NorthSouth Publishing Director Heather Lennon on Finding the Best in World Literature and Getting It to Kids

For #WorldKidLit Month, Heather Lennon, publishing director of internationally focused NorthSouth Books answered questions about why translations matter, how to find the best translated literature for kids, and how to get translated books into the classroom:

Why get involved with translating children’s literature? Why does it matter? 

northHeather Lennon: Why get involved, why does it matter…well, each book is a reason unto itself. Some books open up a door or a window to another culture, and some entertain and delight us with common experiences. Our shared love of story and art bind us together, and this might sound grandiose, but it’s a wonderful feeling to be part of a global community of book lovers.

What are the obstacles to finding the best world children’s literature?

HL: In my experience, the biggest obstacle is time and money. Attending an international book fair is expensive and time consuming, but also fantastic and stimulating, and you come home with tremendous samples in your bag.

Language is another obstacle. I wish I could easily break into any language, like a sophisticated James Bond of publishing, but sadly, I am not multilingual and I rely on translators, translations, and synopses to start at least. In my opinion, relationships become cozy and your business begins to move along, so when you have a great relationship with a publisher in France or Germany and they are keeping you busy, it can be hard work to strike up a new relationship with a publisher in Africa or South America (two places I am always asked for more stories from).

It is hard to put yourself out of your comfort zone and contact people when there’s a language barrier and see that deal all the way through to the end and learn the intricacies and expectations of contracts in other countries.  It’s not that, as a publisher, we are not interested in those stories, it’s that time zones and contract language and costs gets in the way. All that said — that’s my perspective as a small publisher whose mission is primarily publishing books in translation. If you talk to an editor at one of the bigger publishing houses, their challenge might be something else entirely.

How do we get translated picture books into classrooms?

HL: Great question. I don’t believe there’s a corresponding Common Core designation for books in translation, and unfortunately, policy does have a great impact on what is bought as curriculum. Not being eligible for the Caldecott Award doesn’t help.

lindberghNorthSouth Books has made some great classroom guides for The Rainbow Fish and Torben Kuhlmann’s Lindbergh. I do think the best books stand on their own two feet and don’t need to be “pushed” at educators as special because they are translated. They should be included in schools because they work, they are of interest, and the kids love them. The Rainbow Fish is a great example of that — although it was originally published in Switzerland twenty five years ago, it’s a staple in elementary schools across America, and very often the first book that kids do as a unit in kindergarten, because the message about being a friend and sharing resonates. And it lends itself to paper plate crafts!

How are readers (and their teachers, librarians, parents, caretakers) finding your books?

HL: Marketing, marketing, marketing — and our audience is incredible. When I go into any library I find so many NorthSouth Books, old and new, it’s really affirming.  When I go to ALA and I speak with librarians who have been supporting our books for decades, it’s really motivating! I feel like we can always get better but our library relationships are very good right now.

Consumers are a tougher nut to crack. I think consumer are especially difficult because for the most part, we don’t have authors here in the USA on the ground, out in schools and stores talking about their books. It can be harder to generate that buzz or word of mouth that is so important. So we rely on ads, and reviews, and, and and ALA and BEA to showcase our titles.

What can we do to better support getting more & better world literature into English?

perfumeHL: I think Translated Literature for Kids Month is a fantastic idea — I am sure it will open some dialogue. Last year, a NorthSouth title, My Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village was a Batchelder Honor and that made a significant difference in our sales and publicity. I was happy to see that article on the new Slate blog, Nightlight, about books in translation, even if I don’t really agree with it.

We need more mainstream venues for discussion and creating word of mouth for people to find the “smaller” books. I actually think there are a lot of great books in translation out there now that people don’t even realize are not originated here in the USA. The Rainbow Fish. Inkheart. Everyone Poops: I’m not sure most parents are aware that those books were created in other countries.

I also am a bit jealous of how supportive the Canadian government seems of publishing, in general. We try to tie into programs via The German Book office and the Goethe Institut, to help subsidize translations and author visits, but I’m not aware of anything that is available through the US government.

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