In recent years, a proliferation of books in translation for children and young adults has brought imaginative stories from around the world to new readers. We’re speaking with some of the extraordinary publishers who make these books possible about their experience working in this vital field.
For the fifth installment in the series, we spoke with Claudia Bedrick, publisher, editor, and art director of Enchanted Lion Books.
Words Without Borders (WWB): How long have you been publishing children’s literature in translation and what inspired your decision to do so?
Claudia Bedrick (CB): Enchanted Lion was established in 2003 and we published our first book in translation in 2006. My decision to publish books in translation was inspired by the work I did from 1990–2001 in the nonprofit world. During that time, I worked at the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science at the New School, where I helped to develop and then managed a program dedicated to supporting libraries throughout eastern and central Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union through the development of archives. I visited many incredible libraries for my work and in the process I saw many incredible books, including illustrated and children’s books, and came to understand the importance of British and American children’s books to people in far-flung corners of the world. So I began to think about how valuable it would be for children here to grow up with books from other countries that would become part of the wonderment of their childhood; books they would remember and that would help make the world feel like home. Keith Haring said of his murals, “It’s about the ridiculousness of all walls and enemies and borders.” And in the New York Times he described his work as “a humanistic gesture . . . a political and subversive act––an attempt to psychologically destroy the wall by painting it.” Translation, as all of you at Words without Borders know, is another way we have of destroying walls. And as the translators of the King James version of the Bible said about their work: “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by water.”
If we give our children a richness of visual and narrative works from a young age, they will grow up familiar with different ways of framing and forming and revealing the inner and outer worlds of our humanness.
WWB: You publish a dynamic range of picture books for both children and adults. What do you find fascinating about visual storytelling and what made you decide to focus on it at Enchanted Lion?
CB: As far as I see it, visual storytelling does many things that words don’t. It’s not that a picture says a thousand words. For me, it’s less about that economy than about how pictures can tell a very different story from the words on the page. Through pictures we are given body language and expression, tone, mood, and emotion in ways completely different from descriptive language. Just as the touch of someone’s hand affects our cells and nervous system and can comfort us the way words never will, seeing a certain slope of shoulders, a stance, a facial expression, a certain thickness of line or movement of color in a picture will affect us completely differently from the words on the page. Visual storytelling also uses the material book in fascinating ways, incorporating the page turn, sequence, and temporality into narrative in crucial and telling ways.
WWB: What are you looking for in a children’s story as a publisher and as a reader? What do you think draws a child into a story? Do you think that a good children’s book will always have some appeal for adults as well?
CB: Yes, I think a good children’s book will always have appeal for adults. A good book is a good book, so a good book for a small human is also good for a big human. As regards what draws a child into a story, that depends on the child. For some it will be humor. For others, identification with a character, and for yet others, the taste of something transgressive and a little bit scary. As a publisher, I look to make books that will add to what is already available, and will do so with a spark and a twist, with a difference. One of the big things for me is the presence of an active imagination that engages the “what if?”; another is for there to be a manifest love of reality through which to discover wonder, sacredness, and a beauty beyond what is there. I’m a bit of an Aristotelian and care about remaining true to the phenomena while engaging volition and action. I have no time for anything that renders the reader passive. I recently dipped into the Wizard of Oz books again and also read about them and, in so doing, came to a fuller understanding of what happens along the yellow brick road, which compellingly seems to be about a child’s discovery of her own powers––that she has brains and a heart and courage and the very powers inside of herself to get back home no matter how far-flung, foreign, wondrous, and different the worlds are that she travels out into. And travel out we must, to gain the world and thereby come home to ourselves most fully.
Otherwise, I would illustrate what I want to be doing this way: Years ago, I was invited to attend the Guadalajara Book Fair as a fellow, to meet editors and learn about the children’s book market in the Spanish-speaking world. After a few days of seeing books, I observed to an editor with whom I was meeting that I was interested and pleasantly surprised to see so many darker books and open-ended books for young readers. I asked about their standing in Mexican culture, and she told me: “Here in Mexico, life and death are two sides of the same coin. We don’t seek to hide this from ourselves and our children.” And then she added, “You know what always surprises me about children’s books and publishing in the US is the similarity of the books, which consistently tell the same kinds of stories, and they’re all so nicely resolved at the end. Why don’t people want richer, different kinds of stories?” Why, indeed? Like this editor and so many other editors in other countries, my preference is for open-ended stories that leave the reader wondering, thinking, and asking, rather than done and ready to close the book.
WWB: Some of your titles could be described as daring or unconventional, such as Pinocchio: The Origin Story by Alessandro Sanna and Daytime Visions: An Alphabet by Isol. Why do you think it’s important for children to read these types of works?
