Whether you are going away this summer, or enjoying a staycation, which are the best books to transport you to another place? Daniel Hahn chooses.
I should begin by saying that my ten books have very little in common. They’re mostly very recent, and they all take place ‘elsewhere’ – that is, not in my own particular world (Brighton seafront, July 2015) – but that’s about it. Some I’ve chosen because the writers themselves are from other countries, writing in other languages. Others are British writers but writing about places that aren’t their own. Some I’ve chosen because their sense of that elsewhere is so remarkably conveyed, while some I’ve chosen for almost exactly the opposite reason – a great story which happens to be set in X but could just as easily be in Y, or in Z, or for that matter on the Brighton seafront, and it’s precisely that fact, that a kid is a kid, a family is a family, universally wherever you are, that appeals to me.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Brian Selznick, Scholastic, 978-1407103488, £14.99 hbk
I’ll start just over the water from here, with two French books – or rather, two books of France – one written by an American, one anonymously. My first is Brian Selznick’s beautiful The Invention of Hugo Cabret, set in the Paris of the 1930s. Selznick uses words and pictures to tell a story in an original and utterly effective way (the story is told sometimes only in text, sometimes only in images, never together); it’s about cinema, and about automata, and other irresistible things, and Paris herself looms large, too, in this engrossing, thrilling story.
Line of Fire
Barroux, trans Sarah Ardizzone, Phoenix Yard Books, 978-1907912399, £10.99 pbk
Next is both a newer story and an older one… When illustrator Barroux found a cardboard box in a skip near his Paris home, he had no idea what it might contain. What he found was an old notebook, which turned out to be the diary of a soldier, describing his experiences in the early months of the First World War. With Barroux’s illustrations, the diary became On Les Aura, published in English in Sarah Ardizzone’s translation as Line of Fire. It’s a raw, unfussy depiction of the desolate world in which these soldiers were fighting, with no literary pretensions and all the more powerful for that.
The Wolf Wilder
Katherine Rundell, Bloomsbury, 978-1408862582, £12.99hbk
My favourite Paris book the last couple of years was Katherine Rundell’s clever, charming Rooftoppers (following on from her The Girl Savage, set largely in Zimbabwe); and Rundell’s back this year with her best yet, The Wolf Wilder, a story of wolves and Russian forest cold, told with incomparable warmth and humanity. Katherine Rundell knows how to tell a story, she knows how to draw characters (human and otherwise), she knows what’s important and she writes like a dream. In case you hadn’t noticed, I like this one.
The Fastest Boy in the World
Elizabeth Laird, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1447267171, £6.99
This year’s Carnegie Medal shortlist was packed with books that take their readers to other places: Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Middle of Nowhere, a fictional place inspired by a real one, in this case a telegraph station in middle-of-nowhere Australia; Sally Gardner and David Roberts’s Tinder, a kind of fairy-tale, but set against a real backdrop, that of the Thirty Years War; or the eventual winner, Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, about a slave-girl, Charley, at the end of the American Civil War. But I’ve chosen The Fastest Boy in the World, by Elizabeth Laird. Laird’s a frequent traveller in her books, and in this one she’s in a tiny Ethiopian village, where Solomon and his grandfather decide to make the big journey into the capital. It’s gripping, but thought-provoking, too – how much are Solomon’s attitudes and perspectives determined by where he’s from and the life he has, and how is he just like us?
The Head of the Saint
Socorro Acioli, trans Daniel Hahn, Hot Key Books, 978-1471403835, £10.99 hbk
For something equally remote from the experiences of most UK readers, I’ve chosen a book from South America, one I was fortunate enough to translate myself. (Please excuse the self-indulgence, I do just love this one.) It’s called The Head of the Saint, by Socorro Acioli, and it’s set in a small Brazilian town, a world that feels completely made-up and yet is based on a reality the author knows well. With its religion and superstitions, its extraordinary love stories and local political machinations, the more far-fetched it becomes, the more likely it is to be based on truth. It’s the story of a young man who arrives – barefoot and broken – in a little village, and camps out in the hollow head of an unfinished statue of Saint Anthony, where he finds he can hear the local women’s prayers…
Maria Parr, trans Guy Puzey, Walker Books, 978-1406347906, £5.99pbk
Meanwhile Waffle Hearts, by Maria Parr (in a fine English translation by Guy Puzey) may be set in a small town in Scandinavia, but it feels like it might be anywhere. Yes, the setting is vivid and appealing and precise, but the story is about friendship and multi-generational family and community, told with great humour and warmth, reminding us what we have in common, not what keeps us apart.
The Adventures of Shola
Bernardo Atxaga, trans Margaret Jull Costa , Pushkin Press, 978-1782690092, £14.99 hbk
Waffle Hearts was a strong contender for this year’s Marsh Award, which finally went to my next choice, The Adventures of Shola, (by Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, translated by Margaret Jull Costa). This is in no way a book in which setting is important, and yet I wanted to choose it as a way of celebrating the huge, huge wealth of books being written in other places which we English-readers so rarely get to see. This one – a delightful, quirky collection of stories about an extremely characterful little dog – is a particular favourite. I’m so glad it’s reached us at last! This is thanks to Pushkin Press, who of all the children’s publishers in the UK today commission with the widest horizons. Their catalogue – uniquely – includes brilliant books translated from all over the world.
When You Reach Me
Rebecca Stead, Andersen Press, 978-1849392129, £6.99
I seem to have nothing at all from North America. Hmm. I considered the latest excellent novel by Kenneth Oppel, The Boundless, mostly set on a train making its way across Canada, coast to coast – apart from everything else, it’s amazing on the SCALE of the place. (It’s all HUGE.) But I’ll go for something quite different instead, I think, a mystery novel set on the Upper West Side, When You Reach Me. New York’s a city I know well, and through the story of sixth-grader Miranda, author Rebecca Stead recreates late-1970s life in one particular neighborhood (sic) with the subtlest detail. (I suspect it’ll feel familiar even to someone who’s never been, which is an amazing trick, too.)
Shaun Tan, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0734415868, £10.99 pbk
A lot of the books that, to me, are most effective at introducing new places are those using characters for whom the places are new, too – stories of migration and refugees, for example. Many are stories of people recently arrived in the UK, making us read about our own places as the ‘other’, seen through the sharp-focus eyes of someone discovering them for the first time. Think of Sarah Crossan’s The Weight of Water or Sarah Garland’s Azzi in Between , both stories about ‘here’ but from the perspective of someone for whom this is ‘elsewhere’. Perhaps the best migration story I know is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, a wordless graphic novel set in an imagined place, to which a father travels, separated from his family, and we share his experience. The pictures are a beautiful cinematic sepia, and the story of the man’s attempts to negotiate this strange new place is told with extraordinary subtlety and compassion. One of my favourite books ever, this one.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll, illus Sir John Tenniel, 978-1447275992, £30.00 hbk
Talking of strange, imagined places – and places that are both ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’ at once… We have a big anniversary this year. It’s not often that one can truly say a single book changed literature, but one of those few times was a hundred and fifty years ago this very summer. My tenth choice? Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Daniel Hahn is an award-winning writer, editor and translator and national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He is the editor of the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.