Istvan Schritter - Illustrated Children’s Books in Argentina: A Brief History and Current Situation -
Translation by Gabriela Ortiz (MGO-Traducciones)
Illustrated Children’s Books in Argentina: A Brief History and Current Situation
Translation by Gabriela Ortiz (MGO-Traducciones)
The history of Latin American children’s books illustration has been hardly studied; at the same time, studies on texts are remarkably more abundant. Argentina is no exception to this rule, and reproduces the same lack of studies.
The situation is more serious than it would seem: the focus on the study of texts sends images to the background and, in doing so, makes them invisible. This is even more serious when images are attached to dull texts, because the book is ultimately withdrawn from catalogues and the market, as the printing history of the Americas vanishes, even when the illustrations are artistically valuable.
This research examines the history of illustration in Argentina, since the first examples of this art in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata and until present days, with special emphasis on the present boom of picture books, while exploring the deep reasons underlying such boom. The focus is not placed on the names but on the relationship between central editorial events at their intersection with highlights in the political, social and economical history of the country, which concur with governmental actions of interest on behalf of children. From this standpoint, some fundamental milestones are especially highlighted as potential working lines for further research.
Illustrated Children’s Books in Argentina: A Brief History and Current Situation
Translation by Gabriela Ortiz (MGO-Traducciones)
There is one fundamental achievement in present-time illustrated children's books in Argentina: a widespread awareness that the ones who create pictures are as authors of the work as those who create texts.
After 25 years of an active fight for our rights by Argentine illustrators, I believe that this achievement is key, a cornerstone, and a turning point in the thinking of illustration as discourse.
In my opinion, it is necessary to summarize the path followed in recent years in an account that would enable readers to understand our present –a present that reflects both the starting point of our journey and the near future, and both our achievements and our pending goals.
By the start of the second half of the 20th century, for the first time in the Argentine history, the massive success of children’s comics (which had been forged decades earlier with magazines such as Billiken first, and Misterix, Hora Cero and many other classics at a second stage) coincided with the massive success of children's books: born out of creativity due to the lack of paper, in 1950 Editorial Abril published Bolsillitos [Small Pockets], a minute magazine series that was sold at newspaper stands weekly. This series also brought one of the founding fathers of the new Argentine children’s literature, its creator and editor, Boris Spivacow.
Bolsillitos was an editorial success with almost one thousand (indeed, one thousand) texts by Beatriz Ferro, Héctor Germán Oesterheld, Inés Malinow and Boris Spivacow, among many others, and illustrations by Agi, Chacha, Hugo Csecs, Ruth Varsavsky, and Alberto Breccia, also among many others. Over time, these authors continued to publish, and caused Bolsillitos to become an editorial success in its genre.
The ‘60s and the ‘70s were years of deep political commotion, social crises, mounting violence, and economic turmoil, with sways between legitimate and self-imposed governments. A progressive decay of cultural agents ensued, with alternations between flourishing eras and times of censorship and exile. In these decades, the publishing success of the so-called Latin American boom authors coincided with a landmark in Argentine children’s literature: the introduction and consolidation of María Elena Walsh as an alternative and novel voice, who would change children's literature forever with her wits and casual style. Other voices joined this wave of innovation, such as Javier Villafañe and Laura Devetach, who are also landmarks in our history –the former, as a strong influence until hour days; the latter, as an active presence. Clearly, these decades were the foundations of what was about to come.
Books started talking to children as peers, without didacticism –an attitude that was also adopted by the names who would eventually become classics of children’s illustration, such as Hermenegildo Sábat, Oscar Grillo, Enrique Breccia, and Ayax Barnes, through their contributions in the collections Cuentos de Polidoro (Polidoro’s Tales, published by the Centro Editor de América Latina) and El Quillet de los niños (The Quillet for Children), the masterpieces that –together with Bolsillitos– would remodel the landscape of children's literature.
