The Spanish Riveter: Rosy and Robust: the Current Situation for Spanish Children’s Literature by Claire Storey

While the impact of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic hit many industries hard, the Spanish children’s literature sector appears to have survived relatively unscathed. According to data from the 2021 Comercio Interior del Libro report, the entire publishing sector grew, but within that, sales of books for children and young people did particularly well, growing 17.6% on the previous year to some 432 million euros(1). According to Geòrgia Picanyol, rights & permissions manager of Barcelona-based publishing house Grupo Edebé, this success was down to the fact that children’s books were viewed as necessary items and so the sector worked to keep bookshops open throughout lockdown.

In researching for this article, I was given the opportunity to survey several independent publishers who form part of the association ¡ÂLBUM!. This a collaboration of twenty-five nationwide independent publishers, ranging from Asociación Galtzagorri in the northern Basque Country to Diego Pun Ediciones in the southern Canary Islands. Although many also publish books for older age groups, it is their mission, through ¡ÂLBUM!, to provide greater visibility and social relevance to the picture book form. They have an eleven-point manifesto, and they work in collaboration with each other as well as with schools, libraries and booksellers.

Every year they organise La semana del album – ‘Picture Book Week’ – with activities held across Spain. These events address both the public – children and their caregivers – and business, with forums featuring educators, librarians and booksellers. In 2022, these sessions were held in Almería, Zaragoza and Girona. In the feedback from the association’s members, these forums were named as definite highlights, together with an event at the nineteenth-century Apolo Theatre in the southern city of Almería, where picture books were narrated on stage for the audience.

For the participating publishers, ¡ÂLBUM! gives them support and strength. Gema Sirvent from Almería-based Editorial Libre Albedrío says that through the association they can ‘share their concerns, their projects, join forces to ensure children’s books and the infinite possibilities of the picture book format are valued … We form a part of something bigger with colleagues who support us.’ Sirvent goes on to say that ¡ÂLBUM! is also helping to raise standards across the industry, organising training for industry professionals, mediators, librarians and booksellers.

I enquired about the participants’ greatest successes of 2022, and for some, these were books translated into Spanish. La extraña visita (‘The strange visitor’) by Gracia Iglesias, illustrated by Vicente Cruz Antón came top of the list for Editorial Libre Albedrío, while Elodie Bourgeois from Editorial Juventud highlighted their nonfiction STEM-based series Mi Primer Libro de … (‘My first Book of …’) by Sheddad Kaid-Salah Ferrón, illustrated by Eduard Altarriba i Bigas. The rights for this series have sold into eighteen languages, including English, translated by Andrea Reece and published by Button Books.

I also asked about the current challenges facing the children’s and YA industry in Spain. With the current global financial squeeze, it comes as no surprise that the difficulties of balancing production costs with price at point of sale featured among the responses. Also mentioned was the challenge of standing out among the ‘immense volume of new publications’, not only to feature on a ‘new releases table’ but to become a part of a bookshop’s bread and butter. 

For those publishers who also create children’s books in the other official languages of Spain – Basque, Galician and Catalan – there are other considerations. Based in Catalonia, Picanyol tells me that the market for these languages is much reduced compared to Castilian Spanish. Creating books in these languages involves lower numbers of copies and smaller print runs. There is also the challenge that the target audience is potentially bilingual with Castilian, meaning there is often greater competition when the books are sold alongside each other in the same bookshops. Asociación Galtzagorri brings together writers, illustrators and other professionals working with children’s books in the Basque Country. One of their aims is to promote and share children’s literature written in Basque. Miriam Luki Albisua, who is also an ¡ÂLBUM! collaborator, tells me that the number of books being produced in the Basque language – Euskara – and the quality of those books has been steadily increasing since the end of Franco’s dictatorship in the seventies; under the dictatorship, these regional languages were violently repressed. Authors Mariasun Landa, Bernardo Atxaga and Anjel Lertxundi have particularly helped this surge. Several of Atxaga’s works have been translated into English and translator Margaret Jull Costa won the 2015 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation for The Adventures of Shola. Luki Albisua continues, saying that works originally created in Basque – including poetry, picture books, illustrated chapter books and non-fiction – are now more numerous in themselves and are also being translated into other languages. She also recognises the role of illustrators – predominantly young women – who are working within the sphere of children’s books in Euskara.  

