Guest Post – What We’re Missing: Gems of World Kid Lit
All right, folks. It’s time to get your larning on. So to speak. Once in a while I like to hand the reins of this blog over to folks that know more about a topic than myself. I learn something. You learn something. Good times.
Today we welcome back David Jacobson. Today, he is proposing a new series on this blog. One that may really help your worldview of children’s literature.
So without further ado, take it away, David!
Any visitor to the Frankfurt Book Fair or the Bologna Children’s Book Fair will tell you there’s a wealth of children’s books that never finds its way to our shores, in English translation or not. But with the help of Amazon and other online booksellers, many of these titles are now merely a click away. The problem is how to find out about them.
So we are taking this opportunity—offered graciously by Betsy—to begin a series of posts on outstanding children’s books that have yet to be published in English. We hope to inspire librarians who want to spruce up their international collections, publishers who are looking for exceptional work to translate, or teachers who want to encourage their bilingual pupils to be readers. Or those of you who just like darn good books.
Our first post focuses on recommendations from the committee that decides the Hans Christian Andersen Award, perhaps the most prestigious international award in children’s literature. For the 2018 award, they received applications from nearly 40 countries. Sadly, since most of the books that committee considers never get translated, they have begun recommending exceptional titles “that merit translation everywhere” among the scores that they see. Here are reviews of three of them, by translators and country experts.
Barro de Medellin byAlfredo Gómez Cerdá (2008). Spain: Luis Vives Editorial. Ages 9-12. 146 pages.
Camilo and Andrés, 10-year-olds who have quit school, are best friends from poor families in the hilltop neighborhood of Santo Domingo in Medellin, Colombia. The book’s title refers to the mud Camilo spreads over the walls of his family’s home after it rains in order to disguise the fancy tiling he had stolen from the newly built Spanish Library Park. He and Andrés complain about the mud’s properties making the skin on their hands “feel as soft as girls’ skin”, while they wander around the neighborhood they love, Camilo on the lookout for things to steal to pay for his fathers daily bottle of aguardiente, and Andrés refusing to accept being labeled a thief.
“What makes you so sure [I’ll be a thief]?”
“Because if you’re ten years old and still don’t know what you want to be, you’ll end up being a thief. We can start a gang. You and I can be the leaders. Except I’ll be a little more leader than you, because I’m the one who had the idea.”
“I’m telling you I won’t be a thief!” Andrés was angry now.
When Camilo discovers that he can exchange stolen library books for the tavern owner’s booze, he thinks he’s found the answer to his problems, but in the end, thanks to a kind and attentive librarian, he discovers the true value of books.
Poverty, abuse and alcoholism are treated as the simple reality of Camilo and Andrés’ daily lives. This means that there are scenes of violence, harsh language and delinquency with very little consequence, but they serve to highlight the boys’ devotion to each other, and contrast with their delight in their neighborhood and their sense of belonging. Despite the circumstances of neglect, the overall tone of the book is optimistic, with the kids enjoying their freedom while keeping an eye out for each other.
When the storm died down and it had stopped raining, they saw the puddle had spread right up to the entrance to their shelter.
“We were lucky,” said Camilo.
So they snuggled up together and tried to get some sleep.
Alfredo Gómez Cerdá is a prolific author of children’s and YA novels, having published successfully since 1981. Awarded the Children’s Cervantes Prize (for his career) in 2008, he has been translated into all the official languages in Spain, as well as ten other languages – lately Chinese and Korean – though not English.
Reviewer: Kymm Coveney is a freelance writer, poet and translator based in Barcelona, Spain.
Ropotarnica by Peter Svetina (2012). Slovenia: Miš Publishing House. Ages: 9-12. 90 pages.
