World kid lit month

I often get messages from parents and teachers asking for suggestions of translated books for younger readers. As my original reading the world quest and subsequent eight years of international literary exploration have focused almost entirely on adult books (with Dominica, Samoa and one of my Chinese books of the month being rare exceptions), I can rarely do more than point people in the direction of a few useful websites and resources.

However, there are plenty of adventurous readers with lots to say on this subject, as I discovered earlier this summer when I tweeted asking for details of translated books I could buy my daughter for her third birthday. A lot of excellent recommendations flooded in, chief among them, a thread of suggestions from translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Ruth is co-editor of the World Kid Lit blog. Check it out for lots of great recommendations and ways you can get involved, including #WorldKidLitMonth, which takes place every September (and was founded by Marcia Lynx Qualey, Alexandra Büchler and Lawrence Schimel).*

My daughter and I have had great fun trying out many of the suggestions and so, in celebration of this year’s #WorldKidLitMonth, I wanted to share three titles that have become firm favourites in our house.

Valdemar’s Peas

This was a hit from the moment it dropped onto the doormat. ‘Again!’ came the call after the first reading. ‘Again!’ was the command after the second. And so on. It’s easy to see why: centring on a battle over eating vegetables and sibling rivalry, this wittily illustrated story is instantly relatable for toddlers. Unlike many comparable English-language titles, however, this one resists the temptation to take a preachy tone and drive towards an ending in which Valdemar learns why it is important to eat peas. Instead, there is a lovely irreverence to the way the story plays out that allows both reader and listener to revel in naughtiness. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it seems to have increased my daughter’s interest in peas. ‘I’m having peas like Valdemar!’ she told me a few days after the book arrived, cheerfully scooping handfuls into her mouth.

Valdemar’s Peas by Maria Jönsson, translated from the Swedish by Julia Marshall (Gecko Press, 2018)

Oscar Seeks a Friend

This book puts a fresh spin on a common theme in books for little people: the quest for someone to play with. This time, the character in need of companionship is a skeleton thrown into a panic when one of his teeth falls out, disfiguring him for good. When he tries to bargain with a little girl who has just lost one of her milk teeth, a surprising and rather touching adventure ensues. Author-illustrator Paweł Pawlak’s collage-like illustrations absolutely make this book, with comedy, curiosity and talking points on every page (ever wondered what a skeleton would look like riding a penny-farthing?).

Oscar Seeks a Friend by Paweł Pawlak, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Lantana Publishing, 2019)

My Pictures After the Storm

It’s often said that humour is one of the hardest things to translate. Yet this doesn’t seem to have been a problem for translator Daniel Hahn with this wonderful picture-story book. A lot of the comedy is in the illustrations (which include witty before-and-after depictions of lunch, the arrival of a baby sister and a swimming trip), but there is some sparkling word-play too, which means this book offers something for readers of a wide range of linguistic capability to enjoy. As with Valdemar’s Peas, there is a lovely irreverence to a lot of the sections (witness the boiled spinach – the only item left untouched after lunch). It’s also a great one for aspiring readers to spend time looking through on their own.

My Pictures After the Storm by Éric Veillé, translated from the French by Daniel Hahn (Gecko Press, 2017)

* Changed to give the correct names of the founders of #Worldkidlitmonth.

Children’s book competition result


Wow. What a lot of wonderful book recommendations you gave me in response to my request for suggestions of children’s stories written in languages other than English. Entries have come from far and wide – Ukraine, India, China and Switzerland to name just a few.

Reading through your comments has been a joyful and intriguing experience. And, as is always the case with exploring literature from elsewhere, it has given me so much more than simply ideas for good reads.

I really enjoyed your accounts of the different ways you’ve read and shared stories. From Annemarie and her cousins rewording one of the songs in the audioversion of Klatremus og de andre dyrene i Hakkebakkeskogen by Thorbjørn Egner for her grandmother’s 80th birthday to Ray and his schoolfriends pretending to be the title character in Yang Hongying’s Naughty Ma Xiaotiao.

The cultural information you shared along the way was fascinating too. I was very interested by teacher Mariska’s comment that in Sweden children who have a mother tongue other than Swedish have a legal right to receive tuition in that language as part of their school education. Similarly, I loved the video that Encarni shared of giants dancing in Catalonia. This is something I experienced first hand at a festival in the Priorat region a few years ago and it is a wonderful sight. It was great to learn that the tradition comes from the song and tale ‘El Gegant del Pi’.

