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In Translation, Reviews, Young Adult

Welsh YA in translation

This week I’d like to focus on a series of YA books by Welsh author Myrddin ap Dafydd, translated by Susan Walton and published by Carreg Gwalch. These historical novels focus on different periods of Welsh history and are all standalone works.

The Iron Dam

As with all of these books, The Iron Dam is based around real-life events. In this book, we are transported to 1963 when the village of Llangyndeyrn in the Gwendraeth Fach valley was threatened with being flooded to create a new reservoir to provide water for the big cities. The villagers have already seen the Tryweryn valley in North Wales suffer that same fate and refuse to allow the same thing to happen to their valley. They stand firm together and form a plan to see off the threat.

Living next close to the Peak District, I have grown up hearing about the village of Derwent which was flooded to create the Ladybower Reservoir. When the water levels are low, the top of the church spire can be seen sticking out of the water. The Iron Dam really made me reflect on that story and think about the people that lost their homes and livelihoods to create the reservoir. The historical notes at the back show photographs and images from the time and help to expand the context around the narrative story of Gareth and his family.

Under the Welsh Not looks at a different aspect of Welsh history and one that is really crucial to highlight. This book takes us to the times where the English have imposed that all education should be carried out through the medium of English. Those children caught speaking Welsh in school have a wooden sign hung around their necks: The Welsh Not. This is a symbol of shame and if you are the child wearing the Welsh Not at the end of the day, you suffer the cane. If, however, you can catch one of your classmates speaking Welsh and inform the teacher, you can exchange your fate with theirs.

As an English person, I found this quite an uncomfortable read at times, but so often the uncomfortable truths need to be confronted. The suppression of the Welsh language and culture by shaming and punishing young children really upset me. One of the little girls speaks Welsh at Sunday School (where Welsh is allowed) and yet when we meet her again later in the book, she has learnt to reject her heritage and will now only speak English. Only when the country’s leadership system is changed to include Welsh-speakers do the children see any formal recognition of the value of their native tongue.

When we think of our colonial past, we often think of far-flung countries abroad, perhaps forgetting the proximity of some of the atrocities carried out. This is a great depiction of that domination and suppression taking place so much closer to home and one I think young people should be aware of.

I particularly enjoyed one dialogue where one of the young boys asks what language Noah and his sons would speak at school, given that in the story they had just been told at Sunday School, they had just been speaking Welsh. I can imagine that conversation as a young child tries to get his head around two languages and understand why one is not allowed. As with the previous novel, some of the characters are taken from reality and the historical notes at the back are fascinating.

I also really enjoyed The Moon is Red, set between Wales and the Basque Country around the time of the Spanish Civil War. Part one tells of Megan, whose family has been forced to leave their farm in Porth Neigwl, North Wales, to make way for a bombing school. Her older brother Humphrey is a sailor on a ship that usually transports Welsh coal to the Basque Country and returns with Basque iron for Wales. These ships become the evacuation transport for thousands of Basque children.

In 1937, Pablo Picasso created Guernica, one of his most famous paintings, depicting the destruction of the city of Gernika in the Basque Country at the behest of Franco. In part two of this YA novel, we’re thrust into Gernika just as the bombs are about to fall. We witness the destruction of the city and the impact on the fleeing families. Merin and her little brother Anton are caught up in the bombing and it takes several days until the family reunite, only to be torn apart again. A ship, the Habana is evacuating children the to UK, where they will be relocated across the country, some 4000 in total. The historical notes at the back tell us that approximately 400 children were sent to Wales. And this is where, in part three, our Welsh protagonists meet the Basque ones.

Based on factual events and taking real-life people as the inspiration for some of the characters, what I find particularly interesting in this book is the combination of two languages and cultures which have both been persecuted by the dominant power in their respective countries. The sailors on board the ships speak a mixture of Welsh and Basque, as do the children towards the end of the story. In the English translation, flavours of both Welsh and Basque are kept, particularly in the terms of affection, and it seems particular care has been taken to maintain the Basque spellings for Bilbo and Gernika. Having lived for several years in North Wales, I also really enjoyed Susan Walton’s portrayal of the dialogue, really bringing the North Walian accent alive.

Many thanks to Myrddin ap Dafydd and Carreg Gwalch for the review copies.

Chapter Books, In Translation, Middle Grade, Picture Books, Reviews

Middle Grade Reading Recommendations

Following on from last week’s post about YA Poetry anthology INK KNOWS NO BORDERS, this week’s post concentrates on chapter books and middle grade novels that I’ve come across over the last few months.

