In Translation: The Marvelous Translated Picture Books of 2019 (So Far)
Let’s do this.
I’m thinking a lot about trends these days. What has happened in 2019 to set it apart from other years? And not to give anything away, but I believe I’ve noticed a significant uptick in translations recently. To what do I owe this marked increase? Perhaps they’ve been doing well financially. Perhaps small publishers are making up more and more of the marketplace and are more willing to take risks. Perhaps people are looking beyond borders, willing themselves to read books that they might otherwise write off as “weird”. Whatever the case, I like what I’m seeing. I particularly like what I’m seeing on today’s list of titles. These aren’t the usual suspects, so sit back and enjoy some international fare that’s truly worth locating:
The Marvelous Translated Picture Books of 2019
All Around Bustletown: Winter by Rotraut Susanne Berner
[Origins – German]
In spite of this book’s thick, board book-like pages, I’m inclined to put this in the picture book section due to its size and contents. And what wonderful contents they are, too! This little German import follows in the step of Anno, as you drive by a variety of different winter scenes. Now in the past this book would have cause me a small headache. Why? Because those Europeans, lord love ‘em, are crap at multiculturalism. Not Berner! Somehow she got the memo and so this book is more than just a sea of samey same same white faces. Amazing how that contributes to the joy of picking out all the details and repeating characters. A seek-and-find book for the 21st century.
Along the Tapajos by Fernando Vilela, translated by Daniel Hahn
[Origins – Brazil]
Does any else remember Kampung Boy by Lat, published here in the States in 2006? For whatever reason, this book reminded me of that eclectic graphic import. This one hails from Brazil, and it’s a straightforward retelling of what happens in the state of Pará, along the Tapajós River. Every year, when the rainy season comes (in the winter), whole villages will just pick up and move away. Part of what I like about this book so much is the fact that this migration is viewed as so normal that it’s almost not worth commenting on. We certainly don’t have a lot of books about kids from riverside populations, so this is one of those engaging titles that offers a glimpse of a location new to most American readers. More translations like this one, please!
The Book in the Book in the Book by Julien Baer, ill. Simon Bailly, translated by Elizabeth Law
[Origins – French]
It’s not that this kind of book hasn’t necessarily been done before. I know it has. But even more than those other titles, what this book really reminded me of was Evan Turk’s The Storyteller, where you dive deep into a story in a story in a story and then the author has to deftly pull you right back out again. Plus the book’s just neat, you know? Get the right kid to read it to and it may well blow their little minds.
The Boring Book by Shinsuke Yoshitake, translated by ???
[Origins – Japanese]
Let the record show that I believe truly, in my heart of hearts, that Shinsuke Yoshitake’s Still Stuck ranks as one of the funniest Japanese imported picture books of this or any other year. So that set the bar mighty high for this particular title. As it happens, I adore it. I think it does a marvelous job of not just discussing boredom but also the philosophical ramifications of boredom in all its myriad forms. Plus I just love how the guy draws a bored face. Think about it. How do you draw a person who is bored? You get a real sense of that when you get to the wordless two-page spread of what happens when 300 bored people get together. It kind of makes me appreciate how not bored I am as an adult. This? This is great not-boring-at-all funny stuff wrought from the fodder of boredom.
The Ear by Piret Raud
[Origins – Estonian]
Because you simply cannot have enough Estonian children’s books on your shelves, as far as I’m concerned. Sadly there is no word on who did the translation for this book. I’m giving publisher Thames & Hudson some extra points on gumption for putting the rather kooky “Inspired by Van Gogh” button on the physical cover (though it’s not on the image here, interestingly enough). It just sort of gives this wackadoodle tale of an ear with impetus that extra goofy push. I love that it begins with a shot of Van Gogh considering the ear and then when she “wakes up” she’s near some rather famous Van Gogh bedroom shots. Not that Raud is trying to emulate his style AT ALL. I just love that she thought to herself, “Van Gogh cut off his ear. So what would happen if the ear wanted to find its place in the world?” And then the fact that the ear turns out to be a great listener?!? Okay, that’s it. I love this book. It’s not an art style Americans naturally gravitate towards but the story is strong. I am on board with this weird book.