The now mythical first editions of books such as La torre de cubos (Tower Blocks, by Laura Devetach with illustrations by Víctor Viano) and of the books by María Elena Walsh illustrated by Pedro Vilar and Juan Carlos Caballero, turn these artists into icons. Raúl Fortín and Kitty Loréfici, who were very influential in the ‘80s and ‘90s, also started publishing their pictures in those years.
The Seminars/Workshops held in the city of Córdoba in 1969, 1970, and 1971 opened the debate and reflection on the specific sector of children’s literature –although they did not refer to illustrations, which were still left behind as a paratext, even though the aesthetic shift to innovative ways of expression preceded this shift by the texts.
The military dictatorship that governed Argentina between 1976 and 1983 started a tragic era in our recent history. Kidnapping, torture, and murder were the official practice of the military government, as much as censorship and library lootings, and black lists of authors and books.
Perhaps because of the marginal position that was traditionally assigned to it by the “official culture”, children's literature was a slightly safer haven to create and became a space for resistance. Cuentos del Chiribitil (The Stories of Chiribitil) confirmed Centro Editor de América Latina as an engine of illustrated classics, with authors of the stature of Graciela Montes, Graciela Cabal, Beatriz Doumerc, Marta Giménez Pastor, among others, and illustrators as Clara Urquijo, Tabaré, Julia Díaz, Alicia Charré, Chacha, Delia Contarbio, Luis Pollini, and Luis Pereyra. In both sectors, these names became outstanding figures in the landscape of children’s books over the following decades.
During the Argentine Reorganization Process –the name given by the dictators to those years, the darkest in recent Argentine history– La torre de cubos (Tower Blocks) by Laura Devetach, and Un elefante ocupa mucho espacio (An Elephant Takes a Lot of Space) by Elsa Bornemann were banned, and a million and a half books by Centro Editor de América Latina were burned (many of them for children). La línea (The Line), by Ayax Barnes and Beatriz Doumerc, a masterpiece of the dialogue between text and image even before the development of the concept of picture books1, received the Casa de Las Américas Award and after being published in Cuba, it was published in Argentina. A few months later, the book was banned and its authors were sent to exile.
In 1983, with the new democracy, libraries reopened and the theoretical approaches to children’s literature were updated, with the advent of a non-official or colonized language in the production of children’s books and the development of the figure of the mediator, i.e. an adult reader who socially advocates for this space of open and free literature on behalf of children. Publishing houses such as Colihue and Libros del Quirquincho opened new spaces for new aesthetics, both in texts and in illustrations. Names such as Oscar Rojas, Gustavo Roldán, Nora Hilb, Sergio Kern, Juan Lima, Mónica Weiss, Marcelo Elizalde, Claudia Legnazzi and I, represent a truly new generation, extremely active in the defence of labour rights for the whole sector, which remains active to these days and shares their space and experiences with the new players. The Argentine Reading Plan, coordinated by Historian Hebe Clementi, was launched in 1984 and spread this true creative boom throughout our country, which led to the development of the First Children's and Youth Book Fair in 1989.
The 1987 gigantic book exhibition held at Centro Cultural San Martín and sponsored by the publishing house Hyspamérica, together with the 1990 children’s book illustration exhibition organized by Oscar Rojas at Casa de San Telmo, were the starting points for a new awareness: that we should gather to reflect on the social relevance of the Argentine illustration for children. In 1987, Colihue published El hombrecito verde y su pájaro (The Little Green Man and His Bird), penned by Laura Devetach and illustrated by Myriam Holgado, which was greatly admired by all illustrators due to its many features that expressed what we were all looking for: printing quality, hard covers, and the names of the writer and the illustrator side-by-side on the cover.
