In 2018, Lerner Books published the first English-language translation of artist and writer, Nie Jun’s, called My Beijing, a collection of slice-of-life stories with a sprinkling of magical realism, translated from its original Chinese. This week, Lerner brings us a whole new adventure from Jun that introduces English-language readers to the fantastical world of the Seekers of Aweto. The first of four volumes, The Hunt Is On begins an epic journey in beautiful water colours about Xinyue, his brother Qiliu, and their mother. They are seekers who hunt the rare, plantlike treasure called aweto that is produced by majestic earth deities. It’s not easy to obtain and doing so leaves a trail of chaos behind them until one day, Xinyue discovers the offsprings of the dieties and grudgingly becomes its caretaker and protector, keeping its secret safe from warriors and thieves.
There are many things that stood about about Seekers of Aweto for Lerner Books’ editor Greg Hunter, who was eager to find a home at Lerner for more of Jun’s work. “He’s just a terrifically skilled cartoonist,” Hunter says in an interview with WWAC. “The way Jun uses watercolor in The Hunt Is On is something special, and I don’t think the book looks quite like anything else.” The environmental consciousness of the story also stands out for Hunter.
Seekers of Aweto fits perfectly with the Lerner Graphic Universe imprint’s eclectic lineup of books for early readers through young adults. “Empathy and a sense of humor” are always welcome, says Hunter. “As a smaller publisher, Lerner’s also in a good position to advocate for early reader/middle grade/YA graphic novels that are especially irreverent, make bold choices in terms of the form, and so forth.” With that in mind, 2021 promises to be a wonderful year for Lerner’s bookshelf with titles like these on the way:
Amazing Inventions, a new graphic series showing how many of our favorite inventions came about (August 2021) by Blake Hoena, Sean Tulien, David Buisán and Ceej Rowland
Artie and the Wolf Moon, a striking Own Voices and LGBTQIA+ story about an African American kid with a werewolf mom (September 2021) by Olivia Stephens
Brontë, a stirring graphic retelling of the lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë (May 2021) by Manuela Santoni
Glorious Wrestling Alliance, a laugh-a-minute book about the universe’s least-professional wrestling company (October 2021) by Josh Hicks
The Spy Who Raised Me, a quirky take on the superspy story (April 2021) by Ted Anderson and Gianna Meola
Super Potato Gets Buff and Super Potato and the Greenhouse of Evil, the latest additions to the off-beat superhero series (February 2021, August 2021) by Artur Laperla
Verdad a la Vista, a bright and magical book with an endearing Latina protagonist (February 2021) by Cori Doerrfeld and Tyler Pager
The Winter of Walking Stone, the latest in the adventurous House Divided series (April 2021) by Haiko Hörnig and Marius Pawlitza
The Wolf in Underpants At Full Speed, a silly, thoughtful, and socially relevant read for the family (March 2021) by Wilfrid Lupano, Paul Cauuet, and Mayana Itoïz
And that’s not to mention all the books Lerner has already published. “One series I’m super fond of is MariNaomi’s Life on Earth, which started with Losing the Girl in 2018,” Hunter points out. “Those books have some really adventurous cartooning in addition to being thoughtful considerations of what people go through in their late teens.” Some of the upcoming books offer a range of sensibilities, from tackling anxiety and identity through a witty take on wrestling, to werewolf lore wrapped around a story about family and community.
These books reflect Lerner’s priority of diversity. Comics translations remain a big part of the graphic novel imprint, Hunter explains, but “publishing stateside creators from a range of experiences is important too. With support within the company as a baseline, for me, a lot of the work with respect to diversity involves making sure I’m a responsible steward of people’s stories. You’re never going to share the background of everyone you’re working with. And without that, to hopefully do your job well, I think you sometimes have to go against your first instincts or what comes naturally as an editor.”
“That’s something of a personal mandate, at least. When you’re giving notes to a storyteller, confidence tends to encourage confidence—if you want someone to think you’re giving good advice, it helps if you think so too! At the same time, if you’re collaborating with someone of a different race, of a different gender identity, I think there’s some power in doubt—asking yourself what experiences or assumptions inform your reaction to a work. In a situation when you and an artist see a storytelling choice differently, that ability to scrutinize yourself can be just as valuable as confidence.
“That’s sort of a long-winded answer, but that’s been my experience as a person of various privileges—in trying to publish a diverse range of stories/creators, having support or a mandate is crucial, but you also have to treat it less like the solution to a problem, more like the point at which your work starts.”
For Seekers of Aweto, Hunter did not have the opportunity to work directly with Jun on the translation. “We didn’t have a shared language through which we could communicate, which meant that when Lerner had questions, they went through Jun’s agent or the agent who coordinated the translation rights. There were multiple links in the chain, which meant a fair amount of follow up, double checking, etc., to make sure the Lerner edition would honor the original intent.” Fortunately, the indirect collaboration process did involve the expertise of translator, Edward Gauvin. “He’s one of the best comics translators working and was particularly suited to this project.” Hunter describes The Hunt is On as an unusual situation because, although Jun is based in Beijing, the French version of Seekers of Aweto was published first through Gallimard, and the editorial oversight that comes with. Gauvin typically translates from French, but was also able to consult regarding the Mandarin style of layout to ensure clarity of the Jun’s intent. “The final translation is the result of those efforts,” says Hunter. “A lot of fastidiousness from everyone involved.”
Jun himself is very excited to have Aweto reach an English-language audience. “I am really happy to meet American readers again [after My Beijing],” quotes Hunter who goes on to say “I know he hopes his love and respect for natural creatures comes through in the story. And the idea of cross-cultural exchange just informs his work in a lot of ways. The Silk Road figures into Seekers of the Aweto as a historical trade route; later volumes will play more with the idea of a forgotten shared language. Even in his cartooning, he’s someone who has taken inspiration not just from Chinese comics but from people like Katsuhiro Otomo and Moebius.”
The first volume of Seekers Aweto: The Hunt Is On is available now at comic shops and book stores.