Carmen Diana Dearden is editor and publisher of Ediciones Ekaré, a Venezuelan Publishing House founded in 1978, which pioneered children’s book publishing in Latin America. She is also President of the Banco del Libro, which won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2007 for their profound impact on children’s reading in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. She was president of IBBY from 1992 to 1998. Carmen has three children who grew up with Ekaré books, and they have always been willing and creative participants in the process of producing them (and Carmen claims they are the fiercest critics). She was interviewed in December 2007 by Anita Loughrey, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).
What made you decide to go into children’s book publishing?
CDD: My father was a walking encyclopedia, my mother a storyteller. I grew up surrounded by books and stories, and loved rewriting them or inventing new ones.
I studied anthropology because I was fascinated by different cultures and their oral traditions. When our work in the Banco del Libro’s libraries in Venezuela showed us there was a scarcity of good books for children that reflected our culture, setting up a children’s book publishing house seemed the natural thing to do. It was a challenge and a joy and a wonderful pioneering time.
I always wanted to work with words. And I still believe in magic.
In your opinion, what makes a good editor?
CDD: A good “nose,” i.e. intuition to know what books will work; vision and the capacity to imbue others with it; timing, teamwork, and the power of persuasion.
When you are reading a manuscript for the first time, how long does it take you (approximately how many pages? chapters?) to figure out whether it’s something you want to pursue?
CDD: The first page is usually the vital one.
What turns you off a manuscript right away?
CDD: Bad writing, long-winded explanations, stories with obvious messages, sugar-coated themes.
What are the “realities” of children’s book publishing?
CDD: Are there such things? I know there are practical aspects of the markets, the big conglomerates, the competition, the fads, the imitations, the “politically correct” frenzies, but the best part about children’s book publishing is that it is serendipitous and surprising.
What is your favorite thing about being a children’s book editor?
CDD: Watching a work of art unfold, and guiding the whole process. Enjoying the unexpected, crazy things that usually happen.
What are some of your favorite books and why?
CDD: There are so many. From Ekaré: El rabipelado burlado, (The Hoodwinked Possum, retold from the Pemón ethnic group, illustrated by Vicky Sempere) because it was the first book we published; Margarita, (by Ruben Darío, illustrated by Monica Doppert) because it is a rounded little gem; La calle es libre (The Streets are Free, by Kurusa, illustrated by Monica Doppert), because it came from a small, urban “barrio’s” real needs and the research process was so fulfilling; El libro de oro de los abuelos, (The little Latin American Book of Fairy Tales) because they are the traditional fairy tales retold with Venezuelan craftiness and part of my family tradition.
The Wind in the Willows, because I found it soothing; Sendak‘s Nut Shell Library for its humor and wonderful zany verses; Susan Cooper‘s The Dark is Rising series; Alan Garner‘s The Owl Service; Ray Bradbury‘s The Illustrated Man and Asimov‘s Foundation books because I am fascinated by fantasy and science fiction; Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mocking Bird because I wish I had written it; Steinbeck‘s Sweet Thursday for its irreverent and appealing characters; Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter for its crazy, gory verses; Walt Kelly‘s Pogo Possum and Quino’s Mafalda comic strips for their humor and wiseness; Edgar Allen Poe‘s “The Raven” for its spookiness and rhythm; fairy tales, legends and mythology; mysteries for obvious reasons, especially Dorothy Sayer‘s The Nine Tailors which is so well written; dictionaries, because I love words.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, not only for what it’s done to children’s book publishing but because I was riveted from the start and tried to get the Spanish rights long before it became a cult.
Is there a character you met in a book when you were a child that changed your life?
CDD: Struwwelpeter. My mother gave me the book because I would never let anybody comb my hair and she thought the sight of Struwwelpeter with his unruly hair and long nails would persuade me, but it had the opposite effect. I thought it was wonderful, and all the horrible things that happened to the children in the book seemed fantastic fun. I think it gave me the power to be a rebel in many things.
What books are you proudest of having worked on? Why?
CDD: The four mentioned above: Margarita, El rabipelado burlado, La calle es libre, El libro de oro de los abuelos. All our Indian tales–Narraciones Indígenas collection — (to which El rabipelado belongs) because we were the first to start such a collection and worked with missionaries, anthropologists, and primary sources to select and rewrite them and sent the illustrators out into the field for a first-hand experience.
Our poetry collection–Rimas y Adivinanzas–(Rhymes and Riddles, to which Margarita belongs) was also a first, started with the purpose of making poetry fun in classrooms by choosing a poem and turning it into a small picture book (they are 15cm x 15cm format). The idea worked very well and it is still one of our best-selling collections.
Our Asi Vivimos collection (The Way We Live,) which was done with the intention of describing issues of our Latin American culture in which children were protagonists. Issues such as no space to play in densely populated urban “barrios”(La calle es libre); the clash between a poet and a military man in elections in a small Andean town (El robo de las Ae’s, The Theft of the A’s); the plight of an escaped slave in Puerto Rico (La peineta colorada, The Red Shell Comb); the clash between and indigenous and “white man’s” culture (Ni era vaca ni era caballo, Neither Horse nor Cow). It has also worked very well, has been the most translated one, and was totally fascinating to do.
As unique translation experiences: Ana María Machado’s El perro del cerro y la rana de la sabana. It was more of a rewrite and recreation than a translation because we had to change the characters (from cat to dog, for instance) to make the language rhyme and play in Spanish as well as it had done in Portuguese. It was done with the author herself during a book fair in Mexico; Fox by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Ron Brooks, because Ron helped us choose and work on the font to be used (his original was hand done)–a wonderfully funny and creative virtual experience!
Have you worked with both fiction and non-fiction? If so, how do the processes compare? What do you like most (and/or least) about each?
CDD: Mostly fiction. We did a nature and ecology collection (four books) and started a social studies collection which was fascinating but never made it to press.
Non-fiction is much more time consuming and rigorous, but also fascinating in the research put into it and the new things you learn. The “field work” needed in non-fiction is particularly interesting to me as an anthropologist.
Fiction can be done from an “armchair,” but tends to be more fraught with sensibilities and emotions. It sometimes feels like walking on eggshells.
What does the ideal cover letter say?
CDD: I don’t think there is such a thing because every writer is different. But basically, something short, to the point, and original.
Is there any area in your list you’d like to “grow” at this time?
CDD: Restart the non-fiction series based on social studies. Novels for ages 10 and up.
Do you look at art samples?
CDD: Yes, I look at art samples. It’s a primary source of the sort of books we publish (picture books and illustrated books). It is also enthralling, and we have discovered many wonderful illustrators that way.
How involved in the marketing of the book are you? What is the average marketing budget for a picture book at you house?
CDD: I am involved in the overall process and the strategies, but the real work is done by our marketing and promotion team, who are always full of ideas. They do it with enthusiasm and enjoyment. (I think). Another characteristic of a good editor is to have confidence in her team. It works in Ekaré.
We don’t have a budget for individual books per se, just an overall budget for marketing which we usually calculate at about 7% of yearly sales.
Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.
The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.