Into the Wild: Artists and Rebels Meet the Storyteller Reading Themes

[Meet the Storyteller] The Boy, The Spy, The Translator: Lawrence Schimel


Meet the Storyteller: Lawrence Schimel


Welcome to GatheringBooks, Lawrence. Thank you for agreeing to be our featured storyteller for September-October notwithstanding your very busy schedule (Iceland then Frankfurt, am I right?).

Scotland, Iceland, London and then Frankfurt for the Bookfair, yes. It’s been a busy month, indeed!

First, let’s talk about the picturebook you shared with me when we met in Madrid, The Boy and the Spy/El niño y el espía, a bilingual book that you write with illustrations by Jaime Martinez. I wanted to begin with this book because it talks about the costs of making unfounded assumptions borne out of fear, xenophobia or the fear of the other, and the importance of learning different languages.


In the end, the young boy grows up to become “a translator” to ensure that in his own little way, he could help in making sure that the same kind of horrible mistake does not happen again. Is this the same reason why you became a literary translator? What was your The Boy and the Spy story that inspired you to translate stories to a different language?

I became a translator almost by accident, because I am a writer in both languages. But I am also, and this is important, a reader in both languages, and I think that translation is perhaps the closest reading that one can make of a text–especially when it is something like poetry. Because the understanding involved is not merely that of the literal words, but the cultural importance and meaning as well. Very often, I will talk with an author I am translating to make a change of some sort in the target language, to express what the meaning or the intention is, even if it is not the most literal expression of the source text it is the truest translation. This is especially true with things like puns or plays on words, which may not exist in the target language, so I’ll try and add a different play on words elsewhere (what is called compensation), to thereby recreate the same reading experience.


As a translator, though, I am also an advocate for the books that I fall in love with and want to translate. Often, I’ll contact the author (or a publisher) and see if the rights are available, prepare a sample translation, and then show that to publishers. With greater or lesser success, but for those books one feels passionate about, even if it takes years until you find a publisher who’s interested, it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

It is also important to balance the commissioned work (which is hopefully interesting but is also sometimes just something that helps pay the mortgage) with these passion-projects, so that the act itself of translation always stays fun and interesting, and not routine.

Your stories have been published and translated in Basque, Catalan, Croatian, Esperanto, Estonian, Finnish, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Maltese, Spanish, Turkish, Ukrainian – just to cite a few. Do share with our readers how this remarkable process of being translated and published in so many countries came about. I am sure that there are multiple stories across each of your selected books, but if you could share some practices that worked for you, I am sure it would be helpful and inspiring for many aspiring authors.

Every translation story is unique. Sometimes a publisher sees a book (maybe because they meet with the original publisher at a bookfair like Frankfurt, or they see it displayed if it won an award or honor like the White Ravens or were chosen by IBBY) and wants to buy the rights.

Sometimes I show a book to publishers I meet, either in person or virtually, and they decide to buy the rights to something. And sometimes it is via a translator who falls in love with something. The Hungarian edition of THE BOY IN THE SPY happened that way; I was in a poetry translation workshop organized by the poet and translator Yolanda Castaño on the island of San Simon, a former prison located in the river of Vigo in Galicia that is now being used for cultural events to give it a very different present and future than its dark past. One of the participants was Ann T. Szabo, a Hungarian poet and translator, who also both writes and translates children’s literature. She loved the book, translated into Hungarian, and showed it to one of the publishers she works with regularly who bought the rights.


Most recently, a translator living in Sweden read the Slovenian versions of some of my children’s books and asked if she could try translating some of them into Swedish and approach Swedish publishers about publishing them.

I am always surprised and honored when my books touch readers so strongly that they want to translate them into their own languages and share them with readers. (Even though I do the same thing, myself, with lots of poets and children’s books that I read.)

You’ve lived in Madrid since 1999 (roughly 17 years in total). How different is it from your hometown, New York?

I like to say that Madrid is a human-scale version of New York. The very architecture is more on a human-scale, with buildings that are generally only 5 or 6 stories; more public spaces like parks and plazas; and especially more-human interactions with people. For instance, yesterday I was in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, and any time anyone walked in–whether another patient or staff–they said hello to everyone who was sitting there. The same is true if you go into a store, even one you’ve never met before: you say hello and goodbye to the people who work there, which humanizes them, instead of treating them as an extension of the cash register (which is how it was when I worked in retail in New York City, even at a children’s bookstore!)

Of course, the New York I knew is also long gone now, so it is hard to compare it to the current version of the city, which I think has lost a good deal of its artistic or Bohemian culture. When I lived in New York, there was a bookstore within one block in every direction from my apartment, and a second bookstore within two blocks in every direction. All of those stores have now closed (the cost of rent is so high in New York that selling books is no longer viable).

It’s also true that the face of Madrid has also changed quite a lot in the years I’ve lived here.

