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Outside Over Where?: Foreign Picture Books and the Dream of Global Awareness

It’s a small world after all. Or then again, maybe not. A stroll through the exhibition halls at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the world’s largest annual international gathering of publishers of books for young people, presents a decidedly mixed picture. With English being the default business language of the fair and with much of the buzz centered on the latest fantasy blockbusters, signs of industry globalization aren’t hard to come by. Yet even a rapid survey of the picture books on display at Bologna is enough to convince a visitor that the thousands of picture books published in the United States each year represent only a tiny fraction of the world’s total annual output, and that for a variety of reasons the vast majority of those other books aren’t likely ever to reach our shores.

Once upon a time, there were those who dreamed it might be otherwise.

Early last century the children’s rooms of America’s major public libraries stocked picture books imported not only from Mother England but also from France, Germany, Sweden, Russia, and Czechoslovakia. They did so as a service to their immigrant populations but also to give native-born children their first window onto “other lands.” By the 1940s, a small army of émigré artists — the d’Aulaires, Miska Petersham, Kate Seredy, Jean Charlot — were making new careers here, in part by creating books that celebrated their cultures of origin. For decades afterward the American picture book would equate foreignness almost entirely with European life and lore (with an occasional nod to Mexico and other points south of the border).

Following World War II, an upsurge in enthusiasm for American editions of foreign picture books accompanied the founding of the Zurich-based International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) and Munich’s International Youth Library, two institutions aimed at promoting global understanding through children’s books. Margaret K. McElderry and Velma Varner led American publishers in their embrace of these idealistic efforts born of global strife. The foreign picture books they acquired, however, tended not to be those that highlighted foreign cultural themes; perhaps in a pragmatic nod to the inward-turning postwar American mood, they instead chose books that exemplified Europe’s innovative graphics. Thus McElderry introduced Americans to the airy page layouts and shimmering line work of Swiss illustrator Hans Fischer; Varner, the brilliant die-cut concept books of Italy’s Bruno Munari. Varner’s protégée, Ann Beneduce, carried internationalism into the next generation, discovering Japan’s Mitsumasa Anno and American-born but German-trained Eric Carle along the way.

Japanese picture books were to fare especially well in the United States for a complex tangle of reasons. Among the many cultural exchanges that followed the war was a program that brought young Japanese men and women to the U.S. to train as children’s librarians. The trainees returned home with a reverence for American picture books that helped spur publisher interest, with the curious long-term result that the picture books of Marcia Brown, Marie Hall Ets, Leonard Weisgard, and a handful of other American illustrators of the 1940s and 1950s are today better known to Japanese children than they are to Americans. With time, these artists’ work was bound to influence Japanese illustration as well. Komako Sakai’s Emily’s Balloon (Chronicle, 2006) looks very much to be an homage to Ets’s Play with Me. To take delight in Sakai’s gentle, perfect-pitch creation is to respond to a Japanese picture book with distinctly American roots.

During the 1970s, Mitsumasa Anno became the first Japanese artist to make picture books from an internationalist perspective and with the Western market in mind. A former schoolteacher with a playful and deeply analytical mind reminiscent of Munari’s, he developed Anno’s Alphabet, an introduction to Roman letter forms, with input from editors in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. As Anno later told an interviewer, the experience taught him that pictures, like words, were a language that did not necessarily span all cultures. When it turned out, for instance, that the angel in his illustration for the letter A did not correspond to a typical Westerner’s mental image of an angel, he replaced it with a painting of a less culture-bound anvil that all his editors could readily identify.

Anno’s heyday, the late 1970s to late 1980s, was a heady time for American publishers who, primed for expansion, shopped aggressively at the Bologna fair. The U.S. market was now the red-hot center of the world of juvenile trade. In 1978, when the U.K.’s Sebastian Walker launched his eponymous firm specializing in high-end picture books, he hired an American art director out of a well-founded concern that the Walker list might not otherwise look American enough — in typography, layout, and other culturally telling near-imponderables — to pass muster in the lucrative U.S. market.

In recent years the economic situation has done a turn-around, and picture-book sales have declined due to what Scholastic’s Arthur Levine sees as a “perfect storm” of unfavorable trends — steep cuts in library funding, continued attrition in the ranks of independent booksellers, and shrinking chain store orders. In the current risk-averse environment, caution generally trumps cultural broad-mindedness, and a French picture book that casually features, say, an illustration of a breastfeeding mother is less likely than ever to land in an American home.

