TRANSLATION Children's classics in other countries

Julie Sullivan takes a look at the most-loved books from around the world.

Have you ever wondered if children in other countries read very different books from ours? Of course, there are globally popular books like the Harry Potter series, and older ones like Alice in Wonderland that have been translated over and over again. Every year, today, more books are translated from English than from any other language. But what are the books from their own countries that they love most? And what are the books like? I thought I'd find out a bit about what books those are. 

Beloved local books from each country

For the EU, this amazing map was created by Christina Kasinti, who teaches English in Corinth, Greece. Do you recognize the books? People from many different European countries were simply asked to name the first book that came to mind from their own country. Do you recognize some of them? You can find the whole list here.

Monkey on his way to the Buddha's homeland with the monk Tripitaka, Pigsy his disciple, and a river ogre, Sandy

In China, where children’s books are the bestselling category, the government has recently cracked down on foreign imports, worried that they encourage foreign values as well. But Chinese classics have always been popular. Children all over East Asia love the Journey to the West, written in the 1500s, which tells the story of a mischievous monkey in human form who keeps messing up the travels of a serious monk travelling to India to acquire Buddhist scriptures (the figure of the monk is based on a real person who made the journey). There are innumerable versions of this book in many languages and formats, as well as movies, television series, opera, video games and manga. There’s a new English translation out this year if you’re curious! 

The beautiful White Bone Demon has her hands full fighting Monkey

A more accessible version for children is Monkey and the White Bone Demon, which shows just one of Monkey’s many adventures.

Wu Song fights a tiger

Another still popular Chinese classic among children is the even earlier Water Margin, written in the 1300s, a Robin-Hood-like tale of heroic outlaws in a marsh. It was one of Mao Tse-tung’s favorites. Versions of this story have been read across Asia for centuries, especially in Japan, and the characters are well known to most Chinese. In this picture, painted by Liu Jiyou, a bandit named Wu Song has to fight off a tiger.

More children’s books in English translation can be found here.

The famous artist Ivan Bilibin illustrated the Pushkin story of Tsar Saltan 

In Russia, one ever-popular children’s classic is the great writer Pushkin’s story in verse of Tsar Saltan, his son, and a swan princess. The unfortunate prince is disguised into a mosquito at one point by his helper, the enchanted swan. There are many wonderful Russian fairy tales, and SCBWI’s own Sophie Anderson has turned one, the story of Baba Yaga, into The House with Chicken Legs. 

A Sámi hut like this one from Lapland, now in the Scansen museum in Stockholm, may have given rise to the Baba Yaga legend

From the Soviet era, a much-loved story is the The Tale About the Lost Time, by Evgeny Schwartz. In it, a lazy boy suddenly finds that his wasted time has been stolen by evil wizards so that they can become young again. The boy, meanwhile, has become an old man, and only his dog still recognizes him! He has only until sunset to find out how to change back into a boy.

The Tale of Lost Time is timeless

Here are some more books from that era that children still enjoy.

Detective Feluda and his young cousin Topshe are investigators

India has its own longtime favourites, including film director Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series for children, featuring a young detective and his cousin and sidekick who tells the story. 

Ruskin Bond writes about the northern Indian hill country

One unusual but popular author is Ruskin Bond, an Indian writer of British descent. His first hero, Rusty, is a boy who like so many in the modern era is not quite sure how he fits in to his own native country. Bond's books are read in across India in schools. 

Swami and his friends in Malgudi

The humorous, humane Malgudi stories about a fictional town, by R.K. Narayanan, have been made into a television series to reach a wider audience (you can watch them here).

A series by a SCBWI British Isles author that gives a true flavour of rural India is Farmer Falgu, by our own Chitra Soundar.


The author was a devout Buddhist. Christian themes also appear in the book

Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa wrote some of the best-beloved Japanese children’s books, including Night on the Galactic Railroad, about two children travelling by train across the constellations, which like several of his other stories has been adapted into anime. His vision of a paradisiacal place has given its name to the wonderful blog by the SCBWI Japan translation group, Ihatov, where you can find out much more about Japanese children’s books.

The magical land of Ihatov 

This is only a tiny, unrepresentative selection of some of the “classic” books from other important languages that our children could be reading to learn more about other countries and their ways of looking at the world. I didn’t even mention such major literatures as Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese, Turkish, or Korean. And some of the world's best writers have written in languages spoken by far fewer people. What do we know about them?

English-speaking children, who read fewer translations than most other children in the world, are missing out on a lot!


Julie Sullivan is a volunteer for Words and Pictures who always dreamed of faraway countries when she was a child.

Picture credits

Feature illustration: Jess Stockham

Map: Christina Kasinti

Journey to the West

Monkey and the White Bone Demon: illustrators Lin Zheng, Fei Chang Fu, Xin Kuan Liang, Zhang Xiu Shi 

Wu Song Beats the Tiger by Liu Jiyou 刘继卣 

The prince as a mosquito: Ivan Bilibin

Chicken-leg house: Robin Iversen, Komponisto on Flickr 

The Sámi storage hut at the Scansen Open-Air Museum in Stockholm, Sweden is from Norrbotten, the northernmost county in Sweden. It was on legs to keep out animals.

Tale of Lost Time

Feluda: Bengali Wikipedia article

Ruskin Bond stories: Room on the Roof, School Days, Getting Granny's Glasses

Ihatov illustration by 白樺兎師春:

Malgudi television series illustration:  RK Laxman

Farmer Falgu cover by Kanika Nair

Night on the Galactic Railroad: Kagaya 

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