TRANSLATION World Kid Lit Month

September is World Kid Lit month! Why don’t you celebrate it by finding some books from other countries, and introducing them to the kids you know? (And read them yourself, of course!) SCBWI translator Julie Sullivan leads the way.

I don’t know about you, but I find that when I’ve read a novel about a place, forever afterwards it affects how I feel about that place. Paris was Madeline, a book known to all book-loving children in the U.S.A. When I finally got to Paris for the first time at age 29, baby in tow, the quais and the old stone buildings were astonishingly familiar to me, as if I'd been there long ago. Apparently your brain reacts to fiction by keeping those memories in the same place as where real memories are stored. (<—I’m not a scientist. But check this out.)
So a memorable children’s book can have a profound effect on a child’s real-life impressions of a foreign country. And as we all know, a children’s book is often read and reread till it becomes part of a child’s world.

 Unfortunately, in English-speaking countries, there is a kind of provincialism to children’s reading. The most commonly reported figure is that only 3% of published children’s books are from another language; and even most of those are from French and German. Because of the overwhelming worldwide influence of the English language, few English-speaking kids have been exposed to a wide range of books written in foreign countries, much less translated from another language. Yet nothing creates empathy like reading a story about a sympathetic character in an interesting situation. Think about your own impression of a country you’ve never visited. If you’ve ever read a story set there, don’t you feel warmer toward it? More empathy between nations could have a strong political effect on our future.

 One good illustration of the effects of reading a book outside the comfort zone comes from American history.

In the 1850s, the United States was struggling with the issue of slavery. Most Southerners held that it was their constitutional right to keep slaves and expand slavery to the new states coming in. Northerners tended to think slavery was wrong, but usually didn’t feel strongly about it unless it affected them personally in some way. Abolitionists were considered extremists. Then, Uncle Tom’s Cabin [add link 2] happened. It was published in 1852 and has never been out of print since. The book, about southern slavery, is a page-turner even today. It had the startling novelty, for an 1850s reader, that slavery was described partly from the inside. Uncle Tom and Eliza are its victims, but also its heroes. The book starts with Eliza, a young enslaved woman in Kentucky, who overhears that her “kind master" has gone into debt and is about to sell her little boy to a slave trader. Of course, she will never see her child again once he is sold.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin became an instant bestseller. It combined a touching story with gripping storytelling. For many white readers, it was the first time they had been forced to think about slavery from the point of view of an enslaved man or woman. Of course, there is much to object to in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the fury its huge audience felt against slave owners after reading it was one of the reasons the North supported Lincoln in the Civil War, and the strong sympathies it aroused in its numberless readers no doubt accelerated the end of slavery in the U.S.A. The book was so popular that its author, invited to Britain by anti-slavery activists, became a celebrity  across Europe as well; 1,500,000 copies were sold in Britain within a year of publication (helped by the lack of an international copyright law). “Everybody has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and everybody knows who wrote it,” reported a British newspaper. President Lincoln met its author once and supposedly said, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” 

I like to think that if we expanded kids’ reading choices, giving them more books about their peers in other countries, it could likewise influence our world’s future for the better. 

Why not pick up a few good children’s books from outside the comfort zone this month?
Here are a few suggestions to start with:
The World Kid Lit blog is an excellent resource. You can search for children’s books by country or language. The blog welcomes reader reviews and guest contributors. There is also an events calendar where you can sign up and watch virtual discussions. 

If you can, join the #worldkidlit challenge and read and review one children’s book in translation on social media. Your help makes a big difference to small publishers who do a wonderful job promoting authors and translators, but often can’t afford major publicity.

A world book map for children
Ann Morgan spent a year reading a book from every country in the world (well, maybe a bit more than a year) and is now reading children’s books. Many of the books on her list are about teenagers or children and would be enjoyed by young readers.
What books do children read in other countries? Interesting list.
An American mother started this Global Children’s Book Club, with lists of suggested diverse and international reading, and a virtual book club you can join
A list of 100 great translated kids’ books from around the world
Julie Sullivan is a SCBWI volunteer and professional translator.

Picture credits
Header: Jess Stockam
Photo of Paris building by Julie.
Eliza escapes, illustration from Uncle Tom's Cabin, London: Trischlen and Company, 1891.
Tom learns he will be sold, illustration from an early children's edition

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