Geronimo Stilton by Geronimo Stilton, translation from Italian credited to the Italian publisher (Sweet Cherry Publishing – UK)

Oh my goodness, how have we not discovered these books before? Full of cheese and rodent-based puns, these are just such good fun. My seven-year-old chuckles every time we come across exclamations like “Putrid cheese strings!” or “Rancid rat droppings!” and our absolute favourite, “HOLEY CHEESE!”  Each book follows the protagonist Geronimo Stilton and various members of his family on an adventure and can be read as standalone books. These are gentle adventures with a hint of danger but nothing more. There are far more giggles than gasps! Chapters do tend to leave you on a cliff-hanger which often leads to pleas for “just one more…” I also like that each book often has a repeating phrase, “Oh what a day!” for instance, so when reading aloud, I often get my daughter to fill that bit in. So far we’ve read the first two and a half books and there’s still plenty more to come. A spin-off series about Gerrykins’ sister Thea and a graphic novel series are still to be explored! It’s also worth pointing out that as well as being great fun, they really are a master-class in pun translation.

***

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson (Puskin Press)

I think I might be a little late on the uptake on this one, having now been made into a Netflix series, but better late than never! The Letter for the King is a great adventure novel with a new twist or turn around every corner. When an old stranger interrupts Tiuri’s night time vigil in the chapel on the eve of his knighthood, little does he realise the adventure that will follow. While disobeying the King by answering the old man’s pleas, Tiuri accepts the task given to him by the stranger and follows it through to completion. The book highlights friendship and loyalty as well as pursuing a course of action based on what you think is right.

One section that struck me was where Tiuri has met a man in the woods with a strange aspect, who appears to be a fool. While initially impatient to continue on his journey, Tiuri stops and makes time to talk to the Fool. As he leaves, he promises to visit the Fool upon his return. Not forgetting the kindness the Fool has shown him, he does return to speak to the Fool again on his way back. I really liked the tenderness displayed by a would-be knight who is made out to be courageous and daring. Brave boys can be kind-hearted too!

***

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, newly translated from Japanese by Emily Balistieri (Random House Kids)

One for fans of the Worst Witch series, this is a lovely little chapter book about a young witch who, following the rules of being a witch, sets out on her own to find her own place to live and work, taking her talking cat with her. Every witch has a special skill but Kiki isn’t sure what hers is. With witches being a rarity, her neighbours are somewhat skeptical when she moves into town. She settles on providing a delivery service, which has its ups and down but she ends up winning over her neighbours with her kindness. My only slight bugbear was that everywhere Kiki went, she was greeted by someone telling her she was “cute”. I appreciate the original Japanese version of this story was written in 1985, but I do wish they wouldn’t comment on her looks every time! But that aside, it’s a very sweet adventure story of a girl going out into the world, learning her strengths and carving out a future for herself. At the end of the allotted year, she returns home and reflects on just how much she has grown.

***

Earlier in the year, I also reviewed Lampie by Annet Schaap, translated by Laura Watkinson (Pushkin Press, UK), which has just been released in the USA as Of Salt and Shore by Charlesbridge. That first masterful scene of the storm and the light house still remain with me today!

***

And not forgetting The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius, translated by Peter Graves, also published by Pushkin Press. And the great news is that the third Sally Jones title by Jakob Wegelius has recently been picked up by Pushkin. I can’t wait!

Reviews

INK KNOWS NO BORDERS: POEMS OF THE IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE EXPERIENCE

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading some amazing middle grade and young adult books. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favourites. Some are in translation and some are written originally in English. I’ve also expanded my reading to include poetry, which isn’t an area I’m usually drawn to, and I’ve not been disappointed. So that’s where I’m going to begin.

INK KNOWS NO BORDERS: POEMS OF THE IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE EXPERIENCE
Edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond (Seven Stories Press)

Referred to by Kirkus Reviews as a “symphony of poetry” this collection of 65 poems has been written in English by poets from across the world, all of whom are first or second-generation immigrants and refugees. There is a real mix of heritages, including Hispanic, Asian, African, Middle Eastern, but also poets from the US territories of Puerto Rico and Guam who talk of feeling “foreign in a domestic sense” (Craig Santos Perez – Off-Island Chamorros).

The collection has a clear progression, opening with a poem by Joseph O. Legaspi entitled Departure: July 30, 1984. From there, the poems discuss childhood, schooling, family dynamics, pride and longing. A particular theme of identity emerges, grappling with acceptance and love for one’s own being. There is also defiance that grows out of shame, a call to be proud and unapologetic for who you are. Franny Choi’s Choi Jeong Min opens with:

“in the first grade I asked my mother permission
to go by frances at school, at seven years old,”

As mum to a seven-year-old, I find this especially moving, highlighting the effect discrimination has on children. Even at such a young age, Choi Jeong Min feels she needs to change her name and escape her identity because of the way she is treated by others.

