Telling Good Stories, with Ileana Achim

”Secretul lui Raul Taburin” (“Raoul Taburin Keeps a Secret”), by Jean-Jacques Sempé. Editura Frontiera

 
 

Zoe navigates on an umbrella on the sea of the world’s stories. She is endlessly curious and eager to explore new frontiers. She is like one of the great storybook travellers – Mary Poppins, Aladdin, Phileas Fogg and Dorothy Gale – and she takes children to magical worlds. Zoe is every child.

Zoe is the little girl in the Frontiera logo that meets our eye whenever we spot her on the cover of a book. She is the gate to new worlds, the playful promise of a great adventure, of a new discovery. Frontiera is a small independent publishing house in Romania, guided by a dedicated and passionate editorial team. They publish beautiful books for wise children, from world renowned children’s authors, some of them for the first time published in Romanian (Gabrielle Vincent, Jean-Jacques Sempé’s Raoul Taburin Keeps a Secret), to contemporary Romanian illustrators and new authors. But, most importantly, they care about the stories they send out into the world. Stories that may look simple but come from far away and carry deep meanings. Short funny stories. Stories that capture our interest through illustrations rather than text and leave us freedom to create our own stories or test our feelings. Stories that educate our vision and train our eye. Rich allegories for all ages, humorous poetry, extraordinary voyages. In books, everything is open. Everything is possible.

We live in a world in which we are always wired to some kind of device, but which feels more and more disconnected. Yet, in the midst of it all, Frontiera finds the power, courage and skill to gather all kids of stories, for all kinds of readers, from all kinds of perspectives, connecting everyone, forging friendships, feeding and freeing our minds.

In our interview, Ileana Achim, the co-founder of Frontiera, and I talk children’s books, writers and illustrators, finding good stories to publish and why preaching about the importance of books is not the best strategy for turning children into life-long readers.

 

Suflătorul de vise (“Le souffleur de rêves”), by Bernard Villiot, with illustrations by Thibault Prugne. Editura Frontiera

 
 

Are children the most demanding readers?

I am not sure if they are the most demanding readers, but surely, they could be very demanding, especially when they are little. You cannot “sell’ any kind of story to them – it simply doesn’t work. You’ll know right away if the story is boring, if they don’t understand what all is about or if they simply don’t feel like listening to you. Also, they have the „bad” habit of being quite loudly when demanding to hear a story before going to bed. You must find a way to speak with all the voices required by the characters of the story, even if you have had a hard day and already dream of tucking into your own bed.

When children grow up, they remain demanding readers, but in a different way, from my experience. The flood of stories coming towards them from social media makes it hard to win their attention with written stories from books.

 
 

”I believe people are naturally born storytellers.”

 
 

And yet, how can we do that? How can we keep children’s interest in books up, when we know for a fact that reading from books is a much more devoted, immersed experience, with much better results than reading on various devices? Is there a right balance, and how do we achieve that?

When children are young, things are a lot easier, as we have a better control of their routine. Reading aloud to them, celebrating their first day of independent reading, making a book for a gift, having books around the house, visiting book shops and buying books together with your child… These are all basic things for raising readers.

When children grow old, I believe that the winning strategy is for us to become a model. Not talking them into books, not preaching about the importance of books, but making reading a habit of our own life. Reading around them, enjoying a book together, discussing about topics found in books… Children do what they see, not what they are told to do. (Well, this is a well-known truth, but it is worth reminding it, as it is sooo difficult to be what you preach about.)
 

”Ernest și Celestine la muzeu” (“Ernest and Celestine at the Museum”), by Gabrielle Vincent. Editura Frontiera

 
 

Storytelling is such an important part of childhood, of life. We should never stop telling stories, reading stories, listening to stories. Do you believe in adults’ abilities to maintain children’s natural imagination for as long as possible?

I think humans are naturally born storytellers. We do tell stories and listen to stories all our life – only that the medium of the stories has now changed a lot. Movies are stories, the media tells stories, history is but a story, the way we retell our past life is a story.

If you strictly refer to stories as fiction, i.e., events that only happen in our imagination, then I admit that… I don’t know. In my opinion, reading and storytelling are not about imagining things, but about catching meaning and learning to find meaning in the story of our own life.
 

I agree. Books, first and foremost, help us navigate our own feelings and our own life. Do you remember what was your childhood book that opened your mind to new ideas more than any other book?

I did not read a lot as a child. Rather I was told stories by my grandmother. I remember tales (Aleodor Împărat, Finist Șoimanul), I remember a lot of Ion Creangă (my grandma really loved to recount Amintiri din copilărie)… The first book that I read all by myself was Wuthering Heights, when I was 10 years old. I know, it sounds strange, but this was one of the books that I found on the bookshelves left from my uncle, and I gave it a try. It really impressed me and it turned me into a romantic reader for a long time. Fortunately, not for ever.
 

Why fortunately? What is your favourite type of books?

The romanticism belies a tendency to disillusionment regarding reality. At least, that’s what I think. I lived in the world of books for a very long time when I was young and that brought along a certain disconnection from reality. You know what they say, self-deceit comes with disappointment. I like black humour, I like books where I feel a more profound underlay, which are not just simple bookish exercises. Something like that.

 
 

”I am an all-time fan of Sergio Ruzzier.
I love his humour, his bizarre and surreal characters,
his ruzzerian world that one cannot mistake for anything else.”