The “democratic spring” that we had experienced between 1983 and 1986 started to crack with the prevailing political and economic instability, and –although the democratic regime consolidated in the 1990s– the Menem administration adopted a neoliberal policy that reformed the government's organization and favoured the globalization of the book publishing sector. 2
Flagship Argentine publishing houses were sold to multinational firms in the 1990s, and books became consumer goods governed by the laws of novelty and obsolescence. As a consequence of budgetary restrictions, the role of the Art Director vanished from publishing houses specialized in children’s books, which once more caused that the opinions on the art of illustration and the work of illustrators had to be shared (and tolerated) in discussions with Assistant Editors or Marketing experts, who had no expertise in graphic issues or in the reading of images.
Between 1985 and 1995, the series Apuntes (Notes) published by Libros del Quirquincho and the magazines La Mancha (The Spot) and Piedra Libre (Tagged!) –the latter published by the CEDILIJ (Centro de Consulta y Difusión en Literatura Infantil y Juvenil – Centre for Consultation and Dissemination of Children’s and Youth Literature)– opened much-needed spaces of theoretical thinking on children's literature (with a strong focus on texts and a scarce interest on drawings).
In the years prior to the new millennium, school standardization led to a plateau in written texts. Conversely, the new generation of illustrators who worked in democracy renewed the aesthetic proposals and projects, with a remarkable peak of illustration as an expressive language, a multiplier of senses within the book. Updating a focus traditionally placed on words, some experts began showing interest in images and in how both discourses dialogue.
At the same time, the workers of images started viewing ourselves as social and political players in the world of children's literature. The Illustrators' Forum was established in 1998, to grow through countrywide exhibitions, talks, workshops, and the writing of papers that identify image as a discourse that is at par with text. As figurehead of the internationalization of illustrated books, illustrators “discovered” the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, where illustrators started to travel regularly –a decision that some years later was followed by publishing houses, fortunately.
At a slow but firm pace, authors began to research into and to write about the discourse of illustration in children’s books. These papers and research are generally conducted by illustrators turned into researchers, communicators, and teachers, who thus create a current of thought on this field, which was almost –and curiously– invisible at that time.
The 21st century dawned with the dramatic economic downturn of 2001. The devaluation of the Argentine peso and the so-called “cradle” (that prevented people from disposing of the money they deposited with banks) led to a profound popular discontent, evidenced by violent street protests and supermarket looting. This crisis also impacted the publishing sector and book imports. The first picture books, that by that time started to arrive from abroad, were unaffordable for readers. This gave rise to a creative response: the small publishing houses that had survived the globalization of the 1990s perceived a reader interested in select, non-massive proposals with high aesthetic value, and rethought their strategies for the production of children's book series. They abandoned traditional formats as a survival strategy against large monopolies and started publishing picture books for the first time, thus promoting the flourishing of illustration.
The series Libros-Álbum del Eclipse (Picture Books of Eclipse), by Ediciones del Eclipse, was launched in 2003 as the first collection exclusively formed by picture books. In these books, printed with extreme care and a high quality, the genre embodies and brings them together, while the format, the typography, the design and the number of pages are tailored to the needs of each book (a completely new approach in Argentine editions3). With similar goals and approaches, the publishing house Pequeño Editor was established almost at the same time. With outstandingly printed books, this house published both picture books and comics for children, and some delightful novelties. Thanks to these two publishing houses, the new genre of picture books started being successfully produced in Argentina.
By that time, new publishing houses entered the market, namely Calibroscopio, Comunicarte, and Iamiqué –the latter specialized in scientific books for children, another discourse that was for the first time explored in our market.
The new and small businesses made great strides and started receiving a lot of public attention through books that were commercially risky, based on the dialogue between text and image, which the large publishing houses only dare to publish once their market success was guaranteed.
The interest over picture books (paired with the never-resolved dispute over copyright among writers and illustrators) led to the creation of effective and “happily married” duets of writers and illustrators, who generated joint projects and equally shared the work and the royalties (Pez/Cubillas, Andruetto/Istvansch, Devetach/Lima). The role of the integral author became popular, with figures such as Sergio Kern, Gustavo Roldán, Isol, María Wernicke, Mónica Weiss, Claudia Legnazzi and I –a role that was rare before the new millennium.
