By Julia Sherwood
Slovakia takes its children’s books seriously. Since 1967, the country’s capital has been hosting the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava (BIB), Children’s literature, which bestows one of the oldest international honours on illustrators of children’s books. Held under the auspices of UNESCO, the biennial is organized by Bibiana, the International House of Arts for Children, said to be one of the few institutions of its kind in Europe dedicated to promoting children’s books and art. Children’s literature has also enjoyed the unstinting support of the Centre for Information of Literature (LIC), the agency that promotes Slovak literature abroad with considerable success which, over the past thirty years, has supported 75 translations of Slovak children’s books into 18 languages.
Sadly, as English is notably underrepresented among these translations, the selection of Slovakia as the Guest of Honour for the 2010 Bologna Book Fair was seen as an opportunity for a major push. LIC put together a publication showcasing the country’s finest writers and illustrators and surveying the history of the genre. I was just getting into literary translation at the time and was happy to take on a few of the texts and book excerpts. The glossy, lavishly illustrated 300-plus-page publication, Slovak Children’s Books, still has pride of place on my bookshelves.
On a visit to Bratislava a few years later, many of my friends were excited about a recent publishing sensation: “You MUST take a look at Mimi a Líza, my children/grandchildren just love it! It is the most wonderful way of making children understand disability, you really must find a publisher for it in the UK.” Just before I flew back to London, a couple of my friends rushed to a bookshop specially to bring me a copy of the bestseller which had proved popular not just with readers aged 5+ – the group it was originally marketed at – but also with younger age groups, partly due to the equally successful accompanying animated TV series. I was blown away by the book and its lovely illustrations, and promised to try to get a British publisher interested. However, when I started showing it around, I was told that this kind of book would never sell as the proportion of text to illustrations was all wrong.
Mimi & Líza started life as a seven-part animated TV series now available on DVD. It is the brainchild of Katarína Kerekesová, a film director whose previous work was not aimed at children and who created it together with Katarína Moláková. For the book version, published by Slovart (one of the three biggest houses in the country, with children’s books comprising about a third of its output), the two Katarínas joined forces with Slovak-born author Alexandra Salmela, who lives in Finland and also writes and publishes in Finnish, as well as illustrators Boris Šima and Ivana Šebestová. The series features two little girls who live in the same block of flats – the blind Mimi and the sighted Líza. As they seek to escape from their humdrum lives into flights of fantasy, Líza learns to see the world through Mimi’s eyes. By showing that Mimi’s world is rich and full of colour rather than sad and grey, and presenting blindness simply as a different way of being rather than a handicap, Mimi & Líza teaches children to understand and accept otherness in general.
“My primary goal was not to show how society perceives the world of the visually impaired,” Kerekesová said in an interview, adding that she conceived the two girls as “two parts of the same personality. They remind us that each of us has a rational and a spontaneous side, but the way we’re put together inside may differ. Of course, Líza is sometimes astonished by all the things Mimi can do, but I didn’t want them to limit one another. That, I think, is the most natural way to achieve integration.”
The original publication, Mimi & Líza (2013, and since reprinted 13 times), was followed by a sequel, Mimi & Líza 2 (2015 and five reprints so far). The most recent addition to the series, Mimi & Líza: The Christmas Light Mystery, appeared in 2018, and an ecologically-themed sequel, Záhrada (The Garden), is due in 2021. The complete 12-episode TV series (five more episodes were added to the original seven a year later) was seen by over a million viewers in Slovakia and was also shown in France and Slovenia. Both the series and the book have garnered numerous prizes, spawning a colouring book, a book of games, and all kinds of branded merchandise. An educational app is also in the works.
Mimi & Líza has proved to be the most successful children’s title ever for Slovart, selling ten times as many copies as any children’s book in the publisher’s history. So far, all three books have been translated into Czech, part 1 into Hungarian, and a Chinese version will soon appear in Taiwan. It would be wonderful if an English-language publisher could be found as well.
Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Since 2008 she has been working as a freelance translator of fiction and non-fiction from Slovak, Czech, Polish, German, and Russian. She is based in London and is Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia.