1. Could you please write me a bio on yourself and your writing background for children?
My name is Catherine – Cath – Bruzzone and I started my career in 1972 as a teacher of Italian and French at secondary school schools (US high school) after graduating with a BA in Italian from Reading University in the UK. My mother, who died in 2015 aged 94, was a native speaker of Welsh, a French graduate and a French teacher, my husband was Italian and my two children learnt Italian mainly from their Italian grandparents. So teaching and learning foreign languages was very important in our family.
After five years, I moved from teaching to working as an editor in book publishing, first commissioning books and courses for adults learning foreign language at home and then home educational workbooks for children: reading and writing, alphabet, spelling, maths and so on. While I was working for Pan Books in London my two daughters were born and in 1990, I decided to start my own publishing business, b small publishing (www.bsmall.co.uk). It seemed obvious to combine my interest in language learning with my interest children’s books and so I decided, at first, to specialise in bilingual books for young children.
Looking at the range of books my two young girls enjoyed as they were growing up, I developed the bilingual books to mirror the same themes: first words, first concepts, first phrases, picture story books, cartoon books, picture dictionaries and activity books. Typically of a very small press and using my experience of teaching and editing, I covered many of the functions myself – writing, editing, typesetting and so on – but I also teamed up with some very talented designers and illustrators as I was determined that the books would be professionally produced.
2. Could you please give me an overview of the bilingual children’s book market, regarding current needs and popularity with children, parents, teachers, and librarians?
The bilingual children’s book market in the UK is very small and specialised. It is also divided between European languages, mainly French and Spanish and the many community languages spoken in the UK like Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Chinese and so on. Foreign languages are now offered at primary (elementary) school but this is a recent initiative and it is poorly funded for teacher training and materials and concentrates mainly on French with some Spanish. So the main market for b small’s books are parents – bilingual families and other parents who want their young children to enjoy their two languages or learn a foreign language – and teachers looking for lively and appropriate books to share with their class. As many parents and teachers are not fluent or confident linguists, bilingual books are ideal to give them extra support. Bilingual books highlight similarities between the two languages which gives children confidence in the new language. Librarians have always supported bilingual books but many libraries have been closed recently in the UK because of the economic crisis since 2008 so, sadly, this is a shrinking market although still vital for promoting community languages. In order to produce the quantity and quality of books that we publish, we rely on selling foreign rights to other countries, especially the USA but also other European countries and to China and Asia.
3. When writing bilingual books for children, does the author provide the translation, or does the publisher do it?
In the case of b small’s bilingual books, we write them in English and commission translations from native speakers. I think this is probably the same system for most bilingual books as it’s always important that each text is written by a native speaker. However we can alter or edit the English text if necessary to make sure that the two languages work well together and are suitable for the target age group. If the book is published in another country like China or Poland, the local publisher buying the rights will produce the Chinese or Polish text. Also as our books are in British English and Castilian Spanish, the US publisher purchasing the rights supplies the US English and also the Latin American Spanish text for their editions. There are a surprising number of language differences between US and British English, especially for the younger age groups: colour/color, mum/mom, lorry/truck are obvious examples.
4. Are there certain stories that work better as bilingual books?
Stories with lots of repetition work well as bilingual books. Like any successful children’s books, stories should be compelling and not too complicated. Humour is good but jokes are usually difficult to translate. The stories should avoid very specific cultural content that can’t be easily understood or translated, so universal themes are best. We also avoid rhyme as it’s also difficult to translate and text that relies on alphabetical order as languages have different alphabets (Spanish has an extra Ã± for example and Welsh has the letters ch, ff and ll).
From a production point of view, the layout of bilingual books must leave space for two languages and possibly a pronunciation guide so the text will normally be shorter than monolingual stories. It is a challenge to have a fully rounded story, beginning, middle and end, in so few pages. Marrying the text and pictures can also be a challenge when there are two sets of text that each have to work closely with the pictures.
5. How does nonfiction work for bilingual books?
I don’t have lots of experience with bilingual non-fiction. b small has produced a series of sticker atlases and a range of picture dictionaries and search and find 1,000 word books (links refer to English-Spanish editions but they are also published in English only and English-French) so they are reference rather than standard non-fiction. Like with fiction, it is important to choose concepts that can easily be translated and the information will be shorter than in a monolingual non-fiction book because of the layout constrictions described in the previous point.
In both fiction and non-fiction, the illustrations need to work in both languages. This is always a challenge. A good example is ‘bread’. A typical English loaf is a very different shape from an Italian or French loaf. Similarly an American barn looks different from a European barn and a German church spire will look different from an English church tower. The most difficult of all is the driving wheel of a car, lorry (truck) or bus – left or right? The solution is to neutralise the images so that they are acceptable to as many cultures as possible – and place the steering wheel in the middle of the car. This means working with very talented illustrators who create attractive pictures that children love even if they don’t exactly reflect their familiar culture.