Children’s literature critics continued to suffer from an almost complete absence of space in mass media, although some key events, e.g. Children’s Day or the Children’s Book Fair, attracted the attention of journalists towards children's books. The reporters do no longer "forget" to mention illustrations, and although oftentimes they lack the theoretical resources to analyse illustrations, reporters mention and note them. As a side note, it must be mentioned that children’s literature is completely absent from best-sellers rankings. From the series Bolsillitos, Cuentos de Polidoro, and Libros del Chiribitil, which sold tens of thousands copies, to the publications of Libros del Quirquincho and Colihue, and the recent boom of picture books, there is no doubt that many books for children have sold more than many adult best-sellers. Nevertheless, the press rarely reflects this fact (and in this sales landscape, in my opinion, the subgenre that has grown the most in recent years is illustrated books4).
La otra lectura. Las ilustraciones en los libros para niños (A Different Reading. Illustrations in Children's Books) was published in 2005, as the first book specifically dealing with this issue in Argentina. Between 2005 and 2010, journals such as Punto de partida (A Starting Point), specialized in early childhood, and CulturaLIJ (Children’s and Youth Literature Culture, which was launched in 2009 and continues to prosper to our days), analyse images at the same relevance as language in their articles. Theoretical collections, such as Relecturas (A Second Reading), by Lugar Editorial, and Espacios para la lectura (Reading Spaces), by Fondo de Cultura Económica (originally published in Mexico but with a widespread readership in our country and contributions by local authors) also regularly match images to writing when designing their titles.
The slow but steady debut of the reflection around illustrated books leads to the creation of the first chairs in illustration within art training centres (e.g. Escuela Martín Malharro of the city of Mar del Plata; the one created by me at Escuela de la Cárcova, affiliated with the National Art Institute of Buenos Aires; or the one currently taught by Daniel Roldán at the Degree of Graphic Design in the University of Buenos Aires). Spaces, such as Sótano Blanco-Escuela de Ilustración, or Color Café-Escuela de Libro Álbum, as well as private workshops, as the ones taught by Mónica Weiss, Claudia Legnazzi and I, are new contributions to the education in the construction and reading of images.
An important development of latest years is the reintroduction of the role Art Director as a leading player in editorial teams, with many illustrators performing the role in publishing houses. Together with the incipient success of picture books as a genre and the developments of the printing industry, this leads to improved printing quality –which was seldom considered before.
The Kirchner administration that started in 2003 and extends to our days stabilized the domestic economy in a project that –according to the eye of the beholder– may be considered happily or dangerously demagogic, but undeniably democratic. In line with the ideas of inclusion, distribution of wealth, and equal access to cultural products, the federal government starts delivering children's and youth books to public school libraries and school children. The purchase of billions of books supports the publishing business in this decade. On a positive note, it should be noted that schools had never had access to such quantities and qualities of books5, and publishing houses had never had the need to print such tremendous amounts of books for such massive sales before. On a negative note, this sales volume means that the federal government is almost the exclusive client, and conceals that bookstore sales –which are the natural market of the business– would not support the market by themselves. At the same time, import restrictions and the so-called “dollar trap” that seek to promote the domestic industry lead to the impossibility to produce some formats that are particularly adequate for graphic interests: hard covers are expensive and non-competitive; board books for first readers are impracticable due to the lack of proper printing equipment.
Although small, the art-gallery market specialized in children’s book illustration starts to be available, and international publishing houses begin to show interest for both for renowned illustrators and new figures, such as Cristian Turdera, Christian Montenegro, María Wernicke, Poly Bernatene, Irene Singer, José Sanabria, and Gustavo Mazali, to name but a few among many others.
In 2008, Argentina was the Guest of Honour Country at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, in an event generated and organized by the Illustrators’ Forum. The international reach of Argentine children’s literature reaches peaks unknown to this date with the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award to the writer María Teresa Andruetto, and the 2013 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award granted to Isol as integral author (Isol had been a finalist to the Andersen Award in 2008 and 2010 as illustrator). In 2015, the publishing house Pequeño Editor received the Prize Best Children's Publishers of the Year 2015 Central and South America in Bologna, and their book Rompecabezas (Jigsaw Puzzle) receives the New Horizons Bologna Ragazzi Award 2015.
