—What does it mean to treat children with respect in the field of publishing?

When we began our journey, more than twenty years ago, we published a declaration of intent which, among other things, stated: ‘The best books should be for children, the best stories, the best pictures, the best paper, the first shelves. Because the world (and sometimes we forget) belongs to children’.

Today, children’s books have gained weight as objects and are better produced. No longer do we mostly find pocket or precarious editions bound together with staples. Nowadays, much more care is given to paper, binding and reproductions. This change is a relatively recent phenomenon. Authors who work in children’s literature probably enjoy a better reputation than their predecessors did, and are not as confined to a genre that offers a greater variety of proposals than in the past. In bookshops, the disparity of formats and the striking covers of children’s books catch our eye, as attractive as pastries in a shop window.

Then, we open the works and find all sorts of things. Interesting books coexist in the same space with others that do not live up to what their covers promise. We have all been children and had a grown-up address us by saying ‘Look at that doggie’, or similar. We have also heard a child reply: ‘It’s not a doggie, it’s a golden retriever’. Many children are interested in animals and are highly informed. The same thing happens with books: we treat children as if they are not experts on dog breeds and later we are surprised. We do not trust their abilities and, for this reason, when they exhibit their knowledge we may think they are exceptionally gifted. They are not, they are children, as sharp, as curious and as fragile as children are.

It is respectful to use a simple vocabulary and a warm tone in books, and it may even be acceptable to add some nonsense now and then; what is not okay is to have a book full of nonsense. If we want young readers to take books seriously, those of us who make them should put our best efforts into them. But that seriousness must not be solemn: books, which connect us with so many wonderful things in the world, should be part of entertainment, not obligation. It does not seem very respectful that most books offered to children are linked to education and school lessons.

Something that is presented to us as natural, and which I am not sure it is, is the fact that children’s books are written, illustrated, and selected by adults, and that children’s role in them is of mere consumers. Perhaps we could ask them if they would like to participate and play at making books, and decide how they would like them to be. Doing is how we learn best, and how we acquire a critical view of things. This was the proposal made in the 1930s by the educator Célestin Freinet, promoter of printing in the classroom and creating free texts.

—Can any subject be discussed with them (including the most difficult ones that often come through the media when sitting down at dinner: paedophilia, gender violence, human trafficking…)?

I do not know. Do we discuss all subjects in books for grown-ups? Large publishers have teams of educators and psychologists who, in theory, direct the production for young audiences. In practice, their task may well be to censor potentially problematic topics and contents. The United States, a country that distributes the productions of their cultural industry all over the world, considers images featuring people smoking or nudity to be problematic; its publishers make sure they are not reproduced, and distributors who import books likewise exert strong censorship in terms of purchases. It is a curious thing that in a country where highly violent images are disseminated, and are relatively tolerated, a naked body is considered a problem. In our country, with many of the books offered to children being translations of foreign books, those same restrictions do not exist.

In our publishing house we do not have great faith in the classification of books by theme or age group; this is a matter that is convenient for commerce, but it has no relation to the real world, where things are mixed together, nor to the reality of readers, since many children read more than their parents and some younger ones understand more than others who are older, but it is not easy to make generalisations. I do not think all subjects can be discussed in the same way. The more delicate the topic, the more rigour should be applied when addressing it. Reading usually takes place in a family or school environment; if this favours trust and naturalness, if there is a habit of discussing things, we can go further. Concealing matters that spark genuine curiosity is perhaps not a good idea. Lastly, books are tools we use to be able to converse and to help us understand the world we live in and our place in it. In whatever the case, as in so many matters, common sense should be applied.

