers books, and when I read this one, I just loved it. The characters were so well-rounded, developed and the story was heartfelt.
I struggled to find my most beautiful book as I don’t buy many pretty looking books - I tend to carry a book everywhere with me in my handbag, and even if it started out life looking nice, it doesn’t always end up that way. So I tend to buy paperbacks which I feel last longer than hardbacks, which aren’t always afforded all of the nice effects that hardbacks are. But I do have a pretty version of selected tales from Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, that is two hardback books in a cardboard box. These editions are illustrated by Inga Moore, and are absolutely beautiful. I’ve had these since I was a child, but as they were special and rather large, I couldn’t take them out like I do with other books, so have remained nice.
I’ve recently started The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski after seeing the Netflix TV series, so I’m looking forward to reading more of that. After reading Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, I want to read more from her (starting with the SYP Scotland’s Book Club’s choice of Mr Loverman). And I am part of the way through Nasty Women, published by 404 Ink, so look forward to finishing that too. The best book that I’ve read in 2020 is such a tough question to think about as I don’t remember all the books I’ve read this year. I don’t do Goodreads challenges because I want to get back to reading for fun and without any pressure. All the books I read are special in one way or another, so it is very difficult to decide.
My most anticipated release of 2020 is definitely the paperback edition of Rick Riordan’s Trials of Apollo Book 5 The Tower of Nero! I’ve loved the Percy Jackson universe since I discovered it as a teenager, and love getting the books when they come out. However, as all my books in that series are paperbacks, I have to wait until the paperback edition comes out (I may not always have pretty books, but I do like them to match up with kind of book). I’m also looking forward to reading Terri White’s new book, Coming Undone. One that I’ve already read, but I had been looking forward to was The Eve Illusion by Giovanna and Tom Fletcher.
A book that everybody should read is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald for the sheer beauty of the writing, the pain of the story, and the complexity of character. I discovered Gatsby when I was studying in high school and fell in love with his writing and was lucky enough to do a couple of courses on 1920s American Literature in my undergraduate. Also, the Beano Annual 2021 and the Dandy Annual 2021 - while it’s definitely a little self-promotion - I do think that rediscovering fun in lockdown is something that everyone should try and do. And what does fun better than Beano?