Thursday, March 27, 2008

Poop & Caca: What Goes In Must Come Out!

Little kids love stories about poop and farts, right? And teachers for a number of years now have been asking us to publish a bilingual non-fiction book for early readers. It seems like if we put those two things together we’d have a very popular book.

We had listened closely to our teacher friends, but we never found anything we liked. We tend to be particular. We like to publish books we like. Something with a little bit of an edge. But then at the Bologna Children’s Books Rights Fair we saw Le Grande Voyage of Monsieur Caca published by the wonderful French-Canadian independent publisher Les 400 Coups. A little girl eats an apple and the apple descends—with sound effects in English and Spanish—through the digestive system until, sure enough, the human-processed apple ends up being flushed down the toilet. The journey is documented with all the scientific lingo and maps by a fastidious doctor who looks like a wolf.

Bingo! It was perfect!

The book is funny, it’s educational and it’s very kid friendly. Lee made sure. She read it to our three-year-old grandson Baby Ed who was having difficulty thinking “potty” when he was ready to do his business. He loved the book. And for an hour he had a long and serious conversation with his grandma about what his poop looked like. Not soon afterward he was going to the potty on the potty. Good for him, good for us. We were delighted.

Surely this was exactly the kind of book that our teacher friends had been asking us to publish in a bilingual format. But (at least so far) sales have been below expectations. Why? Because teachers are hesitant to teach it. They don't feel empowered enough to use the book. They don't want to get in trouble. This became obvious when we started carting Mr. Poop around to educational conferences like the California Association of Bilingual Educators or the regional library conferences. We watched teacher after teacher pick up Mister Poop. They would read the book aloud, they would laugh and tell their colleagues, “Look at this wonderful book! The kids would certainly get a hoot out of it!” Then they’ll put it down and add with a sigh, “But of course I can’t use it.”

"You can't use it?"

Our naiveté continues to amaze us. Even though kids hear the words “poop” and, if they are Mexican-American, “caca” every day of their lives at home from their moms and dads and brothers and sisters and grandparents, teachers remain very timid about using them as teaching tools in their class rooms. This is especially true in red states like Texas where the achievement tests conservative ideas rule.

Oh well. That’s what happens in the independent publishing world. Our naiveté is our blessing and our curse. We’re proud of the Mr. Poop. We think that someday soon it will find it’s way in the world of early reader books. Meanwhile, we gave one to Baby Ed. He and his parents keep it next to his toilet at home. It's a perfect niche.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lee Merrill Byrd: An Interview by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Lee Merrill Byrd, the president of Cinco Puntos Press, Inc., is also a novelist and children’s books author. In November 2006 author and children’s literature specialist Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed Lee for her widely respected blog CYNSATIONS about children's books. Since that interview is still very much current and discusses the history of Cinco Puntos Press as well as others topics relevant to Lee juggling her work as a writer and publisher, we thought it a good place to visit if you’re looking for information about who and what Cinco Puntos Press is. Besides, Cynthia's blog--with its progressive, multicultural perspecitive--is an important source of information, issues and ideas about books for kids. We recommend it highly.

Let's begin by talking about your own novel, Riley's Fire (Algonquin, 2006). Could you tell us about the story?...

For more follow this link to Cynthia’s blog.

P.S. John Byrd, the son of Lee and Bobby, joins his mother in ths photograph. John, who began packing boxes for Cinco Puntos when he was in Junior High School, is now a vice president of the corporation.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

YA Fiction, ALA Prizes, and the Book Business

We are always suggesting to our fiction writing friends, especially Latino authors because of the dearth of YA Latino fiction, that they consider writing young adult novels. If the work is well reviewed, then the books will have a much longer life span. And there’s the added enticement that YA readers are more adventurous readers. A writer is not necessarily singing to the choir. An example of what can happen is Sherman Alexie's first YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian which won the National Book Award and should have been more seriously considered for the ALA's Printz Award. Sherman writes with deep understanding and wit about the struggles and confusion and honor of the Native American experience in 21st Century America. Like Barack Obama in the political realm, he represents a new breed of intellectual, especially among writers of color who are not strapped down to an old doctrinaire politics. We recommend the novel highly. For a taste of Sherman, he wrote an interesting piece about being a YA novelist in Publishers Weekly (2/18/08).

