Wales has one of the longest literary traditions in Europe, and its landscape, history, myths, people and language have long inspired children’s writers and illustrators from T Llew Jones, JRR Tolkein, Alan Garner and Susan Cooper to Catherine Fisher, Philip Pullman, Manon Steffan Ros and Jackie Morris:
By Megan Farr
As a bilingual nation, Wales publishes its children’s stories in both English and Welsh, providing a mirror for children to see themselves in Wales, and a window onto a different language and culture to those living outside of Wales. While those written in English can travel more easily, there are great stories waiting to be discovered written in the Welsh language.
Y Mabinogi /The Mabinogi tales are the oldest and most famous legends in Wales and hold a central place in the Welsh imagination, inspiring classic children’s books like The Owl Service by Alan Garner (Collins, 1967) and The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper (Penguin. 1965 to 1977).
More recently, Pedair Cainc Y Mabinogi /The Four Branches of The Mabinogi (Rily, 2015) has been published as a picture book by Siân Lewis and illustrated by Valériane Leblond, retelling the stories of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Blodeuwedd for a new generation. Published by Welsh children’s publisher Rily in a Welsh and English edition, both have been bestsellers, with the Welsh edition winning the Tir na n’Og Children’s Book Award 2016.
This year, authors Matt Brown and Eloise Williams are aiming to publish The Mab with Unbound, a bilingual collection of retellings of the stories from The Mabinogion by 11 prominent children’s authors from Wales. Illustrated by rising star Max Low, this will be a phenomenal showcase of Welsh talent. You can support the project here.
Recent successes of children’s books published in Wales include the middle grade fiction The Clockwork Crow trilogy by Catherine Fisher (Firefly Press, 2018-2020), a story set deep in the Welsh landscape and mythology of the Telwyth Teg/Fair Family, and the first book won the Tir na n’Org Children’s Book Award 2019.
The YA novel Llyfr Glas Nebo/The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros (Y Llolfa, 2018) winner of the Wales Book of the Year 2019 and the Eisteddfod Prose Medal 2018, is a dystopian story of a mother and her son’s struggles to survive in north Wales after a nuclear disaster.
Geiriau Diflanedig (Graffeg, 2019) adapted into Welsh by Mererid Hopwood from the publishing phenomenon The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Hamish Hamilton, 2017) is a great example of adding to the rich heritage of children’s literature in Welsh through translation. The adaptations of the poems highlight the fragility of both language and nature, reminding us that we need to remember and celebrate these ‘lost words’.
Awards are important in recognising and highlighting the talent from Wales, and the Tir na n-Og Children’s Book Awards, run by the Books Council of Wales, have honoured the best children’s books published in Welsh and English for over 40 years. The list of previous winners is an impressive overview of some of the best children’s authors and illustrators from Wales, including T Llew Jones, Mererid Hopwood, Catherine Fisher and Jackie Morris, as well as introducing new talent like G. R. Gemin, Claire Fayers and Manon Steffan Ros.
This year the Wales Book of the Year Awards, run by Literature Wales, added a new category for Children and Young People in recognition of the importance of books for children, this year won by Sophie Anderson for The Girl Who Speaks Bear (Usborne, 2019).
The publishing landscape in Wales
Wales has a small yet vibrant children’s and YA book market, publishing in English, Welsh and bilingually in a variety of physical and digital formats for all ages led by independent publishers including Atebol, Dref Wen, Firefly, Gomer, Graffeg, Rily and Y Llolfa, all based in different parts of Wales.
Most books are published in their original language, with the majority of translations and adaptations from English into Welsh, and very little translated into English from Welsh or any other language. According to the Rosser Report (2017) into Welsh language children’s books, there were 68 adaptations into Welsh and 29 original Welsh children’s books published between 2008 and 2014.
Support for the publishing industry in Wales is managed by Books Council Wales, who allocates 70% of its grant funding to Welsh language publications and 30% to English language publications. These grants help Welsh publishers attract talent and leverage more sales and marketing clout to help compete with the larger London-based publishers.
Internationalising children’s books from Wales
Books published in Wales in both languages have huge potential to showcase Welsh culture and language abroad. Foreign rights expertise in Welsh publishing is increasing, with some publishers using independent rights agents to help sell their titles to publishers around the world. These sales benefit the author and publisher financially but also help to promote Welsh talent and culture to other countries.
This month sees the US publication of The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher, by Candlewick Press, who have retained the Welsh names and words from the original text. The book has also been sold in Russia, Scandinavia, China and Turkey to date.
Wales Literature Exchange, the organisation tasked with the promotion of the literature of Wales internationally and support for its translation, presents the Bookcase, an annual selection of books from Wales that have the best potential to travel into other languages each year at Frankfurt Book Fair, offering translation grants to publishers. Llyfr Glas Nebo/The Blue Book of Nebo, a book for young readers by Manon Steffan Ros, was included in the 2019 Bookcase and has so far sold rights in the US, Egypt and Poland and been adapted into a successful stage play. There are plans to create a similar Bookcase for children’s books at Bologna Children’s Book Fair for the first time in 2021.
Historically, Welsh publishers have had very little presence at the main international book fairs, but for the past two years, Welsh Government has supported a Wales stand at London Book Fair, bringing together the key literature promotion agencies and publishers in the country to showcase literature from Wales, curate a literature events programme and hold meetings.
As well as exporting our language and culture, it is necessary to enrich our literature with translations from languages other than English. A report on internationalisation of children’s publishing in Wales from Literature Across Frontiers and Welsh Literature Exchange has been commissioned by the Books Council of Wales and British Council Wales which will provide a vast range of resources for publishers will be published later this year.
There was an interesting event at this year’s National Eisteddfod, ‘Reading the World – International Children’s Literature’ with a panel of writers, illustrators and translators from Germany, India, France, Argentina, Poland and the Basque Country, all speaking Welsh and sharing international children’s books they think should be translated. This was an important step towards internationalisation of children’s books in Wales.
Finding out which children’s books from Wales travel best and why, and which books can best travel into Wales, is what I have recently set out to explore in my doctoral thesis. My research aims to find out which strategies the Welsh publishing sector should adopt in order to operate successfully at international level in the field of books for children and young adults. I will be looking at what the current policies and strategies are in Wales alongside a selection of other bilingual countries and build on this knowledge through a series of case studies focusing on import, export and co-production to strengthen the publishing sector here in Wales.
Megan Farr is Marketing and Publicity Manager at Firefly Press and currently researching into ‘Strategic Action for Internationalisation of the Children’s Publishing Sector in Wales’, as part of a creative industries PhD at the Mercator Centre at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David funded by the KESS II European Social Fund and sponsored by the Books Council of Wales.