2006 writing to quote José Cadalso

Dear friends, I apologise for not being able to come to Huesca to attend this Conference. Unfortunately, the dates coincide with those of the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the publishing house is participating with a stand. Although I notified in advance I would not be attending, I promised the director of the conference I would send her a piece of writing, and even advanced a title: ‘Tripping over the same book twice’.

I have no idea what ‘tripping over the same book twice’ means. I did not intent to say anything special. I liked seeing the words ‘tripping’ and ‘book’ together, although I did not have time to make sense of them. Without seeking to resolve any enigmas, and without the slightest desire to tackle complex matters, I am writing this text with the aim, above all, of thanking Rosa Tabernero for her kind invitation and enthusiasm, and to sit at the table with José Luis Cano and Isidro Ferrer, great artists and colleagues.

How does one become a publisher of children’s books? Of course, in my case there is no such thing as a foundational event that traces back to childhood, and no family history either. Before the age of six, the only thing I wanted was to grow up. And after that age, too: you soon become aware that adults can do many more things than children. I still stand by that. I have been a reader since I was a child, neither precocious nor exceptional: I read mostly to pass the time, waiting to grow up. I began publishing small magazines, books, various artifacts, from the age of fifteen. Sometimes in short print runs, of ten or twenty copies. I have been playing at being a publisher for almost 30 years. It is a game with rules I have not yet understood and never will. All I know is that it is very time-consuming, and time is always required for everything.

Sometimes I define my position within the world of books by declaring I am an illustrator, what people find to be very natural and logical, as if this were to explain many things. I have no idea what people think being an illustrator or a publisher entails, or what either profession has to do with what is natural and logical, but I have always found those answers which avoid longwinded and often impossible explanations to be wonderful.

Thus, I am an illustrator, what can we do. And somehow, after giving it much thought, I decided to devote myself to editing the books I would like to see, read, show, and gift to others. Since we had friends who were writers and illustrators, capable of creating better works than those which already existed in bookshops, between Begoña and I, we decided to invent these books and make them available to readers. Besides, we have always thought that if there were not 2,000 or 3,000 people (the print run of our books) interested in the characters and stories that interest us, it would be difficult to go out and pretend to lead a normal life, feeling like we live surrounded by complete strangers. This project truly is an experiment and an adventure. That is what books are for.

We have been experimenting for eight years now and in that time I have had to answer many questions in regards to our publishing house project. The two most frequently asked questions are: ‘Where does the name Media Vaca come from?’ and ‘What has been the reception of the publishing house?’. To the first question I never know what to respond. The second is already partially answered: little by little we are discovering that those two or three thousand readers exist, among whom are many good people we know, and whom we see far less of than we would like, as well as many anonymous readers who send us the greatest encouragements for our work.

Overall, I must say that from the beginning the publishing house has received great sympathy and support from everyone. However, I do not know what exactly prompts these sympathies. Publishing children’s books in hardcover may be well seen, although it has been proven that some people focus more on the binding than on the content. In other cases, there is a clear influence from comedy gags, an interest I understandably share: you see someone about to step on an oil spill and you want to know what happens next. Perhaps the fact that this project is not based on commercial assumptions and is attempting to enter a market as stagnant as the Spanish one —backwards in so many ways—, might provoke in some people strangeness and admiration. The admiration that quixotic attitudes incite, because here, as we all know, we are great admirers of what is quixotic, much more than the Quixote itself. Within the profession, some who express their support do so in private, but without compromising themselves. Others, outright, do not take us seriously: they must think, like the bullfighter Guerrita, when he found out there are people who devote themselves to philosophy: ‘There’s someone for everything!’.

And since there is someone for everything, there must also be a publishing house that serves as an alternative to large publishing companies, to official and multinational institutions, that seem to represent the ‘standard’ in the industry. I would certainly prefer not to be classified or treated as an alternative to anything. In fact, from another point of view, the alternative to what we do would be those large companies and multinationals, and the small companies primarily concerned with their own survival. Thinking this way does not make anyone alternative either. There are simply large things and small things, slow things and fast things, sweet things and savory things, and in everyday life we use a little bit of everything.

