“Mom… you’re going to be upset,” Beverly Horowitz’s young daughter told her one day years ago, after school. At the time, Horowitz’s family was living in France and her daughter had just lost a tooth: “A mouse is coming to the house,” the anxious four-year-old informed her. The mouse in question was La Petite Souris, the French equivalent of the Tooth Fairy. The v-p and publisher of Delacorte Press recalled that moment – perfect collision of cultural childhood mythologies – during a January 15 panel on trends in French YA literature. Horowitz was joined by Emily Clement, assistant editor at Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books imprint, and by two editors visiting from Paris: Florence Barrau of Editions des Grandes Personnes, and Shaïne Cassim, author and editor at Wiz-Albin Michel. Literary Agent Samantha Steele moderated the intimate, at times surprising two hours of conversation, which took place at La Maison Française in New York City and was hosted by the French Publishers' Agency.
The speakers first each shared their unique perspectives on the meeting of the French and U.S. publishing worlds, which is how Horowitz came to reflect on the meeting of the Tooth Fairy and La Petite Souris. Her daughter’s concern over the mouse’s impending arrival inspired Horowitz to think about those small, cultural differences that color a child’s “visceral response to growing up in the world.” And yet despite these piquant variances in personal experience, the “core emotional life” of a child in America and a child in France is the same, according to Horowitz. Picture books might hold a more effortless, universal appeal for readers, she said. But YA can also resonate cross-culturally on that core emotional level.
For Horowitz, books written through diverse cultural lenses also make for vibrant reading. While there are certain qualities that transcend borders, there’s not any “secret sauce” for creating universally appealing YA books (she held up a packet of sauce from McDonald’s – ubiquitous both in France and the U.S. – to demonstrate). So why not take a “gamble,” she asked, by throwing in a variety of new flavors to awaken the taste buds and broaden readers’ understanding of the world?
Clement, who has also lived in France, shared that when seeking foreign YA books to publish in America, she looks for stories that resonate uniquely and that could not be told by someone else in the world with any more truth and power. The opportunity to introduce American readers to new experiences and perspectives drawing from what they already know is also an important key. As an example, she referenced Arthur A. Levine Books’ forthcoming English translation of Hidden Like Anne Frank, a nonfiction book from the Netherlands about Jews whose experiences in hiding mirrored those of Anne Frank and her family. Young American readers who have just learned about Frank are poised in the right place intellectually to read about others like her, Clement suggested.
While YA books have existed in the U.S. for decades, the category is still in its infancy in France. Thus, YA editors like Cassim find themselves in an empowering yet uncertain position. Cassim explained how, in the past, once a young French reader transitioned out of children’s books, they simply moved to adult books. Cassim also volunteered the opinion that French publishers’ motivation for developing a YA category was largely driven by economic interests – the blockbuster success of American YA titles could not be ignored. But Cassim and her French colleagues are working to foster a deeper respect and appetite for a great variety of books for teens in France: “YA audiences deserve their literature,” she says. Books such as Candace Bushnell’s The Carrie Diaries, Melissa de la Cruz’s Blue Bloods series, and Joyce Carol Oates’s YA novels have all proven to be successful among their intended audience. However, Cassim expressed both her exasperation over derivative YA books (referencing a title that she saw last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, marketed as “Fifty Shades of Grey for teens”) and her devotion to finding quality books that would become enduring classics in France rather than just fashionable bestsellers.
For Barrau, championing YA literature within France is both rewarding and deeply challenging. Economic factors enable only modest print runs, and the lack of a robust YA readership can be frustrating. The majority of the works Barrau has published thus far have been translated from English, originating either in the U.S. or the U.K., a trend that may shift to include more French authors as YA develops more of a stronghold in the market. Like Cassim, Barrau is concerned with publishing quality works of literature that will appeal broadly and enduringly, rather than “products.” There also remains a stigma in France about literature for children, one that frequently categorizes the books as “simplified” or “pseudo-literature.” This bias also prevents many YA books from receiving critical attention from reviewers. Barrau hopes such prejudicial views will gradually lift as more and more young readers embrace “daring, innovative, ambitious” YA books that serve as “invitations to discover singular imaginative worlds.”
