SIGHT and SOUND: Franceschelli on publishing illustrated non-fiction from Ukraine

This year’s list of new titles for 2020 has over 150 translated books for children and young people. Of these, only two books have been translated from Ukrainian. Sound by Romana Romanyshyn and Andriy Lesiv, translated from Ukranian by Vitaly Chernetsky, published by Chronicle Books, was released in the spring and its companion book Sight is due for release this autumn. Originating in a language that is far less represented in English children’s literature than Western European languages, we were keen to find out about the acquisition process. We asked publisher and translator Christopher Franceschelli to tell us more.

Christopher Franceschelli: How should two Ukrainian books find themselves on an American publisher’s list? Would that I could say that it was due to a farsighted desire to hunt down remote world literature or to my diligent seeking out of titles beyond the all too limited number of primarily Western European—and a few Asian—countries Americans tend to mine for books in translation. Would that I had the language skills to go spelunking in less-well investigated international lodes of titles. 

Buster’s World by Bjarne Reuter

As someone for whom English is a second language—and the child of parents for whom English was the third and fourth language respectively, I’d had a long-standing interest in publishing books in translation. But for many years I had restricted my acquisition of potentially translatable titles only from languages with which I had some direct familiarity. That was a pretty limited list:  German, French, and a bit of Dutch. This had allowed me to publish Bjarne Reuter’s wonderful novel BUSTER’S WORLD from the Danish, not because I had even a working knowledge of Danish but because the book had previously been brilliantly translated into German.  

However, over the course of the intervening years I have gradually learned the value of placing my trust in the knowledge, love, and sensitivity to language of foreign colleagues who possess precisely the skills and languages that I lacked: We agreed in our evaluation of so many of the books we both knew and loved, why should I then not be prepared to rely on their judgement on the unfamiliar.   In fact, I first heard mention of SOUND (and its companion title SIGHT) from a German colleague (although he ultimately did not publish the books). His description was intriguing enough to encourage me to visit the originating Ukrainian publisher’s stand, Old Lion Publishing House, at the 2018 Bologna Book Fair. There I discovered that the books had been awarded the Bologna Ragazzi Award for best non-fiction titles. That actually raised a bit of a yellow flag, since all too often I had found that Ragazzi winners seemed to be books more likely to please judges than young readers. And a second, very pleasant discovery:  My knowledge of Ukrainian was entirely unnecessary; the publisher had prepared proof dummies with a fluid English translation by Vitaly Chemetsky. 

But it was the books themselves which were remarkable—both in their presentation and in their approach. These were exquisite products of book creation, design, and manufacture, using an entirely non-standard palette of fluorescent and metallic inks; more importantly they presented their subjects with fantastically innovative infographics and compelling imagery and were precisely the books I wished I’d had as a nine year old first engaging with these topics. 

Long story short: I was smitten.  I acquired these titles for my little Handprint Books imprint fortunate to be part of a company like Chronicle Books where my enthusiasm for these books found an immediate echo, where an exquisitely fastidious fact-checker combed every sentence and image for accuracy, where the physical production of books is taken very seriously. SOUND—and soon SIGHT—have traveled a great distance away from their Ukrainian origins (with an additional 12,000 km detour to their Chinese printer) and are now are about to meet their English language audience for the first time.                                                                             

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Here at the World Kid Lit blog, we’ve been lucky enough to take a look at SOUND and it is fantastic. The topic of sound and hearing is explored through bright, exciting colours. A picture of our auditory system is followed by a look at music, with different instruments and voices creating high notes and low notes. One page I love is the different noises our body makes: “rumble when we are hungry” and “makes cracking noises when we move”. The book invites us to listen to the world around us; noise pollution, nature and animals. It discusses language, including sign language, and the need to switch off and truly listen “in order to hear the softest sounds”. This a great, engaging introduction to the world of sound.

Christopher Franceschelli is president and publisher of Brooklyn, NY-based Handprint Books, an imprint of Chronicle Books in San Francisco. The company’s colophon is his daughter’s handprint. He is also a partner in the children’s book packager SmartInk Books and serves as a member of the board of the International Youth Library, Munich. 

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