A short speech

The publishing house Media Vaca began to publish its first books at the end of 1998.

The three books came out at once over Christmas, at the last minute, when booksellers were no longer accepting new releases.

That experience made us think that three books were all we could do in a year.

Three books a year means that perhaps one year we do not make any books because we do not have the time.

The three books were rather different from each other: one had a red cover, the other blue, and the other orange.

The one with the red cover had the title in Catalan: No Tinc Paraules; the blue one seemed more appropriate for younger readers: Noses, Little Owls, Volcanoes, and Other Illustrated Poems; the orange one promised with the protagonist’s funny name, Carrot Hair, many lighthearted adventures.

The book with the Catalan title, however, did not contain any text in either Catalan or Spanish, which baffled readers of both languages; the collection of illustrated poems included works by authors who had never featured in children’s anthologies, such as Francis Picabia, Oliverio Girondo or Ángel González; lastly, the book that promised so much laughter, being so deeply humorous, was not funny for children or for their parents, since it recounts the childhood of an unloved boy and how one can survive such a thing.

I am an illustrator. After giving it much thought, I decided to devote myself to making the books I would like to see, read, show, and gift to others.

By ‘giving it much thought’ I mean I gave it no thought at all, and ignorantly embarked on the adventure.

When I say ‘I am an illustrator’ it seems that I have explained everything regarding the publishing house’s origins and my vocation, but what does it mean to be an illustrator?

Despite this declaration, which might be of some importance, I must say that most books, or all books without exception, proceed from previous literary content.

As an illustrator I have hardly done any work for the children’s book market, although I have always drawn. Like many children and young people who write and draw, I also invented my own publications. First by hand, then reproduced by photocopiers, and then by fast printers.

As an illustrator I founded an illustrator’s association with some colleagues. When I began making books, I signed up to a publishers’ association, out of a commitment to solidarity and team spirit.

I am certain that I do not currently feel represented by any of these collectives. I feel even stranger among publishers.

What does a publisher do? I have no idea. I think there are just as many types of publishers as there are books.

Although publishers are different in many aspects, they all agree on one: they all say that too many books are being produced, and that this is a major problem. However, none of them would be willing to produce fewer books: apparently, others should do it.

What is the best thing about there being so many books? What is the best thing about books? For me, as a reader —and I put this point of view before all others—, the most important thing is variety: having diverse books.

Yet, for some reason, there is little use in producing so many titles because, increasingly, publishers who are different from one another agree on making identical books. This is the case with books in general, and with the subspecies we refer to as children’s books.

And what are these children’s books like? If we had to describe them in few words, we would say they are books which can sell many copies and consequently make great profit.

How many are many copies? Many copies, in terms of children’s books, is what each new Harry Potter instalment sells.

In the world of books, as I have learned, references are important. For example, for every five children who read books, five will read Harry Potter. For every five children who bought (or were gifted) a Harry Potter book, five children will buy another book that sounds similar.

This is a made-up statistic, not copied from any scientific study.

References, models, are important. They are pointers on the horizon of where to go.

Many publishers who have not published Harry Potter must think: if we are not going to make a lot money, at least we should ensure we do not spend any, since it is not certain we will ever sell our books. For this reason, most books we find in bookshops are, from a physical presence point of view, some of the most insipid, meagre, and poorly made objects in the entire history of books, from Mesopotamia to the present day.

There are exceptions, always from the physical presence point of view: the books we call best sellers, thick, hard-bound volumes, which are not fit for reading, but small appliances suitable for presents.

Among the so-called children’s books are the famous albums, which likewise seem suitable for a birthday party. It does the job and one does not feel violent when having a second piece of cake.

Most of these book-albums, however, are by foreign authors because they are cheaper.

Why are they cheaper? Because it costs less to pay for a co-edition or to acquire the translation rights than produce an original work, which means paying more people and taking more risks.

A book that has already been published by another publishing house in another language or in another country benefits from prior promotion. In many cases the success of the book has been proven by having won certain awards, amassed good reviews, or sold a significant number of copies.

Many of the books Spanish publishers produce are aimed at the education market, and books written by teachers are not few.

About the education market, compulsory reading in schools, books that support lessons, the level of rigorousness of these texts, the sale of very disparate things compiled in similar packaging, the weight of the brand, and putting design above valuing and recognising the authors, everything must have already been said, so I will only add one more thing:

Children’s books are often confused with primers for learning to read. They are not the same. Children’s books should be just as stimulating to the imagination as those for adults. They should be literature, whatever literature is.

On the other hand, I do not know if there are statistics on this subject but have always had the curiosity to know, of the total number of children’s books sold, what percentage are bought by teachers or illustrators.

