149. Interview with Chiara Tognetti about Chinese children’s books and rights

What’s involved in bringing Chinese children’s books into a different language? Chiara Tognetti offers foreign rights and international publishing services through her Chiara Tognetti Rights Agency. She kindly agreed to tell us about her work and the books she represents. Thank you, Chiara!

Chiara, please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

I always loved languages and different cultures. When I was little, apparently I was sometimes caught speaking in made-up languages. In school, aside from my native Italian, I studied English, Latin and ancient Greek and at university I chose to study Languages and Literatures of South Asia. I finished my studies at SOAS, University of London and from there I decided to follow my passion for books and in particular children’s books – as I had by then discovered how captivating illustrations can be next to words. I landed my first job at HarperCollins Children’s Books and that’s where I discovered the world of foreign rights and the work that rights professionals do to encourage books to travel across languages and cultures. I knew I had found my space in the publishing world. After leaving HC, I worked for ten years at Walker Books. That was for me an invaluable experience. I met children’s books heavyweights such as Helen Oxenbury, Sam McBratney, Michael Rosen, Anthony Browne, Lucy Cousins, Kate di Camillo, Chris Haughton, Jon Klassen to name just a few. I worked in close contact with some of the best children’s books publishing professionals across all departments of a publishing house. I represented top-end books by beloved children’s book authors and illustrators, both British and international. And I got to know and become part of the passionate world of the international children’s books professionals. So when, at the beginning of 2021, the stars aligned for me to leap out of the Walker nest into the outside world, I felt I wanted to continue contributing to the rights book market with something just as unique and meaningful, but even more diverse. I knew that there were so many gems around the world that don’t get to travel as much as they deserve to, and that’s how the idea of my agency was born. I now represent books from China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Australia, Italy, France and Scandinavia, with a special focus on the Asian territories.

You run a rights agency, and offer international services. What does this involve? Could you give an example of the journey of a book, showing how it went from being published in China to being published in English?

The core of my agency is maximising foreign rights potential for the books of my clients. I am also a consultant and can help with building a foreign rights strategy for a title or for a whole list, I can provide pre-acquisition foreign potential assessments and focus market reports, and (in conjunction with other professionals), production and marketing fulfilment. For my Asian portfolio, I choose each and every book I include in my portfolio, so the first step is research, scouting and assessing PDFs and manuscripts. For Chinese books, I am very lucky to be working with some outstanding professionals at Bardon Chinese Media, who play a huge part in liaising with all of the local publishers, spotting high-potential titles, gathering material and facilitating communication. Once a book is in my portfolio, I’ll work on finding the right publisher for it, not only in English but in all Western languages. That involves putting a new hat on, as in my submissions I always take into account what each editor is looking to acquire for their catalogue, and which house or imprint would most nurture and support an author or illustrator. After the negotiation part is concluded, the foreign edition of the Chinese book will be sent to the proprietor for approval, and then it can be printed and distributed. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that I play a small part in giving a whole new audience to a book in which I believe.

Sometimes different countries do things differently. Are there any must-know things about working with Chinese publishers, agents, book people? 

Let me preface this by saying that while I have seen for many years the success Western imports can have in China (such as Guess How Much I Love You), I am still learning about sourcing Chinese literature for the West. As a bit of a generalisation, I see that some Chinese publishers are not used to exporting rights to their titles into Western languages. That’s where my work and that of my Chinese co-agent come into play and become valuable, as we facilitate communication between the Western and Chinese publishers. Agencies can play a great role in connecting publishers and bridging cultural distances between them, as well as ensuring the negotiation takes place at the best market standards.

We’re particularly interested in Chinese books for young readers. Could you tell us about the Chinese titles you have on your list. Do you have any favourites at the moment?

This is my favourite question! I have the pleasure and honour of working on some great Chinese authors and illustrators such as Mo Yan, Cao Wenxuan, Zhu Chengliang, Chinlun Lee, Yu Rong, Bei Lynn, Ahn Zhe, Min-I Yen and Yi-Ting Lee to name a few.

