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 twelfth installment in the series, we spoke with Julia Marshall, publisher of New Zealand–based Gecko Press.
Could you tell us about the history of Gecko Press? How did you get started?
Julia Marshall (JM): I was moving back to New Zealand after twelve years living in Sweden, working on multi-language corporate magazines. I’d been wanting to work with children’s books for as long as I could remember, ever since school, so I decided to go to the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair, with a friend, to figure out how it worked. After a few hours, she said: “This is hopeless, Julia. Why don’t you go and work for one of those big publishers, they look good, and let’s go and buy shoes.” I decided to do one more round, and I met a Belgian publisher who told me if I came back in the morning, he would answer all my questions, “because someone did that for me twenty-five years ago.” He told me how to buy rights, and one or two other very helpful things. That was the start of Gecko Press.
The first book I chose was Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark. In the catalog, I could see it had been translated into twenty languages, but not English. I said, “That’s weird,” and they said, “No, that’s normal.” At that time only 1 percent of books published in the UK were translated, compared to 40 percent in Europe. I had been reading a lot of good Swedish children’s books and I figured that Sweden wasn’t alone in having good writers. I thought it was sad that English-speaking children couldn’t read good books from other languages. I think it is important to hear our own voices, and also to be open to others.
The cover of Can You Whistle, Johanna? by Ulf Stark, illustrated by Anna Höglund and translated by Julia Marshall.
Is there a particular theme, focus, or aesthetic that the children's books published by Gecko Press share?
JM: Early on, and with the help of a very good librarian, I realized that for Gecko Press books to stand out and survive, they had to be different from books being published in English. I decided to concentrate on books by the best writers and illustrators in the world, books excellent in terms of story, illustration, and design. There is an indefinable something that unites Gecko Press books—they always make a good pile. They clearly come from other places—when I ask, children always know that Gecko Press books are different from other books they have.
What are you looking for in a children’s story as a publisher and as a reader? Do you think that a good children’s book will always have some appeal for adults as well?
JM: I look for books that are child-focused, that have many layers and a lot of heart, that children and adults might want to return to again and again. Many of the books have a particular sense of humor, a childish absurdity that is enjoyed by adults and children alike.
At Gecko Press we try to choose books with emotional substance, where several stories are being told if you care to look for them, because a good story can operate on many levels. We don’t choose stories that feel patronizing or that are really for adults. The child comes first. But there are many adults whose inner child is alive and well, and they do like our books. And it makes sense to me to publish books that children and adults can enjoy together. We also look for books that are as we say, curiously good—original, contemporary, and offering a new way of looking at something.
An interior page of A Perfect Wonderful Day with Friends, written and illustrated by Philip Waechter and translated by Melody Shaw
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 aspects of publishing children’s literature (as opposed to literature for adults)?
JM: The most exciting thing is when a book is enjoyed in each of the four English markets where our books are sold—the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand—and when that book continues to be enjoyed for many years, finding new children. I love those books. You cannot predict it, though; it just happens. We don’t really know if a book is going to do well until it finds its readers.
One of the challenging things about publishing children’s literature is that the books are half the price of adult books, so we have to sell twice as many. And because we publish a small number of books (by our own choice), each year we are very dependent on acquiring some of those books that do well everywhere and go on to become favorites, to build our backlist.
The cover of Free Kid to Good Home, written and illustrated by Hiroshi Ito and translated by Cathy Hirano
Are there any underrepresented languages or countries that you’re particularly drawn to, and are there literary traditions in children’s literature from other countries that you’re keen for Gecko Press to share with Anglophone readers?
JM: I am drawn to children’s books from Japan, as they seem often to have a warm kind of simplicity that is very hard to achieve. Scandinavian books seem to me to treat children intelligently and honestly, and have a particular sense of humor that I love, and there are many fine French books, and German . . . We don’t really go by country, though. It is more the book itself that draws us, or the writer or illustrator I should say, as we do like to follow an author or illustrator, to really introduce them to the English-speaking world. There are lots of countries that I don’t know my way around, but I love it when books from these places are recommended to us, and that can then start us on a new country, Poland or Latvia or Taiwan, for instance, or, most recently, Peru.
Do you think there has been a general upsurge in children’s publishing in recent years? If so, what do you think has brought it about?
JM: I think there has been an upsurge, and I’m not exactly sure what has caused it. Sales, probably! Or a downturn in some other area. There are also more books being published in translation now, which is great, I think, because it allows children to read more widely.
The cover of Inside the Suitcase, written and illustrated by Clotilde Perrin and translated by Daniel Hahn
What is a new or forthcoming title that you are looking forward to sharing with readers?
JM: We always look forward to the books that aren’t out yet, and because we publish just a few books each year, it is possible for us to love each one of them equally. I am especially looking forward to the new Philip Waechter, A Perfect Wonderful Day with Friends (translated by Melody Shaw), as it is joyous, and it is a long time since we have published a book by him. We have a Japanese classic called Free Kid to Good Home by Hiroshi Ito, translated by Cathy Hirano, that I love, based on typical subversive child behavior. It is very funny. We have a new book by Clotilde Perrin translated by Daniel Hahn, a magical open-ended child quest told in a series of flaps. Plus, I am very fond of a new naughty character, Lionel, by Eric Veillé, also translated by Daniel Hahn, launching next year for naturally naughty babies . . .
What's next for Gecko Press?
JM: Next? We want to stay niche and nuanced and true to our vision, so we are trying to do everything that we do a bit better, so more people can find our books, or so our books find more children. We would like to encourage families to tell a new family about our books when they outgrow us, and to encourage more children to love to read. A few more good books, many more children reading them, that is the aim . . .
Julia Marshall is the founder and publisher of Gecko Press, a small-by-choice independent publisher of curiously good books for children since 2005. Gecko Press publishes a curated list of books from the best writers and illustrators in the world for ages 0 to 12 (sometimes infinity). Gecko Press books celebrate unsameness. They encourage us to be thoughtful and inquisitive, and offer different—sometimes challenging, often funny—ways of seeing the world.
Read more interviews with publishers of children’s literature in translation