But there are also things that have not changed. One is that living in a society with socialized medicine for everyone makes it possible to have a career in the arts in a way that is much more difficult elsewhere. And not just because of the monetary element; living somewhere where this sort of care is considered a basic and integral part of society is such a different outlook and a more welcoming place to be and live and create.

Do talk about your organizing the Spain chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Spain. What are some of the highlights during that time when you served as Regional Advisor?


I had been an SCBWI member for years, many years before moving to Spain, even. And when I realized reading the newsletter one day that there were other members in Europe, I wrote to the international coordinator and asked if there was a chapter in Spain. She wrote back right away saying there wasn’t, but asking if I would want to start it. And I said yes. This is one of those things which I think is important for all people. So often, we get support and help from people who have gone before us, and instead of paying them back (since often they are in a position where they don’t need help from us) I was taught to pay forward: to help others who are just starting out and can use the advice or help I can offer them. And that’s one of the things I love about the SCBWI, which is that one of its two principal goals which (aside from helping members improve their craft as writers, illustrators, or now translators as well!) is to creative community and connections for people passionate about making books for children.

In Agora - photo provided by Lawrence.
In Agora – photo provided by Lawrence.

At first, it was complicated because all material was in English, and as a result our membership was very heavy on American ex-pats living in (or passing through) Spain or Spaniards who also spoke English. But working together with Judy Goldman, the Regional advisor for SCBWI Mexico, we created a Spanish-language newsletter (which also was welcomed by Spanish-speaking SCBWI members living in the US!). Slowly, we’ve managed to attract more and more Spanish-speaking members, and right now the chapter has a vibrant series of monthly talks and occasional other events, held in Spanish at a children’s bookstore in Madrid. I was the RA for 5 years, but since most of our new members were

illustrators, I turned the reins over to an artist (who was better able to come up with events that were of interest to the needs of the membership). While I was RA, one of the highlights was coordinating the International SCBWI Conference in Madrid, in 2002, where we had speakers such as UK editor David Fickling, Scholastic US editor Arthur Levine and artist Ana Juan (who talked about working together and the author-editor relationship), Rosemary Brosnan from HarperCollins/Rayo, etc. One of our success stories from that conference is Filipino author Candy Gourlay, based in the UK, who was an attendee and whose first YA novel, TALL STORY, was later published by David Fickling Books in 2010.

The International SCBWI Conference used to rotate location every year, but after Madrid, the SCBWI entered into an agreement with the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, to co-produce a bi-annual conference the weekend before the Book Fair, and I also programmed the first of those Conferences, before stepping down as RA.

1358ma-copyI noted in your Writer’s Catalogue, that a few of your picturebooks have Spain as its setting, such as La Golondrina Peregrina (The Flying Pilgrim) illustrated by Sara Rojo which talks about a swallow who lives atop the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. There is also Feliz Navidad, Rachid (Merry Christmas, Rachid) with illustrations by Miguel Navia which talks about Nando who just moved to Lavapiés, a diverse neighborhood in Madrid.

There are also two picturebooks, both illustrated by Sara Rojo, inspired by museums in Madrid, such as María Y El Museo (María and the Museum) which has the Reina Sofia Museum as its setting and Andrés Y Los Copistas (Andrés and the Copyists) that takes place in Prado Museum. It does seem that Madrid has inspired quite a lot of your stories. How else did staying in Madrid enrich your literary life? What are some of the best (and worst) things about the city for a writer such as yourself?

A lot of those books you mention were books I wrote specifically about Madrid, as a way of countering the globalization that is a part of how picture books, especially, are produced. There are two elements involved in the printing of full-color books, which are the printing itself (where the primary colors are printed, yellow, red, blue and then black) and the binding. It is much cheaper for a Spanish publisher to say they will take 2000 copies of a French or American book, say, who will be publishing 5000 for their country, another 3000 for Germany, etc. This way, 10,000 copies are printed in each of the colors, with only the black pass for the text changed to accommodate the different editions. But then they are all bound at the same time, all in the same size/format. One of the side-effects of these economies of scale, however, is that there are picture books published here in Spain with yellow and black taxis, like in New York, even though the taxis here are white, or with mailboxes on posts and with little flags to signal when there is a letter inside, like in the US, even though these don’t exist here.

So books like FELIZ NAVIDAD, RACHID (set in the neighborhood where I live which has a large immigrant population) explores diversity of religion in a book that is set very specifically in Spain, and specifically in this area of Madrid.

It is so frustrating that any story set in London or in Paris, should be considered universal, but the same story set in Singapore, say, or Seville, is considered to be “local” or “ethnic”?

At the same time, I think it is vitally important for children to have stories that express their own surroundings–to identify with and find themselves themselves in the culture they consume–not just mass-produced, globalized products.