  • “Paw in the Surgery” Paw在醫院裡, by Chinlun Lee
  • Bubu Loves to Jump 步步很愛跳, by Bei Lynn 貝小林 (English: Bibbit Loves to Jump, tr. Helen Wang, Gecko Press)
  • Aho 阿河, by Ahn Zhe 安哲

It’s impossible to pick favourites – I am absolutely loving delving deeper into the vibrant Chinese children’s literature! Last Bologna (2021), my agency’s first book fair, was quite exciting as so many Chinese titles won awards and special mentions – and I had the honour to represent them! Home, by Lin Lian-En won the Fiction Award, Yulu’s Linen by Cao Wenxuan and Suzy Lee won the Special Mention in the Fiction category, Love Letter by Animo Chan won the Special Mention in the Poetry category (after another of Animo’s books, the stunning The Short Elegy, won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in the Comics/YA category in 2020). 

  • Home, by Lien-En Lin (English: Reycraft Books)
  • “Yulu’s linen” 雨露麻, by Cao Wenxuan 曹文轩, illus. Suzy Lee 苏西·李 (Chinese: Jieli chubanshe 接力出版社
  • Love Letter, by Animo Chen 阿尼默
  • The Short Elegy 小輓, by Animo Chen 阿尼默
“Yulu’s linen” 雨露麻, by Cao Wenxuan 曹文轩, illus. Suzy Lee 苏西·李
(Chinese: Jieli chubanshe 接力出版社)

Representing Yulu’s Linen, by Cao Wenxuan, illustrated by Korean artist Suzy Lee has been a highlight for me. The book is a unique synergy between stellar children’s book masters from two key countries for my agency. The poetic, polysemic story, enhanced by Suzy Lee’s accomplished illustrations, has won many international hearts and we have just now closed a high-profile auction for English rights!

“The Gale” 大风, by Mo Yan 莫言, illus. Zhu Chengliang 朱成梁
(21st Century Publishing 二十一世纪出版社) (see our post no. 148)

Another title I have been loving working on has been The Gale by Mo Yan, illustrated by Zhu Chengliang, which generated a lot of international interest and auctions for Spanish and English rights. Sharing this book, I could see how the passion and vision of translators and editors is truly pivotal to a book’s journey to foreign readers. In a few weeks I’ll be attending Bologna, my agency’s first in-person fair! I can’t wait to meet new and old friends from around the world and show beautiful picture books by creators such as Peng Xuejun, Qu Lan, Dong Hongyou, Meng-Yun Chiang and Kiko Yang. I’ll also be presenting a little collection of titles by Cao Wenxuan and British-Chinese illustrator Yu Rong, some of which you mention in one of your blog’s post (no. 142). As the interest in Asian graphic novels continues to grow, I’m particularly excited also to present to the Western world an action-packed best-selling middle-grade comic series the title of which I’m keeping under my hat for now. 

Would you tell us about your own childhood reading? Any favourite books? Do you associate your early reading with a particular person or place? 

What a lovely question! I always adored books, as far back as I can remember. Some of my favourite picture books from preschool times were Candy Pink by Adela Turin and Nella Bosnia, Alexander and The Wind-Up Mouse by Leo Lionni, Animal Nursery Tales by Richard Scarry and Brucoverde by Giovanna Mantegazza and Giorgio Vanetti. The first books I read by myself were Bandiera and Cipì by Mario Lodi, before falling in love with Telephone Tales by Italian children’s book literature giant Gianni Rodari. From there, I read each and every book by Roald Dahl, with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory holding a special place in my heart… that picture by Quentin Blake of the four grandparents, two on each side of the bed… . My mother got me in the habit of reading in bed before lights-out, which became a special time for me of comfort, warmth and independence. I am grateful to my kindergarten and primary school teachers who all played a big role in me falling in love with stories, and there has been no turning back from the joy of reading children’s literature.

Read more about Chiara Tognetti here:

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