Quest to diversify children’s literature

  • According to Stavans, the mission of Restless, which publishes books translated into English and books by immigrant authors, has always been that readers of these books will walk away with a more expansive and inclusive worldview. GAZETTE STAFF/ KEVIN GUTTING

For The Recorder
Published: 8/30/2017 11:51:48 AM

“I’m going to describe what happened when I was 13. It’s something I haven’t been able to forget, as if the story had me by the throat. It might sound strange, but I can even feel the ‘hands’ of this story upon me, a sensation that’s so specific I even know the hands are wearing gloves.”

This is the opening paragraph of “The Wild Book.” Written by Mexican author Juan Villoro and translated into English by Lawrence Schimel, the middle-school novel follows the adventures of a young boy who goes to live with his eccentric book-obsessed uncle in a library where books have supernatural powers. (The whimsical illustrations were done by Mexican artist Eko.) More than 1 million copies have been sold in the Spanish edition. And this October, the English edition of “The Wild Book” will be the first title published by Yonder: Restless Books for Young Readers, the new children’s book imprint of the independent, nonprofit publishing company Restless Books.

A book about the power of books seems a fitting debut. For Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College and co-founder of Restless (he launched the press, which is based in Brooklyn, with Joshua Ellison in 2013), the idea of how a story can take hold of someone and change the reader in the process is the driving force behind his work. According to Stavans, the mission of Restless, which publishes books translated into English and books by immigrant authors, has always been that readers of these books will walk away with a more expansive and inclusive worldview. 

Now, four years since Restless’s inception, Yonder will bring the multiculturalism and diversity of translated literature to children, middle-graders and young adults. Among their other upcoming titles: “Ramayana: An Illustrated Retelling,” based on the classic Indian story; “In the Line of Fire,” an Italian YA novel about a Sicilian boy whose family is targeted by the Mafia; “Who Left the Light On?” a French picture book encouraging creativity; and “Nervous Maria,” a YA novel set during the Spanish Civil War.

I knew of Stavans through one of his many other ventures, the Great Books Summer Program at Amherst College, where I was a program assistant earlier this summer. He’s 56, but he has the energy of a college student (a highly motivated one). Even on a morning where he was getting ready to spend two weeks out on Cape Cod, he found time to squeeze in a kind of informal office hour with me, meeting at a coffee shop in Amherst over a bagel and latte to discuss the importance of diversity in children’s literature, how to find the right reader and his enduring belief in the American dream.

What was the journey that lead to the inception of this imprint?

“We started Restless four years ago. The idea was to start a publishing house that would try to bring other cultures, other languages and other visions to America and to the English language. That started for adults — it was fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and we have been doing a lot of bilingual poetry. We started to get a lot of feedback from readers who wanted to see something similar for children and for young adults. The independent bookstores would say, ‘Oh, people like very much the books that you’ve published, and they are wondering if it would be a good idea to start doing children’s books,’ and then often readers through independent bookstores would send us suggestions of books that they had read in France or they had read in Germany or in Italy or in the Arab world or in Hebrew. So it was in the back of my mind that it would be a good idea to start expanding our reach and looking at the possibility of different audiences — picture books, chapter books for children, and then young adults. And with the success of Restless Books, we decided that it would be a good idea and so now we have Yonder, which is launching this fall.

For you personally, what’s the importance of introducing this diversity into children’s literature? 

At this time, it’s crucial. It seems to me that we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by having leaders who are narrow-minded, who are thinking that America should close the borders, that immigrants and foreigners are a threat. I think that if Trump has done any good, at least for some of us, it’s to galvanize our efforts and to prove that we are going to go against it — that our mission is to diversify, to pluralize, to show that we can’t live in isolation, and that there is a huge richness of literary possibilities in every culture. Everywhere in the world, children’s literature and young-adult literature is the least-translated ... So this is why I think Restless and Yonder are called for today.”

You grew up in Mexico — did the experience of growing up there, versus here, inspire you?

“I think dramatically. I grew up in a different part of the world, and the experience of being in a country so close to the United States that’s defined by American popular culture — but not being the United States, being always kind of the backyard to the United States — was very important. I love this country, but I’m also very critical of this country because I came here by choice. For me, that choice kind of cut my life in two, and I want that choice to be a possibility for other people, and not to be a spoiled idea. I think that immigrants really revitalize the country, and I think that much of the creative, artistic, intellectual, technological progress in this country comes from people who are coming from abroad … so I think it’s very important to keep the country open.” 

Is there a way that you consciously raised your children in light of those experiences?

“Yes. I think that both my kids are very much grateful to this country … with a sense that culture is not already done and you just consume it, but that you’re a producer of culture, and for that you have to be critical of culture. That classics are not dead, that we’re all adding to the bookshelf of great stuff, and that we’re all here to test ourselves in different ways.”

Restless is based in Brooklyn; how is it connected to western Massachusetts?

“When I started Restless, the possibility was for me to quit teaching, but I love teaching, and I don’t want to give up the western Massachusetts landscape that I have. So I think that Restless is very much a western Mass. byproduct. It’s a Massachusetts byproduct, too, and it’s a place where teaching and reading and publishing converge for me. This is the center of the universe to me.”

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