If there is a single genre, for both children and adults, that is most readily identified with Latvian publishing, it is poetry. During the Soviet period, poetry was used by the state as a kind of mass media for propaganda, and to rebel, poets pushed well beyond convention, into increasingly experimental and innovative forms. Among those best known for daring work was the folklorist and poet Ojārs Vācietis (1933–1983), who is remembered for inventing, among many other creations, a mysterious horse that sings in the night as a symbol of his independence. The horse is also central to the work of Rainis, the pseudonym of Jānis Pliekšāns (1865–1929), whose play The Golden Horse, based on a fairy tale, is also a fable about independence.
The Horse also happens to be the title of the first guide to Latvian authors and illustrators. The guide was developed by Latvian Literature as a promotion for this year's book fairs in Bologna and London and comprises work by 20 Latvian writers and 20 Latvian illustrators across generations.
"Horses can symbolize many things and are usually connected with teamwork and mutual trust," says Santa Remere, the guide's editor, in the introduction. "In this case, the horse represents the collaboration between the writers and artists." Represented in the book is is most of Latvia's top children's publishing talent, including Luīze Pastore, one of four authors who will be officially representing Latvia at the London Book Fair.
Pastore is the author of eight children's books for readers between the ages of seven and 16, including a popular series of middle grade nonfiction books called the Art Detectives, in which two young sleuths and their trusty dog investigate the hidden secrets of some of Latvia's best-known artworks. "Our ambition is to take this beyond Latvia and to expand the series to other countries and other famous pieces of art," Pastore says.
Readers can sample her work in the young adult novel Dog Town, which has been translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini and published in English by Firefly Books. It is based on a local legend and concerns a boy who, together with a group of talking dogs, seeks to fight the gentrification of a run-down but beloved neighborhood.
In all, 15 Latvian publishers publish some 300 new children's books each year, of which approximately 100 are originally written in Latvian; the others are translations, half of which are from English, with the rest translated from Russian, German, French, and other languages. Half of these are illustrated books for younger readers, and the other half are fairy tales, fantasy, and science fiction for young, middle grade, and young adult readers, an area that continues to grow.
One young adult title in particular has become something of a cult book: Jelgava '94 by Jānis Joņevs, which has been described as a Latvian Catcher in the Rye. The novel, set in the 1990s in the city of Jelgava, takes place in the heavy metal scene and is narrated, in part, in the form of a teenager's diary. It has been translated into English as Doom '94 and is being published by the U.K.'s Wrecking Ball Press. "It is hard-edged, not flowered up, and is dirty realism, which is what we like to publish," says Shane Rhodes, publisher at Wrecking Ball. But, "Latvian literature is new to a lot of readers in the U.K., so it is a challenge to publish."
Pam Dix, U.K. president of the International Board on Books for Young People, is a fan of the Bicki-Buck Books series published by Liels un Mazs. "I hope we can do something to promote this series in London," Dix says. The series of 100 small picture books, each depicting an illustrated poem, has introduced young readers (and adults) to a wide variety of art and writing styles; the books themselves have become collectibles. The series is among the reasons that the Riga-based publishing house was nominated as the European Best Children's Book Publisher of the Year by the Bologna Children's Book Fair and the Italian Publishers Association.
And when it comes to Latvia's beloved poetry, "we've been able to do what we were told was impossible," says Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini, who handles rights representation on behalf of Latvian Literature. "We have been able to sell the rights for poetry in translation." Some of the Latvian children's poetry titles that have been or are about to be published in English include The Noisy Classroom by Ieva Flamingo, and The Book of Clouds (a working title) by Juris Kronbergs, both from Emma Press, and Jill Is Ill by Inese Zandere, forthcoming from Little Island Press.