So even though, as someone born in New York, it might be easier for me to write books set in my native New York City, which can then sell more-easily to other cultures, I think it is more important to be creating these books reflecting the world where I live (now) and where my readers are living.

Perhaps the biggest change for me, in terms of my living in Madrid, is being a bilingual writer, who publishes primarily in what I call “my stepmother tongue”. And ironically, one of my books written in Spanish, ¡Vamos a ver a papá!, illustrated by Alba Marina Rivera and published by Ekaré, was translated into English by someone else (Elisa Amado) and published in Canada by Groundwood Books titled LET’S GO SEE PAPÁ! Which is very flattering, especially considering how little is translated into English from other countries and published.

I think my Spanish-language titles tend to be more poetic than when I write in English, unless they’re bilingual titles where I need both languages to match (which is very different than the adaptation that goes on in a good literary translation to recreate in the target language the reading experience of the work). But I may not be the best judge of these sorts of questions… we authors seldom have the necessary distance to evaluate our own work.

You are not just a prolific children’s book author, but a highly productive author for adults as well. How do you switch back and forth in your writing across these two genres? Which do you find to be more difficult, creative-process-wise?

I wouldn’t call writing for children versus adults two genres, per se, although I do write in many different genres: fiction, poetry, non-fiction, for both younger readers and older ones. I think that younger readers are much more demanding, the work needs to be finely polished, there is no room for any false notes–whereas in works for adults, if there is a boring passage, the adult can skip over it or muddle through. But for younger readers, those sorts of authorial sloppiness will make them lose interest or bounce them out of the story.

Photo provided by Lawrence.
Photo provided by Lawrence.

On the other hand, if you offer young readers a fun story (no matter what social theme or moral element you might be trying to address in the background) they are much more enthusiastic and appreciative readers than adults usually are. One of my favorite things is when mothers complain to me that they have to read one of my books to their children night after night. In Iceland a few weeks ago, one mother said she had to impose a rule that she would only read it (the book of mine translated into Icelandic) every other night, that they had to alternate it with other titles.

Reading SILVIA OG DREKINN at the Myrin Festival in Reykjavik. - Taken from Lawrence's FB page with permission
Reading SILVIA OG DREKINN at the Myrin Festival in Reykjavik. – Taken from Lawrence’s FB page with permission

Alas, none of my adult books have ever affected readers that strongly (or at least, I haven’t heard about it)!

But just as I am a voracious and omnivorous reader, I am not always in the mood for the same thing. Sometimes I want a mystery, where the concept of justice is important to the characters and the enigma is resolved in the end and the moral balance is restored. Sometimes I want a book that will make me laugh and forget, for a while, the world outside and the newspapers, which can be so full of darkness and stories of injustice. Sometimes I want something that will make me think, whether that’s philosophy or poetry (a metaphor can change the way I see the world as much as learning about some scientific breakthrough). And sometimes I want magic, romance, thrills, adventure, emotion.

Photo provided by Lawrence.

Well, it’s the same with my own writing. I am not always in the same mood, and not always writing for the same readers. So it is like having all sorts of different conversations or dialogues, with different interlocutors, and at different times and places.

At least I never get bored!

Which I think I would, if I only wrote (or read) the same kind of book, over and over again.

Can you share with our readers what it’s like to be a full-time author? How does your day usually go? Any special routines that you are fond of doing? Do you also work on multiple writing projects at the same time?

These days I am more of a full-time word person, but I spend much more time translating than on my own writing. In fact, I have to struggle to carve time out of my schedule in order to work on my own writing. Mostly because it is so easy for me to be lazy, and to focus on the translating, where I often have an editor who is waiting for me to finish working on a book, poem, story, etc. and needs it by X deadline in order to publish it. Whereas to take time to write something, without knowing if or when it might be published, is more of an up-hill struggle… I also find the translation to be creative and fun, but not draining in a way that my own writing can be. So it does not require the same involvement for me to translate as to clear a block of time in order to work on my own writing. And I am not always so good at scheduling those blocks of time, or interesting translation projects keep popping up and I get distracted…


But yes, I work on multiple projects at the same time. Often, an idea for something, even a picture book with very few words, will be mulling away on the back burner for many months, and then I’ll finish a complete draft in a hot blaze of writing, and then let it sit again for a long period before revising it.

I tend to work in bursts of frenetic activity like that, surrounded by lulls of not-working (often filled with travel or “recharging” my creative energies, where I read lots and lots, in all sorts of genres).

Lawrence at Casa Encendida, 2013 - photo provided by Lawrence.
Lawrence at Casa Encendida, 2013 – photo provided by Lawrence.

But I also think those moments of not being in front of the computer are very important. Even if I am in the midst of a big project, like a novel, I need to do my few thousand words per day but also other Real Life things as well, going out into the world (even if only to the grocery store around the corner) and seeing people, so I am not in my head all day alone with the characters. I think it is not just healthier for me, but also for the characters (who are informed by what I see and experience in the world, not just during the moments of writing but what I’ve seen and experienced beforehand, too).

