Meet the Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Today we learn more about Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (EBYR), the children’s book imprint of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. WKL contributor Mia Spangenberg speaks with Kathleen Merz, Editorial Director...

WKL: We’re very happy to have you on the blog. EBYR has had a global outlook from the outset. Could you tell us a little about EBYR’s trajectory since the imprint started in 1995 and how books in translation feature in your publishing program?

Kathleen: Thanks so much for this opportunity to speak with you and share a bit more about our publishing program. We’re huge fans of the World Kid Lit community and the work all of you do to promote awareness of translated books!

As you noted, EBYR has had a global outlook from the beginning. Eerdmans Publishing, as a whole, is known for broad-minded books that foster thoughtful conversation on a wide range of topics. And with our children’s books, we look for titles that can open up a wider world for young readers by presenting new perspectives and ideas, cultures and history that readers might not be aware of.

Our first translated title to get strong critical recognition was Garmann’s Summer (written and illustrated by Stian Hole, translated by Don Bartlett), which we published in 2008. It’s a book about a boy who’s afraid of starting school in the fall. He talks to his family and realizes they all have fears too. The thing I love best about this quirky, honest book is that at the end of it (spoiler alert), Garmann is still afraid of starting school. Garmann’s Summer was a Batchelder Honor book, and Stian Hole also received the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for New Writer. Since then, our focus on international books has only continued to grow. Books in translation make up half (or more) of the titles we publish each year. It’s a part of our program that all of us at EBYR are passionate about and certainly want to continue.  

WKL: Many EBYR books have received awards and honors over the years. Could you highlight a few of your translations which have received honors and awards?

Kathleen: There’s Garmann’s Summer, of course, (it also received the Bologna Ragazzi Award). We’ve had two books win the Batchelder Award: Soldier Bear (written by Bibi Dumon Tak, illustrated by Philip Hopman, translated by Laura Watkinson), based on the true story of a bear adopted by a troop of Polish soldiers during World War II, and Mikis and the Donkey (also written by Bibi Dumon Tak, illustrated by Philip Hopman, translated by Laura Watkinson), the story of a boy and his beloved donkey on the Greek island of Corfu. Several books we’ve published have also received Batchelder Honors—including The War Within These Walls (written by Aline Sax, illustrated by Caryl Strzelecki, translated by Laura Watkinson) and When a Wolf Is Hungry (written by Christine Naumann-Villemin, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo).

WKL: One of the things World Kid Lit is calling for is greater diversity in translated children’s books, both in terms of stories representing a diverse range of characters and experiences, but also in terms of finding books from countries beyond western Europe. What has been your experience in trying to find children’s books for your list from around the world? What kinds of challenges do you face, and what might be done to boost the number of books translated from languages that are currently less represented in English translation?

Kathleen: Historically, we’ve found many of our translated titles at the annual Bologna Book Fair—where, of course, publishers from western Europe tend to have very strong representation. And European publishers are often well set up to sell into the U.S. market—they have lots of connections, and they’re often well-prepared with rough sample translations into English, which is incredibly helpful in evaluating potential projects. I’ve also got a smattering of experience with Romance languages (mostly French and Spanish), so that makes it a bit easier to evaluate projects in those languages.

But like those of you at World Kid Lit, we see a need to branch out beyond books from western European cultures. There are so many other countries with strong publishing traditions and stories that reflect a diversity of experience that U.S. readers should have the chance to learn about. We’ve had some good success recently working with publishers from Central and South America—Alboroto Ediciones in Mexico, and Ediciones Ekaré in Venezuela. Both publishers produce amazing, lovely, thought-provoking titles. Of course we’re actively looking for books in other languages and from other countries as well.

It does certainly present some challenges to find those projects. It takes intentional work to seek them out, to become familiar with the publishing industries of other countries. And when we’re looking at projects that are in more unfamiliar languages—maybe even languages that use other alphabets—it becomes critical to have a network of translators and children’s lit professionals we trust who know our program and the U.S. market, and can evaluate potential projects in other languages, and even help suggest books that might be a good fit for us. The work that you all are doing is exactly what is needed—highlighting interesting projects worthy of translation, and giving visibility to translators and others who can do the work of evaluating potential titles for publishers.   

WKL: When you are covering languages which you may or may not read, how do you go about finding people who can advise you on a certain book?

Kathleen: First off, a major shout-out to World Kid Lit for the resources you provide for publishers! I’m especially grateful for the list of expert readers.

Beyond that, I’ll search in a number of different ways: asking translators we’ve worked with in the past if they have any contacts, asking the originating publisher if they have recommendations, looking at resources offered by any literature foundations in the countries of origin, or finding other books translated from those languages and contacting the translators of those books.

Where possible, I like to see if I can find translators to provide those initial evaluations for us. In addition to being able to evaluate the literary merit of any given project, they’re well-equipped to point out anything that might present difficulty at the translation stage.

WKL: EBYR publishes for many different age levels, ranging from picture books to novels for teen readers. Does the experience of editing books in translation vary greatly or is it more dependent on individual books and the people working on them?

