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Children’s Literature in Translation: Tapioca Stories

By Words Without Borders

In recent years, a proliferation of books in translation for children and young adults has brought imaginative stories from around the world to new readers. We’re speaking with some of the extraordinary publishers who make these books possible about their experience working in this vital field.

For the eighth installment in the series, we spoke with Yael Berstein, founder of Tapioca Stories.


WWB: How did Tapioca Stories come into being? 

Yael Berstein (YB): I’ve always loved illustrated books, maybe even more now, as an adult. It’s fascinating to see a good marriage between the illustration and the text—both are essential to the flow of the narrative. Whenever I travel, I try to bring home books that display the beautiful styles of illustrated narrative from around the world.

The eureka moment to start Tapioca Stories happened while searching for books to give as birthday gifts to my kids’ friends. There are a lot of beautiful illustrated books in English, but I wanted to give something that was more representative of our family and the languages we speak at home, and also translated into English so it could be shared with our friends here in the US. I tried to find some of the books by renowned authors and illustrators from Latin America and realized that very few have been translated into English. I was really surprised and quite sad that we couldn’t share these books. It was this experience that made me decide to start this adventure with Tapioca Stories and bring to English readers these beautiful books from Latin America.

WWB: Is there a particular theme, focus, or aesthetic that the children's books published by Tapioca Stories share?

YB: The illustrations in Tapioca Stories’ books are absolutely beautiful and creative. There are many talented Latin American artists making illustrated books using a variety of media and styles. We publish books that show this richness and hint at Latin American culture. I see an illustrated book as a piece of art, so the design and binding of the book is also an important element of each piece. We aim to publish good stories without limitations on theme, and to surprise English readers with different narratives.

Tapioca's first two titles: The Elevator by Yael Frankel and The Invisible by Alcides Villaça and Andrés Sandoval.


WWB: What are you looking for in a children’s story as a publisher and as a reader? What do you think draws a child into a story? Do you think that a good children’s book will always have some appeal for adults as well? 

YB: I’m looking for illustrated stories that touch me in a way that no other story has before, and those that leave space to imagine in between the lines and the illustrations. The narrative has to be a symbiosis between the text and the illustrations—individually powerful, but they have to tell the story together. It’s very subjective, a matter of taste, but both the illustration and the manuscript have to intensify emotions. As publisher of Tapioca Stories, I want stories that could be happening anywhere in the world, but the style of the narrative and illustrations are quite unique to Latin American artists. I want to preserve the cultural nuances in the books that we publish in such a way that you feel that there is something special there, but you almost can’t tell what it is. For example, The Elevator could be a story in any building in the world, but it’s told with this special Argentinian humor. I believe that exposing children to different narratives allows them to naturally develop better human connections.

I really believe that good illustrated books are good for everyone. I feel we tend to underestimate what children can grasp, and also limit what adults can enjoy. Children have such fresh minds that they are naturally curious and very imaginative. They have a great sensibility to almost anything, and certainly to a good illustrated book. I wish we all could appreciate an illustrated book the way they do. Naturally, every child and every adult will perceive a book in a different way, and this is simply beautiful in itself.


WWB: What have been some of the most exciting aspects of the undertaking so far? What (if any) have you found to be the most challenging aspects of publishing children’s literature (and particularly children's literature from Latin America)?

YB: Everything in the publishing world is new to me, and I’m really loving it. I’m enjoying all the steps of the making of a book and learning a lot. As a publisher, I’m discovering even more books, which is definitely exciting and something everyone at home is enjoying as well. It’s even more exciting to know the stories behind the story and all the layers and details of the illustrations.

One particularly challenging title was The Invisible, which was difficult in many aspects, but especially in finding the right materials. This book has a very peculiar design, with red acetate sheets that create the “invisible” effect, and the Brazilian edition was printed in 2011, so we couldn’t find the exact same material, or at least not in the same color. In order to print the English edition, we had to change the colors of the illustrations to make the invisible effect happen with the acetate we could find.

The same page of The Invisible seen with and without the red acetate sheet.

There was a lot involved in getting this right. I’ve definitely learned much more than I expected in such a short time in publishing, which is wonderful. And the book came out gorgeous. I couldn’t be happier with it.

But the biggest challenge has been launching the publishing house during the pandemic. Everything works in different ways and at a different pace now. We all have to be creative to adapt. Sadly, a lot of bookstores are struggling these days, which has made distribution even harder. I’m sure there will be more challenges that I’ll learn about soon.


WWB: What is a new or forthcoming title that you are looking forward to sharing with readers?

YB: Our very first titles just came out, and we’re very excited about both of them.

The Elevator by Yael Frankel is a humorous story of what should be a routine elevator trip but turns out to be a fantastic trip full of surprises. It’s a series of simple events with a lot of humor and sensibility in the connection between the residents of this one building. The illustrations are gorgeous, and it explores the elongated design of the book in such a way that the reader can sense if the elevator is going up or down and can almost be a part of the trip.

The Invisible is a playful poem about a boy who wishes to be invisible. Beautiful illustrations and a very ingenious design work so that with every turn of the page, with every stanza, the boy appears or disappears. The boy starts to imagine all the things he would do if he had the superpower of invisibility but then questions how much he actually enjoys not being seen and loved for who he is. It’s wonderful in that it can be read as a beautiful love story but can also open a conversation about invisibility in our society, as individuals and as groups.

A page of The Invisible (left) and The Elevator.


WWB: What's next for Tapioca Stories?

YB: More stunning illustrated books from Latin America.


Tapioca Stories is a New York-based publishing house that introduces young English readers to the finest Latin American children's books, originally written in Spanish and Portuguese.


Read more interviews with publishers of children’s literature in translation

Published Jan 29, 2021   Copyright 2021 Words Without Borders

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