In general, I believe that few people question their relationship with books and how these influence their lives, if they do at all. Some people openly ignore them and others do not need them at all, but often there are people who, even if they never read or buy or consult them, maintain an attitude of veneration towards them, which leads them to believe that anything written in them must be a revealed truth and that their authors must be wisemen of a special authority. It is not that big a deal. Our culture’s book par excellence, the Bible, is still a valid example to explain the nature and destiny of these strange objects: despite the fact that the Bible is a widespread work —what we would call a ‘best-seller’—, it is still poorly known. Has anyone actually read it? Has anyone ever wondered what would be a good translation of this book? How many people, free from prejudice and the weight of commentaries, are capable of reading the Old Testament as an adventure novel? Will those who think they know it because they read an adapted version when they were children, have the curiosity as adults to venture into the complete text with all of its gruesomeness? Will they offer their children adapted versions, the same ones they read, to feed this chain of torture? Will they become distrustful and renounce all kinds of books?

I believe we do not pay enough attention to children. The proof is that, when we do, it is to overprotect them, and that is when we treat them the worst. If our relationship with books is already problematic, how can our relationship with children not be? There are questions no one wants to ask because they do not have a simple answer: What is a child? What is the extent of our responsibility towards them?

When I think about books, I do not have the intention of conveying any kind of message. I do not make books with the aim to educate or raise awareness. When we start a project, we do not even know where it may lead. Our greatest fortune and responsibility is that we make the books we want to make and not any others. At every moment we must choose and select them carefully, because we only dispose of a limited infrastructure and a reduced budget. We only make three books per year, and these books do not depend on trends or market demands or on the criteria of executives and specialists, rather, on the intuition and taste of the publishers, who, in this case, are only two people. The tone of each book must reflect the particular opinions and interests of the publishers and the authors, and this is the task we enjoy most and prefer above any other: the search, the discovery, and everything interesting that could be found in between.

I am nearly finished. A quote from the Bible would be useful now, which has advice for everyone and surely dedicates two lines to the topic of commitment in children’s and young adult literature. Unfortunately —or fortunately— I have not read the book. Perhaps further on; for now there is no rush. However, I do remember having read, in one of the passages of Cartas marruecas (Moroccan Letters), by the 19th century writer José Cadalso, a reflection that may be of interest to anyone who is involved in the world of books and intends to find coherence between what they observe in life and what they aspire to achieve with their work:

LXXXI Letter

From the same to the same

‘It is not easy how a man should behave in order to find a medium-sized place in this world. If one appears to be talented or educated, one receives hate from people, because they regard one as arrogant, daring and capable of great things. However, if one is humble and restrained, one is despised as useless and foolish. If one is seen as careful, cautious, and prudent, one is mistaken for vengeful and a traitor. If one is honest, humane, and easy to reconcile with whomever has wronged them, one is called a coward and a pushover; if one attempts to elevate oneself, ambitious; if one is content with average, lazy; if one follows the world’s flow, one is labelled as a flatterer; if one opposes the delusions of men, an extravagant. These considerations, weighed down with maturity and confirmed with many examples, make a man want to retire to a desolate desert in Africa, flee from fellow men, and choose the abode of the deserts and hills, among beasts and brutes’.

Good evening and thank you.

Vicente Ferrer

NOTE: Upon writing out this text, in April 2018, I observed the following: 1. In 2006, the publisher was simultaneously an optimist and a sceptic; 2. How could someone ask a friend to read such a text in public; 3. If this is what we believed then, what will we think today, when, tired as we are, we realise the publishing house is only slightly better known than when we started, and that everything takes a lot of energy.

Presentation by Vicente Ferrer, publisher of Media Vaca, for the II University Conference on Children’s and Young Adult Literature in Huesca, coordinated by Rosa Tabernero and dedicated to ‘Literature and Commitment’. Read by Mariona Martínez Dorado on 6 October 2006. (Portrait of V.F. by Alejandra Hidalgo).