What are you currently working on and what should we be on the lookout for from you in the coming months?

Publishing is one of those funny fields where everything seems to take so long to come to fruition, at least it can often feel that way. The things I am writing now won’t be published for months or years, depending on how busy the artists are who are going to illustrate them, and then when they might fit in publishers programs.

Photo taken from Lawrence's FB page with permission.
Photo taken from Lawrence’s FB page with permission.

That said, there are some new children’s books written in Spanish that will be out in the Spring.

And the next book in English may actually be forthcoming from a publisher in Singapore! It is still too soon to say anything in public, but there was an offer made in Frankfurt to bring out one of my books. So I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will be accepted and everything will go through.

One thing that’s brand new is a middle grade novel I translated into English, THEbarracuda TREASURE OF BARRACUDA by Llanos Campos, published by Little Pickle in the US. This is a fun story about an illiterate pirate crew who track down a legendary treasure, only to discover that said treasure is a book–the memoirs of an infamous pirate. It is only as they learn how to read that they discover what a treasure this book is–and that knowing how to read is the best treasure of all, getting them out of so many predicaments in their many adventures.

I’ll be translating the second volume in the series (the author has just written a third, too, which will be published in Spanish in January) which is set to publish in October of 2017.

Also next fall will see the publication of a Mexican middle-grade novel I’m translating as well.


I’m also working on translating a collection of poems for children by Latvian author Karlis Verdins, but into Spanish, which is an interesting challenge. Especially since the poems are tightly rhymed in Latvian, and the same words don’t rhyme in Spanish (or in English, which I am using as the bridge language–I have a literal translation of the original, which I am then converting into a rhymed poem in Spanish). That is scheduled for June, 2017.

Our current reading theme has to do with “Into the Wild – The Untamed, The Mischievous, Artists and Rebels in Literature.” Do you have favourite stories (across all genres) that deal with them wild ones in words?

This is a theme that’s very important to me, since I often try and focus on the outsider for my own books, voices that are overlooked (or suppressed) in our collective imagination. Or telling the other side of the story, like in LET’S GO SEE PAPÁ, which is a story about immigration, but instead of telling the usual tale of arriving in a strange country, it tells the story of the people left behind (in this case, a girl and her mother and her grandmother and the absence of her father, who is working in another country and sending money home to his family).

As for some recommendations:

themisfitsJames Howe’s middle grade novel THE MISFITS is a wonderful book about a group of outcasts who come together and become friends, in large part because of how the rest of their school ostracizes them. It is a very smart book about group dynamics, and also a book about saying no to bullying and name-calling. The characters are all so fully-realized, with their own backstories, and they also fit so well into the overall arc of the book, which has a plot involving a new political party in the school system to challenge the existing cliques and popularity contests. All beautifully told, with warmth and heart.

Ellen Wittlinger is a wonderful YA author whose books often focus on outsiders and rebels, always told with great skill and understanding and empathy. I love everything she does, whatever subject she’s writing about (religion, sexuality, student-teacher relationships, etc.) but especially books like LOVE & LIES (a must for anyone who loves writing or wants to be a writer), BLIND FAITH, and PARROTFISH.

One of the most powerful YA books I’ve read in the past few years is CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein, which I think would fit the rebels theme. It is very hard to talk about without giving away spoilers, but it is a book about heroism and courage and challenging authority, and also about honor and friendship. And war, and airplanes, and women pilots.

A recent book I read in Spanish (and would love to translate) is Un viejo gato gris mirando por la ventana (An Old Grey Cat Looking Through the Window) by Mexican writer Toño Malpica. It is about a young boy from a very wealthy family who sees a poor windshield wiper every day when the chauffeur picks him up from school. It is one of the most miserable jobs, and pays only a pittance–and yet, this man, who has so little, is always smiling.


The boy runs away from home to find out from this man the the secret of why he is so happy. I love how the boy challenges his parents and the life they live to try and find one based on personal fulfilment and happiness instead of success as measured by exam results or money earned.

For the very young, one of my favorites is the little gorilla of Peggy Rathmann’s GOODNIGHT, GORILLA, whose mischief results in a situation that always makes me (and hopefully all readers, young and old) laugh.

I also quite admire author/illustrator Uri Shulevitz’s picture books, which are often filled with rebels or tricksters or both, as in WHAT IS A WISE BIRD LIKE YOU DOING IN A SILLY TALE LIKE THIS?

I think that covers a few favorite recommendations for all ages, of characters challenging stereotypes or rebelling against how things were always done to make their own way!

Thank you again, dearest Lawrence. And I am definitely looking forward to seeing you again in the future.

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