French and American children’s book publishers gathered on June 9 for the Franco-American Children’s Book Publisher Conference at the French Embassy in New York City. The event was the second of its kind to be held at the embassy, following a conference last year focused on Franco-American comics and graphic novel publishing. Panelists from both France and America spoke about the children’s book industry in their respective countries, challenges relating to publishing works in translation, as well as differences of aesthetic and content in French and American children’s titles. The conference culminated with an evening presentation by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who honored Françoise Mouly, publisher of Toon Books.
The panelists were: Marianne Durand and Susan Van Metre; Sophie Giraud and Barbara Lalicki; Hélène Wadowski, Céline Vial, and Erin Clarke; and Emmanuelle Marie and Christopher Franceschelli. PW children’s reviews editor, John Sellers, moderated the four discussions.
First up were Marianne Durand, representing the publishing house Éditions Nathan, and Susan Van Metre, of Abrams. The publishers discussed their individual experiences working within the French and American children’s book industries. Durand spoke of a thriving children’s publishing world in France, with one quarter of all books sold in the country being children’s titles, noting that they play a “very important role in the creativity and dynamism of the market.” She also remarked on the influence of small houses in the industry. Durand reported that trends in France are running parallel to many of those in America, with titles like Divergent (which has sold one million copies in France) and other books that have spawned blockbuster films, such as The Fault in Our Stars, attracting many French teenage readers.
Books written by YouTube stars have also caught on in France, including #EnjoyMarie by French YouTuber Marie Lopez. Durand discussed several of the many children’s book publishers to appear in France during the last 20 years – among them, Sarbacane, Palette…, and Éditions Thierry Magnier – and spoke about where children’s books typically are sold in France. While bookstores are critical to the promotion and selling of kids’ books, they are also frequently sold through outlets like supermarkets and specialized superstores. Additionally, book fairs play a vital role in connecting readers and educators to the right books, Durand said. In closing, Durand spoke about the “diversity” of format and content in French children’s books, adding, “I am very proud of the French market and very happy.”
For Van Metre, the conference is a testament to an enduring historical and cultural bond between the U.S. and France. She offered an overview of the American children’s publishing market, focusing on current trends. They include growth in juvenile nonfiction sales, with a strong interest in animal books and coloring and activity books; sophisticated board books with a higher price point; and, as with the French market, books by YouTube stars. Van Metre also shared with the mixed audience of French and American publishers the significance of We Need Diverse Books. Van Metre called it a “powerful movement” that has drawn attention to the “shockingly small percentage” of children’s books that feature diverse characters, despite the fact she cited that among children under age nine in America, over 50 percent are non-white.
While American titles have a significant presence in France, the same cannot be said for French books entering the American market in translation. In fact, only 3% of the U.S. publishing market is currently devoted to publishing translated works, “and that’s probably optimistic,” Van Metre noted. “We have some work to do... but that’s why we’re here.” She shared that around 10 percent of Abrams’s titles are works in translation – and, in fact, are mostly French books (Abrams is a subsidiary of the French publisher La Martinière Groupe).
Van Metre also discussed some successes related to introducing translated works to an American audience, as well as some of the hurdles. The French title, In My Heart, an import that “addresses feelings,” and features a die-cut cover, has sold 200,000 copies in the United States: “It’s a very big translation success,” she said.
As an art and not a science, translation bears with it some risk of miscommunication – for example, wordplay is notoriously tough to effectively convey from one language to another, said Van Metre. Besides the language aspect, there are other possible barriers for books to cross cultural lines. French picture books have often had a quality of illustration thought to lack appeal for an American audience. However, Van Metre feels that there is a growing interest in the U.S. in children’s books featuring high concept design and sophisticated art. Logistics of cost and organizing author promotional appearances can also have an impact on the decision whether or not to publish a foreign author. Finally, subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – cultural differences can require some adjustments in order for a work to resonate abroad. “Fear of the unfamiliar” certainly plays a role in determining whether to publish a foreign title, but Van Metre believes that this, too, is changing as “parents and teachers are very hungry to give kids a global perspective.”
In closing Durand agreed that there are some differences between the American and French sensibility in terms of tone and point-of-view that can make translation especially difficult. Durand was initially set to begin publishing a series of philosophical picture books in the U.S., having already published them in 40 languages. But after the translation moved forward, the author read it and was displeased, feeling as though there was an essential quality that had been lost. However, his way of speaking to children in the French version would not have been embraced by an American audience, Durand explained. Van Metre noted that the French children’s book industry tends to be far more accepting of “booze, boobs, and bombs” appearing in the pages of illustrated books than its American counterpart: “We are a Puritan country,” she joked. “We will never be as cool as you!”
Next to speak were Sophie Giraud of Hélium and Barbara Lalicki, formerly of HarperCollins, who addressed the history of children’s publishing in France and America. Giraud highlighted such instrumental writers and artists in France as Gustav Dore, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Jean de Brunhoff, whose work, Giraud said, forever changed the layout of children’s books by creating a pronounced “link between text and images.” The popularity of comics began to soar in France in the 1930s – an art form that has continued to thrive in France, earning respect and prestige long before it did within the United States. The 1960s saw the publication of author-illustrators like Richard Scarry – who combined humor with nonfiction – in France, including Le Livre de Mots, which Giraud notes is “probably the reason I became a publisher,” as well as the work of Tomi Ungerer. In the 1970s in France, children’s books increasingly experimented with typography, size, and format, with a growing number of graphic designers creating picture books and also “revisiting old books.” Current trends that Giraud sees in France include titles that celebrate the book as a physical object; those that pay homage to vintage books; pop-up books (“masterpieces that are books but also sculptures”); and nonfiction stories explored in the picture book format.