6. What are the titles of the bilingual books that you authored, and how did you come up with your ideas?
I have been involved in editing and writing many of the bilingual books we publish so I’ll pick out just two titles: Puppy Finds a Friend/Cachorrito Encuentra Un Amigo part of the I Can Read series (published in both English-French and English-Spanish) and La Gatita LucÃa en la playa/Lucy Cat at the beach one of a series of four Lucy Cat cartoon strip books also published in English-French and English-Spanish.
The puppy story had to fit into our series concept: picture stories for ages 3 to 5 with a simple, repetitive text and universal themes that reflect children’s lives and build their self-esteem. I chose farmyard animals so that I didn’t have to select children of one particular ethnicity. (We are committed to inclusivity in our books and have recently signed the Everybody In charter promoted by Inclusive Minds as we want to improve our representation of all children in our books.) The story is about a little puppy who tries to find a friend to play with. All the animals say they’re too busy but finally the little mouse agrees to play with him. The story brings in the names of common farm animals – horse, cow and so on – and there is a repetition of the key phrases like ‘I’m too busy’. So as well as being an attractive story, it reinforces useful, everyday language. The illustrations are brilliant although we had a lot of trouble coming up with the final puppy. We have been very lucky with this series as several well-known illustrators have agreed to illustrate the stories for modest fees because they believe in the concept of bilingual education.
The Lucy Cat series was designed as the next step up from our Bilingual First Words books. So they would be stories based on first, simple conversational phrases. I know how popular cartoon strips are for early reading and the illustrator, Clare Beaton and I had already worked together on a simple cartoon strip for young language learners in the McGraw-Hill Languages for Children series. Lucy Cat was named after my young daughter, Lucy, and she is a feisty cat who has a series of adventures where she always saves the day. So for example, in Lucy Cat at the beach, she saves some kittens from a shark! The stories all have the same structure, first exchanging greetings, then introducing the scene and then a big BANG page when disaster is averted and finally everyone thanking Lucy. We consulted an early reading specialist who advised that as well as the speech bubbles, we should include a simple third person narrative along the bottom of the strip. The stories were great fun to invent but how to organise the bilingual text was a challenge. Including both languages in the speech bubbles looked too messy and wouldn’t encourage the children to try and read only the new language. So we doubled up the strips on each page, one in English and one in the foreign language. This works well but means that we haven’t published a monolingual version of the stories.
7. What are the most popular languages that are translated together?
This depends of course on the market. For the UK and the US, English-French and English-Spanish are the most popular. In China it is English-Chinese – with simplified characters for mainland China and complex characters for Taiwan and other Chinese speaking countries like Hong Kong and Singapore. As English is now the universal global language, bilingual books are usually another language paired with English. In Romania however our books have been produced in Romanian-German as German is a popular second language in Romania. We always make sure that our books would work any language pair – although Arabic and Hebrew would mean some re-organising as they are read from back to front.
8. Do you ever publish children’s book with three languages or more, such as trilingual or more?
No, we have considered it but up to now we have only produced dual-language books. However we usually produce the same book in three editions – English only, English-French and English-Spanish which means extremely careful editing and proof reading and well-organised computer files.
Although we have not published books with more than two languages, our books have been produced in over 30 different languages, including five different Spanish languages – Castellano, Catalan, Galliego and two versions of Basque! The most unusual script was Georgian and some of my favourite versions are the Welsh-English editions as I am currently living in Wales and learning Welsh.
9. What is your vision about children’s multi-language books for the future?
Obviously in a shrinking world, it would be good to see the market for bilingual books increase. Realistically however, I believe it will remain a niche area of publishing. Multilingual countries – the majority of the world, by the way – like Canada, Wales, India and South Africa, tend to prefer monolingual children’s books in each of their official languages. Parents and teachers often want books that reflect local culture – local fruit and veg, local monuments, local flora and fauna, local means of transport – and the economics of b small’s bilingual books mean that they have to be culturally neutral and mainly reflect western lifestyles. But having said that, there is no doubt that bilingual books are extremely beneficial for strengthening two or more languages in multilingual families, introducing young children to a new language and giving parents and teachers confidence in their language skills. Perhaps it’s not too idealistic to think that bilingual books break down barriers between people and countries, winning hearts and minds. As Nelson Mandela said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
Use with permission from Children’s Book Insider, the Children’s Writing Monthly. For more information on CBI, go to https://writeforkids.org/blog/come-join-the-insiders-2/.