Greet Pauwelijn is publisher with Book Island, as well as a translator.
True to Book Island’s bold dream of enriching children’s and adults’ lives in the English- and Dutch-language market, she publishes children’s books in English and Dutch.
She does this by bringing unique stories from Europe to the shores of New Zealand, then using only the best talent to translate, design and print beautiful high-quality books.
Book Island books are available in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Ireland, Belgium and The Netherlands. Follow @bookislandbooks on Twitter.
Greet is part of the SCBWI Europolitan Conference faculty. The conference will take place April 4 and April 5 in Amsterdam.
Was there one book that started it all for you?
For me, it was really the ability to read my first words and sentences that started it all, not just one particular book. As soon as I had discovered the magic of reading, I immersed myself in books, devouring them voraciously. I must have been one of the very few children in the world who often got punished for reading too much.
Is there a book that changed your life?
There are too many titles that have influenced me to name them all. Having grown up in a country where literature in translation plays an important role, I was exposed to stories from all over the world, which instilled a desire to travel and explore in me.
However, as a child I particularly looked out for titles from Dutch publishing house Lemniscaat, who after all these decades, still publish the most amazing books.
We are very proud to have one of their recent titles on our list: The Umbrella by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert.
You started your career as a translator of Polish, but after your move from Belgium to New Zealand you founded a children’s book publishing house. What inspired this change?
After relocating to New Zealand at the end of 2009, one of the first places I visited was the children’s section at the local library. It was quite a culture shock.
Back in Belgium we had been spoilt for choice when selecting books for our sons, then aged three and one. I immediately noticed that most of the beautiful picture books that European readers have access to were unavailable in the English-language market.
Most stories at the library were rhyming, poorly illustrated, with very predictable endings. I was desperate to find more challenging books for my kids and myself.
At that stage, I was still translating Polish literature for Belgian and Dutch publishers. I rapidly realised that due to the ongoing crisis in the book industry, this source of income was about to dry up.
Polish literature in translation had never been a gold mine for foreign publishers and they were becoming increasingly reluctant to publish more titles from Poland. I decided to look into adding English to my portfolio and soon after that I came across a children’s adventure novel by a well-known New Zealand author, Barbara Else.
Thanks to its universal story, it seemed just perfect for the Dutch-language market. I convinced a Belgian publisher to buy the rights to The Travelling Restaurant and this way I landed my first translation job from English.
While working on this title, I suddenly wished I hadn’t told the publisher in Flanders about this possible bestseller and had acquired the rights myself. Also, there were so many more foreign books out there that had been overlooked, so here was my chance.
That day I decided to become a children’s publisher and fill the gap that I had identified earlier.
To make it slightly more challenging I thought: why not publish in two languages, English and Dutch, at the same time?
Obviously, I knew very little about publishing and its challenges!
Book Island is based in New Zealand, but also active in the Dutch-language area – Belgium and The Netherlands. You publish both Dutch-language and English-language picture books. What are the similarities and what are the differences between the two?
The differences between the Dutch- and English-language market are significant, which makes our selection process quite challenging. Very few titles work well in both markets.
Quite often the content of European picture books (i.e. from the European continent) is not entirely acceptable or suitable for the English-language market, where there tend to be a lot more taboo topics.
The Dutch market is a lot more open-minded. The illustrations are generally also more sophisticated. More care has been attended to the design and production of the books.
Bookstores in the English-language market sell predominantly paperbacks, while our customers in Belgium and the Netherlands only want hardbacks.
For one of our latest titles, the two-way books Follow the Firefly/Run, Rabbit, Run! – Excuseer, heeft u soms een knipperlichtje gezien?/ Hup, konijntje! by Bernardo Carvalho, we had to design a new paperback edition for the English-language market, while the Dutch title was released as a hardback, like the original Portuguese edition. I will talk about these differences in more depth at the conference in Amsterdam.
How would you describe your house’s publishing focus? What kind of books do you love working on?
With Book Island, we want to share the treasures of children’s books in foreign languages with Dutch- and English-speaking readers.
When selecting new titles we particularly look for layered picture books. Each time you return to the book it will reveal a new layer, in the illustrations or the story. These layers make our books suitable for young and older readers alike, which is an important Book Island selection criterion. I like how Belgian ALMA winner Kitty Crowther compares such picture books with Russian nesting dolls.
We’re drawn to books that tackle quite difficult but very important topics. A perfect illustration is Maia and What Matters by Tine Mortier and Kaatje Vermeire (translated by David Colmer), a story about the enduring relationship between a little girl and her grandmother in the face of illness and aging.
We believe that the children of the 21st century are a lot brighter and more mature than we were at their age, hence we feel we need to publish titles that don’t dumb down their ability to understand and learn.
Our world has also become increasingly diverse, which should be reflected in books of all kinds.
We love stories with strong characters and a little twist. Sir Mouse to the Rescue by Dirk Nielandt and Marjolein Pottie (translated by Laura Watkinson), which is a gorgeously illustrated chapter book about reversed role models, is still one of our favourites. There’s also Sammy and the Skyscraper Sandwich by Lorraine Francis and Pieter Gaudesaboos, a wonderfully absurd story about a little boy who thinks he’s very hungry and wants to eat a giant sandwich.
The illustrations in our titles are as important as the story, and if they don’t match 100 percent, we sadly have to reject the book. Sometimes we also have to turn down stunning books because they’re just not translatable.
You publish books in translation. Could you tell us how the acquisition and translation process works?
Once we’ve preselected new titles, we check with the original publishers whether the rights are still available for English and/or Dutch. Subsequently, we negotiate the royalty payments etc with them.
Once we’ve acquired the rights we immediately start the translation process.
Since the pages in a picture book hold very few sentences, which are supported by equally important illustrations, we need to pay attention to each single word. I love having long discussions with the translator about the meaning of one particular word. Every word has to be right.
Fortunately, we’re not translating novels, because we’d probably never publish them, still trying to change words here and there.
Editing is the next step. Editors are as important to us as translators and too often they don’t get mentioned. We’ve been working with Frith Williams who has an incredible eye for detail and a great feeling for rhythm.
Once we feel like the translation is about right we pour the text into the original files. Then we reassess the result in relation to the illustrations.
Often, we have to edit the text a couple more times before we’re entirely satisfied.
Finally, we send the finished PDF to the original publisher for approval.
Mina Witteman is a published author, writing in Dutch and English. She has three adventurous middle grade novels, over 40 short stories, and a Little Golden Book out in The Netherlands.
The first volume of a three-book middle grade series, Boreas and the Seven Seas, is scheduled to come out in April 2015. She is the Regional Advisor for The Netherlands and Chairman of the Working Group Children’s Books of the Dutch Authors Guild.
In addition to writing, Mina teaches creative writing. She is a freelance editor and a mentor to budding writers. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Follow her on Twitter @MinaWitteman.