'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Interview: Laura Taylor on A Picture Book Adventure

Laura Taylor is a writer and translator, and a mother of two. Born in the UK, she now lives near Newcastle, Australia and facilitates Planet Picture Book. She has set out on a quest to discover picture books from all the 193 member states of the United Nations, and share them with everyone through reviews on her site.

Join us with her today, on her compelling journey of discovery.

Laura, you have embarked on a journey that encompasses 193 countries in order to seek out and review picture books, and to share your discoveries with everyone. Currently, you have visited 12 countries of the total you plan to cover. This is an extremely ambitious project. Can you tell us about the project’s genesis, and what you hope to achieve on this exciting journey?

In late 2016, I chanced on a TED talk by Ann Morgan, who read a book from each of the world’s 196 countries and reviewed them on her blog – in the course of a year. I remember waking up the next day and thinking ‘I have to do this with picture books!’ It really was as impulsive as that.

I think there are number of reasons why the idea captured my imagination. I have always been an avid reader and believer in books, and now, as a mother of two young children, I have developed a renewed interest in picture books. I also have a lifelong passion for language and culture. I’ve been fortunate to live and work in France, Italy, India, the UK and Australia. I have also travelled widely. I truly believe in the value of venturing outside one’s own patch and the importance of developing awareness, understanding, and appreciation of other cultures and peoples. Particularly today with the tendency of various nations to look increasingly inwards. It’s madness! There is so much to discover and learn beyond our borders, so much to bring us all closer together. And books – picture books – provide a perfect starting point for adults as well as children.

So, I’ve set out on a journey to gain knowledge – an idea of what’s out there in the big wide world. I’m hoping to uncover authors, illustrators, translators and publishers; to gain an insight into the stories being told in different countries around the world; to experience a wealth of different writing and illustration styles. And it’s not just about me. From the outset, I have aimed to share my findings with others – readers, teachers, librarians – in a searchable online record on my site, and via social media. I am hoping that my journey may inspire others to explore global children’s literature, that book lovers may choose to read an unfamiliar title as a result of reading one of my posts. I also have a growing collection of physical books, which I would love to take into schools or libraries in due course. I sometimes dream about zooming around in a minibus with shelves lined with picture books from every country in the world …

What is it about this project that motivates you the most?

The challenge and discovery aspects are huge for me. Each time I decide on a destination, I wonder what I’m going to find there. Then, I have the excitement of seeing my research gradually take shape. Take Guinea for example, a small African nation with a low literacy rate and where books are expensive commodities. And yet I was able to find a couple of publishing houses operating in the market, one of which, Editions Ganndal, specialises in children’s literature. In Argentina, I experienced the stunning talents of Isol, Liniers and Jorge Luján for the first time through the translations of Elisa Amado. To miss out on these exceptional creators is to miss out.

What obstacles have you encountered on your search, if any, and what surprising and unexpected things or people have crossed your path?

I’ve stumbled a bit on this journey!  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve followed a lead, only to have it come to a dead end when I discover a fabulous-looking title is not available in English, or out of print. It can be very frustrating, but so satisfying later when I achieve a successful outcome.

The real surprise so far has been Twitter. I remember hovering over that ‘Tweet’ button for about half an hour before posting for the first time. I’ve tweeted a lot more since then and connected with picture book lovers from around the world. I am amazed at Twitter people’s passion for sharing ideas, opinions and information, and I am having so much fun – and learning so much – by joining in.

How much research and what kind if any, is needed for each visit?

I spend hours researching each destination. I try to gain an overview of each country first, before looking for potential titles to cover on my site. Most of my research is Internet-based; I read online articles, posts on other book blogs, children’s book lists and sift through publishers’ catalogues. Then I take a closer look at author, illustrator and translator sites to find out more about them and their work. I also follow up on leads by email. For Tonga, messages flew back and forth between Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji for a couple of weeks as I narrowed my search.

On your site you have created a travelogue for each country you visit, full of descriptive sights, information about books, bookshops, statistics on book buyers, youth literacy, book festivals/fairs, and all things bookish. How did you choose the countries, and what criteria does the picture book have to have?

I do love researching and writing those country snapshots! The countries often choose themselves. I recently covered picture books from Latvia on my site. That destination was inspired by a Facebook post late last year. It featured a recently translated title from Latvian, One House for All (read our KBR review, here). The book cover was so sumptuous and unusual that I decided to look into Latvian picture books then and there. And I can because I have no particular itinerary mapped out, although I have made a deliberate decision to hop from one continent to another.

Are they picture books for children only that you seek out, and what percentage are translations into English from other languages?

Yes, my focus is on children’s picture books. I think they have so much to offer readers of all ages. I am trying to identify ‘authentic’ titles from each country I visit, so ideally books written and/or illustrated by an author/illustrator with in-depth knowledge and experience of that particular country. As a linguist and translator, I do have a keen interest in identifying picture books in translation; I know firsthand how much beauty can be found in books originally written in another language. But translated literature only accounts for a very small fraction of the market in the English-speaking world. Less than 3% of the books published in the US and UK are translated from another language, according to articles I have read. (I am unsure of the statistic for Australia.) I’m keen to see what the final percentage of translated titles will be for Planet Picture Book.

I am also exploring picture books written in English and wordless picture books, which have been another big discovery for me on this journey. Oh, and titles in my second language, French, when a particular book stands out, such as Je suis fou de Vava, which I reviewed in my selection for Haiti, or when no alternative appears to exist, which was the case in Guinea.

Are you able to make a comparison between what you have uncovered in the international children’s picture book market, and the picture books by Australian creators?

I don’t feel qualified to make a comparison at this point. I’m still in the early stages of my project. I’d like to read more international titles and more Australian picture books to gain a more complete picture first. One theme does keep cropping up in my research, however, although not with specific reference to the Australian picture book market: darkness and truth in children’s literature. There were a couple of beautiful articles about this recently by Matt de la Peña and Kate DiCamillo . I have the impression that there is potentially more freedom to explore the darker aspects of life – sorrow, pain, fear, anger, death – in some markets, or with certain publishers. I’d like to explore this idea in more detail at some point.

Have you set a timeline for your travel and research?

Ideally, I’d like to cover 40 countries per year, which would mean a five-year project duration. In reality, my journey is likely to take a little longer than that. The motivation is definitely there, but time is an issue as I also work and have two young children to look after. Additionally, I don’t have the resources to purchase dozens of picture books in one go. So, I’m trying to work at a pace that is manageable and sustainable over time.

Can you reveal where funding for such an extensive and long term project was found?

Yes, it’s no secret! I am funding this picture book adventure and, for the time being, it’s working well. I love waking up and wondering where I am going to go next and what discoveries await me.

If any KBR readers would like to recommend any international titles for Laura's Planet Picture Book journey, please get in touch at www.planetpicturebook.com You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Tomorrow is Harmony Day, celebrating cultural diversity around the nation. Our resident librarian, Sarah Steed, shares another fascinating list of children's books from all over the globe compiled by librarians from around the planet. Read about it in her post, The World Through Picture Books. You can download the list and set out on your own international picture book reading challenge just like Laura!