World Kid Lit Review: Oscar seeks a friend by Pawel Pawlak

World Kid Lit Month may have ended but there’s still plenty of activity out in the world of translated and world books for children. Today I’m reviewing a book that has already received quite a lot of attention: Oscar seeks a friend by Pawel Pawlak, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

This book is all about Oscar, a cute little skeleton. But Oscar’s sad. He doesn’t have any friends and he thinks that because he’s so ugly, particularly now he’s lost a tooth, he will never make any friends. So when he sees a little girl burying a tooth, he asks if he can have it. While initially resistant to handing it over, she does give it to him, as long as he helps to find her a friend.

And so begins a whirlwind of fun. The little girl takes Oscar to see her world. I love the collage pictures and the little girl doing a cartwheel – something my daughter picked out. One page shows them listening to a shell and the words read: “She and her friend would talk and talk forever, sharing their biggest secrets, dreams and other very important things.” Of course these are all things that Oscar and the girl are doing as they unconsciously become friends.

After having seen the little girl’s world, Oscar takes her by the hand to show her his world. I love this bit. The little girl goes willingly to learn about how Oscar lives. Life for Oscar is different: the pages are black with skeleton people and animals. Again, the pictures are wonderful.

At the end, it’s time for the girl to go home and they make plans to meet again. Oscar hands the tooth back to the little girl. He doesn’t need it anymore. He’s found what he is looking for.

I love the way Oscar’s new friend shows him her life and her world and then Oscar reciprocates telling her all about his life, showing her how he lives. While they live in very different worlds, they are happy to share their “biggest secrets, dreams and other very important things”. This is an invitation to our children to be open minded and to find out more about how other people live.

To find out more about this book and to read interviews with the publisher and translator, please follow this link over to the World Kid Lit Blog.

It’s the last day of World Kid Lit Month – don’t be sad though, it’s International Translation Day!

We’ve had a fabulous month over on the World Kid Lit Blog celebrating all things to do with translated literature for children. Feel free to hop over there and take a look at all the interviews, articles and reviews that have been published over the last month. But don’t despair that we’ve reached the end of September, you’ll still get your fix of World Kid Lit, just at a more sedate pace than the last few weeks.

September marks the anniversary of when I “officially” launched my career as a freelance translator. I’ve had a lot of help along the way and I’d like to thank everyone who has given me their support. I’m thrilled to be working as I am and alongside some incredible people. So to everyone out there working in translation, you deserve a very Happy International Translation Day!

Kid Lit Review and Interview: The Voyage by Robert Vescio and Andrea Edmonds

Always interested in having a look at new books dealing with the topic of border crossings and migration, I am grateful to EK Books for forwarding me a review copy of this new picture book by Robert Vescio and Andrea Edmonds: The Voyage.

The story tells of a family fleeing their worn-torn country and setting off on a journey to safety. Each page displays just one word, allowing the reader to expand and discuss the images they are being presented with. The illustrations are beautiful.

Both author and illustrator are based in Australia yet for me here in the UK, the story has strong similarities to the migrant situation around the Mediterranean albeit with a more idealistic ending. I was intrigued to find out about their own experiences and inspiration for writing such a book. I was offered the chance to contact them both to find out more.

CS: First up, Robert Vescio. Where did you get your inspiration from? 

RV: I wanted to write a story about the refugee crisis that was unique and different to other refugee stories. A story to allow children to explore their surroundings and give the reader the ability to expand on the words and tell a story through what they see. What is it like to leave everything behind and travel many miles to somewhere unfamiliar and strange?

CS: Did the words come first or the illustrations?

RV: The words definitely came first, although I did envision how the illustrations would like look as I was writing the story. 

CS: While you were writing, did you have in your mind where this family might be fleeing from and to?

RV: When writing The Voyage, I didn’t have a specific country in mind that the family was fleeing from. The illustrator, Andrea Edmonds, researched refugees from different parts of the world. This lead her to the millions of refugees in the Middle East. So she based her ideas and illustrations around a Middle Eastern family and created their own authentic back story. 

CS: I’ve seen this book advertised as being suitable for 4-8 year olds. Some people might argue that younger children don’t need to read books like this – aged 5, why do they need to know? What would you say to this? 

RV: I hope my story will help facilitate conversation and promote healthy communication to help foster empathy, understanding and inspire children to ensure a welcoming environment in their own communities. Stories like The Voyage, will help children come to understand the reality for many refugees living in their country. Without stories, children will struggle to understand. Today, we find ourselves living alongside refugees who have suffered and experienced horrific trauma. They all have different experiences and come from different cultures. It’s important that we understand and build good communities and the only way we can do this is through stories – stories that help us explore and imagine being that someone else.

Andrea Edmonds (AE), where did you get your inspiration from?

