Children’s books in translation—from France to the United States, and much more often from the United States to France—were the topic of a lively panel hosted by the French Publishers’ Association this past Tuesday, which took place at NYU’s La Maison Française in New York City.

As background for the ensuing discussion, Jacques Binsztok gave an historical overview of French children’s publishing, which he said reached its pinnacle in the 19th century. The entire concept of “French children’s publishing,” he said, started at the end of the 17th century, back when there were “no children” per se. There were babies and youngsters, of course, but “children didn’t exist as an entity.” By the age of seven, the youngster was considered an adult—“a small adult, but an adult. And since there were no children, there was no reason to have children’s books for them.”

Also, Binsztok pointed to a sad reality of those times—the fact that children often died early in childhood. “For every one adult, you had to have four birthdays,” he said. Thus, “the relationship between parent and child was totally different.”

That doesn’t mean that children weren’t reading, he said; instead they were reading “family books” like Jonathan Swift, Robinson Crusoe and Pierrot stories, which were originally written for adults. Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque was published in 1699, likely the first book printed specifically for children. Binsztok admitted it was a “very boring book,” but this scathing attack on the French monarchy was the first bestseller of the 19th century.

Then came philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose 1762 book Émile was “probably the first book where the child has its own existence.” And Madame Le Prince de Beaumont went to England, read children’s books there and decided to come home and write for children. She virtually single-handedly “invented the concept of writing for children,” according to Binsztok, and is credited as the author of Beauty and the Beast.

Printing changed a lot in the 19th century, Binsztok reported; books became much less expensive to produce, and families could now afford to buy books for children. At the time, printers were also booksellers and publishers. “Books were no longer a rare thing,” he said. “There were school books and also gift books.”

Two government acts in the first part of that century also helped advance the cause of children’s books, by establishing the right to attend primary schools, and making books free in those schools. At the end of the school year, there was a ceremony in which each student received a book from the state; this practice continued into the modern age, ending only in 1968.

Hachette was one company that started as both publisher and bookseller; Louis Hachette, the company’s founder, was very conservative, Binsztok said. “And his books were very conservative too. He thought more of how to sell the books than what was inside the books.” Hachette had an innovative idea: he opened 1,000 bookshops in railway stations throughout France, to great success. He also created the first series especially for children: Bibliothèque Rose, which was sold in those railway shops.

Also during that era, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, whom Binsztok called “the greatest publisher of the 19th century in France,” announced the intention of publishing “good books” for children, in many ways becoming France’s first children’s publisher. “He had good taste, and he knew how to market his books,” Binsztok said. Hetzel was the first to print pre-publication copies, and the first to sell to children’s magazines.

In 1882, school became compulsory, and free, for children up to the age of 14. There was also a government act officially separating church and state. “Schools were now divorced from religion. School was free, books were free. It was the beginning of a huge market.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, many books were being translated into French. Books became nationalistic, and there was a particular nationalistic movement against Germany, Binsztok said. During the First World War, there was no children’s publishing—and no paper—but after the war things started up again. Gallimard published its first children’s book, and comics flourished in the ’20s and ’30s. Flammarion published the first Babar book in 1931, and sold five million copies of the books before World War II.

After the war, in the ’50s, a division grew between the most commercial publishers and the others, he said. Consolidation has affected publishing in France as it has in other nations; at the end of the ’70s, there were 130 publishers for children, said Binsztok; today, they number around 50.

But the picture today is not entirely bleak, he pointed out. One factor that has “saved” children’s books—“and not only children’s books”—is that since 1981 the book market in France has been governed by a fixed price, which avoids discounting. Also, he said the country has “a strong network of bookshops and libraries.”

After his overview, Anne Bouteloup, director of foreign rights at Éditions Gallimard Jeunesse, spoke of the difference that a child’s age makes, for the issue of translated books. “For 12 and up, this age group doesn’t care where the books came from,” she said. “The same for picture books. But for middle grade, most of the productions are originated locally. That’s the most difficult age group to sell rights. Publishers think that’s the time children are learning to read, and want stories anchored in daily life, not stories from other cultures.”

Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher, Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group at Random House, said that she has long brought in works from France, though with modest expectations. “I’ve always had a global view,” she said. “I want to bring other voices to kids in the United States. The most important thing is to make a kid think,” she added. “[In recent years] America has had a very anti-intellectual emphasis, and I fight that.”

Horowitz showed examples of several French novels she has translated and published in the U.S., saying they have “a perspective that I can’t find in this country.” And she tried to explain some of the vast differences between French and American sensibilities. For example, some sexual situations and more sophisticated scenarios can be commonplace in French novels, and are handled in a very matter-of-fact way, but would never pass muster in this country. Americans, Horowitz pointed out, have a much higher threshold for violence than they do for sex. And there is a feeling in France, she said, that “the need for culture is not an add-on to your life. It’s part of your life.”

Harry N. Abrams president and CEO Michael Jacobs added to Horowitz’s point, saying, “Americans tend to be less interested in the rest of the world.” But his company has done well with a few carefully chosen illustrated books imported from France, such as 365 Penguins (“we bought 17,500 copies and have sold well over 60,000”). “There’s an innovation in French children’s picture book publishing that’s missing here [in the U.S.],” he said. “It’s really refreshing.”

Bouteloup noted that the ratio is “very imbalanced,” between the number of American books being translated into French, and the much smaller number of French books being bought and translated for America. Forty percent of children’s books published in France are translated, she said, and other European countries have a similar proportion, while the U.S. has only a “tiny percentage.” She singled out nonfiction as an area that is “almost impossible” to sell to an American publisher. “The French curriculum opens very early to other countries and cultures,” she said. “The American curriculum is much more focused on America.”

An audience member, Neal Porter, reminded the panel that translations are often an expensive proposition, because typically you have to pay for a reader, then pay for a translation, all of which cuts into what are already slim margins.

But for those willing to give it a try, Jacobs spoke to many fellow American publishers when offering some advice. “If you want to be a publisher you need to take risks,” he said. “The gatekeepers are always present. But we’ve always underestimated the intelligence of kids. The audience is there, and the people who stand between can be gotten over or through. Pick your shots and put your energy behind it—it can be done.”