CB: I think those books might be found unusual by an adult reader, but they wouldn’t be deemed daring or unconventional by a child. A seven-year-old child has been on earth for eighty-four months. At seven, each new piece of reality is just that: a discovery, rather than something to be judged as odd or different. Different from what? From the fifty or one hundred books we’ve come to know by age seven? If we give our children a richness of visual and narrative works from a young age, they will grow up familiar with different ways of framing and forming and revealing the inner and outer worlds of our humanness. I was born in 1963 and grew up on Disney, MGM, silent films, musicals, Westerns, subtitled foreign movies, in black and white and in color, and so on. I didn’t know enough to think that any of it was odd. It was all equal to me and simply existed as part of my reality.
The depth of thought, intent, and consideration; the freedom and playfulness, along with the driving sense that ideas and mark-making and color and light and intention all matter, is such a beautiful thing.
WWB: What have been some of the most exciting aspects of the undertaking so far? What (if any) have you found to be the most challenging aspect of publishing children’s literature (as opposed to literature for adults)?
CB: Discovering books, authors, and illustrators and working with them over time and nurturing them is exciting. Period. It’s exciting every time and it’s always different. The depth of thought, intent, and consideration; the freedom and playfulness, along with the driving sense that ideas and mark-making and color and light and intention all matter, is such a beautiful thing. There are always challenges, too. The propulsive motor of having to get things out six to eight to twelve months before publication; the tiny margin that comes with publishing beautiful books on gorgeous paper that have to sell for $16.95–$17.95 in most cases; the importance of capturing attention; the problems of shelf space and order minimums and distribution. There are frustrations, but mostly it’s wonderful.
WWB: How do you find the authors/works you publish?
CB: Different ways. Research, book fairs, submissions . . . and sometimes books find me.
WWB: Do you think there has been a general upsurge in children’s publishing in recent years? What do you think has brought it about?
CB: Yes, there’s been a retrenchment in favor of books for children. I can’t really say why but there is an enormous amount of screen fatigue. And there is a huge drive toward tangibility. Books are physical in a pleasing way. People like touch and paper. Books are affordable. They provide endless hours of engagement. There’s also been a lot of research that’s been shared about the importance of books for attention, literacy, etc. I’ve read research that compares the physical engagement with a book to crawling and asserts that the act of handling a book and turning pages helps to knit comprehension, support attention, and so on. And then there’s the Steve Jobs effect, which I see as a cultivation of the taste for design and beauty. In 2009, one of the marketing directors at one of the big houses told me that the beauty of the books we were making hampered sales. He said, “You know, Americans are suspicious of beauty,” as though that explained everything.
WW: What is a new or forthcoming title that you are looking forward to sharing with readers?
CB: We’re very excited about a book called The Forest that was four years in the making. It’s debuting at the Bologna Book Fair with an exhibition at ZOO, and it will be published in the US in June. It’s an original book and the process of making it was gorgeous and intense and the result is something really special. Then in September, we’ll publish a book called A Velocity of Being, which Maria Popova and I have been working on for seven years. It’s a book of letters from 120 amazing humans about books and the culture of reading, each one illustrated by one of 120 great illustrators/artists/graphic designers. I’m also excited about Jerome By Heart, My Little Small, works by the Adbåge sisters, and our beautiful reissue of Helen Borten’s The Jungle, which was first published in 1968, so fifty years ago. Helen is eighty-eight and lives in New York, so we’ll be able to celebrate this together.
WWB: What’s next for Enchanted Lion?
CB: More original books, more translations, more reissues. More idiosyncrasy, too, I guess, along with attempts to broaden and deepen and expand the possibilities of illustrated books and the conversation around them. We are also excited to be launching our new website in a couple of months after not having had one for a few years, especially because the design will afford us space to talk about translation, craft, process, poetry, wonderment, and all of the other things that the young people in my office and I care about a great deal.
Claudia Zoe Bedrick grew up in New York City in the 1960s–70s and went to the Donnell Library almost every Saturday, where she discovered books from around the world that deepened her sense of wonder and surprise and led her to first ask many of the questions she's still asking. After one year as an undergraduate at Harvard, she took off for the UK, Berlin, Vienna, and the Eastern Bloc, before returning to Cambridge, Mass., to graduate with a degree in history. As a graduate student in philosophy, she took a nonprofit job working with and traveling to libraries throughout eastern and central Europe and the former Soviet Union. All of this has informed her work as publisher, editor, and art director of Enchanted Lion Books, which will celebrate its fifteenth birthday in the fall of 2018.
Enchanted Lion is an award-winning, family-owned, independent publisher based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We publish translations, original works, and reissues from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s for children and readers of all ages. We seek to publish books that respect the great curiosity of children and their high natural intelligence. As the Argentine author/illustrator Isol told the audience in her 2013 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Acceptance Speech: “I don’t actually think that I must put a limit to my imagination just because it’s a book for children, on the contrary! What reader could be more demanding than a child? Children have a lot of things to discover and I’d better be on their high level in order to satisfy their huge capacity for curiosity.” We join Isol in that sentiment: what reader could be more demanding than a child!
Interviews with publishers of children’s literature in translation
A review of My Little Small, published by Enchanted Lion Books