Speaking of the Printz Award, Elizabeth Devereaux, the Children’s Reviews Editor at Publisher’s Weekly, has a very interesting commentary (1/28/08) on the children’s book awards given out each year by the American Library Association at their Mid-Winter Convention. These awards are extremely important to the publishers of children’s books. A Newbery or Caldecott or Prinz Award can make a book an instant classic. To be on the selection committee for any of these awards is an honor and extremely difficult work. Librarians will read and review hundreds of books during their tenure on a committee. It’s like taking on an extra full-time job. These folks are obsessed in the greatest good way. For a small independent publisher to be considered, be listed as a finalist or even to win is a special honor which does wonders for reputation. A few years ago, Ben Saenz’ young adult novel Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood was talked about seriously for the Prinz. Although the novel was not among the finalists, a loud and generous buzz went about the convention center about Sammy and about Cinco Puntos. People suddenly knew who we were. The YALSA Committee did select Sammy for the 2005list of Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults. We sold through several printings of the hardback, and sold the paperback rights to Harper-Collins.

And to end this post on a distressing and confusing note, the Borders bookstore chain has been struggling financially and is considering selling itself. One of the suitors is Barnes & Noble. Holy conglomeration, Batman.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Christopher Cardinale goes to Rosario searching for Luis Urrea

This is a picture of the artist Christopher Cardinale at the airport in Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, which is a 25 minute ride from our house in El Paso. (See the note below.) So why am I taking Christopher to the airport?

Because we are publishers.

But that is not what planned. Lee is a novelist, I am a poet. Our disciplines have always led us into particular intellectual and imaginative journeys and more or less defined who we would be hanging with. We continue in these worlds. But back in the 1980s we had to make a living. Our 9 to 5 life was not a happy one, we were technical writers to feed our kids and ourselves, so we decided to try our hand at publishing. It’s been a different life since then. Publishing has required different journeys, equally engaging to the imagination and the intellect.

This is one of our riffs when we talk about publishing: the discipline of putting books together and selling has made our hearts and minds and imagination bigger.

I was thinking about all of this when I drove Christopher to the airport in Juárez. Christopher is a graphic novelist, and he’s going to do the illustrations for a graphic novel, Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush by Luis Alberto Urrea (Fall 2008).

We met Christopher in a roundabout way, the peculiar way that things happen in the independent publishing world. In 2005 we were at the Book Exposition of America (BEA) in NYC and picked up a copy of Wobblies! A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World. It sat in a pile of books in our office for a while until our son John, who is now the vice-president of everything here in our offices, started looking through it. He saw Christopher’s work included there and liked it. Then he saw it again on the cover of a Punk Planet magazine. He remembered that we’ve been talking in-house for a number of years about doing "Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush" as a graphic novel. The story is the first story in Luis’ collection, Six Kinds of Sky, that we did back in 2002. John asked artist Youme Landowne if she knew Christopher, and of course Youme said, “Oh, yes, he’s is a good friend of mine. He lives in Brooklyn.” Youme, the artist and writer who published the acclaimed Selavi with us and was working at the time on Pitch Black (to be released in June), lives in Brooklyn too. So John talked to Christopher, he listened to our proposal and he liked the story. So like abracadabra, I’m putting Christopher on a plane to Mazatlán. From there he’ll take a bus to Rosario, Sinaloa. Rosario is the place of Mr. Mendoza’s adventures. This is the town that Luis visited in the summers when he was growing up in Tijuana and San Diego. It was full of cousins and excitement and magical adventures and very pretty girls, the kind of real life adventures that can only happen in Mexico. Christopher, however, didn’t have to go to Rosario, but that’s the kind of integrity that he possesses. He wants to know el ambiente of the place that he’s illustrating. He’s down there now. He’s contacted Luis’ cousin Jorge, and he's been sketching and talking and photographing.

