Reading—like traveling—opens borders, challenges preconceptions, and can have the effect of jolting both readers and wanderers out of their comfort zones. Travel and reading converge at Restless Books, a publisher of international literature, housed in an office located in the converted Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. Publishers Weekly visited Restless Books to learn about its newest venture, Yonder: Restless Books for Young Readers, a children’s imprint launching this fall that is fittingly represented by a logo displaying an anthropomorphic pair of binoculars.
Restless Books publisher and co-founder Ilan Stavans, who is the author of (among others) Spanglish, On Borrowed Words, and Dictionary Days, as well as the editor of numerous story and poetry collections, is originally from Mexico. He had long been appalled by the scarcity of books in translation being published in the English language, and on the eve of his 50th birthday, he recounted, “I decided to do something about it.” Teaming with writer and editor Joshua Ellison, Stavans launched Restless Books, which began as an e-book publisher of international adult titles before Stavans and Ellison signed with Simon & Schuster for print distribution. On the experience as a whole, Stavans reflected that: “I could not have imagined how hard and how exciting it would be.” In addition to Stavans, the Restless Books team now consists of Nathan Rostron, editor and marketing director; Brinda Ayer, managing editor; Jackson Saul, assistant editor; Alicia López, editorial assistant; and editor-at-large, Annette Hochstein, who lives in Jerusalem. The team publishes between 15–20 adult titles per year.
The mission behind Restless Books is to “give voice to those who don’t have a voice,” said Stavans. The house is also deeply “resistance driven” in its approach to publishing, striving to remove barriers to cross-cultural communication at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is pervasive. Restless Books has published books from Cuba, Madagascar, Brazil, Iceland, Malaysia, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Mexico, Israel, and more. The house also publishes Restless Classics, which are works of literature presented in new formats with the aim of drawing young people to discover them and adults to reread them. The Prize for New Immigrant Writing, which awards $10,000 to immigrant authors, represents the publishing house’s latest effort to support immigrant authors. The inaugural prize was awarded this year to Deepak Unnikrishnan for his novel Temporary People.
As an immigrant himself, Stavans understands the complex challenges that come along with both learning a language and adapting to a new culture. Despite the number of non-English speakers living in this country, Stavans said he detects enduring resistance not only to learning foreign languages, but to reading literature in translation—something that he hopes to change, one book at a time. He also believes that the literature available to Americans can better reflect the lives of immigrant communities who make up “the texture of the United States.”
The Birth of a Children’s Imprint
The idea for a children’s imprint arose through a desire to further diversify the voices within America’s body of literature. If readers become comfortable with reading books from other cultures at a young age, they may carry that comfort with them as they age into other books, Stavans thought. He also arrived at the idea for Yonder based on input both from Restless readers and independent bookstores that the house is closely tied to. He believes that booksellers and readers are eager for books for children and teens that reflect more international experiences.
Being less familiar with the world of children’s books than adult books, Stavans did his research. He and staffers have relied on insight from these knowledgeable booksellers, as well as their global network of translators, scholars, and independent publishers, to learn more about the landscape of international children’s publishing. Stavans takes seriously the responsibility of “finding the right books” that will “open the shelves” for child readers in the way that Restless Books has opened them for adult readers. Yonder’s books will run the gamut of genres and formats, from picture books to middle grade and YA.
At its heart, Yonder is about “expanding the linguistic and cultural landscape of readers,” said Stavans. Doing so demands effective and powerful translation. Cultivating relationships with translators is critical: “A translator is like an author for us,” Stavans said. In translating a work into English, the translator is faced with the task of both maintaining the book’s evocation of its culture of origin, while also providing a level of accessibility for readers outside of that culture.
A frequent argument concerning publishing works in translation is that culturally specific content is non-transferrable or untranslatable across borders. While Stavans charges that many American readers are “allergic to other languages,” he rejects the notion that children are unwilling to open themselves to stories that represent other cultures, voices, and experiences. In America’s publishing world—particularly when it comes to children’s books—he believes that there is “a needlessly protective approach. It’s time we become less protective,” he said.
Restless and Wild
Yonder makes good on its promise of diverse offerings with its first titles, beginning this October with the release of The Wild Book, written by Mexican author Juan Villoro and translated by Lawrence Schimel. The middle grade novel is about a boy who goes to stay with his eccentric, book-collecting uncle, who takes him on a quest to find the infamous wild book that has never allowed itself to be read; it is illustrated by Mexican artist Eko. Next up, in spring 2018, is Ramayana: An Illustrated Retelling by Arshia Sattar, illustrated by Sonali Zohra, which is based on the classic Indian story. In summer 2018, Yonder will publish the YA novel In the Line of Fire by Silvana Gandolfi, translated from the Italian by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. The novel is about a Sicilian boy whose family is destroyed by the Mafia. In fall 2018 comes the picture book Who Left the Light On?, which is about differences, creativity, and challenging convention. It’s written by French author Richard Marnier and illustrated by Aude Maurel. Finally, in spring 2019, Yonder will release Nervous Maria, a YA novel set during the Spanish Civil War, written by Laura Atwood Duran. Stavans and his team are actively on the lookout for international titles to publish in later seasons, and Stavans plans to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2018 to further expand his contacts in children’s publishing abroad.
Yonder, like Restless Books, seeks to publish books that vary significantly in terms of country of origin, voice, and format. Yet all of the books in both the adult and children’s imprints are kindred spirits—“Restless” ones. To Stavans, a restless book “is about the world today, is in motion, and crosses borders,” he said. At a point when America is sharply divided along political lines, to the degree that “it feels like we are in different cultures,” said Stavans, he and the team at Restless are even more committed to the mission of connecting readers through literature and a common humanity. In fact, Restless has launched a “Reading is Resistance” campaign, which urges readers to resist doctrines of xenophobia by embracing “internationalism, immigrant culture, and great literature.”
Rostron, who is heading up the campaign, spoke about how the team is hoping that resistance will also be a defining force within the Yonder imprint. “Our driving impulse at Restless is to explore beyond what’s familiar to us through great books. With Yonder, we’re aiming to bring that same sense of discovery and exploration to kids. As any lifelong reader can tell you, the books you read when you’re young can have a huge impact on your world view and imagination later on. We want kids to begin their lives as readers with the broadest possible scope, and help them grow up into savvy global citizens,” he said.
For Stavans and the whole Yonder/Restless team, the wave of xenophobic sentiments in the age of the Trump administration has been discouraging, but at the same time, galvanizing. “In a way, I thank Trump for pushing us,” he said. “I’m furious. And I’m turning my fury into good books.”