Greet Pauwelijn and Book Island
Book Island is a small independent publisher of the most incredible books, all handpicked and personally chosen by Greet Pauwelijn. She has impeccable taste and is widely known for it. I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to speak with Greet over Zoom to learn more about her and Book Island Books.
I immediately felt at home in conversation with Greet - she has a naturally welcoming smile and manner and so instead of quickly firing my planned questions to her, we had a chat that lasted over an hour. In the way that like-minded people can, we got on well as we share a love of picture books with a timeless quality. Proof of her love for picture books comes from the choices she makes as a publisher. Choosing books to translate from many languages and cultures to bring to the UK market is not without its challenges.
Continuously asking the questions about the readiness of the UK market and ‘gatekeepers’ for books dealing with loss or grief, books with a strong emotional connection and those with a multilayered narrative. Book Island books are not commercially produced or found on supermarket shelves - there is a far greater value to these books. Often found in hardback and with unsurpassed illustrations, these books will stand the test of time.
Curious as to where Greet finds new titles, I asked, she spoke about browsing catalogues, visiting publisher stands in Bologna and keeping abreast of award winners. These certainly give her an edge and it brings to light new authors and illustrators to the UK. Greet’s knowledge, experience and understanding of picture books is deep and she is willing to take risks for something she believes in.
One such risk was with Mum’s Jumper. When showing it to a group of ‘gatekeepers’, they were less than enthusiastic about it. Trusting her instinct with this book was certainly the right choice as it has been picked up by The Reading Agency for their Reading Well campaign and Empathy Lab have also promoted its use in classrooms. The Reading Agency quotes “A simple, heartfelt and ultimately uplifting book for anyone coping with loss”. Though it is a book about loss, it is full of hope too. It does have a sad cover but the joyous yellow endpapers are a sign of that hope.
It is fair to say that Book Island Books are a publisher of hope. It is within the pages of their books, within the community of support shown to Greet and her books and it is evident in the funding from the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. This crucial funding helped to publish three award-winning picture books from Europe, The Garden of Inside-Outside by Chiara Mezzalama and Régis Lejonc The Bird Within Me by Sara Lundberg and The Golden Cage by Anna Castagnoli and Carll Cneut.
We spoke about the importance of social media to small publishers, and we shared the similar opinion of how welcoming and brilliant the book community is on Twitter. Knowing the importance of Twitter in book promotion and potential sales, Greet has a few innovative ideas to test out in the new year. These will highlight her work, introduce us to the immense team of support she has and perhaps allow us to help bring a new book to the UK.
I was so impressed with how down to earth and kind Greet was - she is simply a working mum with a firm mission to bring high-quality, timeless books to our attention. She clearly works hard and is fully committed to the future of Book Island.
What does the future hold? Plenty! Covid has obviously changed the way many of us live and work but perhaps it has also given us a chance to peruse and appreciate amazing books and to support our independent publishers who are in need now more than ever.
To tempt you further to visit the Book Island online store, please see mini reviews for five of the incredible books available now.
The Bird Within Me, Sara Lundberg, trans. B.J. Epstein
“A universal story of longing and imagination, the perfect refrain for a young rebel”
Based on the life of Swedish artist Berta Hansson, this book imagines what life was like for young Berta growing up feeling unable to follow her dreams of being an artist. When she loses her mother, Berta must become a woman of the home, cooking, cleaning. However, a cooking protest gives her the courage to leave home. The hope in this book comes from the encouragement of readers to find the courage to set off and follow their own paths. Full of exceptional illustrations that could be hung in a gallery.
The Garden of Inside-Outside, Chiara Mezzalama and Régis Lejonc, trans. Sarah Ardizzone
“The story of unexpected friendship of two children, on either side of war and peace”
An award-winning junior graphic novel with friendship at its core. Children have an innate ability to transcend the boundaries of war, borders, prejudices and this book proves it. When Chiara and her family move to Iran, she lives in a beautiful house surrounded by walls. Inside the walls is a peaceful garden perfect for princes and princesses, Outside there is a war being raged. When a young boy, Massoud hops over the wall, they begin a secret friendship. The illustrations are striking and suit the genre crossing format perfectly.
Sammy and the Skyscraper Sandwich, Lorraine Francis and Pieter Gaudesaboos
“This look-and-find book is full of visual discoveries that will endlessly excite even the smallest of children, and indeed their parents”
This completely charming book deserves a lot of praise and attention. In its large boardbook format, this story will enchant readers as they study the superb illustrations full of fabulous details that will prompt some interesting conversations. Sammy is hungry and sets to build the tallest sandwich to satisfy his hunger. Pulling out all manner of ingredients, he continues to add more and more until “it’s as tall as a skyscraper standing on another skyscraper’s shoulders on top of the world’s tallest mountain.” A fun, light-hearted book perfect for bedtime reading.
Virginia Wolf, Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault
“A feel-good celebration of the power of imagination and sisterhood”
Vanessa has a sister Virginia who is feeling “wolf like” and is making strange sounds and doing strange things. It is affecting the entire house so that “up became down, bright became dim, glad became gloom.” All colour is lost in the following pages until Vanessa has a brilliant idea. Virginia needs to escape the doldrums, and Vanessa knows just what to do. Providing a hopeful way of dealing with overwhelming emotions, this book should be shared widely. Delightful illustrations and an engaging use of colour, this will allow children to think creatively.
The Umbrella, Ingrid and Dieter Schubert
“A wordless picture book that tells a thousand stories”
The story begins on the endpapers where a red umbrella leans against a tree and a dog approaches it, excitement in his eyes. A black cat watches the scene with interest. What happens next is an exciting adventure for the dog as the wind blows him around the world. Through the clouds, over the savannah and across an ocean, there is much to appreciate and study on each page. As you near the end of the book, the dog is clearly exhausted. Wordless picture books allow the pictures to be interpreted in infinite ways and new stories to be shared with each reader. The vivid illustrations are to be pored over and appreciated. This book will have children coming back again and again to tell new stories.