Stevenson is v-p and publisher of Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I accepted an invitation to join the Flemish Literature Tour in Belgium, focused on children’s literature, because I thought the experience would be informative and fun. It was both.
I learned later that the tour, which took place this past February, was one of the International Publishing Fellowships sponsored by the governments of many countries where the arts receive government support. (Not here in the U.S.). I felt honored to represent the United States at a gathering of children’s book publishers from nine different countries: Canada, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Serbia, and Turkey, as well as the U.S. We’d find common ground, I imagined, and take note of the differences among us. And, in the words of the tour organizers, “discover the world of our wonderful children’s and youth books.”
With the exception of a day trip to Ghent, the tour stayed in Antwerp. The first evening, we visitors gave brief introductions to our publishing houses. My international colleagues represented houses of varying sizes, and all expressed the desire to create wonderful books and reach as wide a market as possible. Although we all shared these concerns, once again I was impressed by how many different meanings we attach to the same words. The Mexican visitor, for example, didn’t identify herself as an educational publisher but emphasized that all of her children’s books were published for the school market.
I showed daytime and nighttime views of the Empire State Building as bookends to my presentation of two Clarion titles. The Empire State photos were what people wanted to talk about afterward. We were all on information overload, and an icon is an icon.
For the rest of the time, the focus was on Flemish publishers, agents, authors, illustrators, and translators. Flemish publishers face the challenge of doing business in a country divided into two linguistic regions, Flemish in the north, French in the south.
Translation is the lifeblood of children’s book publishing in Flanders. Few people outside Flanders speak or read Flemish, so the Belgian government supports the spread of Flemish literature by underwriting translations into other languages. A full translation requires a commitment from a foreign publisher. I heard about some middle grade and YA fiction that sounded interesting, but I wouldn’t want to acquire a novel without reading it first. This strikes me as a particularly American bind. Every European book professional seems to speak at least two languages and to know people at home who can read many others. The tour was conducted in English, which at present is most European book people’s second language and the only language most Americans speak.
Flemish literature is often lumped in with Dutch literature by people who don’t know any better, and that included me before my visit. The Dutch and Flemish share an extensive stand at the Bologna Book Fair, and I hadn’t consciously separated the two countries’ literature or even their languages, neither of which I can read. [Author’s update: I misspoke when I referred to Flemish and Dutch as separate languages. Flemish is basically Dutch, with regional variations. My education continues.] Flemish book creators and publishers proudly display their unique identity; one of our group commented, “I felt a sense of feisty spirit for such a small region that has to struggle to prove itself within a bilingual and bicultural nation.”
The authors and artists who spoke to us showed slides, demonstrated their process, and booktalked their work. A lot of Flemish children’s books, even those for quite young readers, emanate darkness. I have found a somber note in books from other parts of Europe – Germany and France, for example – but in Flanders it seemed more prevalent, more concentrated. A fellow tour member commented, “There seem to be almost no restrictions on the topics of [Flemish] children’s books. Books with suicide and murder are difficult to publish in our market. But we saw examples of Flemish children’s books on these subjects, including picture books.”
Many of the picture books we saw were allegorical, with nameless characters, and in many of them, characters died. Several of the illustrators worked with a palette of red and black. In one picture book titled (in English) Red Red Red Riding Hood, the unpleasant grandmother stays dead, Red kills the wolf with an axe in a spread drenched in blood, and a wolfskin rug appears on her bedroom floor. Highly creative and graphically striking, but it's unlikely that the book would see the light of day in the U.S.
Likewise, we heard about middle grade and YA novels that centered on suicide, abandonment, depression and other mental illnesses, damaged kids and parents, and death. We found ourselves joking about this subject matter to dispel our discomfort with it. I didn’t get the sense that Flemish writers and publishers were back in the Problem Novel era where U.S. publishers began opening doors decades ago, rather that they see these issues as the core reality of young people’s lives today – even in the picture book age group. A tour member observed, “In Flemish literature there is no sharp line of demarcation between children’s books and books for adults.” Another called the examples we saw “picture books for adults” and felt they showed that “adult readers also give importance to illustrated books.” Librarian and children’s book expert Eva Devos shared her view that a lot of sadness makes for the most interesting stories.
There were humorous books as well. We heard about two middle grade novels featuring a mischievous Pippi Longstocking-esque girl. Her second adventure was titled, in English, Tracy Trouble and the Funky Finger. Reflecting the same childhood fascination with the gross and yucky but somehow vastly different from Walter the Farting Dog – isn’t it?
For many of the writers and artists and publishers I met during the tour, the U.S. market is a rosy dream. They’re aware that being published in a huge, wealthy country can mean success for the select few whose books cross the pond. Like other European countries, Belgium doesn’t have a large enough population to make publishing for their own market cost-effective. Everyone I met in Antwerp was hopeful about having work accepted in the States, at the same time taking for granted that only a fraction of what is published in Europe, especially fiction, makes its way to the U.S. For one thing, our sensibility is just different. Apart from that, I suspect that more European fiction would be acquired by U.S. publishers if we were able to read novels in their original language.
Apart from one evening spent in a local family’s home, a remarkable restoration of a building dating back to the 14th century, the venues for our sessions in Antwerp and Ghent reflected centuries of Flemish reverence for books: the awe-inspiring Heritage Library Hendrik Conscience, with a collection dating back to 1481; a fabulous independent bookstore, De Groene Waterman, with an impressive children’s section; the Poetry Centre; the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where numerous illustrators do their work; the Translators’ House; and the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a 16th-century printing house exhibiting some of the original equipment.
And, of course, we had fun. None of us was prepared to take seriously the item in the tour program that read “Dinner: Fries,” but it was true. Antwerp has numerous cafés devoted to Belgium’s iconic snack food. We consumed an astonishing quantity of fries with seven different sauces, including the traditional mayonnaise. We haven’t stopped reminiscing about our fried dinner in follow-up emails. We drank amazing Belgian beer in a bar where a rowdy group of young men presented one of their number with a live pheasant in a cardboard box as a birthday gift. We made the acquaintance of the high-octane gin called genever and of Belgium’s national liqueur, Elixir d’Anvers, a powerful spirit considered healthful for horses with colic as well as for humans. And we talked incessantly, to one another, to the tour organizers, to the amazingly creative people we met at our numerous sessions.
I came away nourished by community, hospitality, and fries. I admire the staunch devotion to books and literature in Flanders and will keep hoping for the right Flemish book to appear on my radar – as well as books originating in other countries where children’s books are published. Is there a more basic building block for world peace and understanding than a book shared by children across national borders?
Artist Peter Goes talks with Viktoria Dian of Hungary and Burcu Unsal of Turkey about his debut picture book, Tajdlijn (Timeline), on display in its English-language edition.
Dutch/German translator Rolf Erdorf (l.) with Dutch/Chinese translator Minya Lin.
Alessandro Gelso of Italy chats with author-artist Klaas Verplancke.
Artist Jan De Kinder displays his work at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent.
Artist Carll Cneut shows his new book to Ljiliana Marinkovic of Serbia.
Organizers Vanoosthuyse (l.) and Devos toast a successful tour.