Becoming a Children's Writer

I've found myself having a few conversations this week about how I got into writing children's books and (not un-relatedly) how I met Dimiter Savoff of Simply Read Books. Mainly this is a direct result of the lovely little profile Helen Spitzer did for Bunch Family (thank you, Helen!)  As a result of my little visit to memory lane, I've had a burrow through the archives and here is a profile I wrote about Dimiter back when I was a columnist for the Vancouver Sun. (And yes, if I were still a journalist I would have to call him Savoff.)

Are publishers born or are they made? Could you make one out of wood, say, the way you could a puppet or a little boy? This may not seem like a rational question to you, but then you probably haven't spent the past few days immersed in a remarkably lavish new edition of the classic children's story Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi, with illustrations by Iassen Ghiuselev (Simply Read Books, 153 pages, $29.95), the brainchild of the newest publisher on the Vancouver scene. This isn't a new and improved Pinocchio. It's an old and improved Pinocchio -- a freshly revised and unabridged text based on a translation of the 19th-century Italian original, written by Collodi for a popular children's serial publication of the time.
The difference is like the one between thinking you know the Frankenstein story -- dead bodies, lightning, staggering monster throws girl in pond -- and actually reading the Mary Shelley original. Pinocchio is a dark and nuanced tale of the morality of being human; it serves as a reminder that all in this world is not the hum-along merriment that makes up the world according to Disney.
The adventures and misadventures that befall the little wooden puppet aren't typical of childhood. He falls asleep with his feet on a brazier and wakes to find his feet have been burned up. He is almost burned up entirely by the Fire Eater, gets robbed by a lame fox and a blind cat, and falls into the hands of murderers who string him up and leave him for dead, where he is found by the Lovely Girl with the Blue Hair. And that's just the beginning. But while this is the stuff of tales, the impudence, the pranks, the relentless curiosity and the restless imagination displayed by Pinocchio are all too typical of childhood.
Boys will be boys, no matter what the century or country, no matter whether they are made of wood or flesh and blood. And ultimately Pinocchio's innate goodness -- his love of others above himself -- allows him to become what he most wants to be ... a real live boy. Pinocchio is not a story about lying and a nose that won't stop growing: That's just a single incident. Pinocchio is a love story -- a story of filial love and its rewards.
But what, I wonder, makes a man decide that the world needs a new edition of Pinocchio? What makes him search and search for an artist capable of doing illustrations worthy of the text, and then wait until that award-winning illustrator has time to undertake the project? What makes this would-be publisher spend more than a year combing the world for a printer capable of producing work to his exacting standards for a price at which the book would still be affordable? It's obviously a case of a born publisher.
The publisher in question is Dimiter Savoff who, along with editor Gillian Hunt, has produced a brilliant debut title for a press that plans to specialize in beautiful illustrated books for readers of all ages. Savoff, a Vancouver architect who fondly recalls growing up in a home with more than 12,000 books, a member of a family of translators, editors and bibliophiles, and the grandson of a publisher in his native Bulgaria, has translated his lifelong love of books into Simply Read Books, an enterprise which one can't help but wish a long and fruitful life.
Simply Read's second title is the work of two Vancouver authors, Judith Steedman and Robin Mitchell. It's a photographic book for young children that Savoff says is both reminiscent of work of the 1960s and very modern. At 48 pages, it's longer than many books aimed at children of this age, and again the production values will be very high. The book will include instructions for building a kite (a tie-in to the story's subject matter), and it will be the first in a series.
Also in the works is an edition of Alice in Wonderland, again featuring Ghiuselev's artwork. It's bound to be a sumptuous, fascinating, provocative rendering of Lewis Carroll's imaginings, and I can't wait to see it. A sneak preview -- in the form of a poster -- should be available this year. The book is on Simply Read's lists for 2003.
So why Pinocchio? Savoff says it's one of his favourite tales from childhood and that when he was looking for a version to read to his children, he couldn't find one that satisfied him. The one he has created should bring pleasure to readers young and old for years to come. I could tell you to go out and buy a copy, but I won't. Instead, I'll tell you to go out and buy two copies -- one for yourself and one for someone you love.
(Jan 19, 2002)

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