And as I write this I get an email from Christopher titled “Wrapping it up in Rosario”:

Dear Bobby,

They have treated me very well here in Rosario. Beautiful town, kind and generous people. I have a ton of photos and a small stack of drawings. I am going to Mazatlán tomorrow and Los Mochis on Wed. I hope to be back in El Paso by the 16th. I will let you know for sure by the 15th. I gave an interview to a regional newspaper here that is out of Mazatlán. It is called El Debate. The journalists happened upon me when i was drawing in a cemetery. They were working on a piece about tourism in Sinaloa. They ended up interviewing me about our project. The paper came out today. There is a photo, my name is spelled correctly, Cinco Puntos is mentioned as well as Luis Urrea, Mr. Mendoza’s Paintbrush and more. I am bringing a copy. The article is not on their website because it appeared in the edition for the southern region and they don’t post that on their site.

Hope all is well on your side of the line


NOTE: The ride back from the airport to my house was almost two hours because the U.S. feds in the on-going paranoia have not devised a way for us on the border to live a normal life, going back and forth to our sister city.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Little Boy is Worried about the Size of his What?

In March 2008, Cinco Puntos Press is publishing Little Zizi (978-1-933693-05-7), a picture book for children. Zizi is French, a diminutive for penis—as in peepee. Little Zizi tells the story of Martin, a thoughtful little boy who worries about the size of his penis. The book was written by renowned French children’s writer Thierry Lenain and illustrated by Stéphane Poulin. It was originally published in Canada by Les 400 Coups.

So our friend asked us, “The little boy is worried about the size of his what?”

We like showing our newest book Little Zizi to our friends, especially friends with kids. Every time they begin to read it, they start giggling. The same thing happens with our professional friends—publishers, librarians, educators, reviewers. They can’t suppress their delight. They thoroughly enjoy the book, the whimsy of Thierry Lenain’s tale so perfectly married with Stéphane Poulin’s illustrations, but in the back of their minds (at least, the adult area of their mindss) is the nagging questions, Why is Cinco Puntos publishing this book?

The answer is simple. We enjoy the book immensely. We fell in love with it and we thought it was a no-brainer. Parents were ready for this book. But we heard the question enough that we decided to ask Thierry Lenain why he wrote the book.

Thierry’s response was straightforward. He remembers his own childhood, and he remembers that growing up into manhood is a difficult and sometimes lonely journey. Now, as a writer, he can look around the world. He has come to believe that so much of the misfortune that we read about in the paper comes from the obsession of many men to assert and prove their manliness. Their virility. And now he’s watching his own children grow up. He wrote this book for them. His own little gift to them, to all children, but especially to boys. Relax, he wants to say. It’s okay to be who you are. Accept your body. You may see it as less than perfect, but it is beautiful just the same.

Thierry Lenain’s uncomplicated answer runs against the flow of our obsessed culture. A day spent deleting spam from incoming e-mail should be proof of this. We are choking with worries about the size and beauty of the human sexual anatomy. Making penises longer and bigger and breasts more ample have become big industries. It seems, as a culture, we are ashamed of who we are. Our media produces all sorts of images of violence and sexual innuendo but when push comes to shove, we don’t want our children to know about their sexual apparatuses before they are ready. Whenever that is. Surely a book with so much joy and whimsical frivolity in such a bipolar cultural environment can do only good.

But people still ask us, why?

Well, from a business point of view, we believe that Little Zizi will have decent financial success. It'll probably get some notoriety, some people will love it, others will hate it. There won't be a lot of middle ground. Besides, the book has had success elsewhere. Cinco Puntos purchased the English language rights from the French Canadian publisher Les 400 Coups who published the book for its French audience in France and Canada. In those markets it did wonderfully well. It goes from printing to next printing like clockwork. Besides, Les 400 Coups has sold the rights for Spanish, German, Korean, Danish and Flemish editions.

Except that in the U.S. no publisher wanted to touch it. No wonder. The French are the French; and the world is the world; but us Americans are still Americans, still wandering around in a discombobulated fog of sexual confusion.

And, yes, before we made our offer, we road-tested Little Zizi on our grandson John Andrew. He was seven at the time. I read him the story and showed him the pictures. He had a big-mouthed grin on his face. At one point he asked me, That’s not how that happens, is it? We were looking at the wondrous painting of little girl Anais and our hero Martin sitting on the park bench. Anais has just told Martin that when she grows up she wants to have ten babies. Ten! Martin is looking over his shoulder in dismay. In his daydream he sees ten babies floating down from the skies!

