Mary Hoffman spans the US/English divide
If you’ve read to small children in the last decade or so, the chances are you know Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are or Rosemary Wells’ Noisy Nora or Russell Hoban’s books about Frances the badger. And where would British primary classrooms be without Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories or Flat Stanley or The Shrinking of Treehorn? All these books are American.
But British publishers are becoming increasingly cautious about how they present American texts to English children. When they buy them at all, they make changes ranging from spellings to culture. And this at a time when British children, from their favourite films, TV series and songs, are saturated in American ways. So while the consumers who actually read the end product are more cosmopolitan than ever before, the many adults who mediate the books between writer and reader seem to be becoming more conservative and insular.
I’ve talked to many children’s trade publishers and have discovered a wide range of practice among them. But the majority who do make changes to American texts do so for marketing reasons. The reps who have to sell the books, the library suppliers, booksellers and teachers who buy them, were all quoted to me as not liking books to look or sound American.
Judith Elliott of Orchard Books would change even the typeface on an American picture book. `They have a solid library look which puts buyers off, even if only subliminally,’ she says. `They don’t use script ‘a’s and `g’s in their typefaces for books for the very young and we tend to notice that here.’
Spelling and Vocabulary
Judith Elliott was thinking particularly of books for under-sevens and most of the publishers I talked to had a cut-off age in mind when talking about making changes. That ceiling varied, but about one area there was a consensus: spelling. `An extra burden’, `just one more thing to worry about’, `not fair to the beginner reader’, were typical comments. The spelling of words like `centre/center’ and ‘colour/color’ would be changed in picture books by all the publishers I spoke to. And this would cost money. Every change made to a text costs money, which is why it’s surprising that there’s no common policy about what other changes are necessary once you’ve gone beyond variant spellings.
For Jane Fior at Heinemann, some expressions were almost as important. She wasn’t the only publisher to mention `peanut butter and jelly sandwiches’! Not only do we not eat that combination here, the `jelly’ is what we call `jam’. Whatever substitute snack she might come up with, Jane’s intention is to make the text `feel homely and natural’ to the English reader.
Liz Attenborough of Puffin and Viking Kestrel would change `Mommy’ to `Mummy’ and `Come home for cookies’ to `Come home for tea’, but would stop making changes once the reader was over eleven. She, in common with everyone I spoke to, wouldn’t make any changes without full consultation with the American author usually through their US publisher. `The negotiating skills of the editor’ were also regarded as important by Jane Fior, who would exert gentle but firm pressure where she felt changes were really necessary.
Interestingly, some of the people who hold top jobs in British publishing for children are themselves originally from the States. Does this make it difficult for them to judge how easily something might be understood over here? Linda Davis at Collins would change even artwork, which is very expensive, if it showed pictures of currency and it was making an important point, as in a counting book. `But then it would have to be a specially outstanding book to make it worth the expense of the changes.’ Collins do anglicise their Dr Seuss books, `but not the nonsense’, Linda reassured me.
Jane Nissen of Hamish Hamilton is another American. She tends to do `the absolute minimum’ to American picture book texts, beyond changing the spellings. She might change `pocketbook’ to `handbag’ if there was likely to be a confusion, but if a book were very American, she might just be less likely to buy it. For that reason Hamish Hamilton did not buy a book called Peanut Butter and Jelly.
In the field of non-fiction there are extra considerations. Chester Fisher of Franklin Watts develops some texts jointly with his opposite numbers in America. But many books have to have changes; as Chester Fisher says, `We’re British publishers and we’ve got to be loyal to our market.’ For instance, measurement differs on each side of the Atlantic. Watts always put the metric first and the imperial in brackets afterwards.
In the case of natural history books, the robin is a quite different bird in America from the familiar red-breasted one we have here – it’s a much bigger one, of another species. Series that Franklin Watts publish on both sides of the Atlantic sometimes have alternative titles, the British ones tending to be more fun. The series published here as `Just Rubbish?’ is called `Controlling Waste’ in the US.