The Argentine presence in international fairs and in the above mentioned prizes and many others cause the Argentine children's literature –and to a large extent, the illustrated literature– to be translated into other languages, and the illustrators to be invited to participate in publishing projects abroad (both close, such as Brazil and Chile, and far away, such as countries of the Middle and Far East). This is a slow process; it is still difficult for Argentina, a country that sits in the southernmost south, to access the rest of the world. Anyhow, that these translations and publications in foreign languages are now frequent –when they were non-existent just a few years ago– is encouraging.
New and interesting collections for children are launched by publishers specialized in adult readers: Aerolitos (Aerolites, by Capital Intelectual) is designed –with a great sense of challenge and innovation– for early childhood; Pípala, published by Adriana Hidalgo, brings foreign authors hardly published in Argentina, a country that –it should be said– is deeply introspective and has almost no tradition of publishing foreign authors. Editorial Arte a Babor specializes in art books for children. Further to publishing CulturaLIJ, the only paper magazine specialized in children’s literature available in our days, La Bohemia publishes theoretical books and literature for children, with especially noteworthy products, such as the series Comunidades (Communities), which recreates the legends of Ancestral Peoples in bilingual editions that are published in Spanish and in minority languages, such as Zapotec, Aymara, or Armenian. Libros del Zorro Rojo, founded in Spain by Argentine proprietors, introduces into our country youth/children's literature classics illustrated by great stars of the Argentine illustration who are not as present in the children's market as in graphic media: Luis Scafati, Carlos Nine, Santiago Caruso, and Alfredo Benavídez Bedoya. This publishing house also offers the all-times international classics, such as Edward Gorey.
Graphic novels and all-age humour start to be launched by publishing houses such as Común, while children’s comics are successfully recovered in the series ¡Toing! (Poing!), published by Comiks Debris, whose directors are members of the organization Banda Dibujada, a NGO formed by illustrators, script writers, and intermediaries created in 2005 to promote the publication and distribution of children’s and youth comics.
In 2010, the Illustrators’ Forum and the Association of Argentine Illustrators (Asociación de Dibujantes Argentinos, ADA), and the above mentioned NGO Banda Dibujada, joined forces –without losing their autonomy– to promote the enactment of the so-called AURA Act (a law to create the National Single Allowance Regime for Artistic Merits) and the creation of the INAG (Instituto Nacional de Artes Gráficas, Argentine Graphic Arts Institute). The INAG was passed into Law No. 27.067 by the Argentine Congress on December 11th, 2014, and signifies a global breakthrough in terms of public and governmental defence of the rights of pencil workers. With the approval of its budget and authorities in 2015, the INAG is expected to start operating in 2016.
Novel and extremely talented illustrators have started to publish in recent years: Daniel Roldán, Cecilia Afonso Esteves, Natalia Colombo, Gabriela Burin, and Sabina Álvarez Schurman join the Argentine illustration gallery with renowned international awards and publications in Argentina and abroad.
The 2015 exhibition “Tal para cual” (Soulmates) at Museo de la Lengua offers a comprehensive retrospective of the work of Ayax Barnes and Beatriz Doumerc, together with the commemorative edition of La línea (The Line) and the reprint of El viaje de ida/El viaje de regreso (Outbound Trip/Inbound Trip) by Ediciones del Eclipse, and El pueblo que no quería ser gris (The Town that Would Not be Gray) by Colihue, allow us to think of a present that finally values the illustrators who shaped it. As further evidence of this appreciation, we find the reprints of the books by María Elena Walsh with the original illustrations of Pedro Vilar (by Penguin Random House), and of many of the Cuentos de Polidoro (Polidoro’s Tales) by the Argentine Ministry of Education, and of Cuentos del Chiribitil (The Stories of Chiribitil) by EUdeBA.
