Astra Publishing House, the new company backed by Beijing-based Thinkingdom Media Group, has hired children’s literature expert Leonard S. Marcus as editor-at-large to help develop Astra’s children’s list, particularly picture books published under its mineditionUS imprint. With this move, the company, which publishes books in English, Chinese, French, Spanish, and German, hopes to both expand its reach into the international children’s book market and build up its presence in the U.S. Further extending its reach, Astra has partnered with Penguin Random House to distribute mineditionUS titles.
Marcus, who assumed his new responsibilities in early July, is working remotely from Brooklyn, where he lives, for the global publisher. Besides the U.S., Astra Publishing House has personnel working from mainland China, Hong Kong, Switzerland, France, and Germany.
In a release, Astra Publishing House COO Ben Schrank stated, “As a renowned historian, author, critic, exhibition curator, and public educator, Leonard Marcus brings an unparalleled range of international children’s book knowledge and experience, which will further enhance Astra Publishing House’s unique global perspective and commitment to creating world-class books for every child.”
mineditionUS editorial director Maria Russo, who joined the company in May, told PW, “Leonard is practically an institution in the children’s book world. He’s incredibly erudite, but he’s also funny, adventurous, and always up for a new challenge. We laugh, we share a sensibility, we ask the same kinds of questions.”
Marcus is working with Russo and minedition founder Michael Neugebauer, who is based in Hong Kong, to acquire and edit picture books from around the world, and said he has already facilitated mineeditionUS’s acquisition of two picture books. Marcus declined to provide more information, other than to note that one had been published originally in Spain and the other in Colombia. “I became aware of them through a good friend in the Spanish-language world,” he said.
Marcus has also been tasked with hosting public programs promoting picture books in the U.S., China, and elsewhere, spearheading special projects revolving around children’s books. He promises that an announcement will be made in “a month or so” about his first such venture under Astra’s auspices. “It involves writers for children around the world,” Marcus said.
While Marcus, who has written more than 30 books, curated numerous exhibitions on children’s literature, and spoken at the Bologna and Shanghai children’s book fairs, is well known in publishing circles, this is the first time he has actually worked in the industry. It’s something that he had considered “for some time,” he told PW, explaining that due to his network of professional contacts around the world, he was “always hearing about” books published abroad that he thought would resonate stateside, and meeting international authors and illustrators whose work he considered appropriate for U.S. readers. After Russo, whom he has known for years, assumed the position of editorial director, the two discussed the possibilities for him with Astra, and “it just fell into place.”
“I really love the international focus of [Astra’s] list,” Marcus said, “Publishing is really the crossroads between commerce and culture. At Astra, we’re playing it out in a beautiful way. There’s the commerce side, but there’s also the culture.”
Russo said she considers Marcus’s expertise and contacts, both in the U.S. and abroad to be essential components in fulfilling mineditionUS’s mission of publishing board and picture books by international authors and illustrators that will resonate with children in the U.S., as well as books by U.S. authors and artists that will appeal on a global level.
“We want to put more international books in the hands of American children to help them become global citizens,” she said. “We also want to bring American talent into the minedition model. We want to find authors and illustrators who we can publish well here and also have great potential for audiences abroad.”
mineditionUS Moves Forward
On the job for little more than three months, Russo’s first order of business has been strategizing on how best to promote the books on minedition’s backlist that may not have gained traction in the U.S. previously, with the goal of “[getting] more of these books into the hands of American children.” For instance, she said, Yusuke Yonezu, a Japanese graphic designer who has created about a dozen board books, “is a genius whose books have sold millions of copies around the world but haven’t caught on in the U.S.” mineditionUS is publishing Yonezu’s latest board book, Sharing, in October. “His visual style is so clean, so bright,” Russo said, “He makes [the concept of] sharing seem so amazing.”
Russo also hopes to promote Guiliano Ferri’s Brick by Brick, a 2016 release, along with the Italian artist’s newest board book, Masquerade Party (Oct.), explaining, “We want every preschooler to have this board book about working together to build bridges instead of walls. His board books are a cut above typical board books.”
There will be 13 frontlist releases on mineditionUS’s fall list, which was scheduled before Russo came on board. In January, Russo’s first acquisition will be released: The King’s Golden Beard by Belgian artist Klaas Verplancke, about “a tyrannical ruler who is ego-driven and ignores science.” Russo describes it as a “good read-aloud” that is also “graphically exciting” and “visually witty.”
While the Museum of Modern Art published Verplancke’s nonfiction picture book, Magritte’s Apple, in 2016, Russo regards The King’s Golden Beard as Verplancke’s “American storytelling debut.” The book will also introduce Russo’s imprint within the mineditionUS imprint; it and subsequent mineditionUS books will be released as mineditionUS/Maria Russo Books. Besides The King’s Golden Beard, the spring 2021 list will include a picture book acquired by Neugebauer, Pangolina, written by Jane Goodall and illustrated by Chinese artist Daishu Ma, about pangolins, an endangered species of anteaters recently demonized as carriers of the new coronavirus.
The five books on the spring 2021 list, Russo said, “really represent a lot that I want to be doing” at mineditionUS. “Certain things across cultures call out for sensitive treatment” in children’s literature, particularly books on the environment and other issues of global concern. While not providing specifics, Russo disclosed that books “that resonate in the context of the pandemic” will be included on future lists. She and her colleagues, Neugebauer and Marcus, currently are working on acquisitions for the spring fall 2022, anticipating nine or 10 frontlist releases during each of those seasons.
Reflecting upon the present, as well as the future of mineditionUS, Russo noted that Astra already “has Europe and Asia well covered” in terms of publishing children’s books by authors and artists residing on those two continents. She hopes to move beyond Europe and Asia in acquiring and publishing books for the U.S. market—places like South America, Iran, and Africa.
“We’re slowly building on our connections and looking for good projects,” she said. “There’s a strong tradition of children’s books in Iran. Many [Iranian creatives] work under difficult conditions. We’re looking to add an Iranian author-illustrator on our list very soon.”