Kathleen: The genre and the format of a book certainly do make for a different editing experience. With a picture book, there are fewer words—but each of those words needs to do a great deal of work, so sometimes it can almost be trickier to get those translations exactly right. And poetry can be even more difficult, because a translator needs to find ways to bring the sounds, the rhythms, maybe even the rhymes of the original text into what is often a very different language.

It’s very true, though, that the editing experience probably depends the most on the individual book and the translator that I’m working with. Every translator—like every creator—works in a slightly different way. Some translations come in perfectly polished, others need more reworking. Some translators are very hands on, some less so. And every book will send me down its own unique research rabbit holes, whether that might be learning about the finer points of the Spanish Civil War, or contemplating how to translate a particular onomatopoetic sound.

And there are nearly always questions about how to deal with cultural specifics: how do you translate them enough to be understandable for a U.S. audience, while still being faithful to the original culture and creator’s intent? Do you leave some words untranslated? Do you need to give any additional context for U.S. readers? I love that no two projects ever present exactly the same challenges.

WKL: Yes! We translators think about these kinds of questions all the time! Do you have an example you could share with us about how you worked with a translator to solve a particular cultural issue, whether it dealt with translating a specific word or context?

Kathleen: Well, issues of that type definitely came up as we were working on one of our fall titles called Different: A Story of the Spanish Civil War (written by Mónica Montañés, illustrated by Eva Sánchez Gómez, translated by Lawrence Schimel). One big question was whether or not to translate Spanish words like fiesta, merienda, or pueblo—and if we weren’t translating them, whether or not to italicize them. Or course that’s part of a broader conversation that’s going on in the children’s book industry as well. We decided to provide a glossary in the back, but leave the words as they were in the main text, unitalicized.

One other example I love—though it isn’t as much a cultural question—came up while working on A Head Full of Birds, also due out this fall(written by Alexandra Garibal, illustrated by Sibylle Delacroix, translated by Vineet Lal). There’s a spread where the main character, Noah, sees another character, Nanette, being bullied. In the first version of Vineet Lal’s translation, he had the text as: “But Noah just ignores them.” Over the course of editing the book, he wrote me “On rereading, I think this needs to be stronger (and closer to the French) than simply ‘ignore.’ Suggest ‘So Noah turns his back on them.”’ With one tiny little shift, the text has gotten closer to the original—and also given the character more agency. I’m in awe of how the seemingly smallest decisions translators make can have bigger repercussions on how a story is told!

WKL: These are great examples! And when it comes to picture books in other languages, they often have more text than we are used to. Other cultures can also have a different aesthetic or a different sense of the kinds of topics that are appropriate for children’s books. Have you encountered challenges likes this with your children’s books in translation? How do you handle these challenges as an editor?

Kathleen: Oh, absolutely! It’s fascinating to be able to see the wide range of stylistic tendencies and sensibilities present in books from other countries. That’s one of the (many) things I love about my job.

Sometimes, regrettably, those differences can make certain books unfeasible for publication in the U.S. Our markets, for instance, have a much lower tolerance for nudity. There are plenty of cases where we look at projects and just know that they won’t work for us to publish.

Sometimes the original publishers are willing to let us make some changes in the books to help them fit better with a U.S. audience. I’ve definitely found publishers willing to let us trim down text a bit. Or in the case of Different, we actually ended up expanding the book a bit, spacing the text out somewhat so that it reads more like a middle grade novel than a very text-heavy picture book. Changing the format was Lawrence’s suggestion, and it worked beautifully. We also added back matter to help U.S. readers understand the complex history behind the story.

Adapting projects to a U.S. market in any way is always something we try to do cautiously and respectfully. Over the years, I find myself more and more hesitant to make too many changes to a book. If we find ourselves having to work too hard to re-shape a project that defeats the creators’ original intent and the purpose of taking it on in the first place. I believe in trusting our readers to be open to sensibilities, storytelling styles, and cultural details outside their typical experiences—after all, that’s one of the main reasons to publish books in translation. I love that books from other countries are often willing to embrace dark humor, or difficult themes, or a lack of easy answers—in ways that books from the U.S. haven’t always been willing to do. I think there’s growing openness toward other sensibilities across the U.S. children’s book industry, as well, maybe in part because there are more books in translation being published now than there used to be.

WKL: Sometimes I worry books I work with are “too slow” for American readers, meaning it takes a while to get to the heart of the action and the conflict that helps invest the reader in the story, and there’s a cultural difference there about how plot works. Is this something you have encountered working with books from other cultures, and do you have an example you could share about how you resolved this?

Kathleen: Too slow—or sometimes too quiet. Too much anything, really, other than what U.S. readers are used to. There’s a fine line here. We’ve definitely looked at projects that we decided to say no to, just because they almost certainly wouldn’t work for a U.S. audience. (I’ll admit that the acquisitions/editorial process is very personal, too. We might look at books and think, “That would never work.” And then another publisher might come along with a vision for a project. In which case, at the end of the day, I think we all just have to be glad that a project has found the right home.)

