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from the April 2020 issue

Deceptive Simplicity: International Children’s Literature

In the seventeen years Words Without Borders has been publishing, this is only the second issue dedicated specifically and exclusively to writing for children, and the first since November 2004. I can well understand the delay—children are not WWB’s main constituency of readers, after all. But I’ve been keen to work with them on this issue for a while, not only because children’s writing has been even more neglected for translation in the Anglophone world than its adult counterpart, but also because I’ve always felt the boundaries between potential groups of readers are much more porous than our overdeterministic publishing habits seem to suggest. I have not been a child in quite some time, and yet the seven pieces in this issue have all given me much pleasure. If you are reading this issue, then you, too, are probably not under twelve; the most I can hope for you is that you’ll enjoy it almost as much as if you were.

Guest editorships are usually granted to a person with an expertise to draw upon, with particular access to whatever the specific pool of possible content. This case feels different. Not that I don’t know my way around children’s books better than most, it’s just that the potential sources of commissions include the entire world and every language—anything written with a youngish audience in mind by anyone anywhere ever. This means I was not keen to simply read around and then choose, since this would have meant limiting the pool to my own reading languages, and why do that? So the process needed to be different, and the choices somewhat blinder . . .

My first step, then, was to contact not children’s writers or publishers but translators. Translators from seven languages, most of them with a particular interest in children’s books (and none of whom had translated for WWB before, as it happened), knowledgeable in this area, and all of them highly skillful; and in each case I allowed them, these translators, to steer the selection process. We were often choosing between pieces I could not myself read, after all. Indeed, of the seven pieces selected, Sandrine Kao and Maria Parr were the only writers whose work was previously known to me.

The pieces we’ve chosen to present to you have been translated respectively from French, Polish, Arabic, German, Norwegian, Japanese, and Italian, six of them originally written by women and one by a man. Between them, they span work for preschool children (Norway) to what feels like the gateway to Young Adult writing (Italy). There’s the occasional short story, but since this is a form very rarely published for children—bafflingly, to my mind—most are extracts from longer works, tantalizing glimpses of novels as yet unpublished in English translation. (If we didn’t have Guy Puzey to do the hard work for us, I would willingly learn Norwegian to be able to keep reading Maria Parr.) Many of these pieces appear in their original publications with illustrations, so your text-only reading experience will be unusual. Some are quite different from what you would expect to find in the Anglophone children’s book world; others seem curiously familiar.

Firstclaw” by Sachiko Kashiwaba (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa), for example, is a new story from Japan, but it feels a close kinship to very old European fairy tales—the webs of influence in children’s literature are dense and rich. This tale carries us back to a time of castles and dragons, when witches like Firstclaw still exist but live in secret—and it’s a surprising love story. (Surprising for the pair in question, but also for the way it is told and resolved.) Meanwhile, there’s another dragon in the Arabic story “The Appearance of the Dragon and Its Disappearance” (translated by M. Lynx Qualey), but this one, in contrast, is clearly not a real dragon—or is it? The piece is a chapter of Hooda El Shuwa’s The Dragon of Bethlehem, a story that also features an occupying army and a camp and military drones, and a boy who saves the life of his enemy. The borders between realist troubles and fantastical powers so often blur in children’s fiction. Children, after all, are the most open-minded readers where categorical rules are concerned. (Less imaginative adult readers can sometimes be fussy about this sort of thing.)

Our Polish piece, from Justyna Bednarek’s Mr. Gimbal’s Incredible Invention (translated by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones), introduces the inspiringly named Danny to tell a delightful story about what happens when his neighbor Mr. Gimbal comes up with his greatest invention yet. And there’s also a ghost! It’s very funny, with a lively sense of humor perfectly pitched for children and also, it turns out, forty-six-year-olds. The German story is another delight—another story that reminds me how much I loved losing myself in this sort of reading as a child (remember that feeling?), and another one for which I’ll be trying to persuade publishers that we Anglophones now need the rest of the book brought over very very soon, please. It’s another extract from a novel, Heaven Can Wait by Angelika Glitz (translated by Melody Shaw), with a lovely intergenerational relationship at its heart, a brief slice of a story about a girl and her charmingly wayward grandmother (a decidedly bad influence, I’m pleased to say). In this particular episode we learn how the grandmother found her ice skates, but to me this bit of writing is more about the relationship and the telling than about the plot. It’s deceptively simple, and I want more of it.

For the youngest readers, we have “Raur Gives His Blanket a Hug by Maria Parr (translated by Guy Puzey), a perfect little short story . . . about a hug. It’s touching, it’s simple, and it’s totally assured, just like everything I’ve ever read from this writer-translator duo. It’s a story about a sort of monster under the stairs, but (like all Maria’s work, I guess) it’s really a story about the heart, and about kindness, and about love. Kids’ stuff? Sure. But I don’t know any adults who couldn’t learn from this, and neither do you.

Meanwhile, for the top end of the readership range, we have a couple of pieces that arguably stray into Young Adult territory, one from France, the other from Italy. The former, from Sandrine Kao’s novella The Park Bench (translated by Jane Roffe), is about a Taiwanese boy in France, but could in fact be set in lots of places. Racial bullying in high schools is not limited to France, so the setting seems almost incidental (to me as a reader, at least); the personal experience—the moving story about the loss of a culture—will be familiar to too many. Most complex of all, perhaps, we have the setup chapters of Pietro Albì’s new novel Farfariel: The Book of Micù (translated by Denise Muir). This inventive work, set against the religious backdrop of 1938 Italy, is about a small, oft-teased boy called Micú who meets a devilish creature called Farfariel, and in this opening extract we witness the latter’s first interference into our world. (There are hearts here, as there are in the Parr story; the difference is that here, well, they get eaten. We are no longer in the territory of the preschool reader, in case you were wondering.)

I often feel that adults forget what children’s stories are capable of, whether in terms of emotional complexity or linguistic and literary inventiveness; it’s easy, I suppose, to get lulled into a false sense of simplicity. Writing for kids requires such discipline. Stories might be mysterious, but they will never be incomprehensible—and they will never be self-indulgent. (I wish I could say that about other kinds of writing.) And to a reader who is six or nine or twelve, eyes still wide open to the world, the possibilities offered by this writing are mind-altering. It is a lucky adult who can still be affected by reading as deeply as a child is. To those of you who are regrettably no longer children, I hope some of these stories might serve as a happy reminder of that.

© 2020 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.

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