Barrau referenced Mary E. Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox as an American title that has recently resonated with a French YA audience, and this fall’s lead title for Editions des Grandes Personnes is David Levithan’s Every Day. Barrau has very high expectations for the book’s reception. Her house will also be publishing Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt, another title that she sees as potentially having strong crossover appeal. Additionally, Barrau’s company is shifting its focus to include more middle-grade titles – thus potentially grabbing children who are transitioning from picture books and seeking more mature reading options. Ideally, those same readers may then embrace YA books. Barrau noted that the cover art her company selects aims to appeal both to an adult and YA audience, but that one of her main ambitions is to erase the notion in French adolescents’ minds that bookstores are “elite places... with baby books on one side and adult books on the other.”
Brave New Worlds – and Blue Jeans
Dystopia and fantasy often successfully cross the Atlantic, Horowitz said. She speculated that it’s because the books often occupy worlds that are set apart from specific geographical locations that foreign readers might not recognize. Horowitz mentioned that Fallen by Lauren Kate has done especially well in France (“is it the dress?” she contemplated, looking at the cover – which garnered a laugh from the audience). Contemporary YA is more likely to be married to its culture of origin, she suggested, but there are exceptions – for example, Ann Brashares’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is still big in France, she said. But while YA novels from the U.S. are increasingly making their way to France, the reverse is not often the case. The panelists put forth some reasons why.
Horowitz pointed out how time-consuming it is for an editor to seek books overseas and how it’s a “matter of luck and time” to find an original manuscript that will resonate with an American readership. This being said, when she does find a foreign book that she would like to publish, it generally has a quality that sets it apart from domestic YA titles. As a result, she might select a more quiet title rather than, for example, a dystopian novel that’s a hit in France but that she might as easily see in the U.S. One French book that Horowitz was delighted to publish was Joelle Stolz’s The Shadows of Ghadames, about a Muslim girl’s quest to learn to read. The book offers a glimpse into a world and an experience not typically visited by American YA readers.
Clement noted the difficulty (and cost) inherent in finding a translator who not only understands both languages and cultures, but who will successfully translate a book’s essential qualities (“the right voice for that voice”). There’s also America’s cultural influence in Europe, and the prevalence of English spoken, which logically leads to more books from the U.S. headed for translation than the other way around.
Cassim also shared her view that French literature sometimes possesses a certain je ne sais quoi, which is indelibly tied to French culture, and which cannot always be easily translated for American readers. Barrau pointed out a logistical challenge: because literary agents are not as commonplace in France as they are in the U.S., author promotion and the negotiation of sales rights can fall on the shoulders of already harried publishers. Finally, Steele observed that she sometimes encounters books by French authors that she feels would make good YA titles, only in the U.S. they are marketed to publishers in the adult category.
The group concluded the discussion by each venturing a condensed definition of what YA is, whether it’s being read in the Paris metro or by teenagers in the suburbs of Seattle. For Horowitz, YA books possess a “character and sensibility that speaks to adolescents growing up, adjusting, and finding their place in the world.” Cassim suggested that YA contains a quality that is at once “very precise and universal,” a book that “gets what you’re feeling” at a particular moment and yet which has the capacity to “resonate forever.” Barrau believes that YA literature serves as a catalyst for readers to discover life’s complexities. She noted her interest in publishing “difficult” texts that will coax readers beyond their comfort zones (for example, the controversial Danish novel Rien by Janne Teller, which was published in the U.S. as Nothing). For Barrau, a YA book should not necessarily provide the answers for readers, but should offer provocative “clues” that encourage them to form their own interpretations of the world, and which might open the doors to discussion.