Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Putting worthy literature in the hands of children"

(Published March 22, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

Petra Ediciones, a small children's book publisher based in Guadalajara, operates out of an office appropriately situated in a neighborhood where all streets are named after literary greats. The company, in existence since 1990, has been recognized internationally for its innovation in a country whose market, as the publisher's director Peggy Espinosa remarked, "doesn't have the custom of buying books for children."

Each book Petra Ediciones publishes, from preschool-aged, cardboard picture books to larger reference books about geometry and famous authors, provokes an experience rarely observed in children's literature. The company collaborates with contemporary Mexican artists to create visual stimulation for its readers, providing early ex
posure to complex concepts.

"We offer images of high quality," Espinosa said. "We think about how we can present books to young readers so that they can have a deeper reading experience, something they can enjoy but also find meaning in."

In one way, it's like pouring chocolate over broccoli, a tasty incentive to dive in and get to the stuff of substance. For example, Petra Ediciones publishes an "art game" called the Photographic Mexican Lottery. Each bingo card in the set contains four-by-four rows of simple, black and white photographs of objects from Mexican culture taken by Jill Hartley, along with a name for the image.

One square, for example, features a long-straw broom leaning against a wall, and is titled "La escoba."
Young children playing the game, more likely drawn to cartoon characters than to black and white photos, can then locate "La escoba" in the game's handbook and read a short verse: "Teque teteque/ Por los rincones/ tu de puntitas/ yo de talones."

On the other hand, Petra Ediciones isn't just hiding deeper concepts under pretty pictures. They are doing what good children's books do best: enhance and exaggerate a story with visuals until the narrative peaks, and in that breathless moment, words disappear altogether and the art speaks for itself.

It's like when Max, the boy protagonist of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," proclaims himself king before threats of mutiny. There is that moment where the page turns and the narrative pauses -- and in an act of pure hubris and elation, Max swings joyously from jungle branches along with the Wild Things. The wordless two-page spread is exhilarating, managing to accomplish more within the narrative than any other page in the book.

Such is "Primavera," one of Petra Ediciones' latest publications, illustrated by Manuel Marin. In fact, the book is entirely wordless, a technique the author calls "cinematographic."

It uses color as its narrative catalyst, as whimsically tinted insects that look like glider planes fly over a minimalist white garden of line-drawn geometrical flowers and go about pollinating. Page one shows only the sparse garden, each flower of a different silly shape; on the next page a yellow insect arrives, bleeding yellow color into the flower it visits. The last spread is a full, rainbow-dyed garden, surely waiting to be discovered.

"Image by image, it puts you in a little universe of that art," Espinosa said of the effect.

"I like insects and they agitate me," Marin explained. "They pollinate and they are of great importance for the existence of all kinds of life on the planet. However we rarely think about them. So, I imagined the pollination of the flowers, and I exemplified what the insects do by making them give color to the flowers through their contact. In the end, all the flowers have color thanks to the insects' pollination."

"Primavera" was recently nominated for the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Honour List 2008. Every two years IBBY selects books from around the world to be included in a catalogue, considered to be the best representatives of children's literature from each country. Marin will travel to Copenhagen in September of this year for the official presentation of his book.

Petra Ediciones has an impressive history of international accolade. Another book called "Dias Tonaltin," by Greek illustrator Lanna Andreadis, won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2006. The book contains 20 monochromatic images painted like thick Japanese calligraphy, each a representation of one day in the Aztec calendar. The images are labeled in both Spanish and nahuatl; crocodile, for instance, reads 'cocodrillo/cipactli.'

In 1997 the Petra Ediciones book "Una Cabeza de Caballo" was selected as one of the best children's books by the pretigious Banco de Libro de Venezuela. It is a fully interactive design experience: the reader follows sculptor Sebastian's monument in Mexico City's Glorieta del Caballito, from its construction to its geometric principles, then can construct his own model from paper cutouts provided with the book.

The objective, said Espinosa, is not that children can construct a perfect sculpture, but that they can experience making it hands-on.

Marin, who is also an art professor at UNAM and teaches children's workshops, says that what most interests him about children is how they can play and imagine freely, even while reading a book.

"They're not directed by anyone. They laugh and point at figures that they're looking at. They play with what they see."

Petra Ediciones has plans to expand to a foreign market, where the books would have a more consistent promotion with large booksellers like Barnes & Nobles. The Mexican market is fickle, and at times a book might sit on the shelf for months before selling. For now, the publisher remains busy looking for artists and authors with new and provocative ideas in children's literature.