“Sex remains a big problem in the puritanical U.S.,” notes Patricia Aldana, founder and publisher of Canada’s Groundwood Books, a small independent house that originates and imports children’s books about world cultures. “You have to have a champion,” says Aldana, to build an audience for books as different as Groundwood’s are from those more typically published for children. Strikingly, she finds it easier to win support in the U.S. market for picture books about under-reported historical matters — The Composition (text by Antonio Skármeta, illustrations by Alfonso Ruano, 2003), for example, a tale of political repression in an unnamed Latin American dictatorship — than for books having anything to do with sexuality. These days highly focused niche houses such as Groundwood and the equally heroic United States–based Kane Miller Books carry the lion’s share of the burden of publishing such commercially risky, culturally thought-provoking picture books. In fact, coming up with even a single title of this kind from the major trade houses’ recent lists takes some doing. The only book that comes to mind is The Enemy written by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2009).

Picture books don’t “travel” for all sorts of reasons. Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter shares the widely held view that picture-book art remains “culturally specific”; that much European illustration, which tends to be more design driven and less character-based than its American equivalents, is simply not to most Americans’ taste; and that the reverse is true for Europeans. At recent Bologna fairs, French picture books have stood out for Porter as the exceptions both in accessibility and overall appeal. He acquired Régis Faller’s wordless The Adventures of Polo (2006) in part because it blended nicely with the rising tide of interest in the U.S. in comics, and Marion Bataille’s ABC3D (2008), a graphic artist’s pop-up tour de force, because it had the added irresistibility factor of a likely crossover gift book.

Overall, however, the dilemma for American publishers and others eager to foster global awareness is that foreign picture books are all too often too foreign to serve as effective cultural messages in a bottle — except perhaps when they are introduced within the context of a well-integrated school curriculum. Still, American children’s cultural horizons continue to be broadened, albeit by fits and starts, through the work of contemporary emigré artists from Asia (Allen Say, Yumi Heo), Latin America (Yuyi Morales, Edel Rodriguez, Raúl Colón), and Africa (Baba Wagué Diakité), all of whom manage to preserve a high degree of cultural authenticity as they create picture books that are also American-audience friendly. Electronic communication has further stirred the pot by making it easy for American publishers to work directly with illustrators living anywhere in the world — Spain’s Ana Juan, Colombian artist Claudia Rueda, Russian-born, Rome-based Vladimir Radunsky — though not necessarily on books that illuminate their respective cultures of origin.

World travel and global awareness seem to have led not so much to a breakdown as a cross-pollination of cultures that can by turns be exhilarating and disorienting. As cultural boundaries grow ever more porous than the ones drawn on maps, the experience of Korean-born American illustrator Yumi Heo is apt to become more familiar. According to Heo, her American friends all say that her picture books look “so Asian” to them while her Korean friends insist that her books are “so American.” Perhaps as a parable about the rewards and perils of cultural self-reinvention in a surreally mobile, hyper-connected world, Australian Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2007), the wordless saga of an immigrant traveler who finds himself between homes and identities, has a special message for the people who make picture books — as well as for the people who read them.

Thanks to the following for sharing their insights on this topic with me: Patricia Aldana, Ann Beneduce, Patricia Gauch, Arthur Levine, John Mason, Elizabeth Poe, Neal Porter, Claudia Rueda, Terri Schmitz, Anne Schwartz, Kathy K. Short, Lee Wade, and Lauren Wohl. 

A Picture Book Baedeker

Around the World with Mouk (Chronicle) by Marc Boutavant [France]

The Black Book of Colors (Groundwood) by Menena Cottin; illus. by Rosana Faría [Note: Originally published in Spanish in Mexico. The author and illustrator are both Venezuelan.]

The Illustrator’s Notebook (Groundwood) by Mohieddin Ellabbad [Note: Originally written in Arabic; first published in France. The author is Egyptian.]

365 Penguins (Abrams) by Jean-Luc Fromental; illus. by Joëlle Jolivet [France]

Everyone Poops (Kane Miller) by Taro Gomi [Japan]

“Let’s Get a Pup!” Said Kate (Candlewick) by Bob Graham [Australia]

True Friends: A Tale from Tanzania (Groundwood) by John Kilaka [Note: Originally written in German; first published in Switzerland. The author is Tanzanian.]

Anthony and the Girls (Farrar) by Ole Könnecke [Germany]

A Book of Sleep (Knopf ) by Il Sung Na [South Korea]

Who’s Hiding? (Kane Miller) by Satoru Onishi [Japan]

Why? (Kane Miller) by Lila Prap [Slovenia]

Tiger on a Tree (Farrar) by Anushka Ravishankar; illus. by Pulak Biswas [India]

Mad at Mommy (Levine/Scholastic) by Komako Sakai [Japan]

The Tree House (Lemniscaat/Boyds Mills) by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman [Netherlands]

From the November/December 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Leonard S. Marcus About Leonard S. Marcus

Leonard S. Marcus’s forthcoming books include Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration (Candlewick) and, as editor, The Kairos Novels (Library of America) by Madeleine L’Engle. His exhibition Garth Williams: Illustrator of the Century opens at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, on May 1, 2018.

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