Jair Hernandez, one of the founders of Bab’l Books, is using his Harvard Business School degree to fill a need: bilingual children’s books for bilingual families, in both eBook and print formats. Bab’l Books was recently chosen for LearnLaunch Accelerator, a program to help educational technology startups grow and thrive. We’re thrilled that Jair agreed to be interviewed for Writers’ Rumpus. Jair is hoping to hear from authors and illustrators with universal stories that children from any culture can relate to.
Marianne Knowles: How did Bab’l Books get started?
Jair Hernandez: Bab’l Books came out of my own background. I grew up in Houston, but I was born in Mexico. Growing up, there was a strong desire to keep our language in our family. We didn’t want to lose it, we wanted to add English to it. Being bilingual is important. One time, when I was on a visit in Mexico with my sister and her children, we stopped at a store near the border. She bought a lot of toys and books in Spanish. I asked her, “Why are you buying so much stuff? How will we carry this home?” She said that, in the United States, it’s hard to find books for her children in her own language, and she wanted them to learn Spanish as well as English.
A year later, I’m at Harvard Business School. There’s a class project to start a business and get it up and running in two months. What my sister said stayed with me, and I wondered if there was a need to provide children’s books in languages other than English. If it was hard for her to find books in Spanish, what about languages with fewer speakers? So I tried out the idea in class, and others liked it and joined me. We started out making one illustrated eBook available in 12 languages to see how it would go. The semester ended and we went away for the summer. When we got back in the fall, the B-school wasn’t happy with us. They said this was a student project and we should have shut down the store before we left, not leave it up all summer and sell hundreds of copies! We looked at the results, and were selling a lot of books, especially in Vietnamese, so clearly we were meeting a need. We decided to continue, so we got Bab’l Books accepted by Harvard’s business accelerator, and we grew. Now we’re part of the LearnLaunch Accelerator, and we’re growing even more.
MK: I noticed that the pages of your books are bilingual with English, rather than a single language. What was behind that decision?
JH: When we got started, we asked parents we knew if they were more interested in bilingual text or single-language text. Out of 20 to 30 parents, half said dual language, and half said single, so that sample didn’t help. So we put the first book up in both options; at the end of a few months, of the Kindle copies that sold, almost all were in dual text—English with another language. So we decided to do all of our books bilingual, because that’s what people were buying.
And this makes sense, because there are a lot more use cases when it helps to have both languages on the page. For example, parents can read the same story to their children in one language or the other, taking turns each time they read. That way kids learn both languages. A child will like the fact that the book is in both English and another language, because they identify with the book. That’s them! The child speaks two languages, and the book is in two languages, and they like that. It’s more personal.
It can be difficult to raise children to be bilingual, but it can be a lot less work to make sure that children know they come from a bilingual home. Parents want children to understand the language spoken by their grandparents, even if they’re not fluent. Our bilingual books help with that, too.
MK: Does Bab’l Books publish its own books, or translations of books that are already published?
JH: We do both. We publish original content, and we partner with self-published authors and illustrators who have an interest in making their work available in other languages.
MK: Tell me about your process. How are Bab’l Books different from traditionally translated children’s books?
JH: First and foremost, we use a model called crowdsourcing. It’s multiple people doing the translation of one book. That is the key to having higher quality translations. On the Translate site, you can see all of our books page by page, sentence by sentence, and see the translations that people have submitted.
Traditional publishers target a specific country and hire someone to do the translation, but that translator may have a bias toward the way that the language is spoken in a particular place. For example, Spanish is spoken in Spain, Argentina, Mexico, and many other countries. A translator may have a Ph.D. or a Masters, and translated many things before, but that one person only represents one view. When many parents and teachers are involved, the result is a translation that is more appropriate to children and closer to what they’d hear at home.
MK: Do you match authors and illustrators, or is it up to the two to find each other?
JH: If an author has a particular illustrator in mind, we’ll consider their suggestions. But if the author doesn’t know who to get or how to find an illustrator, we can match them up. We give the author a list of illustrators in our network, and the author indicates which ones they’re interested in, and then Bab’l books makes the contact.
MK: Are there particular kinds of stories you’re interested in?
We publish picture books for ages 3 to 7. We look for stories that have a lesson or message the author wants to share in a subtle manner. The story’s message needs to translate across cultures, like the importance of sharing, never giving up, or not bullying. Stories with universal appeal. We try and stay away from any stories in rhyme or with puns or word play.
MK: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
JH: Yes, we are collecting submissions for our next round of books! Our goal is to have them ready for the upcoming holiday season. We’re looking for stories that are already self-published and illustrated; we’re a good resource for self-published authors to get their stories into other languages. If we have your story by Halloween, we can get it ready for Christmas.
MK: How should an author or illustrator submit a query to you?
JH: Use the form on the Bab’l Books contact page. Tell us what your story is about, what you’re hoping to communicate, and which languages you would want the book to be available in. A lot of our authors and illustrators are passionate about bilingual books, and have a personal connection to another language, so it helps to let us know why you have an interest in making your book available in a particular language. Is there a family connection, or do you teach children who speak that language? We’ll reach out to people who are interested in working with us, and determine if there’s a good fit.
MK: Thanks for joining us, Jair! We hope Bab’l Books grows and thrives.