Coming back to your question, and referring to difficult subjects, many stories in the Old Testament are rather brutal and have reached very wide audiences. Folk tales, such as those by the Brothers Grimm, for example, have also passed on to many generations stories related to paedophilia, gender violence or human trafficking which we can recognise in the news. Thirty years ago, there were hardly any children’s books that spoke about death. It was a difficult subject. One of the few examples was a book by the German author Gudrun Mebs titled ‘Birgit, The Story of a Death’ (republished in Spain a few years ago under the shortened title ‘Birgit’ on the cover). Today there are many more examples, and many are as well-known as Duck, Death and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch, and tackle a complicated subject in a simple, natural, and very honest way, without renouncing a poetic tone. Many of these works are German, as it seems. In Spain, Grassa Toro and Isidro Ferrer published Una casa para el abuelo (A Home for Grandpa), which has enjoyed several editions. Perhaps, in the end, it is all a matter of time and keeping some good models in mind.

—I have a question specifically about your collection Books for Tomorrow by Plantel. Forty years ago, when it first originated, was it already intended for children? If the answer is yes, what has happened to us so that forty years later this same idea seems modern, transgressive, fresh, necessary…?

Yes, it was aimed at children over the age of seven, that is, early readers. A few years before, the publishing house La Gaya Ciencia had published a collection called ‘Library of Political Dissemination’ that used to be sold in kiosks. They printed more than twenty issues. ‘What is socialism’ was signed by Felipe González, ‘What is anarchism’, by Federica Montseny; ‘What is the right-wing’, Ricardo de la Cierva, and so on. The success of these booklets encouraged their editor, Rosa Regàs, to publish these Books for Tomorrow for children. This proposal most likely came from Equipo Plantel, and was supported by the publisher. Sadly, the four books, published in 1977 and 1978, had a brief commercial life due to the publishing house closing down shortly after. We decided to republish them because we felt they were still relevant. Unfortunately still relevant, we should add. We kept the texts without any adjustments, and we updated the illustrations; and we explained in a brief commentary the direction of the new edition and the changes that had taken places in each subject addressed: democracy, dictatorship, social classes, and women and men.

If after forty years the books preserve their freshness, it is because the texts are brief, clear, and very direct, and also maintain an informative and non-dogmatic tone. They do not tell the reader what to think. The images, of course, are also of great significance, highlighting and commenting on the contents, but which are interesting in their own right and offer a parallel reading to the text. By the way, these topics are not so easy to illustrate, hence the added merit of the illustrators. In the original version of the book about social classes, in the La Gaya Ciencia edition, the capitalist was a man with a top hat and a cigar, a caricature straight out of the satiric press of the early 20th century, but today this representation does not make sense. And how can one explain what democracy is through illustrations? We all have an idea of what democracy is, but images do not always come to mind.

What we should be questioning is why we are using books written forty years ago instead of producing new books. We should also question why other publishing houses bigger than ours have not published books on politics for children and made them trendy. If the idea is good, they have greater resources available. Why are there children’s books about climate change, refugees, or feminism but not about democracy? I believe this has to do with looking at what is being done abroad with a different perspective. Spanish publishers are generally more attracted to books that are successful outside our borders, and are more interested in purchasing rights than in promoting their own authors. I am unsure of why this happens, whether it is some kind of complex, but this is what we have observed. Of course, there are exceptions. Our edition of Books for Tomorrow has been sold in Russia, Brazil, Taiwan and other countries, but it has not received the same attention in Spain. It is quite moving to think that the book about democracy, created at the time of the Spanish Transition, is going to be published in Greek, Greece being the country that invented it.

Politics can be of interest to children as any other topic. If something interests adults, it can surely spark children’s curiosity as well. We are aware that the books on politics are used in class and discussed at home, and from time to time we receive responses from many children to the questionnaires featured in the books. These questionnaires existed in the original edition by La Gaya Ciencia and we have kept them in, as all the other foreign publishers have done. The children who have read the books are told: ‘We already know parents’ opinions from election results, now we want to know what children think.’

Vicente Ferrer's answers to the questions sent by the journalist Pilar Gómez Rodríguez for the article published in the digital magazine El Salto "Editar para niños y niñas, ¡respect!" (27 May 2021). Drawing by Silvia (4 years old).