Barbara Lalicki outlined a history of children’s publishing in America, referencing Leonard Marcus’s history, Minders of Make Believe, as a resource. She spoke about the significance of the Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré awards, which contributed a new degree of literary prestige and “driving force” to a burgeoning industry. She also spoke about “formation characters” and the innovative art styles that their creators used – Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline, and his “looseness of line,” as well as H.A. and Margret Rey’s exploration of “space, shapes, and color” in the Curious George books. Crockett Johnson, Richard Scarry, and Theodor Geisel were also game-changing additions to the children’s canon. Lalicki also noted the “profound influence” of Golden Books, which made “art accessible” by selling at 25 cents per book in the 1950s. In the 1960s, titles like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Russell Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances placed emphasis on the power of storytelling as well as form. Additionally, Lalicki called Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are “such a marvelous book that unfolds using every aspect of the picture book to the highest extent.”
The 1960s saw the beginnings of the corporate mergers of the “Big 5” publishers, said Lalicki, and the 1970s, the development of chain bookstores. In later decades, innovations in style and presentation in picture books included the introduction of “linked stories,” as seen in James Marshall’s George and Martha, while, in the 1990s, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs and The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales brought a “post-modern sensibility” to the picture book page. This sensibility would go on to influence such author-illustrators as Mo Willems, whose work Lalicki describes as “post-modern personified.” In the 2000s, a quality of “new interactivity” began to infuse children’s books, as well as a “stylish, offbeat” flair, as with the work of David Ezra Stein. Concluding her discussion, Lalicki shared Brian Won’s illustration of his character Elephant for 2016’s Children’s Book Week poster. She suggested that “trends are cyclical,” and that the image harkens back to the 1930s and ’40s, while still being “very much today.”
Chapter to Chapter
Taking the stage to discuss children’s chapter books and novels were Hélène Wadowski |and Céline Vial of Flammarion Jeunesse – Père Castor, and Erin Clarke of Knopf. Wadowski and Vial discussed trends in French publishing, including chapter books focusing on humor, adventure, family, and everyday life. Books in the form of diaries and animal tales also have powerful draw for younger readers in France, while for children in the 12–15 age range, humorous coming-of-age stories are big, as are fantasy books, particularly those that feature ordinary female characters showing bravery. Vial called the popularity of books being written by YouTube vloggers and bloggers a “very new and interesting trend” that is “universal” but also regional, with stars in France appealing directly to French audiences. Wadowski also spoke of the influence of “strong past European traditions” and mythology infusing many books published in France, while the United States also has a significant cultural impact on the books French children read. “We get the best of both,” Wadowski said.
Clarke spoke about middle grade and YA book trends in the U.S., noting the growing popularity of coming-of-age graphic novels like Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl, as well as graphic novel adaptations of older series like The Babysitters Club; literary stand-alone novels; books with non-heterosexual couples; and titles that focus increasingly on “topics we tended to shy away from.”
A Cross-Cultural Partnership
The final panel discussion brought Emmanuelle Marie and Christopher Franceschelli to the stage to discuss their joint venture between Groupe Bayard and its children’s imprint Tourbillon, with Chronicle Books’s Handprint Books imprint. The collaborators spoke about how the relationship between the two publishers began. Marie recognized that the “U.S. market is still very seductive from a French perspective,” but that when selling titles to other countries, the risk is that one “loses control” of the property and that translated books are often “considered second class” within the company of American books. Collaborating with a publisher that had already carved out a niche appeared a viable option. Chronicle, which Franceschelli describes as having “a great appreciation for the book as object,” and a boutique-style sensibility with gift titles that are sold in a diverse range of outlets, seemed kindred to Tourbillon, which means “whirlwind.”
Marie and Franceschelli came up with an American equivalent of the name, Twirl, which is in keeping with what Franceschelli called Tourbillon’s “playfully disruptive spirit” and enables the two imprints to “share a common logo.” The two discussed some difficulties in the cross-pollination of books in the U.S. and in France. There are frequently small adjustments needed for American editions of Tourbillon. French covers, suggested Marie, can get away with more subtlety than can American covers, which tend to have bold images that are more “in your face.” Another example: if a child is riding a bicycle in a French book, chances are that child is not wearing a safety helmet – something that the American version would certainly need to have. “We tend to coddle our children far more than you do,” said Franceschelli, speaking to the French members of the audience. Echoing Van Metre’s earlier sentiments, he added: “We are Puritans... but you sent them to the U.S. Now you are reaping what you sew,” he joked. Do the benefits of the Franco-American partnership outweigh any quandaries that may arise? “Mais oui!” declared Marie and Franceschelli.
An Honor Bestowed
The day culminated with an evening ceremony honoring a publishing pioneer who bridges both French and American cultures. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development introduced Françoise Mouly, publisher of Toon Books, which specializes in graphic novels designed to develop literacy skills in young readers. Ayrault first spoke about the literary ties that connect France and America, as well as the bookstores – like Albertine, which is housed within the French Embassy – that contribute to bringing more French titles to America. He also praised Mouly for her commitment to publishing graphic novels for young children, and ensuring that “French books are bought and read around the world.”
Mouly thanked Ayrault for placing priority on the cause of literacy in France and for the “honors you bestow on me,” also expressing gratitude to the French Embassy and the Bureau International de L’Edition Française. “I have never been so proud to be French,” she said.