Being able to read books translated into English from another language can only broaden our horizons. Books from other cultures allow us to savour their differences and enjoy forms and conventions of art in picture books that are perhaps different from our own. Here Deborah Hallford from Outside In World chooses her top ten children’s books in translation.
Happiness is a Watermelon on your Head Stella Dreis, translated and rewritten from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, Phoenix Yard Books, 978 1 907912 05 4, £6.99 pbk
Why is Miss Jolly so happy? She exudes a cheerfulness that proves extremely irritating to her miserable neighbours Miss Whimper, Miss Grouch and Miss Stern. In their desperate quest to find out the secret of her happiness, they create weird and wonderful hats from all manner of strange objects, but nothing seems to do the trick. Until, that is, they are showered with watermelons!
The illustrations are a riot of colour, eccentric, larger-than-life characters filling every page. The text perfect matches the artwork, brilliant rhyming verse by Daniel Hahn swooping across the pages . 4+
The Sun is Yellow, Kveta Pacovská, translated from German, Tate Publishing, 978 1 84976 064 5, £14.99 hbk
The Sun is Yellow is an adventure through the magical world of colour. With die-cut pages, lift-the-flaps to open and hidden characters to discover, Czech artist Kveta Pacovská’s unique style fires the imagination. Children will love experimenting with the wheel of colour or opening the flaps to discover what is inside. The text is sparse but poetic and the characters are witty and amusing: the miserable snail that only sees the world in black and white, the optimistic frog that helps him find the colour in his life. 5+
Tistou, the boy with green thumbs, Maurice Druon, translation by Humphrey Hare, updated by Francoise Jones, Illustrated by Ray Hedger, Hawthorn Press, 978 1 907359 08 7, £12.99 hbk
Eight-year-old Tistou is sent home from school after falling asleep in class. His father decides that he will continue his education by learning from real life and where better to start than in the garden! Now Tistou has no time to sleep because he learns the most extraordinary thing – ‘flowers prevent evil things from happening’. Written in 1957 and considered in France to be a classic on a par with The Little Prince this is a charming parable that deals with the darker side of human life, the insanity of war and mortality. 8+
Duck, Death and the Tulip, Wolf Erlbruch, translated from German by Catherine Chidgley, Gecko Press, 978 1 877467 17 0, £6.99 pbk
Duck is terrified when she realises that she is being stalked by an eerie skeletal figure in a checkered outfit. But as they begin to have philosophical conversations about the afterlife, Duck reluctantly accepts the presence of Death in her life. They even become friendly and when Duck dies Death gently places her body in the river laying a black tulip on her as he sends her on her way.
Although the figure of Death is scary, the illustrations have a delicacy and humour that help the reader cope with the immensity of the subject, getting across in a matter-of–fact way that where there is life, death is inevitable. 9+
Can You Whistle, Johanna? Ulf Stark, illustrated by Anna Höglund, translated from Swedish by Julia Marshall, Gecko Press, 978 0 9582598 2 8, £5.99 pbk
As two boys play together, Ulf talks about his grandfather. His friend Berra reflects that it must be nice to have a grandfather, so they set out to find him one. When they visit a retirement home the next day they identify the perfect candidate sitting alone in his room. ‘Grandpa Ned’ becomes Berra’s new adopted grandfather and the trio embark on a series of days out until one day the inevitable happens and the boys find Ned’s room is empty.
A memorable and thought-provoking book that conveys the message that true friendship can transcend age. It is delivered with sensitivity and wit, heightened further by Anna Höglund’s highly distinctive illustrations. 9+
D.E.S.I.G.N. Ewa Solarz, illustrated by Aleksandra & Daniel Mizielinski, translated from Polish by Elzbieta Wójcik-Leese, Gecko Press,
978 1 877467 83 9, £14.99 hbk
This innovative and informative non-fiction book explores the art of invention and design, selecting 69 designs from the last 150 years, created by famous designers from around the world. Household items from the classic to the most crazy: whether it is a chair designed in 1859 that is still in production today, novelty furniture such as ‘The Great Mouth’, influenced by the work of Salvador Dali or an indestructible sofa, there are weird and wonderful creations across a broad spectrum. Witty descriptions together with bold, striking illustrations enable the reader to learn about the origins and aesthetics of the objects that surround us. 9+
The Pasta Detectives, Andreas Steinhöfel, translated from German by Chantal Wright, Chicken House, 978 1 906427 27 5, £5.99 pbk
Rico notices things that no one else does. A small piece of rigatoni pasta lying on the pavement can provide him with hours of detective work. He sometimes feels as if his head is topsy-turvy like a barrel full of lottery balls. When Rico’s friend Oscar is kidnapped by the mysterious Mr. 2000 he is determined to solve the mystery. Rico’s autism is a constant theme throughout the book, though never mentioned directly. Through Rico’s narration, the analogies aptly convey his thought process and the translation deftly captures the nuances, enabling us to experiences what is going on inside his head.
Fish in the Sky, Fridrik Erlings, translated from Icelandic by Fridrik Erlings, Meadowside, 978 1 84539 342 7, £6.99 pbk
As Josh Stephenson starts his thirteenth year, his life begins to change. As he searches to discover who he is, Josh plays truant from school, rebels against his teachers and experiences pangs of a ‘first love’.
An exceptional ‘coming of age’ novel that endeavours to explore the juxtaposition of teenage angst and sexual awakening; it tackles serious themes with an equal measure of compassion and humour. Erling’s eloquent prose is full of literary symbolism as the protagonist poses complex moral questions, with no simple solution ever offered. 12+
In the Sea there are Crocodiles, Fabio Geda, translated from Italian by Howard Curtis, David Fickling, 978 1 849 92098 8, £6.99 pbk
Winner of the 2013 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, this novel is based on the remarkable story of Enaiatollah Akbari’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy. He endures unimaginable hardships and hazardous challenges as he travels from Quetta, across into Iran to Turkey, Greece and finally Italy.
Told in the first person narrative, this is a revealing testament of the experiences faced by a young asylum-seeker. Geda captures Enaiat’s voice brilliantly as he puts some of their conversations into the narrative. As well as the hardships, setbacks and sadness of this story Enaiat’s sense of humour always shines through. 12+
No and Me, Delphine de Vignan, translated from French by George Miller, Bloomsbury, 978 0 7475 9964 7, £7.99 pbk
Thirteen-year-old narrator Lou Bertignac is a vulnerable, but highly intelligent girl with an IQ of 160. She doesn’t fit in at school and her life at home is stressful. Lou likes people-watching at Austerlitz station and it is here that she comes face to face with eighteen-year-old No who lives on the streets of Paris. Gradually Lou learns about No’s harsh existence and a growing trust and unlikely friendship develops between the two girls.
Delphine de Vignan doesn’t shy away from presenting the harsh realities of homelessness and shows Lou’s desperate wish to make No’s life better simply isn’t enough to transform her life. 12+
Deborah Hallford is Co-Founder of Outside In World an organisation dedicated to promoting, exploring and celebrating books from around the world, particularly children’s books in translation. She previously co-edited Outside In: Children’s Books in Translation (2005, Milet) with Edgardo Zaghini.