A Good Day by Daniel Nesquens, ill. Miren Asiain Lora, translation by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
[Origins – Spanish]
Here’s another book that works by its own, strange internal logic. With a style that feels like a 21st century (I keep mentioning him) Anno (Anno + selfie sticks) the story is a restrained, lightly magical tale of a tiger that yearns for freedom and the canny housecat that helps him achieve that dream. The top half of the book is dedicated to the sky above the zoo. It’s a gutsy move for an illustrator to make, because it means reducing the main characters, particularly the cat, to tiny figures on the lower half. Yet somehow you just love the delicacy of it all. The humans are so small they never warrant faces (with the exception of the sympathetic zookeeper) and yet the animals all have faces. Even the snakes and the tiny toucans. Doggone it, the more I look at this book the better and better it gets.
How to Light Your Dragon by Didier Lévy, ill. Fred Benaglia, translated through La Petite Agence, Paris
[Origins – French]
There’s an odd little charm to this French import that I find hard to resist. The “how-to” picture book is a common enough feature on our shelves these days. This follows most closely in the steps of books like How to Train a Train, in that the child character is placed in a position of particular prominence and importance. Plus, how natty is this kid? Pink fedora? Yes, please! Sign me up for that. Best of all, when the dragon does at last breathe fire it’s not a mere orange but a veritable rainbow of colors! There may be a metaphor lurking in all of this. Not sure.
Jump! by Tatsuhide Matsuoka, translated by Cathy Hirano
[Origins – Japanese]
I always say that if you have to hold a book vertically then there better be a darn good reason for that. This board book provides that reason and then some! As you hold it on its side, different animals leap upwards with different variations on the word “Boing!” Adults will enjoy the fact that there’s a nice gag involving a snail in there and kids will adore jumping right along with the animals, insects, and fish. Use this in a toddler storytime and get the whole room jumping along with you (they’ll love it when you get to the snail and trick them by showing that it can’t go anywhere). Utterly charming.
The Last Leopard by Cao Wenxuan, ill. Rong Li, translated by Courtney Chow, Marlo Garnsworthy and Na Zhou
[Origins – Chinese]
It’s funny. The Cao Wenxuan book that has everybody talking in 2019 is Summer, illustrated by Yu Rong. I found that one perfectly serviceable, but to my mind two of his other books, out in 2019, are far more interesting. The Last Leopard may be my favorite overall. It reminds me a lot of Are You My Mother? Not the search for a parent, so much, as the odd, almost dystopian feel that you’re the last one in the whole entire world. There’s this sweet, strange sadness to this book. In it, a leopard searches in vain for another leopard. Whatever animal or plant or insect he meets often feels like they too are the last of their kind as well. There’s a dreadful irony at the end when the leopard dies believing he’s found another leopard. This is very similar, in tone, to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Meanwhile, the art is gorgeous and sweeping and vast. If you didn’t feel small before reading it, you’ll feel small after. A book that puts you in your place, no apologies.
Lion and Mouse by Jairo Buitrago, ill. Rafael Yockteng, translated by Elisa Amado
[Origins – Mexico]
Huh! Never seen the old story done in this particular way before. On the whole I found this a take on the tale that is both faithful and utterly original in its eventual moral lesson. This isn’t about underestimating your friends so much as it’s about doing good for others’ sake rather than your own.