On teachers who write chivalric romance books and assorted literature books —anything but primers—, I have no opinions, but I adopt that of Manuel Bartolomé Cossío, teacher and educator of the Free Institution of Education.

Cossío wrote the following, after 1878:

Occasionally I have had the idea of gathering data and materials to write for children. I believe it a mistake and a danger from which one must be wary. Such thing can only be done by an artist. The educator’s task is to make use of what the great masters have written and to know which, what, and when it should be given to children, but on no account to produce himself. Educating is an art: but educators may very well not be novelists. Literary artists create a work, not for children, or men, or so on, but to make it even if they have no readers. The work is completed, and if it is truly human, the educator’s art comes in to determine what can children take from it. Educators have begun writing for children and this is what has happened. They must limit themselves to making use of the material produced by artists.

The question of children’s books has everything to do with education. Traditionally it has been in the hands of the Church. In Spain this is largely the case. A Free Institution of Education is as necessary today as it was the day it was created.

The responsibility to educate must fall on society as a whole.

There are many interests involved, economic interests of course, and it is sometimes hard to see and distinguish where the line separating money from ideas lies.

We should suspect, naturally, that money drives everything. Ideas are nothing more but a breeze we can ignore if we just close the window.

The Mexican writer Juan José Arreola was also a teacher and educator. Some opinions of his were compiled in a book titled La palabra educación (The Word Education):

Perhaps the origin of many evils lies in the fact that, from the beginning, we delegate to others (perhaps to the council of elders) tasks which are within our capabilities. In principle, school bodies, councils, and assemblies should monitor social conduct. But there is always, responsible and isolated, and individual such as myself. And only a sum of responsible individuals could form, when the times comes to agree, unity. But social unity does not imply the individual’s disappearance or his or her irresponsibility within the common order. To relieve our troubles we all place our trust on higher powers, whether hidden or manifest. We have resigned ourselves, economically, to the idea that all relief must come from above and outside forces. Would it not be worth thinking and deciding to start righting the wrongs of the world in the individual health of each one of us?

I definitely believe that what I find most appealing about being a publisher is that anyone can be a publisher. It is any citizen’s right. One does not need to have a special education. Or to spend a thousand euros on a master’s degree or a publishing course. Or to invest huge sums of money: books can adopt any type of form.

By becoming a publisher, one is somehow involved in a wide conversation among readers and provides topics and arguments to the general debate.

It is almost a patriotic duty —as people used to say, and some still do—, except we are talking about a wide homeland which encompasses not only the known world, but also beyond, because there are also books, written in every language, on the missions we send to space.

What would children’s literature be like beyond the Sun?

This nonsense would have not occurred to me if I were not reading Kurt Vonnegut these days.

And I suddenly remember that Vonnegut said somewhere that he nearly wrote a book for children. It would have been titled ‘Welcome to Earth’ and been a sort of instruction manual for children, to help them learn how to smoothly navigate our planet.

Firstly, it would explain why we can walk on Earth’s crust without falling into space.

I think about other writers I admire, such as Georges Perec, who also recorded his wish to write for children but never did, or did so in a very timid and marginal way.

Kafka, for example, wrote it down in his diary.

What would a children’s story written by Kafka have been like?

There are so many things we do not know.

What would children’s literature be like today if Franz Kafka, Georges Perec, or Kurt Vonnegut, who still has time, had published their children’s books?

The desire to know, the curiosity for books which do not yet exist, or to divulge those which do and are poorly known, is what moves me to think about new projects.

I have suddenly remember that the title of this table was ‘New publishers, new projects’. I have not spoken much about the books I make. I have preferred to speak of things that concern me and often think about while I make three books a year.

Those who are interested in getting to know the new projects, please let me know and I will send you a catalogue.

Thank you.


Well, actually, I had brought another text to read, but I have not known where to insert it. Bearing in mind that this meeting is about the Illustrated Book and I have hardly referred to illustration, I will just read it, it is not long. It is part of a letter that Kafka wrote to his publisher on 25 October 1915 regarding the imminent publication of his novel The Metamorphosis. It says:

Dear Sir,

You recently mentioned Ottomar Starke would be making a drawing for the cover of The Metamorphosis. Considering I am familiar with the artist’s style, I was slightly and perhaps unnecessary taken by this announcement. I am afraid that Starke, as an illustrator, might want to draw the insect. Not that! Please, not that! I do not wish to restrict him, but I make this plea out of my deep knowledge of the story. The insect cannot be shown. Not even from afar.

Thank you and good day.

Vicente Ferrer

Speech read at the Salón del Libro Ilustrado de Alicante 2005. Image: logo of the collection ‘Books for Children’ by Taro Miura.