Johnny Andrew’s curiosity was piqued. I said, Yes, that’s how that happens! He asked more questions. I told him he should ask his dad and mom a lot of these questions. My job was to read the book. He got a hoot out of that. We talked some, we laughed at the little dog who followed Martin around and he was delighted to see that Martin won the heart of Anais.

Lee and I figured our own grandson can’t be wrong. We moved ahead with buying the rights and publishing the book.

So ask any man, “When you were a little boy, were you worried about the size of your peepee?” And if he is honest, that man will squirm and he’ll hem and he’ll haw, but in the end he will confess, “Yes, I was worried. It’s one of the things all little boys worry about!”

But let’s not get philosophical. This is a fun book with a happy ending. Yes, Martin and Adrian are vying for the affection of Anais, the sweetest little girl in class. Yes, there is a pissing contest, and, yes, poor Martin loses the pissing contest, but lo and behold, Anais chooses Martin over Adrian, proving once again that love is justice and delicious understanding…

Anais and Martin will surely love each other for a long time.
And when they’ve grown up, they will have lots of children.

At least ten.
Because love isn’t a question of a zizi—large or small.

—Bobby Byrd, February 2008

Saturday, March 1, 2008

LaVerne Harrell Clark, 1929-2008

Monday morning we received a short note from our friend L.D. Clark. His wife LaVerne Harrell Clark died the evening before (Feb 24, 2008) in her growing-up home on Main Street in Smithville, Texas. Besides being a fellow writer, LaVerne was an old-style family person. She wanted to know about our children and grandchildren, all the little bits and pieces of news. It was always an honor to be included in her legendary and very encyclopedic Christmas Newsletters.

I first met the Clarks in 1964 when LaVerne served as the Director of the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. I was a lonely 21-year-old kid who wanted to be a poet. L.D., a novelist and D.H. Lawrence scholar, was a professor in the English Department. LaVerne was an immediate friend, one of those strong pieces of cord that has moved in and out of my life since then. She was a remarkable ethnographer and folklorist, photographer and novelist. Cinco Puntos Press was proud to publish her novel Keepers of the Earth, a tale about a Texas family which is torn apart because of oil and land. In that novel LaVerne was able to enlist her many talents and deep insight of rural east Texas. We also published L.D.’s equally fine novel A Bright Tragic Thing, A Tale of Civil War Texas.

In my heart, LaVerne and L.D. were bookends to a generous love and intellectual affection for the old and traditional parts of our culture. As a couple, they could be fun-loving and cantankerous at the same time. For these many years, they were integral to Southwestern literature from Arizona and New Mexico to Texas. From their days in Tucson, they counted among their friends Byrd Baylor, Keith and Heloise Wilson, Barney Childs, Drummond Hadley, Diana Hadley, Jill and Joe Somoza, Larry Goodell, Paul Malanga and so many others. Added to this are their Texas friends, Texas relatives, the widening circles of writers, ethnographers, historians—this is a huge list of people, who, I’m sure, might want to add them comments about LaVerne here. Please be our guest.

LaVerne loved to sit around at parties and talk and laugh and tell old stories. She had a wonderfully loud and raucous laugh. One night at Joe and Jill Somoza’s house in Las Cruces, L.D. pulled out his beautiful Spanish guitar. I didn’t know it at the time, but besides being a fine novelist, he is a remarkable guitarist with a nice tenor voice. He started singing songs—Mexican songs, Spanish songs, old country and western songs. It was fun. We all sang along when we could. Toward the end of the evening he sang the c&w version of “Help me through the night,” the Willie Nelson version. L.D., a Ph.D. and scholar of English Literature, was more of a stickler for correct pronunciation than LaVerne. Although he too was raised up in rural Texas, he simply couldn’t put the proper twang to the word “help.”

“L.D., damnit,” she kept hooting, “it’s not ‘help me through the night.’ It’s ‘hep me thru the night.’ Don’t you hear me? It’s ‘hep me thru the night.’” We all laughed and L.D. kept playing and singing.

Take the ribbon from your hair, Shake it loose and let it fall,
Layin' soft upon my skin. Like the shadows on the wall.

Come and lay down by my side till the early morning light
All I'm takin' is your time. Help me make it through the night.
I don't care what's right or wrong, I don't try to understand.
Let the devil take tomorrow. Lord, tonight I need a friend.