The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi, ill. Farshid Mesghali, translated by Azita Rassi
[Origins – Iran]
The shelves of your average everday American children’s room are not fair overflowing with Iranian picture book imports. After reading The Little Black Fish, I think maybe they should be. I mean, this book originally came out in 1968 in Tehran and it’s very much in the same vein as Swimmy, if more socially responsible. Really, the book I think it’s closest to, in a lot of ways, is Alvin Tresselt’s The Frog in the Well. In both cases you have a character that has a very limited worldview, manages to see the world, and encounters others that have their own limited worldviews due to their circumstances and lack of curiosity. According to the publisher, this book was banned after it came out in Iran. I don’t find that particularly surprising considering what it’s advocating. With it’s woodcut-like illustrations this should be a classic worldwide. Hat tip to the publisher Tiny Owl for getting it back out there and to Azita Rassi for the perfect translation.
The Mermaid in the Bathtub by Nurit Zarchi, ill. Rutu Modan, translated by Tal Goldfajn
[Origins – Israel]
This is a pretty good example of how the press materials for a book can be heads and tails (hee hee) different from the end product. Read the promos for this title and you’ll hear that it’s “a gorgeously retro illustrated reimagining of The Little Mermaid.” That is true insofar as it is gorgeously retro and there is a mermaid. But this book has about as much to do with Hans Christian Andersen’s story as a news feature on Billy Porter would have to do with The Emperor’s New Clothes. What you will find inside is actually much more exciting than a standard fairytale. Mr. Whatwilltheysay worries when he finds a gorgeous 1920’s era mermaid in the bathtub. What will the neighbors say? Ultimately he and the mermaid get together, but honestly I think she could have done better than him. The real lure here is the amazing art by Modan. All kinds of kooky details fill the pages, and that flying fish with wings and legs may be my favorite unnamed character of all time. It’s wackadoodle and I love it. Hand it to the mermaid obsessed kiddos. It’ll blow their little minds.
My Little Chick by Géraldine Elschner, ill. Eve Tharlet, translated by Kathryn Bishop
[Origins – Swiss?]
You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the cover, but this is a rather kicky little book about hatching a chicken from an egg. And, with the rise in numbers of people raising chickens in their suburban backyards, perhaps it is expertly timed. Do you remember the beginning of Me, Jane when she sneaks into a henhouse to watch a chicken lay? That’s how this book begins. The impatient child must wait and wait, and then there’s this neat lift-the-flap sequence, which kind of comes out of nowhere, when the chick finally emerges. It’s simple and sweet, but doesn’t skimp on the technical details too, which I appreciated.
Oscar Seeks a Friend by Pawel Pawlak, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
[Origins – Polish]
I’ve always had a soft spot for skeletons (no pun intended). Remember Owl TV on PBS back in the 80s? Remember Bonaparte, the talking skeleton? My love of those boney heroes started then and hasn’t let up since. Oscar’s story is a sweet tale of a skeleton looking for a buddy and a girl who seeks the same. The 3D paper collage technique is pretty keen, particularly when you mix it in with digital illustration. Pawlak makes a world all of his own and invites us to share in it. I’ve not seen many of his books before. Here’s hoping we get more and more in the future like this one.
The Parrot and the Merchant: A Tale by Rumi, illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian, translated by Azita Rassi
[Origins – Iran]
If the title sounds familiar, that may be because this tale was adapted into a picture book around 2010 called The Secret Message by Mina Javaherbin. I loved that book, but I’m quite drawn to this one too. Vafaeian is Iranian, and made it a point to cast the merchant in this story as a woman, which I thought was interesting. It helps that it’s a strong fable too.
Paws + Edward by Espen Dekko, ill. Mari Kanstad Johnsen, translation by Unknown
[Origins – Norwegian]
I’m prone to hyperbole, particularly when I become excited by a book. That aside, I truly do feel that this little Norwegian import may be the sweetest old-dog-dying picture book I’ve ever read. When at first you encounter Paws, you just get the impression that he’s an old, lazy dog. Edward wants him to go out and play and walk, and Edward goes along with it (the walking part anyway) but as the book puts it so succinctly, “Paws doesn’t feel the urge to run anymore. He has run enough.” Throughout the story you see his dreams of running and when, at last, he lies down to sleep and never wakes up again, it’s Edward that night who now has dreams of Paws. It’s handled so swimmingly and eloquently and touchingly, but without any patronizing cutesiness. And just look at those watercolors! I love Johnsen’s style.