So again, I’m hesitant to try to re-shape a project away from the creators’ original vision for it. Sometimes we’ll just say no. But sometimes we’ll also decide that a project is different from what typically gets published in the U.S.—but it’s important, it’s a story that we think should be told, and we’re going to publish it as it is and hope that it will find readers. On balance I’d much rather do that—publish a book as faithfully as we can and trust that readers will have space to be open to something outside their typical experience.

WKL: Do you promote translated books differently from the way you launch and promote books written originally in English? What are the challenges and opportunities?

Kathleen: We’re a small publisher, only publishing about 18 to 20 books a year. One of the upsides to that is that we are able to give a similar amount of love and attention to pretty much all our books. So in that way, there isn’t much difference in how we launch and promote our translated titles. There are some possibilities that aren’t available with creators who live outside the U.S. or who don’t speak English—it’s harder to do events, and it may be less possible to do blog posts or social media promotion that involves the creators. But our internet marketing team has been doing a great job of reaching out more intentionally to see if creators want to help promote the English edition of their books, and we’ve gotten some great response on that.

Another thing that does make a big difference is eligibility for awards. We typically submit our translated titles for the Batchelder Award. That award is a fantastic way to bring awareness to translated titles. For many people in the industry, the Batchelder Award announcement might be the only time they really give any thought to translated titles. But that award is specifically for text—I’d also love to see an award (or multiple awards!) given in the U.S. for art by international creators, who aren’t eligible for most of the other big ALA awards like the Caldecott. There are too many gorgeous books that go unnoticed because they don’t fit into the current award criteria.

WKL: Can you tell us about any of your upcoming books in translation? How did you come across them and what made you think, I have to publish this in English?

Kathleen: I mentioned Different, which is one of our Fall 2022 titles. It’s the story of two children who live through the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, eventually fleeing to Venezuela to escape persecution for their father’s political beliefs. The art in this book is absolutely stunning—that was the first thing that caught our attention. And its subject, the Spanish Civil War, is something that’s woefully undertaught in the U.S., despite having been a conflict that significantly shaped history leading up to WWII and afterwards. Different is also a story about resisting oppression and fleeing to make a life somewhere new—both themes which, sadly, are as relevant as ever.

Another translated title on our Fall 2022 list that we’ve very excited about is Madani’s Best Game (written by Fran Pintadera, illustrated by Raquel Catalina, translated by Lawrence Schimel). This is another title (like Different) that was originally published by Ediciones Ekaré in Venezuela. (Did I mention they publish fantastic books?) It’s a more upbeat story about a boy who has big dreams (though maybe not the ones you’d expect) for an upcoming soccer match. It also touches on social inequality in gentle, light-hearted ways.

The last two translated titles I’ll highlight from our Fall 2022 list are A Head Full of Birds (written by Alexandra Garibal, illustrated by Sibylle Delacroix, translated by Vineet Lal) and The Box (written by Isabella Paglia, illustrated by Paolo Prioetti, translated by Laura Watkinson). Both are sweet stories, each in their own way about cultivating empathy for others. A Head Full of Birds is about the friendship between two children, one of whom has autism spectrum disorder. With this book, we loved the way it shows the wonder and joy that can come with accepting someone who thinks about the world in a very unique way. The Box is a story about a group of animals who find a box with a mysterious creature inside. The creature won’t come out—and though the animals aren’t quite sure why, they stay patient and try to find ways to make the creature feel safe and welcome.  

WKL: One of your titles I recently reviewed and enjoyed is One Million Oysters on Top of the Mountain (written by geologist Alex Nogués, illustrated by Miren Asiain Lora, translated by Lawrence Schimel). Like this work, many of your books have a basis in fact, such as Soldier Bear and a book my family loves called A Dog Like Sam, about a stray, neglected dog a family comes to love (written by Edward van de Vendel, illustrated by Philip Hopman, translated by David Colmer). It strikes me that your nonfiction titles have a strong narrative component – or maybe it’s the other way around, that you focus on stories that tell us something about the human experience, and these are often grounded in fact. Before we close, could you tell us a bit more about how you think about nonfiction and narrative working together?

Kathleen: I’m so glad you asked this! I love One Million Oysters on Top of the Mountain. As you note, EBYR has a strong tradition of nonfiction titles driven by strong narrative—primarily picture book biographies like A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams and The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus. There are plenty of publishers out there that do more of the “browsable” straight nonfiction—but what I find myself drawn to is that intersection of nonfiction and narrative. Humans are storytellers, from our earliest roots. I love books that use voice, plot, character, theme—and all the literary devices—to tell us about the human experience and the wonder of living in this endlessly fascinating world.

WKL: Thank you for talking to us Kathleen – this was so much fun!

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Kathleen Merz is the Editorial Director at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She has worked on a number of award-winning titles, including books that have won the Caldecott Honor, the Batchelder Award for translation, the Sibert Medal, and other honors. She is always looking for original picture books, narrative nonfiction, and middle grade stories—particularly books that tackle contemporary social issues and celebrate diversity and multiculturalism, and stories that have well-crafted voice and strong characters. Kathleen lives in Michigan.