As suggested by its title, Ropotarnica or “Lumber room” by Peter Svetina is filled with various literary bits and pieces, ranging from short stories to poems that despite the appearances to the contrary work as an orchestrated whole. Short stories furnish the reader with the experience of being transported to completely different far-flung urban locations or to natural sites, such as a Vienna subway or a local pond where odd and seemingly improbable things happen. Poems, on the other hand, tend to ruminate on the quirkiness of language and funny, seemingly illogical aspects of human character.
These literary odds and ends, contrary to what the title might suggest, have an underlying common theme, enhanced and held in place by means of illustrations: they are all based on humoresque and improbable situations rendered veritable with an unexpected twist of logic. In one of the stories, we read about a humanoid water creature trying to retire after years of service in the pond, which, ironically, has left his joints swollen with arthritis. On his way to the spa, he forgets his swimming trunks and returns back to the pond to find a new employee, who turns out to belong to the devils’ guild. With the new occupant radiating heat, for after all, he is a devil, the water creature finds the water no longer cold but pleasantly warm, a veritable spa on his own doorstep.
In another story, featuring a washing machine, a clothes hanger and a night lamp, the central question is how to water faded paper flowers. The solution is found when the night lamp switches itself on and bathes the entire room in yellow light. This refreshes the paper flowers, which go from faded to perky ones, glistening with the new dab of absorbed colour. Unfortunately, the book is not without its shortcomings as most of the stories offer a male-centered perspective, with the majority of female characters featuring primarily as men’s appendages, sidekicks or the butt of a joke.
Reviewer: Lilijana Burcar is a professor of English literature at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. Her primary research focuses on contemporary British and American literature, including children’s literature, with a focus on social justice.
Fuori fuoco by Chiara Carminati (2014). Italy: Bompiani. Ages: 11-15. Pages 204.
The title of this beautiful book by Chiara Carminati means out of focus, as things can be when we do not give them their full importance, when we lose sight of what is good and sound in our lives:
“For him [my brother] war was like one of those pictures in which the subject is in the foreground, well in focus, while everything else is in the background: He saw the battles, the commanders, the enemy, the courage and glory clearly. We [the family] were in the background, out of focus, blurred, almost invisible.”
And this is how this wonderful book unfolds: Carminati’s superb writing gives us a clear, unwavering view of the harsh reality of war; but after every chapter comes a picture, a portrait of sorts, a hazy grey square, which is fuori fuoco, of the things sometimes lost, but always remembered and cherished.
The protagonists of this tale are the women, and the girls, girls like Jolanda, the 13-year-old narrator. They are the winners and losers of a war they do not fight on the front lines, but in their homes where they must scramble for food, work long hours, and bear the injustice that is growing around them. There is an incredible strength in Carminati’s women, who escape bombings, who do not succumb to brutality, who are not afraid to pack up their belongings and search for safety; while there is a sad weakness in the men, a frailty in these perpetrators of war. Together, however, these perfectly depicted men and women paint a picture of a time that is in the distant past but ever so vivid. They tell of war, of loss, of senseless destruction, but also of love, new and budding, comfortable and unchanging, for partners, for parents, and for children.
Chiara Carminati’s words flow easily off every page, creating striking, memorable images that are never, ever “out of focus”. We become a part of her world: we grow with the children; and we become wiser with the adults, all the while wishing the story would never end. It is suited to children from 11-15, but every adult and precocious reader will fall in love with the protagonists and their story.
Chiara Carminati writes and translates poetry, stories, and plays for children. She has received numerous awards: the Premio Andersen award (2012) , and the Premio Strega Ragazzi (2016) for the novel Fuori Fuoco, among many others.
Reviewer: Matilda Colarossi is a translator, teacher and blogger. She was recently a finalist in the Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation (2019) with a translation of the Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda.
Editor: David Jacobson a member of the board of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative and on the committee for the 2020 GLLI Translated YA Book Prize. He is also author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko.
Next time: A look at some of the titles coming out of the Peace Picture Book Project, in which artists and writers from Japan, China and Korea are together revisiting their shared history of World War II, and publishing their work in all three countries.
Filed under: Guest Posts
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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