The Real Boat by Marina Aromshtam, ill. Victoria Semykina, translated by Olga Varshaver
[Origins – Russian]
Remember when picture books were longer and able to tell slightly more in-depth stories than the hello/goodbye books of today? They still get published, you know! And full credit to Candlewick for taking a chance on this remarkable Russian translation. Have a kid that likes boats? You really, truly, and honestly couldn’t hand them a better story than this. It’s clearly not American and that’s awesome. The art is crazy complicated, rich, and evocative. I occasionally open it up and pet the spreads, they’re so beautiful. So glad we got a chance to see it here in the States.
Taxi Ride With Victor by Sara Trofa, ill. Elsa Klever, translated by ???
[Origins – German]
This is the third intergalactic taxi driver I’ve met in some form of children’s media, and I’m sure there are others I’ve never even seen. I was rather charmed by Trofa and Klever’s take, to say nothing of the marvelous black and red color palette. The whole premise here is that Victor will always take you somewhere but it will be where you need to go, and not necessarily where you want to go. It has a nice circular rhythm to it, and that art just pops off the page. It’s original German title (if you want to be totally immature like me) was “Taxifahrt mit Victor.” Tee hee hee. Apparently this book was shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards in 2018. Interested in seeing why?
When Spring Comes to the DMZ by Uk-Bae Lee, translated by Chungyon Won and Aileen Won
[Origins – South Korean]
There is a wilderness that grows between the border of North and South Korea, where nature flourishes. A child’s grandfather visits it, no matter the weather, no matter the season. The end result is just the sweetest little book about the no man’s land between North and South Korea that I ever did see! I have never seen a book like this, and it’s amazing! Beautiful art and a truly amazing story. I love the translation. I love the whole package. A strange, sweet consideration of home and longing.
When the Mice Family Comes to Visit by Wenjun Qin, ill. Xiaoxuan Xu, translated by Tomorrow Publishing House
[Origins – Chinese]
Do you miss the art stylings of Jill Barklem in her Brambly Hedge series? Then are you in luck! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an artist that was able to evoke Barklem as closely as Xiaoxuan Xu has done here. Her mice are completely different, but if you, like myself, love cozy little homes filled to brimming with tiny details and lots of winding tunnels, have I found the book for you! Ostensibly the story is about a festival where a large mouse family is meeting. I expected the usually happy happy plus happy narrative, so I was surprised when one of the uncles comes in, mauled by a cat. It’s just the tiny touch of darkness the book needs to keep from being saccharine. Love these watercolors and the gatefolds are seriously impressive.
When You’re Scared by Andrée Poulin, ill. Véronique Joffre, translated by Karen Li
[Origins – French]
There’s something very appealing about this book. There’s a sing-song repetition to it that changes your p.o.v. and your perceptions at the same time. It feels wordless but the words are so key to the storyline and so clever in their simplicity. What was it that Mo Willems said in an interview once? Ah yes. That “easy” and “simple” were opposites. This clever import from Quebec proves that.
The Wooden Fish by Cao Wenxuan, ill. Gong Yanling
[Origins – Chinese]
Alongside The Last Leopard, this is the other Cao Wenxuan picture book that made its way to American shores that I admire in 2019. And, like Leopard, it explores this deep and abiding loneliness that just guts you to your core. Unlike Leopard, I think (I think?) this one has a happy ending. A wooden post is placed in the river, in the hopes of building a bridge. Alas, the bridge never comes to be and the post is left alone there. Even abuse at the hands of a boy on shore is better than being ignored. However, when a terrible storm comes, the post plays a part in saving the boy’s life, and then is set free to swim the seas with all the other detritus.
What have you been seeing this year that you’ve particularly liked?
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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