Titles sometimes have to be changed when they just wouldn’t convey the same message here that the American author intended. Miriam Hodgson, the senior fiction editor at Methuen, is publishing a book next spring by Caroline B Cooney called The Face on the Milk Carton. In America the photographs of missing children and runaways are printed on milk cartons. In Caroline Cooney’s book, the heroine suddenly sees her own picture on a carton she buys in the school cafeteria. Methuen eventually decided to retain the US title but did consider choosing one that would push the right button for an English readership. Otherwise Miriam wouldn’t make changes to American books at all. As she points out, `bulletin board’ is an American expression, but that’s the object which squashes Stanley flat in the Jeff Brown book that Methuen publish.
Treld Bicknell, who was recently at Walker Books running their non-fiction list, is an American with twenty-five years’ experience of working in children’s information books. She’s lived in England for twenty-six years, but says there are still times when something reads all right to her but she feels the need to try it out on one of her English colleagues. She keeps a shelf of English and American reference books at home and in the office, a Webster’s Dictionary as well as the OED. There are also Natural History works published in Britain and America, so she’s never likely to get into trouble over the two kinds of robin. What matters to her is that the text should be written `in clear, warm language that uses realwords like “photosynthesis”. Euphemisms are right out of the window.’
Julia MacRae, who has her own imprint at Walker Books and has been in the business for thirty years, describes herself as `a bit of a renegade’ and also says she sometimes `feels like a dodo’. She’ll change picture book spellings and words like `Mom’, but says `it’s ridiculous to pretend that a book written by an American is English’. Julia’s been campaigning against the drawbacks of writing what she calls `universal bland’ for a couple of decades.
A Necessary Fuss?
She frankly admits to being more concerned with the writer than the reader- `The essence of my job is respect for the writer. If he or she is getting it right, that takes care of respect for the reader.’ The major changes that other publishers would make strike her as an `insane waste of money’. She also says she `could retire on’ the number of times buyers have said to her `It’s too American’ of a book, `and then they go home and their kids are watching American TV shows’.
So are we operating a double standard? With the exception of Julia MacRae and Miriam Hodgson, most British publishers are spending a lot of money and a lot of editorial time on making changes that no-one has proved to be essential. Shouldn’t there be research to establish if children understand un-anglicised American texts as well as they understand American TV, cartoons, films and songs? The publishers say it’s the adults who won’t buy American books unless they’re adapted. But are the buying adults really in touch with what children can understand? Or are they in the grip of literary and linguistic xenophobia? I
Mary Hoffman is a freelance journalist and popular children’s author. Her latest title from Methuen is Just Jack (0 416 15552 9, £6.99). She has also edited an anthology for Collins called Ip, Dip, Sky Blue (0 00193251 9, £6.95) to be published in December this year.
Details of books mentioned:
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, Bodley Head, 0 370 00772 7, £8.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.078 2, £2.25 pbk
Noisy Nora, Rosemary Wells, Collins, 0 00 183740 0, £2.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 661465 5, £2.50 pbk
Bread and Jam for Frances, Russell Hoban, ill. Lillian Hoban, Picture Puffin, 014 050.176 2, £2.50 pbk
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 01798 X, £7.50; Picture Puffin, 014 050.087 1, £2.25 pbk
Frog and Toad are Friends, 014 03.1564 0;
Frog and Toad Together, 014 03.1565 9;
Frog and Toad All Year, 014 03.1566 7;
Days with Frog and Toad, 014 03.1567 5; Arnold Lobel, Young Puffin `I Can Read’, £2.50 each pbk
Flat Stanley, Jeff Brown, Methuen, 0 416 80360 1, £6.95; Mammoth, 0 7497 0137 4, £1.99 pbk
The Shrinking of Treehorn, Florence Parry Heide, Young Puffin, 014 03.0746 X, £1.75 pbk
The Face on the Milk Carton, Caroline B Cooney, Methuen, 0 416 16292 4, £8.95, will be published in April 1991.