“Spaciousness, aliveness... [as though] a big, wide window has been flung open.” These are some of the ways that Enchanted Lion publisher Claudia Bedrick describes qualities she searches for in a picture book. But, fittingly, the descriptions could also be used for the evolving Brooklyn neighborhood where the independent children’s book publisher is headquartered. Red Hook, which was named by Life magazine in 1990 as one of the most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods in the United States, has undergone significant gentrification. Today, it’s a far cry from the roaring chaos of Manhattan; there is a sense of openness to the region, with a perennial breeze from the waterfront, where water taxis thrum quietly past. There is the feeling that, while you didn’t arrive here serendipitously – quite the opposite, in fact (limited transportation options require some advance planning) – it seems you might have ambled in while you were lost in thought and not paying attention to where the path was taking you. And you are certainly curious to see what is happening around the bend.
Enchanted Lion, known for publishing international picture books with a playfully subversive flair, shares its space with a real estate office on a tranquil block in the vicinity of a community garden and wine shop. The building also previously housed an art gallery, explains Bedrick, as she leads the way to the back of the brick-lined space. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Bedrick says, the building was opened up as a safe community center for Red Hook residents needing to complete FEMA applications. In addition to the significant economic and social transformations the neighborhood has undergone in recent years, Red Hook was particularly hard hit by the colossal storm and in some senses, is still recovering.
Turning the corner, there are several of the trademark trappings of a busy publishing house: crowded shelves, stacks of brightly colored books, containers overflowing with pens, and illustrations pinned to a cork board. But unlike the cubicle-filled book-making meccas of Manhattan, the room more closely resembles a small-town library than an office. There’s no influx of editors and interns here; publisher Claudia Bedrick is the lone occupant, surrounded by the literary fruits of her labors. In fact, the most frequent visitor to Enchanted Lion headquarters is Bedrick’s mother, who helps to organize and manage the office.
Bedrick arrived in publishing organically, with a few diversions along the way. Her father, Peter Bedrick, was publisher of Schocken Books before launching Peter Bedrick Books with his wife, Muriel, in 1983, and the household was always teeming with reading material. But, in the 1980s, as a young person working in the field and “typing all day,” she felt largely ungratified: “I began to wonder, do I want to be in books?”
Landing a job working to build and support libraries in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall reawakened her bibliophilia. For a period of 10 years, Bedrick traveled extensively throughout Eastern and Central Europe, even touring Iran in 2000. “I loved that work and meeting with scholars and librarians,” she says. “I also loved viewing restricted book collections,” which included a great many illustrated books. She also observed how much children’s literature was influenced by American books, but not the other way around.
Enchanted Lion has always been a family affair, started by Bedrick’s parents in 2003 after selling Peter Bedrick Books to the Tribune Company. Claudia joined the new company as managing editor, and her sister Abigail worked as sales and marketing manager. At first they published mostly heavily illustrated nonfiction. When her father died in 2004, unlike today (with the resurgence of nonfiction books in response to Common Core) nonfiction was on a back burner in publishing. As a result, Bedrick and her sister decided to turn to publishing picture books: “I’d been exposed to books from all over, and I loved children’s books. I wanted to bring books from places I’d traveled,” Bedrick says. Her sister left Enchanted Lion at the end of 2008 to work at Columbia University's School of Journalism, but she remains part of the family company. Claudia pressed on: “I wanted to make something of it,” she says. After a particularly “low moment,” Claudia found support and enthusiasm from Consortium representatives, whom she describes as “passionate about indie publishing” and cognizant of “how books are presented.”
While such a close-knit operation could result in an insular creative vision, the picture books on display throughout the office are multifarious and multinational. Among the titles: French author and artist Blexbolex’s Seasons, which Enchanted Lion published in 2010. It’s a book that offers subtle observations about the passage of time in a format of few words and stylized, enigmatic images – hardly your standard ponies and princess fare. Which is not to say that princesses don’t make appearances. Other books within view include the wordless stories Fox’s Garden by Princesse Camcam, about a fox searching for shelter in the night; and Bear Despair by Gaëtan Dorémus, in which a bear seeks retribution when a mean wolf steals his teddy bear.
Such books and authors have arrived at Enchanted Lion through a variety of avenues – often through personal interactions Bedrick has had, both abroad and here at home. Once, in a Brooklyn coffee shop, a man overheard her discussing Enchanted Lion and rushed over to sing the praises of his partner’s writing. Bedrick was naturally skeptical but handed over her card, and when Matthew Burgess contacted her, she ended up being very taken with his style. Bedrick had always wanted to publish a book about e.e. cummings, and Burgess – himself a poet – seemed a good fit. Burgess’s Enormous Smallness, a picture book biography of cummings, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo, will be released in spring 2015.
Since its launch, Enchanted Lion has extended its global reach to publish more books in translation (many of the French titles are translated by Bedrick herself), has expanded to comics, and is also originating more work than ever before. For fall 2014 (September to March), Enchanted Lion is publishing one original book, out of a total of 10 titles. For next spring’s list, the house will publish three original books and in 2016, Bedrick is expecting to publish a “handful” of original titles, with the goal of eventually publishing 60% original books and 40% works in translation.
Toward a Defining Aesthetic
While there may be wide variety in the Enchanted Lion catalog, Bedrick frequently hears individuals comment that they can recognize an Enchanted Lion title. She believes that there is a certain shared sensibility among the books, though she struggles to define precisely what that quality might be. Many of the titles carry the flavor of their originating countries. In terms of defining them as having a unique European aesthetic, however, Bedrick takes pause. She feels that “there are definitely differences” between European children’s books and American children’s books, “but I don’t feel competent to say what those differences are.”
In the case of a book such as My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, about a child and father having an unflinching conversation about the death of the boy’s mother, Bedrick does recognize a distinct cultural leaning: “There is no question that because the book is Norwegian, that the whole comprehension of life and death is different,” she says. “It’s not the story an American author would have chosen to tell.”
There was a time when Bedrick would hear claims that a title she hoped to publish was “too European,” and she was never certain what was meant by that assessment – an implication that a book’s content would be unfamiliar to audiences? Or maybe a way to suggest a book is unsellable? These days, she says, “I don’t hear that as much. The American market is not nearly as provincial as it was a handful of years ago.”
About her career as a publisher, Bedrick reflects, “You learn as you go. In the process, I’ve remembered more and come to feel more about what it is to be a child and the logic that they inhabit. A book too governed by adult logic can fall really flat for a kid,” she says.
And, fundamentally, there is the importance of beautiful, economical language in the picture books that Bedrick seeks: “I look for vitality of line,” she says. “Some lines seem dull or dead. They don’t vary or dance on the page. I look for something that offers a child reader the rich possibility of involvement. I look for imaginative, smart, playful use of words that communicates enthusiasm for language.”
Bedrick says she is often struck with the number of audacious, intelligent picture books being published in America today, as well as with the thoughtful and erudite criticism of such works. “This is an exciting time for picture books in the U.S.,” she says.
And tucked away in an intimate yet worldly enclave of Red Hook, Brooklyn, it’s clear that Enchanted Lion, in its modest fashion, is making some bold strides.