Just before Labor Day weekend in 2018, Scholastic editorial director David Levithan placed a newly published YA book he had been given during a trip to Brazil in the hands of fellow editor Orlando Dos Reis. That weekend, Dos Reis started reading Where We Go from Here, the debut novel by Brazilian writer Lucas Rocha. From the beginning, Dos Reis was hooked.
“I read the first line and thought, ‘Dammit, this is going to be good,’” said Dos Reis, who was born in Brazil and speaks Portuguese. “By the end of chapter one I thought, ‘Now I have to finish this book.’ I got to the middle of chapter four and I just started translating. I thought, ‘Somebody else needs to read this. I can’t be the only one in the building who has.’ ”
By the time Scholastic’s offices opened on Tuesday morning Dos Reis—who had never translated anything before—was waiting with a handful of chapters in English for Levithan to read. Shortly thereafter, Scholastic committed to publishing Where We Go from Here, a story of two teenage boys’ friendship following the discovery that one has acquired HIV.
The book, which is slated for release in June 2020, and was professionally translated by Larissa Helena, is not only a milestone for Rocha. It also marks a significant foray into young adult books in translation for one of the largest children’s publishers in the world.
Connections Across Continents
For Dos Reis, the cross-cultural appeal of the book’s content and voice made it an easy sell to Scholastic’s acquisitions team. “So much of what Brazilian writers have read is American YA,” Dos Reis said. “You can fix a story but fixing voice is very difficult. But this has voice. Not only is this a book that translates well literally, it translated culturally in terms of voice.”
When Rocha received word that Scholastic was interested in the book, he was astonished. “It was a very, very starstruck moment for me,” Rocha said. Yet he immediately worried whether the book’s main storyline would register with American readers. “I talk a lot about the health system in Brazil, and it's a very particular system. It’s not a system that you have in the U.S. For example, there is free HIV treatment in Brazil pretty much anywhere you are.”
Dos Reis assured him that the broader story of friendship would anchor readers, and that they would connect with a book that is rare for its depiction of HIV as a manageable, chronic condition. As for the nuances of the health care system, Dos Reis told Rocha, “It will be awesome for readers to know that there are different views on a subject like treatment.”
That portrayal was essential for Rocha, who currently works as a librarian for a foundation that provides access to HIV and AIDS treatment.
“When you are talking about AIDS and HIV, every time it’s a story about a guy who contracted the HIV virus and then he has his miserable life and ends up dead and alone in a ditch or something,” Rocha said. “I didn’t want to tell that story, because that's not the reality for everyone anymore. I wanted to write a book with a character who was going to face this dark phase of discovery and then happiness. He has these effects on his body. But then he realizes at some point that he has his family. He has his friends. I wanted the characters to capture this essence of friendship and family.”
A Shared Political Moment
It was Rocha’s Brazilian publisher Rafaella Machado at Galera Record who saw the connections that might make Where We Go from Here a good fit for translation. During Levithan’s trip to the Rio International Book Fair in August 2018, Machado asked him to take a copy home with him.
She frequently commissions translations of American titles and said certain books can easily find readers in foreign countries. “Some books are very similar to our reality. It might be an American book, but it could take place in Brazil. We have drugs and violence, extreme racism. Those kinds of stories work very well because it’s our reality also,” Machado said. “At the same time, I think that our books, when they are written here, can also speak to the readers in America. A lot of these issues are going on there.”
The broader political climate has also created parallels that make for an ideological alignment between American YA authors and publishers and their Brazilian counterparts. Both countries have LGBTQ-focused young adult literary cultures thriving at the same time that conservative political leaders run their governments. Galera Record has faced particularly harsh retribution from the government of President Jair Bolsonaro because it is the first Brazilian imprint to publish LGBTQ teen literature.
For Rocha, the solidarity of publishing across borders is all the more meaningful as a result. “We are facing very similar [situations] and there's a lot to be depressed about,” Rocha said. “But children’s and young adult booksellers, librarians, readers, buyers: all these people in the publishing industry, they really care deeply.”
At Scholastic, Dos Reis isn’t waiting to see if American readers take to Rocha’s book. He has already acquired another Brazilian title, Here the Whole Time, by Rocha’s close friend Vitor Martins, and said that acquiring Rocha’s book has changed the way he sees publishing overall. “I’ve started to be more conscious of the publishing world outside of the U.S. I think we’re becoming far more globalized and we’re going to adapt.”
From Brazil, Machado concurred. “This confirms for us we not only have great books that can be read here but great books can be read across the world,” she said. “More and more of these books are going to work in every market.”
Even with publication a little more than six months away, Dos Reis said he is still marveling at how the book came to him in the first place. “Hypothetically speaking, if my career in publishing were to end tomorrow,” he said, “I would walk away happy that I got to do this book. Secretly, as editors we’re all looking for that one book, the needle in the haystack, in the slush pile: that book that falls into your lap.”