Washington, DC; March 24, 2015 — Irina Balakhonova, founder of the Samokat Publishing House and a pioneer in publishing works on gay themes in defiance of Russia’s homophobic laws and culture, was chosen as the 2015 recipient of the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award. The prize, which is given annually by the International Freedom to Publish Committee (IFTPC) of the Association of American Publishers (AAP), will be acknowledged during the PEN literary gala and presented at the BookExpo America in May.

Since its founding in 2003, Samokat translated into Russian and published titles by some 100 authors from 16 countries, as well as encouraging works by Russian authors. Its first best seller was a Russian translation of French author Daniel Pennac’s children’s novel Cabot-Caboche. In the years following, Samokat has been recognized by journalists, librarians, parents and young readers as one of the leading publishing houses for children.

In 2013 Samokat published The Jester’s Cap, a book for young adults. One of the book’s main characters is a boy who undergoes a painful separation from his teacher, a young man who must leave Russia because he is gay. The book’s author, Darla Wilke, called its publication “a brave step on the part of the publisher” because it came at a time when the Russian Parliament was enacting laws criminalizing the “promotion of homosexuality for children under 18”. Balakhonova said in an interview: “This book is about us and about our children watching us keep silent. This book says that it is impossible to divide people into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ according to their sexual orientation, that someone has to be brave enough to break this vicious cycle.”

The book sold 2,000 copies at the same time that Balakhonova organized a conference in Moscow to lobby for repeal of the law. According to the International Publishers Association (IPA), Balakonova has done “a remarkable job of providing young Russian readers with access to books from around the world that otherwise would be impossible to find.” Most of Samokat’s titles are sold through small and medium-sized independent booksellers.

“Despite Russia’s stringent laws forcefully restricting and even banning LGBT publications, this year’s honoree has refused to hide,” said Geoff Shandler, Vice President and Editorial Director, William Morrow, who chairs the International Freedom to Publish Committee. “Her commitment, courage and perseverance should be – indeed, must be – an example to us all.”

The Jeri Laber Award recognizes a book publisher outside the United States who has demonstrated courage in the face of restrictions on freedom of expression. The award is named in honor of Jeri Laber, one of the founding members of the IFTPC and the committee’s professional adviser for more than 30 years. She was a founder of Helsinki Watch (which ultimately became Human Rights Watch), and was its executive director from 1979 to 1995. She is also the author of a memoir, The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement.

Acknowledgment of the award is expected at the PEN Literary Gala on May 5. It will be presented at the BookExpo Children’s Author’s Breakfast on Friday, May 29 at the Javits Center in New York.

About AAP

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