Jazzing up children's books: Santa Rosa author and publisher Matthew Gollub draws on his love of music and his talent for languages to create a globetrotting new breed of children's books.

Speaking in Tongues

Author and publisher Matthew Gollub introduces kids to a wide world of culture

MATTHEW GOLLUB was living in Japan when it all started. His job--teaching English to Japanese businessmen--was less than satisfying, and the trilingual Gollub had been working to make a transition from teacher to writer. Then, in the early 1990s, an old friend called with an invitation to team up for a vacation in Oaxaca, Mexico. The friend had an acquaintance, a Mexican artist named Leovigildo Martinez, who had offered to be their guide around Oaxaca.

Gollub, keenly interested in the languages and folktales of different cultures, jumped at the chance to visit Mexico.

"I thought I'd be a good little chronicler of folklore," explains the 39-year-old children's author, publisher, and musician, sitting at the dining room table in his Santa Rosa home. "I decided I'd be a collector of stories."

Tape recorder in hand, Gollub arrived in Oaxaca determined to become a "cultural informant," vigorously pursuing his quest to capture traditional Mexican folktales on tape. With Martinez's help, he approached everyone from downtown fruit vendors to pueblo-dwelling herbalists and spiritual healers. All seemed eager to share their tales.

He collected dozens of "authentic" stories before realizing that something wasn't quite right.

"It soon became obvious that the old stories I was being told were more than a little bit, um, spontaneous," Gollub recalls. "In other words, they were making this stuff up. Or at least they were retelling stories according to what they thought I wanted to hear.

"So I thought, 'I'll do the same thing. I'll tell Mexican folktales that will hold water for an American audience.'"

Martinez offered to help. Explains Gollub, "Leo said to me, 'You're a writer. I am an artist. Why don't we make books together?'"

Picture This: The Sebastopol Library hosts an exhibition of work by three prominent Sonoma County illustrators.

THEIR FIRST collaboration was The Twenty-Five Mixtec Cats, a children's tale about a battle between two Mexican magicians, one of whom has adopted 25 mysterious and very clever cats. The story--a loose adaptation of the tales that Gollub heard during his stay in Mexico--was beautifully supported by Martinez's colorful, remarkably complex illustrations. Even so, publishers rejected the book 25 times--once for every one of those cats.

"The book was kind of out there," Gollub admits. "When your work is offbeat, it's harder to sell, but I think it has a better chance of making a big splash when it does come out."

Indeed, when William Morrow finally took a chance and published The Twenty-Five Mixtec Cats, the book met with resounding critical praise and success, quickly amassing a suitcase-full of awards.

"At that time, the children's market was only accustomed to books about barn animals and fuzzy bedtime stories," Gollub says.

There soon followed a second collaboration between Gollub and Martinez: The Moon Was at a Fiesta, a whimsical tale that explained why the moon sometimes appears in the daytime sky. The new effort received a similar outpouring of critical acclaim and honors.

AT THIS POINT, however, something happened that changed the course of Gollub's career: William Morrow began phasing out its children's book division. Gollub's books were in danger of going out of print. After buying the rights back from Morrow, he decided to start his own publishing house in 1997.

By this time, Gollub had relocated from Japan to California and was beginning to build a successful side-career as a public speaker, musician, and storyteller, capitalizing on the name recognition his books were bringing. Gollub named his publishing company Tortuga Press, adopting the Spanish name for turtle.

"The turtle is allowed to move slowly," explains Gollub with a soft chuckle. "When I was a brand-new publisher, just beginning to learn the ropes, the turtle was a very comforting image to me."

Determined to avoid the low-quality standards set by many do-it-yourself publishers, Gollub spent months researching book manufacturers that could guarantee the same quality as a major publishing house. He finally chose a manufacturer based in Hong Kong.

"If you do your homework, it doesn't have to cost all that much," Gollub insists. "Most do-it-yourselfers aren't all that well informed about their options."

Along with re-releases of his previous books, he published a third collaboration with Martinez, the eerie and delightful Uncle Snake, about a boy who is half-reptile. It became a huge hit with Gollub's young audiences.

Through Tortuga, Gollub now supplies books to more than 150 vendors. He's released paperback versions of all his stories, Spanish-language versions of Mixtec Cats and Fiesta, and three videos, two featuring Gollub reading bilingual stories and the other offering teachers tips for dynamic storytelling to young people.

But despite his growing distribution network, Gollub still sells the lion's share of books at his live appearances. He's performed at schools and bookstores in 10 states and is now preparing to visit Indiana and Utah for the first time.

These visits are a way for Gollub to spread his passionate opinions about kids and books. He believes parents should read to their children daily, a practice he follows with his 4-year-old son, Jacob, to whom Gollub reads a bedtime story every night from a stack of library books by the boy's bed.

"If he's poking along or being fussy, we just say, 'You'd better brush your teeth and wash your face or you won't get your story,'" Gollub says. "That's the only discipline we use. He always hops to because he never wants to miss his bedtime stories."

Jacob--who knows the titles of all his father's books by heart--is the main reason Gollub runs Tortuga from his home.

"If I had an office I'd probably be more productive overall, but I'd miss a lot of time around him," Gollub says.

IRONICALLY, with the success of the children's books, Leo Martinez found his fine-art work increasingly sought after around the world, and now has little time to devote to illustration, though he and Gollub are talking about doing another book soon.

With Martinez tied up, Gollub has begun collaborating with other artists. Cool Melons--Turn to Frogs!, a translation of several magical Japanese haiku, was illustrated by Kazuko Stone of New York.

Gollub's latest, The Jazz Fly--the story of a bebopping bug who learns the value of knowing more than one language--was handsomely computer-illustrated (a Tortuga Press first) by Sonoma County artist Karen Hanke. The very funny book also includes a CD of Gollub performing The Jazz Fly on drums, exuberantly backed up by local musicians Aida de Arteaga, Cliff Zyskowski, and Ylonda Nickell. Since its release last month, the book has been outselling all of Gollub's other titles 5 to 1.

"The effect on schoolkids has been magical," Gollub says.

His next effort is a second collaboration with Kazuko Stone, a book titled Ten Oni Drummers. After that, Gollub plans to do Gobble Quack Moon, a fanciful tale about the residents of a barnyard, due out next spring.

"I'm finally doing a 'barn animal' book," he says with a laugh. "But I promise you, I'm doing it my way."

From the April 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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