Isabel Minhós Martins is an acclaimed Portugese writer and publisher who believes we should never underestimate the ability of children and young readers to grasp the complexities of difficult issues.
“I think it is always possible to explain everything to children, even when the problems are complex. It’s good to give them a big view – a prismatic view of the subject,” she said.
When she approaches a non-fiction project for children she feels like she is “on a mission” to explain a big concept – like how the brain functions or the problem with plastics in the oceans.
She tackles issues that interest and concern her, and then engages in deep research and works on the best ways to transmit that message to the readers.
“I like when the subject is very complex and very big,” she said, speaking ahead of her appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.
Words, what we can do with words and what words can do with us, were always her favourite mystery, she said.
As well as non-fiction titles, Minhós Martins also writes for picture books and she feels the motivations as a writer are different for each genre.
“When I work on picture books, it’s something more personal, more open. So, the reader has to read the book and bring that message inside them and make it their own … but the main motivation is not explaining something. Maybe it’s just to reflect upon something, that can be poetic, sometimes more ironic.”
For non-fiction projects, it is “more concrete, more direct. I think that’s the main difference,” she said. But whether she is writing non-fiction or picture books her motivation always remains the same.
“It’s always to try to connect myself to the readers. As a reader myself I like to open a book and read it, and when I close it I always feel different. It makes me change in some way,” she said. “So, I think that I also want to give that experience to the readers, even if they are just five or six years old.”
Aside from writing books herself, Minhós Martins is also a co-founder of a very successful independent Portugese publishing house, Planeta Tangeria, which she set up along with some friends after graduating from design college.
The friends had been working together in a design studio and “after a while, we were a bit tired of just answering to that kind of work and we felt that we needed to have more personal projects,” she said.
The small publishing house has built a strong international reputation for its constantly creative list of titles.
“We didn’t change a lot [over the years]. We try to make special books, not just books that have already been done,” she said. “We always try to challenge the readers and ourselves as authors. Not to make very easy books. I think that these are our main goals.”
Several or her own books, as well as other books published by Planeta Tangeria, are available in Chinese translation.
Since her publishing house started dealing with Chinese agents and publishers several years ago, she feels the market in China has developed a lot.
In their early encounters with Chinese publishers “they were very traditional, but now I think they have a lot of new projects,” and she has been really pleased to see how open China has been to foreign authors.
“It is important to mix. I think that the world is more interesting when we are all mixed and not with each culture in its own box. So, I think that I’m optimistic about that,” she said.
In their publishing house she said they have always placed a priority on collaborating closely with artists and illustrators.
“The picture book is an object where you have the illustrations and the text trying to achieve something together, so they don’t work in separate layers.”
Even though picture books tend to have very little text, that certainly doesn’t mean they are simple, and the collaboration is key to the learning experience, she said.
“It’s really important to work with illustrators closely in this relationship, so that we can be sure that the reader will understand everything, or will be challenged by the work that we are making.”
With so many digital temptations for children in the marketplace these days, Minhós Martins believes digital books have some merits but can never replace the experience of physical books.
“You have your own internal rhythm reading a physical book, it is not something that is imposed from outside, and I think it respects you more than that kind of digital ambiance that is always calling you and giving you things that you are not expecting.”
Additionally, when you are reading a physical book it is significantly more stimulating for the brain.
“It is more demanding. But I think that it’s also more interesting for your brain, because you have to do that imagination work yourself.”
When a parent reads a book with a child it completes a triangle, a beautiful relationship, because they share the joy of the book and often the child can read some elements than an adult cannot, and the opposite of course also happens, she said.
“All the elements together make 100 per cent experience of reading complete.”