THE IMPORTANCE OF POSSIBILITY
Type loves children's publisher Enchanted Lion
Serah-Marie McMahon talks to Enchanted Lion Editor Claudia Bedrick about the importance of beauty, excitement, and possibility in children's books.
SMM: What are some books you loved when you were a kid?
I have a lot of love for The Bear That Wasn’t. The New York Review Collection has reissued it, but I still have my old, falling-apart Dover edition. It travels with me everywhere. The story is sort of an anti-capitalist observation, about a bear and factory work. I’ve read it again and again and again.
Another one I love I have right here on my desk...I’m opening it right now...Celestino Piatti’s The Happy Owl. It was published the year I was born.
SMM: Oh! I love that book. It was reissued a couple years ago, and I always make sure we have it at the the store.
CB: Another I have here on my shelf—because I give it to every illustrator I work with—is Amos and Boris by William Steig. My Dad gave me a book of poetry called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, and I read that book over and over. There are so many more, but these are the ones I have read the most, at points in my life sometimes several times a day.
SMM: How did children's books in translation come to find a place at Enchanted Lion?
CB: We started with more of a focus on illustrated non-fiction, which was my dad's passion. His was the vision for Enchanted Lion. When he passed away only a year into the life of the company. I didn’t feel myself to be expert on the non-fiction front. And so when we were trying to figure out what to do, and where to go, and whether to keep the company alive, the direction I did feel confident in was books in translation. I had spent a decade working in non-profit, and traveling throughout the world and my job involved libraries and collections, and I looked at illustrated books everywhere I went.
SMM: Is there a fundamental difference between North American books and the ones you were looking at?
CB: There are differences, though it can be hard to pin it down and articulate them. The stories seem to be a lot more open-ended. They seem to be a lot more about questioning, leaving things hanging in the air, rather than packing up everything neatly and providing answers. Quite a few are considered dark by the current standards of mainstream American publishing.
Last year I attended the Guadalajara International Book Fair. It’s an interesting program, I got to meet with lots of publishers, big and small. You really learn about publishing in the Spanish-speaking world, distribution, issues of translation, the relationship between Latin America and Spain. I spoke to one of the book editors about how refreshing I find their stories that would likely be considered too heavy in America. She told me that in Mexico, life and death are conjoined. They are part of the same thing. She wondered how we are so content with producing American children's books that pack these neat little stories, that wrap it all up by the time you close the book. It was a good question. Why are we so contented as a society to do that? Why is the publishing industry the way it is? Why are we so uncomfortable with open-ended stories?
SMM: I see that a lot with the Japanese translations.
CB: I think when it comes to Japanese picture books, most of them are from the child’s point of view, told in the first person. They are very much about the experience of the child through the senses, through eyes, ears, touch, emotions. The first seven years of life are underpinned by a different kind of spirituality. They are when you are becoming human. You are coming into language and all of the conventions that make us share reality. You are coming into that, but you are not that yet. You are really other. You are primal. Japanese picture books are very different from American picture books— the conceptions, the philosophy, the ideas as to what childhood is, how it should be honored and valued. An experience. Children’s books will reflect what a culture believes the role of children to be, and what is expected of them.
SMM: I particularly love one of your new titles, Enormous Smallness. How did that happen?
CB: I was in Brooklyn years ago and right there, in a coffee shop, in the middle of a meeting, this guy just comes up and tells me his partner is a poet, and a writer, and he loves children’s books, and he should be making them. I was a little surprised, but also intrigued. I figured okay, why not? We exchanged information and a few days later I had an email from Matthew Burgess. We met and got along amazingly well. We had a really good conversation, and kept having good conversations, probably for a whole year. This year, after working together for four years on the book, we published Enormous Smallness, a book about E.E. Cummings.
SMM: What process do you go through to match up a writer and an illustrator?
CB: One of the things that excites me most about picture books and telling stories is that they inhabit a unique space where words and image meet, where you have to the chance to tell and to show, and it’s all about the relationship between those two. On our translations, the art is already done of course. On books Enchanted Lion originates, it’s a careful process. Usually we work on the text for a long time beforehand, so I think that the authors should have an intimate role in the process. A writer shouldn’t just turn over their work to someone else.
With The Jacket, I really wanted to do a book with Dasha. She worked with me as an assistant when she was studying at the Masters Program School of Visual Art. I’ve loved her work for a long time. She is really cerebral and conceptual, and she seemed like a great match for Kirsten. As soon as Kirsten started looking though Dasha’s work, she felt the same way. The key is to communicate, to not leave anyone out of the process. You need good conversation and community between the team.
SMM: I feel there is something happening in children’s picture books right now, they are getting a lot more sophisticated, both visually and narratively. Do you feel that too?
CB: Yes! I do feel it. I hear that everywhere, from illustration agents, to editors, to booksellers, what have you. It seems to be a pretty exciting moment in picture books.
SMM: Where do you think it comes from?
CB: I don’t know…Steve Jobs? [laughs] I do think in a certain way he is part of it. I honestly do. When Enchanted Lion started out, one of the people I spoke with who was a key part of distributing our books to the world told me that one of the big problems with our books where that they were too beautiful. That Americans are suspicious of beauty. I thought about that long and hard. Was he just a kook? Was that a kind of weird aggressive comment? But I concluded no, it’s not any of those. He might not be entirely right, but he is somewhat right. I think in a certain kind of way the whole Steve Jobs Apple movement—turning people on to design and valuing aesthetics—made people realize again that how things look and feel matters. Beauty and harmony. Those ideas have gained a pride of place in our society, having been dormant for a long time.
More seriously, there is also a lot of exhaustion on the part of people towards corporate anything. These hegemonic visions, they almost seem cynical. Where they can just give us the cheapest paper, the worst stories, and the hordes are just going to go out and buy them. On the grassroots level—of readers, parents, educators, families—there has been a real hunger for good books for a long time. People are fed up with what is on offer and are looking for unusual, chewy stories to share with their children. For more beautiful work that's more engaging, more exciting, surprising, worthwhile. It seems like a lot of big publishing is behind the curve—they are finally catching up now, but they didn’t realize that they would be making money by investing time in creating really quality books.
SMM: You have posted on your Facebook page that Miyazaki says of his own films “they are not about fate but will” How do you think this applies to children’s books?
CB: Absolutely. You know, I think it’s very easy for a book to cross the line into entertainment, where it can engender a kind of passivity. I am not interested in a book that is entertaining you, but not engaging you in any way. I am interested in stories that, in word and image, excite the imagination and open up a sense of possibility. That activate the idea of being an actor in the world and help to foster a child's disposition to act in the world. Stories that create a sense of choice—and possibility.
Developmentally, children do not discover a pre-made world, they are always creating the world. They are building it. It's core belief of mine that we as humans are always making choices—as to which stories to tell, how we organize facts and how we build up and create the world around ourselves. We are making choices about how to be an actor in the world, how to realize ourselves, to do whatever kind of creative work or goodness we want to do. It is crucial that a story function to awaken, and foster, and reach that inner disposition to be an actor, and to encourage children to believe that they can make the world they wish to live in.