An illuminating interview with Tiny Owl’s publisher
Read a wonderful interview with Delaram Ghanimifard, co-founder of Tiny Owl, by fab Jo Bowers for the English Association’s English 4 – 11 magazine.
Tiny Owl is an independent book publisher of picture books that support a peaceful and diverse society. They are currently working on a project called Intercultural Bridge, pairing authors and illustrators from different countries. Jo Bowers recently interviewed them to find out about the ethos behind their books.
Tiny Owl is one of a few independent book publishers of children’s literature that specialises in publishing stories from authors and illustrators from around the world. Even though they are a recently established book publisher, they are already being talked about and read by many. I have been drawn to their books because I love picture books with stories that invite discussion by the messages and questions that arise as you read them. As someone who works with teachers to develop philosophical enquiry in the classroom, finding these picture books has suddenly built up my library that I use as a stimuli for these sessions. The illustrations in every book are beautiful and each book has introduced me to new authors and illustrators. I got in touch with Delaram Ghanimifard, founder of Tiny Owl, to find out a bit more about the philosophy behind Tiny Owl as a publisher of children’s literature.
My first question was how and why was Tiny Owl born?
It started with a personal need. I am an immigrant, and my nine-year-old son (at the time) was learning English and starting to explore English picture books in 2010 when we came to London. We found many excellent books in the library, but almost none of them reflected the diverse community he was now living in. None of them had anything about his cultural background. I started to wonder, do I want him to grow up without any knowledge of Rumi, Ferdowsi, and the rich Iranian literature? How many Iranian children are living in the UK and around the globe? How many second generation immigrants can’t read the literature in the original Persian language? This made me think and start the journey. But as we started I realised that I don’t think our books are targeted at a specific ethnicity and ignore the others. We are not only about Iranian children or other minorities. We are about a peaceful diverse society.
We want to play our part to enrich the children’s book industry with art and literature from around the world. I think we tend to underestimate children’s understanding of art and philosophical literature. Picture books are excellent facilitators of visual literacy, and children love them. Also, children are thinkers and they like to challenge us with their deep philosophical questions.
Are all your stories retellings of Iranian stories? And if so, what stories did you choose to publish first and why?
We started with Iranian stories, because we knew the best stories there and the best illustrators. We chose the best known Iranian classics like The Little Black Fish (Behrangi 2017) with its award-winning illustrations from Farshid Mesghali and stories from Rumi, the 13th century poet, with the enchanting illustrations of Marjan Vafaian. We liked the mix of this traditional story and the modern take on retelling it, changing the main character (a male merchant) to a woman. We also liked the poetic stories of the contemporary Iranian poet, Ahmadreza Ahmadi, who spoke of dark realities, then immediately spoke of hope and change. We wanted to bring in the diverse artistic illustrations of talented illustrators like Anahita Teymorian.
So we started with Iran, but never wanted to limit ourselves to one culture. That’s why we are starting a project called ‘intercultural bridge’, pairing authors and illustrators from different countries. We want to see a story from different cultural angles. The first book of this project was published with Pippa Goodhart as a British author and Ehsan Abdollahi as an Iranian illustrator. And we are expanding on our translation books and bringing in books from different countries now. We want our stories to be meaningful and we value the sophisticated artwork of our books.
Did you always plan that the stories would be picture books too? Can you tell me a little bit about the process of selecting a story through to the end product?
We always knew we wanted to publish picture books. We work with illustrators in a few different ways. Sometimes they come up with an idea and send their work to us to consider. This is when the illustrations come before the story. We try to find an author to retell the story, if we feel the story still needs retelling. If we have the story first, we think about the best illustrator to work on the artwork. We send the story to the illustrator and ask for a concept sketch and then a story board. Then the work can go back and forth between us, the illustrator and the author to make changes and create the final version.
I agree that all the stories I have read by Tiny Owl are universal stories for everyone with messages for both children and adults. Do you have any experiences of taking the books into schools and libraries to share with children and if so can you share any of these experiences?
We’ve had some great events for children in libraries and in book festivals and we’ve read many of our titles to children. I love it when children ask unexpected deep questions after a story. I remember especially after reading The Parrot and the Merchant (Vafaian 2017) to children, they talked about how love brings about the idea of freedom. After reading that story a child asked me why the merchant in the illustrations was so big and the servants were tiny! Children can recognise all the details. And the ideas they come up with are lovely. We had a crafts session after a reading of When I Coloured In the World (Ahmadi 2017) once, and we asked children to use their favourite colour to change something they didn’t like to a better thing. One of the children changed ‘egg’ to ‘ham’ and another one changed ‘stupid’ to ‘loved’.
And finally, how did you decide on the name, Tiny Owl?
I was inspired by seeing a picture of a cute little baby owl. For us, Tiny Owl signifies ‘children’ and ‘knowledge’. We like to see our books as little birds spreading knowledge, and our audience are knowledgeable children.
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