“I’ve Spent Decades Inhabiting the Tension Between Hope and Despair”: A Word with . . . Claudia Zoe Bedrick

In this week’s A Word with You, we spoke with Claudia Zoe Bedrick, publisher, editor, and art director of Enchanted Lion Books, an independent children’s publisher based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Recent accolades for the press include Ezra Jack Keats Awards, Batchelder Awards, and inclusion on the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book List. Keep up with them @EnchantedLion.

So . . . how are you?

It’s kind of you to ask and since I think you want to know, I’ll tell you. I’m all right, keeping on, as people do. A pessimistic idealist, I’ve spent decades inhabiting the tension between hope, with its refusals and utopian creations, and despair in the face of what is. So, the oscillation between darkness and light that is the tempo of these days is a familiar one. Otherwise, my 82 year-old-mom, who lives alone in Manhattan and hasn’t left her small apartment since late February, continues to be in good humor and without complaint, which is both heartening and infectious.

Has the crisis affected how you buy and think about books?

Yes, the crisis has affected everything, including how and what I read, how I buy books as an individual as well as rights to books as a publisher, which is something we’re not doing right now.

Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, illus. Ashleigh Corrin was an Ezra Jack Keats Honor Book and an Ezra Jack Keats Award Winner for illustrations.

Do you think the switch from physical books to eBooks and PDFs will change how people buy and review new titles?

This shift is practical, of course, yet deeply concerning, and I truly hope we don’t see a long-lasting shift away from physical books, especially picture books for children. For the purpose of review, it’s helpful, efficient, and cost effective to submit PDFs, but eBooks and PDFs can’t stand in for physical books and all of what reading them involves, from the tactility and smell of the book, to holding it and turning pages, to experiencing and understanding the story across page turns and within the very specific dimensions of the book. Currently, all of the Association of Library Service to Children committees which receive and judge books for the highest awards in the land for children’s books are receiving PDFs only, but I firmly believe that for these awards to continue to have integrity and validity, decisions will need to be made based on receiving and reading the actual books.

The editing and art direction done on a picture book are ultimately about the physical book, with both visual and written narratives constructed across page turns, which are themselves a function of temporality and surprise. Picture books can only be understood through their page turns (temporal/dramatic shifts) and how pictures and words work specifically within the trim of the physical book, with size, relationship, and perspective gaining specific meaning and expression depending on whether the book is 6 × 8, 9 × 12, or 10 × 10. There is no metonymy here: the eBook cannot stand in for the picture book.

The eBook is an approximation for which certain types of books and picture books are more suited than others. The more experimental books and those most intentionally constructed for the unique space that is the picture book will not read as well in eBook form and much will be lost. This is just a fact, which is why we should do everything we can as a society to hold space for the unique world of the physical, printed picture book.

Interiors from Every Color of Light: A Book about the Sky by Hiroshi Osada, illus. Ryoji Arai, trans. David Boy, forthcoming this June.

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

I love indie bookstores as physical spaces. I grew up in them and love the magic that happens in them, and our indie colleagues and friends have been doing awesome and wonderful things within their communities. It’s wonderful to see, and necessary, and makes me love these stores and their humans even more.

Otherwise, the most recent place from which I drew inspiration was Krista Tippett’s interview with the poet Ocean Vuong on “On Being,” where Vuong talks about how we say the future is in our hands, but for him it’s actually in our mouths, because we have to articulate the world we want to live in first; and how a better linguistic reality will mean for a better bodily future for us all; and how we need to remember always that we are participants in the future of language and have a role to play in casting new meanings, from which new worlds and possibilities arise; and he asks us to consider where the future might be if we alter our language and where if we don’t. We diminish, even refuse, future possibilities all the time through persistence in capitalist, exploitative, use-value speech, and that’s only one single lexicon of violence we live within. As I, too, believe in language and the imagination as our best tools for reshaping reality, I responded strongly to Vuong’s words.

What does business look like right now? How are online sales and events working?

Precarious, challenging, deeply engaging. Our events have been going well, thanks to our amazing authors, illustrators, translators, and ELB team. And our online sales have been solid thanks to the intentional, committed, and generous support of our readers and community. Enchanted Lion is a small, independent, working-class press with nothing beyond sales to keep us afloat, so if larger companies are worried, well, you can extrapolate. We did apply for the PPP and EIDL [Paycheck Protection Program and earned Income Leave Benefit], but nothing yet.

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?

Yes, we are excited to be expanding the possibilities for promoting and sharing books and will certainly continue using Instagram Live, our subscription program, and virtual calls that bring authors and illustrators into classrooms, libraries, and bookstore communities.

What do you hope for the future of children’s publishing?

Physical books, beautiful books, innovative, risky, amazing books, and a society where all children, families, schools and libraries are valued enough to have the money to buy them.

What are you reading or working on? What would you pair a recent book rec with (a movie, a TV show, etc.?)

I am working on our summer, fall, winter, and spring 2021 books in different ways, and handling a lot of business. Otherwise, I’ve just started to read Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture by Ellen F. Davis, which has a foreword by Wendell Berry, whose poems I’m always reading, along with Mary Oliver’s. I put three books in my Bookshop.org basket the other day, two by Ocean Vuong and Maria Tatar’s most recent one.

Pairing: I just started watching “Babylon Berlin” with my husband and nineteen-year-old son, and it’s compelling and remarkably well done. This morning, I told my son that it could be enriching to read Peter Gay’s work on Weimar alongside. That and a little bourbon sounds just perfect.

Looking for a way to support independent bookstores? Make a donation to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), purchase a book online from your favorite bookstore, or visit Bookshop.org.

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