Over Yonder: Ilan Stavans’ quest to diversify children’s literature


  • Juan Villoro, author of “The Wild Book.” Courtesy Yonder/Restless Books

  • Courtesy Yonder/Restless Books

  • Interior illustrations, by Mexican artist Eko, for “The Wild Book.” Courtesy Yonder/Restless Books

  • Courtesy Yonder/Restless Books

  • Courtesy Yonder/Restless Books

  • Courtesy Yonder/Restless Books

For the Gazette
Published: 8/24/2017 8:58:21 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-grade 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 one 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 the Cape, 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.”

Is there anything that you can accomplish specifically with children’s literature that you feel like you couldn’t accomplish through publishing adult translations?

“I would be a fool or I would be lying to you if I told you that I don’t need to sell copies. However, for me it is much more interesting, much more important, to find the right reader even if I don’t sell as many copies, because ultimately finding one individual, just one, who’s going to be transformed by the book in which you put so much energy and time — if only one reader has been changed, I think the mission has been accomplished. And I think that if change happens in children and young adults, then you’ve helped because they are the ones who are going to take over everything tomorrow. So I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity.”

So in your mind, who’s the “right” reader you’re looking for?

“The right reader is the reader who will be surprised by something that she or he didn’t think would be worth the effort, but then after reading it has become a new person. But when you publish for children you have two readers, because the adults are the ones who are filtering the books to their kids, so you have to satisfy the adult so that the book reaches the child. And you have to be very attuned to the fact that those two audiences are very different. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a mother with a little girl on her lap, and the two of them are reading the same book. The right reader is a reader who, as a parent or as a mentor, understands that literature brings us to other realities, to other cultures, and that it is precisely that traveling of the imagination that makes books so important.”

Is there a worry for you that your readers are a self-selecting group?

“There’s always the feeling that you’re preaching to the choir, but I would say that fear is in everything that you do — in the courses that one teaches, in the lectures that one gives, in speeches. You can easily fall back and say, ‘I already found my niche,’ or you can say, ‘My niche keeps on moving,’ and if it moves, it’s because the world moves.”

With the books that are upcoming through Yonder, what were some  new challenges you faced?

“The challenges were finding the right books, like ‘The Wild Book’ is a book that has sold [more than a million] copies in the Spanish-speaking world. I think it’s going to do great in the United States. One of the biggest challenges always is to match the sensibility of the translator with the sensibility of the author. If you give it to the wrong translator, you’re killing the book right away. And then every step of the way you have to build a company where people are passionate, and what I’ve been trying to do is not be a dictator CEO, but enable interns and editors and managers all to have ideas and everybody to feel passionate about one book and then all of us rally around that book. And so, going back, I guess the most important aspect is to find the right book and then to rally the passion around it.”

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 Mass?

“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 Mass 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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