“There’s not a lot of traditional material for kids being produced in Australia,” says Sophie Masson, one of the co-founders of Christmas Press, a new boutique picture book publisher with a focus on folktales and traditional stories.
Many mainstream publishers are looking to “quirky” and nontraditional titles as a point of market differentiation, she notes, but this approach has its own problems: quirkiness becomes necessarily less so when moulded for mainstream appeal.
In contrast, Two Trickster Tales from Russia, the debut title from Christmas Press, stands out from the crowd by virtue of its traditional content and design.
“Fairy tales and folktales endure for a reason. They contain deep emotional truths that keep resonating down the centuries,” she says. “And they’re a lot of fun!”
Illustrator David Allan adds that the editorial team’s decision to focus on fairy tales arises from a simple, but pure motivation: a shared love of folk tales, mythology and traditional storytelling.
“We wanted to produce the type of books that we would want to be enchanted by. The book market can be like fashion in some ways, chasing the flavour of the month or year.”
Illustrator and designer Fiona McDonald recalls browsing with Sophie through the Christmas-themed children’s titles one year and being disappointed by the selection on offer.
“We were rather sad to see that in the very slim selection there were a large number of versions of the Twelve Days of Christmas. We playfully suggested we start our own press and call it Christmas Press.”
A question of reading
A recent article in the Guardian described an apparent trend away from bedtime reading in favour of digital forms of entertainment, and given the trio’s emphasis on traditional stories, I’m curious to get their thoughts on this.
None of them, it turns out, is overly worried.
“Human beings have been story-creatures from the beginning of time, and experiments with storytelling have existed since the beginning of time, too,” says Sophie.
“I go into lots of schools and libraries to talk to kids about books and reading and don’t think there are any less children reading than before—the big readers always were in a minority, and there were always some who never read at all, but in general kids read more than adults, these days as much as before.”
Fiona and David both feel strongly that there is still room in the market—and in our lives—for good quality children’s books.
Fiona, who runs a toyshop specialising in hand-made and old-fashioned toys, has seen first-hand that the lure of digital media doesn’t have to be at the expense of traditional reading approaches.
“Personally, I feel there will be a major return to books and reading for pleasure and some of the old fashioned ways of doing things.”
David adds that he believes that traditional books and digital media can happily coexist.
“We started Christmas Press to produce picture books that we would love and weren’t really considering it from a position of being concerned about the worries of people going digital.”
Folk tales from Russia and beyond
The decision to lead with Sophie’s Russian folk tale retellings was an easy one given that all three felt strongly about the title. Not to mention that David had already prepared some sample illustrations for it as part of a submissions package.
“My style has been heavily influenced by traditional illustrators from the turn of the last century, like Arthur Rackham, along with the flourish of Art Nouveau, so I’m in my element with Two Trickster Tales,” he says.
And thanks to Sophie’s abiding love of Russian art and illustration, David found himself introduced to the work of the great Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin, whose style had a strong influence on the artwork found in the book.
This is precisely the type of outcome that Christmas Press hopes to achieve with its stylish, culturally rich titles.
“It certainly does say something that mainstream publishing is not seeing the potential in these diverse cultural influences,” says Sophie.
“The response we’ve had already from readers—both young and older—as well as booksellers, libraries and schools, does suggest a failure to see potential!”
One of the benefits of being a small press working with small print runs is the ability to carefully target a niche, something that Sophie notes that a larger house dealing with larger print runs may find not economical.
Fiona adds that we’ll see more folktales forthcoming from Christmas Press: May 2014 will see the publication of Two Selkie Stories from Scotland, retold by Kate Forsyth and illustrated by Fiona McDonald, with Two Tales of Twins from Ancient Greece and Rome retold by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by David Allan to follow.
The economics of crowd-funding
Two Trickster Tales was partly funded through an IndieGoGo campaign, which Sophie describes as a far more appealing alternative to applying for a government grant.
“Government grants are a pain to apply for, very difficult to get, and I’m not sure our enterprise would fit comfortably into any of their categories,” she says when asked about this decision.
Fiona adds that the timelines involved in the grant application process can also be a source of frustration.
And where the grant application process engages a bureaucracy, crowd-funding goes direct to the consumer.
“To people who love books and want to support creativity and enterprise,” says Sophie.
She adds the caveat that although crowd-funding can help with both publicity and preliminary market testing, it’s not a true test of the viability of a product–many of the project’s supporters were fellow authors and creatives.
“A much more practical test happens later,” she says, “when you start going around the bookshops and libraries and people are snapping up copies to sell in their shops because they think the book is so beautiful.”
“Seeing our first book in print,” says Fiona, who was behind the internal layout, “was so exciting that it is making me impatient to start the next. I can’t wait for the next volume to come out so I can add it to my collection of beautiful picture books.”
Two Trickster Tales can be purchased from the Christmas Press website