The poems often speak of this reaction from other people, an assumption of who you are based on a name, an appearance or an accent. The line of white people in Bao Phi’s Frank’s Nursery and Crafts, tutting at Mom as she insists she’s been over-charged, irritation changing to sympathy as it turns out she’s right. Marianne Chan’s When the Man at the Party Said He Wanted to Own a Filipino makes you gasp with horror. Ethnic Studies by Terisa Siagatonu is another stand-out poem, a criticism of people who sit and talk about race but that forget “we’re sitting right behind you”.  

Many of these poems shine a light on behaviours that should not have to be tolerated and yet with these poems having been published in their original forms over a span of more than 20 years, we see that little appears to changing. I really liked Brian Bilston’s Refugees, the physical act of reading the poem top to bottom and then bottom to top, encouraging us to upturn our own thinking and see refugees and immigrants differently. In his afterword, Emtithal Mahmoud says: [to make a difference] “You just have to reach out and recognize people. Recognize our fellow humans around the world who are fighting for the right to live.”

Many thanks to Seven Stories Press for the review copy.

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#WorldKidLitMonth starts today

It’s 1 September which can only mean one thing: it’s #WorldKidLitMonth!

Over on the World Kid Lit Blog, we have daily posts discussing all things World Kid Lit: interviews with publishers, editors and translators, book reviews, reports about initiatives and programmes and much more. We are also kicking of some new panel sessions called World Kid Lit LIVE, two online discussions featuring the people involved in bringing about translated books for children. Head over to the blog or take a look at our social media channels on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

I’ll also be tweeting (@ClaireStorey16) some book recommendations from my review archive, looking at some of the books that have stood the test of time since our 2018 World Kid Lit Challenge – 30 Books in 30 Days.

In Translation, Picture Books

Picture book review: She rides like the wind and In Great Numbers

It’s been a little quiet on here due to homeschooling through the pandemic and getting ready for #WorldKidLitMonth over on the World Kid Lit Blog, but today I’m reviewing two new picture books from publisher Little Gestalten. One of the things I love about Little Gestalten books is how they feel. Recognisable because of their large-scale dimensions, matt finishes and gloriously thick pages, they really are a joy to behold.

In Great Numbers written by Isabel Thomas, Robert Klanten, Maria-Elisabeth Niebius and Raphael Honigstein. Illustrated by Daniela Olejníková.

In our house, numbers are celebrated. My husband and kids love maths so this book has gone down a treat, and not just with the kids. I started flicking through In Great Numbers one evening and it didn’t take long until I was calling over to my husband: “did you know…?” or “listen to this!” Packed full of interesting facts about the history of our counting system and calendar, how GMT ended up being used as the standard measure for time and why computers only use two numbers, I learnt more than just a thing or two. When it was my son’s turn, he too called over, “Mum, did you know…” We really enjoyed having a go at Kaprekar’s Constant. We also had an interesting conversation about a call I had planned with several people in different countries and the times we could or couldn’t meet depending on the different time zones.

The book nicely highlights the global origins of many of the concepts we still use today, from India and Egypt to the Greeks and Romans, with the illustrations conveying this diversity of people. One of my favourite pages is the explanation about money. A long line of people snakes across the page, depicting people from all different races negotiating the exchange of goods. The line starts back in the stone age with two men exchanging animal skins for food, and works its way up through history to the present day where two people are using cards to pay.

She Rides Like the Wind written by Joan Negrescolor, translated from Portuguese by Jethro Soutar.

New out for August, this bright yellow non-fiction picture book from award-winning illustrator Joan Negrescolor, translated by Jethro Soutar tells the true story of Italian cyclist Alfonsina Strada. Alfosina overcame disapproval from her family and society and became the first and only woman to ever win the Giro D’Italia. The words tell the story of when she first rode a bike and how she learned to cycle. It mentions falling off (or rather landing head first in a puddle!) and getting back on again – a great lesson for children to hear about how successful people have overcome their challenges.

While the words convey the story of her journey to success, it’s the illustrations that explain how this was received by the local community around her. People point and stare, their stylised facial expressions depict shock at what she’s doing. With my adventurous six-year-old daughter, these aspects brought up interesting conversations about how girls were and sometimes still are viewed. Alfonsina wears men’s clothes to make herself look more like a man and on one page, she’s called “Tomboy” and “Alfonso” – a boy’s version of her name. Despite all that, she pushes on and ultimately enjoys great success.

The illustrations are really interesting. The pages are predominately bright yellows, oranges, blues and greens and quite abstract in design. I love how people’s emotions or expressions are conveyed using just a few lines or even a simple oval for a horrified mouth. On one page there’s a race spectator whose only feature is a big bushy moustache and yet it conveys so much!

Two great new titles! Many thanks to Little Gestalten for these review copies.

Get ready for #WorldKidLitMonth. Head over to the World Kid Lit Blog and find out how you can get involved.