This paints a fairly rosy picture of a robust kidlit panorama in Spain, so how does this correspond to rights sales into English? Of the participants from ¡ÂLBUM! who responded to this question, very few are selling rights into the English-speaking market – they find it difficult – with one respondent ticking the ‘we’ve given up’ box on my survey. With Spain as the Guest of Honour at the 2022 Frankfurt Book Fair, the Spanish cultural bodies have been generous in supporting publishers in Spain to create samples in English to facilitate rights sales, followed up with translation grants for foreign publishers who wish to publish works from Spain. 

Grupo Edebé was one of the publishers who took up these grants and I translated several samples of their young-adult books into English, including sci-fi adventure Doce Soles (‘Twelve Alone’) by Amaya García and Alberto Minguez, and 2021 Edebé prizewinner El síndrome de Bergerac (‘Bergerac Syndrom’) by Pablo Gutiérrez. However, despite attending the book fairs in person in Bologna, Frankfurt and London, Rights and Permissions Manager Picanyol has found it difficult to sell into the English-language market, echoing sentiments I have heard elsewhere. She puts this down partly to the fact that it is not the tradition in English-speaking markets to translate foreign-language books, but also down to a lack of foreign-language skills among English-language publishers. To facilitate this, Project World Kid Lit has a downloadable list of expert readers of children’s literature in many languages to help publishers assess children’s books written in languages they may be unfamiliar with. The news isn’t all doom and gloom, however, and one of Picanyol’s success stories is the Against All Odds series by Claudia Bellante, released in autumn 2022 by Crocodile Books.

This leads us nicely to talk about the Spanish books that have been translated into English. On the World Kid Lit 2021 publications list, there were only seven books from Spain listed, mainly picture books, and all translated from Castilian Spanish; nothing featured from the other languages of Spain. Of these books, This is a Dictatorship by Equipo Planet, translated by Lawrence Schimel and published by Book Island with financial support from the Acción Cultural Española translation grant scheme, has recently been nominated for the UK Yoto Carnegie Medal for Illustration and the UK Literacy Association Book Awards. 

No article about children’s literature translated into English from Spanish (both from Spain and worldwide) would be complete without a special mention for Lawrence Schimel. His untiring work within this sector over the years is both astonishing and inspiring. Some of his noteworthy recent translations from Spain include It’s So Difficult by Raúl Nieto Guridi; Different: A Story of the Spanish Civil War by Mónica Montañés, illustrated by Eva Sánchez Gómez; and One Million Oysters on Top of the Mountain by Alex Nogués, illustrated by Miren Asiain Lora (all published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers).

Schimel writes in both English and Spanish as well as translating in both directions. His self-penned rainbow families board books Early One Morning and Bedtime, Not Playtime, illustrated by Elīna Brasliņa, were written originally in Spanish and are now available in fifty editions across thirty-nine different languages. These joyful books have also seen success within Spain, with translators Angel Erro and Rikardo Arregi winning the Vitoria-Gasteiz Prize for the best translation into Basque. Schimel also turns up in this magazine, co-curating the poetry section. 

The year 2022 was a better one for children’s books translated into English from Spain, written in Castilian Spanish at least; I am not aware of any 2022 books translated into English from Basque, Catalan or Galician, an issue that surely needs addressing. The majority of these books are aimed more towards the younger age groups, with few books for young adults in particular.

New releases include nonfiction titles Majestic Mountains: Discover Earth’s Mighty Peaks and Majestic Oceans: Discover the World Beneath the Waves by Mia Cassany and illustrated by Marcos Navarro, translated by Clare Gaunt (Welbeck Publishing), The Amazing and True Story of Tooth Mouse Pérez by Ana Cristina Herreros, illustrated by Violeta Lópiz, translated by Sara Lissa Paulson (Enchanted Lion), a delightful tale about why Spain has a Tooth Mouse, not a Tooth Fairy; stunning lift-the-flaps non-fiction book What’s Hidden in the Sky? Animal Constellations Around the World by Aina Bestard, translated by Annie Crawford for Eriksen Translations (TRA Publishing); and a new title from TOKYOPOP’s LOVE X LOVE imprint, LGBTQ+ graphic novel Sirius: Twin Stars by Ana C. Sánchez, translated by Nanette McGuinness.

To conclude, some fantastic books from Spain written in Castilian Spanish do seem to be crossing over into the English language; however, there are still lots of great books, written in all four official languages of Spain for children and young people just waiting to be discovered by readers in English. 

Many thanks to Clara Jubete from ¡ÂLBUM! for helping to coordinate the survey, and to Geòrgia Picanyol from Grupo Edebé for sharing her experiences. 

By Claire Storey


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