Yesterday is dead and gone and tomorrow's out of sight.
And it's sad to be alone. Help me make it through the night.

I don't care what's right or wrong, (Yes, I do !)
I don't try to understand.
Let the devil take tomorrow. Lord, tonight I need a friend.

Yesterday is dead and gone and tomorrow's out of sight.
Lord, it's bad to be alone. Help me make it through the night

We send you off with much love, LaVerne Harrell Clark.

The Cinco Puntos Press Blogspot

Welcome to the Cinco Puntos Press blog. We’re really glad that your travels on the web have brought you here. To tell you the truth, we’re a little bit surprised to be here ourselves. If you’d told us some twenty years ago when we first cooked up plans for Cinco Puntos in our house that we’d be meeting anyone out in cyberspace this many years later, we would have been amazed. And we still are amazed, because publishing is one miraculous business, kind of like growing lettuce which, as you can see, we like to do in the late fall and early winter. To watch a book unfold, like watching a beautiful lettuce grow from seed, to watch it find its audience and its life in the hands of a reader is a stunningly miraculous business. We want to share this business with you in all its myriad aspects, and hope that you will, in turn, share your thoughts about publishing and/or about our books with us.

We are Bobby and Lee Byrd, owners and publishers of Cinco Puntos. We started Cinco Puntos Press in 1985 out of our house on Louisville Street. We are a small, very independent publishing company rooted here in El Paso, Texas, not three miles north of the U.S. Mexican Border. We are both writers. We started Cinco Puntos because we wanted more time to write and we found as we have moved further and further into the publishing life, that publishing, like writing, is an act of self-discovery. Every book takes us to a new place. Each book leads us into unexpected intellectual terrains. These are places we might have never experienced without the provocation of new books and the business of making and selling them.

Publishing, like writing and gardening, is an organic process. We don’t know exactly what the book will become when we first see it in manuscript, but in the give and take between us and the author and, as it passes through our hands as editors, and through the hands of the people we work with who translate or design or illustrate the text, it becomes something new, different, and wonderful—a true collaboration.

We come to publishing as writers. We aren’t educators. We think it’s important to note that. Manuscripts are really interesting to us when the writing is amazing or the voice of the author is unique or the book opens up a door into a culture or a people that hasn’t been opened before. Or when the writer is someone whose work we’ve just plain admired over a long period of time. There are so many fine publishers who understand the educational needs of children and what kids should be learning at what age, but that’s not how we approach publishing.

Because we are so deeply involved with the books we publish, they are BOOKS to us, not products, not items. They’re more like children, and when people love them, we are very proud and very pleased. And even when people don’t love them, we still have that sense that they are very good and they give us a great deal of satisfaction.
Our first three books—Dagoberto Gilb’s Winners on the Pass Line; Joe Somoza’s book Backyard Poems; and Joe Hayes’ La Llorona, The Weeping Woman, our best-selling book ever—established a DNA imprint of how we were to grow. These authors were all close friends, they had these three wonderful books, each was very generous to trust us. We wanted very much to be publishers, whatever that meant to us at the time. Our initial ignorance about publishing was not bliss, but it did translate into innocence and energy and curiosity. If we had known what we were getting into back then, we probably would have been frightened away.

But we weren’t. Since those first three books, we have published close to 130 books, each one with its own story. We have moved the business from our home in the Five Points Neighborhood (thus, the name of our press) to Texas Avenue in downtown El Paso. And in 2004 our son John, who grew up packing books for us, came home from Austin to work with us. He’s been vital to our understanding of what Cinco Puntos is and what we are to become.

We are distributed to the trade by Consortium Books Sales and Distribution, now owned by Perseus. We can’t say enough good things about Consortium, about the people we work with, about their professionalism and their enthusiasm for our books, and about all we’ve learned by being affiliated with so many like-minded indie publishers through Consortium. Well, maybe we can say enough and that will be one of the things we talk about: distribution. Because distribution is a big issue for a publisher. And distribution is a big issue if you plan to self-publish.

Certainly, it’s a wonderful time to be a publisher, filled with all sorts of economic risks and intellectual and cultural possibilities. We hope to document our place in this changing environment through this blog. And we hope you will join us, adding comments and sending suggestions for material and links to include in our blog.