The book recommendations themselves were marvellous. So many tempting-sounding stories and concepts – from a paintbrush that enables a poor boy to bring his imaginings to life (Magic Brush by Hong Xuntao) to a book about a girl with a terminally ill mother that also contains recipes for the world’s best cocoa and pancakes as well as special tricks for secret agents (Die erstaunlichen Abenteuer der Maulina Schmitt by Finn-Ole Heinrich).

And, among the many new discoveries, I was struck by the handful of familiar stories that came to light too. There were favourites such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, along with well-known fables like the Kiswahili account of how the tortoise got its shell (Safari Ya Angani by Francis Atulo) – a version of which I heard in primary school. These shared narratives, many of which have travelled around the world, reminded me once again of the extraordinary power that stories have to connect us across cultural barriers.

I could easily have chosen ten or more winners from among the entries, but sadly I only have one signed copy of Reading the World to give away. And so, after much deliberation, I have decided to give the prize to Frances for her recommendation of the Italian classic Le avventure di Cipollino by Gianni Rodari, a story that has been popular in many parts of the world, including Russia, where the postage stamp pictured above featuring two of the characters is from.

Frances’s description of the tale was well-calculated to pique my interest: ‘a story of good versus evil and the power of affection, family and friendship in the fight against tyranny… in a world of vegetables and fruits’. But it was what she said after her pitch that tipped the balance. Describing how she had been able to recite the story word for word when a friend began to read it aloud years later, she wrote: ‘This is the reason of my choice: the book is good and I love it, but even more so, it is engraved in my heart. These books, we always want to pass on to others, as a gift from our heart to theirs.’

To me, that is the key to many of the best reading experiences I have had during this project and throughout my life. I hope 2016 brings many more such reads for all of us – books that we love so passionately that we want to give others the gift of reading them too.

Happy new year everybody and thanks again. Frances, I’ll be in touch.

Tell me about children’s books (and I might give you a free book)

Finished book

Since I started my quest to read the world, I’ve encountered all sorts of literary explorers. I’ve had messages from people doing their own round-the-world trips on different timescales and with contrasting criteria to mine. I know of bloggers engaged in sampling the literary offerings of particular regions or continents, or of all the nations playing in the world cup. And I’ve heard from people who are trying to find international books from particular genres. (I even got an email not so long ago from someone set on reading a horror novel from every state – a particularly dark quest, as he pointed out!)

Perhaps the most common inquiry I receive from prospective world readers, however, concerns children’s books. I’ve lost track of the number of parents and teachers who have written to me asking for advice on resources they can use to help youngsters read more widely. It’s great to know that so many children are surrounded by adults keen to help expand their imaginary universes in this way.

Although during my quest I only read two books aimed specifically at children (my choices for Dominica and for the Central African Republic) and one YA novel (Samoa), my literary adventures have brought me into contact with a number of great projects exploring children’s literature from around the world. In the UK, for example, the wonderful Outside In World organisation has done a lot to bring more great books onto British children’s radars. Meanwhile in New York, this list compiled by Marianna Vertsman at Mid-Manhattan Library is a great starting point. There are also some wonderful personal projects, such as the Read Around the World section on mother-of-three Amy’s Delightful Children’s Books blog.

In my reading this year, I was also enthralled by Helen Wang’s wonderful translation of Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, a glorious children’s story set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. I made it my April Book of the month and I’ve been very pleased to see that it’s been getting some much deserved attention in the UK Independent and Guardian newspapers this week.

But, as you’ve probably gathered from this project, I’m a great believer that you can never have enough book recommendations. So I thought I’d see what you’ve got to add to the discussion of children’s literature from beyond the English-speaking world. And because it’s the festive, gift-giving season in many parts of the planet and I’m feeling generous, I thought I’d offer you the chance of getting a signed copy of my book in return.

Simply leave a comment below giving the title and author of your favourite children’s book written in a language other than English, and up to four sentences about why you like it. Your recommended title can be available in translation or yet to be translated, and it can be a picture book or full of words. My main criteria are that you love it and that it’s good.

On January 1 at midday UK time, I will read through all the entries and choose my favourite, most persuasive book pitch. And that person will get a signed copy of the UK edition of my book, Reading the World (pictured above). I’ll even personalise the dedication and post it to you and everything. So go on, tell me what children’s stories we English-language readers are missing.