In my country, authorship is probably the most disputed condition in the book production chain: the synonymy between writer and author has always been prevalent, with illustrators seen as a mere vendor (it should be noted, though, that unfortunately Argentina is not the only country in the world where this happens).
As illustrators, we used the full enforcement of the Argentine Copyright Law No. 11.713 as a springboard to start the fight for our rights: the author is defined as any individual creating a discourse of any kind (writing, image, design, choreography, sculpture, architecture, paining, etc.) While obvious, this term continues to be applied to refer only to writers with a shocking frequency. In the book sector, the term “copyright” implies that all the parties intervening in the work should be recognized as authors –the one who creates the work and the one who later collects money on it. Considering that the author is solely the writer has had an impact throughout the history of children’s books illustration, and illustrators are displaced when they are co-authors of the text and the images.
In the early 1990s, when illustrators started to defend our position in the book production chain, other participants of the publishing world (especially publishers and writers) had never thought of this issue. This led to the relegation of the name of the illustrator to a second place, even in books that were fully illustrated; to the careless handling, loss or appropriation of original illustrations; to the complete denial of copyrights; and to the lack of contracts for illustrators… this was not made out of malice, cruelty or negligence. The lack of awareness was somehow only a sign of innocence based on the absence of tradition in this sense.
Twenty-five years later, our achievements mean that, in Argentina, anyone who declares that illustrators have no rights and denies our authorship is completely aware that they are liars, mean, negligent or –at least– stuck in the past.
Our present is crucial; truly a hinge moment. The contrast between one and another historical moment is self-evident. Today, we have a profound self-consciousness of the professional space that illustration workers have conquered, and of the legislative achievements that we have obtained, and which were unthinkable in the past.
We still need to achieve this respect and recognition for the role of the author and for the rights of renowned illustrators (who most of times are INDEED afforded recognition and rights) and of new entrants in the publishing market (who most of times DO NOT enjoy them, and who are still relegated to a second place, denied copyright, and contracts to regulate those rights).
In the search for theoretical approaches, I discovered that the history of the illustration of children’s books in Argentina has been virtually ignored: illustrators are mentioned when they work for mass media or for their influence in the history of comics or graphic design; they are recognized for their work in books only if the text is noteworthy and, more recently, if they are authors of picture books. Only fifteen years ago they started receiving a more devoted attention with the widespread dissemination of picture books. In the previous decades, illustration was not observed, studied or even mentioned, although pictures assisted reading as much as texts.
The question is unavoidable: What happens with the good illustrations of dull texts, those published in books of mid- or low quality, in designs with little ambitions, or in books that are not picture books? Well, they are lost to history. Are the plateau writing periods signalled in all children's literature panoramas, also barren in the art of illustration?
If the research on the history of illustration is left behind, thousands of magnificently illustrated books will be forgotten.
To escape this fate, the globalization and universal adoption of contracts regulating the intellectual property and copyright of illustrators are crucial.
A key factor prevalent in the 20th century has led us to have to think of this today: while it is assumed that only texts can be “redrawn” but illustrations cannot be "rewritten" (like texts, all or part of the illustrations found in any book may generate new and original writings –a possibility unfairly ruled out, since authorship rights of illustrators are assumed to be bound to the first edition, in a presumption that is rooted in traditional uses but lacking all legal bases), and while the authorship marriage between a writer and an illustrator in the book is played down, illustrations will continue to be short-lived and destined to a single edition, and will continue to be treated as a product (even a disposable product), instead as a work of art.
Exile, identity, authorship, government, politics, society, national culture, Latin American identity... the pair that each of these words forms with "illustration" is inherently a corpus prone to research, both in relation to other discourses cohabiting in books (texts, design, edition) and in their individual character. There is a dire need for exhaustive research into how this history has shaped the present situation of illustration and illustrators, to ultimately build a landscape characterised by a unique aesthetic identity.
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