 
 

Left: Zoe’s Little House
Right: ”Leopantera”, by Piotr Wilkoń, with illustrations by Józef Wilkoń. Editura Frontiera

”Spre Polul Sud”, by Emil Racoviță. Editura Frontiera

 
 

Gabrielle Vincent, Nina Cassian, two great classics, and a slew of many other wonderful writers in between. How do you choose the books you want to publish at Frontiera?

We generally look for meaningful stories with masterful illustrations. Being exposed to qualitative books from an early age helps children educate their visual and literary taste.

We also have a taste for hidden gems – books or authors that are not mainstream (at least in Romania) and which may seem unusual when you have a quick look at their books. So are, for example, Wolf Erlbruch, Igor Oleynikov or Sergio Ruzzier. Wolf Erlbruch defies anyone’s taste for cuteness. Igor Oleynikov illustrates children’s books without illustrating for children – and I am writing this having in mind Sendak’s sentence that there is no children literature – just literature. Finally, Sergio Ruzzier (one of my all-times favourite artists) is a master of surreal scenery and bizarre happenings while remaining funny, childish, and affectionate.

Another hidden gem is the Romanian Marina Debattista. Marina teaches physics in Oxford, but she is also a writer and an artist. Her book of poems Dejunul unei frunze is a great example of playful and complex children’s poetry. We are very proud that the book has been selected in the international White Ravens catalogue in 2021.

I will conclude saying that there is a carefully discussed reason for any of the books that Frontiera publishes, be they more on the popular side or on the bibliophile one.
 

”Doi pui de tigru numiți Ninigra și Aligru”, by Nina Cassian, with illustrations by Karda Zenko. Editura Frontiera

 
 

I am very fond of Igor Oleynikov’s illustrations. His style is very dynamic and his interpretation of classic stories is not just an echo of the written text. These are stories that leave enough space for imagination and for his own interpretations – the same thing I feel about Robert Ingpen’s illustrations. I find it very interesting when an illustrator adds new meaning to the writer’s words. Which, in your opinion, are some of the most successful writer/illustrator collaborations?

I totally agree. Illustration should not be a mere reproduction of the text, but should bear its own complementary story. This is especially true for young children, who are not able to read the text, but can “read” the images.

Ideally, picture books are written and illustrated by the same person. When the author is skilful both at writing and drawing, the outcome is usually more coherent and consistent. But there are also many successful writer/illustrator collaborations, such as Maurice Sendak & Randall Jarell (The Bat-Poet), René Goscinny & Jean Jacques Sempé (Le petit Nicolas series) or Max Bolliger & Stepan Zavrel. These are random examples from my personal bookshelves.
 

”Marea întrebare” (“The Big Question”), by Wolf Erlbruch. Editura Frontiera

 
 

Wolf Erlbruch approaches existential themes and questions in his books that are accessible for readers of all ages. Some children’s books’ writers avoid these subjects. But aren’t books the best way to teach children, especially young children, about the realities of life?

I am not sure if books are the best ways to learn about reality (probably personal experience is the best), but surely they are very important in this respect. There is a lot to say about sweet and safe stories! For now, I would just say that stories are already safe spaces, the reason being that they allow the reader to experience negative emotions, loss and dangers at a symbolic level. The reader practises the negative sides of reality without really living them. It is a kind of rehearsal within the safe space of the story. So no need to get rid of negative characters, bad language, fears, loss or death. They should all be there, waiting for us to face them and then conquer them (until a new story will begin).
 
 

”When children grow old, I believe that the winning strategy
is for us to become a model. Not talking them into books,
not preaching about the importance of books,
but making reading a habit of our own life.”

 
 
You mention how Igor Oleynikov illustrates children’s books without illustrating for children. Are there illustrators who draw with children in mind? To what extent is that possible for a grown-up?

I am sure there are illustrators who draw with children in mind, as there are writers who write with children in mind. Equally, there are illustrators and writers who write without thinking of their audience, but for the sake of a good story or a personal vision or an incredible epiphany.

Sometimes, having children in mind may force you into adopting an unnatural voice, so that you sound or draw child-like. Other times, keeping children in mind may prevent you from becoming too sophisticated and artificial.

Oleynikov makes use of children classical texts, but turns them into a majestic art, into an impressive show for audiences of all ages. This is the eternal sunshine of children’s literature, allowing everyone to bask in its rays.
 

”Camera cu minuni” (“The Room of Wonders”), by Sergio Ruzzier. Editura Frontiera

 
 

Who is the latest great new children’s book writer you have discovered?

I am an all-time fan of Sergio Ruzzier. I love his humour, his bizarre and surreal characters, his ruzzerian world that one cannot mistake for anything else. I secretly indulge in his rare titles, such as Birds, and I have made a passion for wonder rooms and cabinets of curiosities since reading (and publishing) his Wonder Room.
 

What are the challenges of a small, independent children’s books publishing house from Romania?

I would say that the biggest challenge is finding the balance between keeping with your values and still selling your books. Well, time will tell if we have managed that.
 

Thank you, Ileana, for this inspiring talk and for all the good books you send out into the world!
 

”Străbunicul meu, Emil Racoviță”, by Andreia Petcu, with illustrations by Eugen Berlo. Editura Frontiera

 

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