Last week in Canberra, For Pity Sake Publishing was honoured to have the Austrian Ambassador, His Excellency Dr Zimburg, formally launch two of the Bettina Ehrlich illustrated children’s books we’ve re-produced to date – Francesco and Francesco and The Goat Boy.
How did that even happen, I hear you ask? Well for one thing, author and artist Bettina Ehrlich is Austrian although she lived most of her life in England. Born Bettina Bauer in Vienna in 1903, she married sculptor Georg Ehrlich in 1930. After the Nazi Anschluss in March 1938, it was no longer safe for the Ehrlich’s to stay in Austria. Bettina joined her husband who was already in England in July of that year, living there until her death in London in 1985.
The other reason is The Goat Boy itself. Of the six Bettina Ehrlich books For Pity Sake has secured the rights to reproduce, it is the only one that is set in Austria. When His Excellency the Austrian Ambassador first laid eyes on The Goat Boy he was enchanted by Bettina’s beautiful illustrations, saying how much they reminded him of home.
Having never heard of Bettina Ehrlich himself, the next question His Excellency asked was how a small, indie publisher on Sydney’s Northern Beaches came to reproduce six of an Austrian author’s children’s books?
Well there’s a story behind that too. Most of you already know that For Pity Sake Publishing was named for my dad, Keith McDonald OBE, a media executive of some note who also begat four lively daughters. ‘For pity sake!’ was an exclamation I heard a lot while growing up.
Dad started his career as a finance journalist so it’s no surprise that he loved words and stories. Given the hours he worked, it’s a minor miracle my sisters and I ever had bedtime stories read to us, but we did and many of them. The Bettina books were part of this ritual and I distinctly remember the first time I ever laid eyes on The Goat Boy. Originally published by Oxford University Press in 1965, I must have been five or six years old when Dad brought the book home from one of his sojourns to the largest bookshop in Brisbane at the time, the Queensland Book Depot.
I recall tugging on his suit sleeve, begging him to read it to me right there and then. But he didn’t. Instead he disappeared downstairs to his office (or the bat-cave as his daughters called it) and covered the book in plastic. He did that with every subsequent Bettina Ehrlich book he ever bought for us, and I’m so glad he did. The same six books I remember from childhood – The Goat Boy, Francesco and Francesco, Sardines and the Angel, Trovato, Angelo and Rosaline and For the Leg of a Chicken – have survived relatively well in spite of hundreds of readings over two generations of McDonalds. So well in fact that when I started For Pity Sake five years ago, it became my mission to figure out how we could get Bettina’s beautifully illustrated stories back into circulation.
In order to do that we had to ascertain who held the publishing rights for these works now that Bettina Ehrlich was no longer with us. The first port of call was the original publisher Oxford University Press in the UK. The contract manager we corresponded with confirmed that they knew of Bettina and her work but that Oxford University Press no longer held the publishing rights nor any of the original illustrations or designs. That prompted a full-on, international search for Bettina’s last Will and Testament, which eventually led us to Jewish Blind and Disabled. Hailed as the only Jewish organisation in the UK providing mobility and independent living services for the disabled and visually impaired, Bettina was probably resident here at the time of her death, bequeathing the rights to her work to JBD in her Will.
JBD kindly granted For Pity Sake the worldwide rights to republish the six Bettina children’s books mentioned earlier, the first two being Francesco and Francesca and The Goat Boy with Sardines and the Angel scheduled for release in 2020.
Apart from being an admirer of great storytelling, my dad also put a high value on quality in the production process. This ranged from the registration of photographs and veracity of skin tones when colour was introduced to newspaper production, to the quality of the print job on hardback children’s books. He often exhorted my sisters and I to take care of our books because, ‘Books are our friends’.
When embarking on the reproduction of Bettina Ehrlich’s beautifully illustrated children’s books, these words rang in my ears. Enter Barbie Robinson, our Canberra-based designer, who became a kindred spirit in the quest to do justice to these wonderful works AND to have quality hardback versions printed right here in Australia. Barbie painstakingly resized and laid out high quality scanned images of the original pages to resemble the originals as closely as possible. After a few years of fruitless searching for an Australian printer who would actually produce hardbacked large-sized children’s books (everyone does them in China), the international self-publishing platform, IngramSpark, finally introduced this capability to its Melbourne-based operations. We’re so thrilled they did, and equally thrilled at the quality of the end-product. I think my dad would be well pleased.
To celebrate the official launch of For Pity Sake’s re-published Bettina Ehrlich children’s books, we’re offering a 20% discount on the print, ebook and audiobook formats of The Goat Boy and Francesco and Francesca. Just use the code AUSTRIA at check out.