AE: After reading the manuscript for the first time, I began to research refugees from different parts of the world, and was saddened to read of the millions of refugees in the Middle East, following the Syrian Civil War. Ideas began to flow around creating a Middle Eastern family, as the central characters in The Voyage with their own authentic back story. The architecture, tapestry, fabrics, music and food, of the Middle East was what I drew inspiration from to set the scene. My first sketches produced the father being a traditional oud musician, and the rest of the family were developed afterwards. 

CS: Did you have in your mind where this family might be fleeing from and to?

AE: Although the family are portrayed as Middle Eastern, the characters themselves are fictional, though inspired by the current situation. The destination they arrive in to find safety and start a new life is not any particular European or Western country, but more importantly portrays the new land as welcoming and understanding of what this family have just endured. The reader has the freedom to relate the story to their own experience.

CS: The real stories we hear about boat crossings and arriving in Europe are clearly far harsher than they are displayed in the book. Was this a conscious decision to make this a gentler experience for the reader?

AE: The reality of what refugees experience before, during and after their journey is certainly much more harsh and tragic than what is illustrated. Taking into consideration our younger readers from 3+, was the main reason for portraying a gentler experience, to encourage empathy, promote positive discussion and bring awareness to younger generations. 

CS: I love the duck in the pictures. Is there any special relevance attached to why they are taking a duck with them? I’ve read other books where families take their pet cat with them but I’ve never come across a duck!  

AE: During my research, I had read several accounts of refugees unable to abandon their pets (mainly cats and dogs) as they embarked on their journey to find safety. It was amazing to hear that their pets had survived the journey. This inspired the idea to include a family pet in The Voyage. 

As the background story of the family includes the Mother having a garden (which the seeds she initially brings with her are from), it just seemed fitting to envision a duck as the family pet running around in the yard, which the children loved to play in also. 

My aim was to create a family that readers could identify with, and better understand the heartache of their experience.

CS:  Andrea and Robert, many thanks for answering my questions.

For more books dealing with this topic, please click here to see the books I reviewed during Refugee Week 2019.

You can also join me over on the World Kid Lit Blog for more reviews, interviews and articles about translated and world books for children.

World Kid Lit Review: Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipović

Zlata’s Diary was written by Zlata Filipović and translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić (Puffin).

Today I’m reviewing a book which first appeared in English in 1994, 25 years ago. It perhaps seems strange to be recommending a book from such a long time ago, but through Zlata’s Diary there are lessons that can still be learnt all this time later.

Zlata began writing her diary on 2nd September 1991. In a newspaper article from 2012, she explains: “I wanted it to be funny, like Adrian Mole.” Instead of a humorous diary, it turned into a vivid testament of war from a child’s perspective.

In the introduction by Channel 4 news presenter and journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy, he tells of visiting Zlata in Sarajevo in 1993 when he was reporting for BBC’s Newsround (you can watch the video clip here). He refers to a calendar hanging on her wall, frozen at 5 April 1992. For Zlata, that was “the day that time stood still.”

Her diary tells of the physical suffering of war, of the relentless shelling, food and water shortages, days without electricity and gas and the freezing cold winters. She also talks of the pain of separation, of friends and family fleeing the city while she and her family remained. There is also the horror of death and destruction, young friends being killed: “A disgusting war has destroyed a young child’s life.”

At one point in the diary, she takes inspiration from Anne Frank’s wartime diary and gives her faithful friend a name, Mimmy. At the time, she would not perhaps have imagined that her words might one day be compared to Anne Frank’s famous testimony. Indeed, there are moments in the book where she herself refers to Anne Frank, determined not to suffer the same fate.

At times, Zlata talks about the apparently mundane – what she’s watched on TV, what pieces she’s learning to play on the piano – but she also becomes philosophical with sentiments that still ring true today:

“It looks to me as though these politics mean Serbs, Croats and Muslims. But they are all people. They are all the same. They all look like people, there’s no difference. They all have arms, legs and heads, they walk and talk, but now there’s ‘something’ that wants to make them different … Among the good there are Serbs and Croats and Muslims, just as there are among the bad.”

In the end, it is keeping her diary which offers Zlata and her family a way out of Sarajevo. After publication of her diary in France, she is visited by numerous members of the press, who eventually manage to secure safe passage for Zlata and her family to France. In this, I was reminded of Bana Alabad’s testament about the siege of Aleppo in Syria and how due to her tweeting from within the siege, the world became aware of her suffering.

Such testaments by children are so powerful and remind us that in war it is often innocent children who suffer for the ideals of others:

“Us kids are not playing, we are living in fear, we are suffering, we are not enjoying the sun and flowers, we are not enjoying our childhood. WE ARE CRYING.”

For more book reviews, interviews and articles, join us over at the World Kid Lit Blog

Wold Kid Lit Book Review: The Ventriloquist’s Daughter by Man-Chiu Lin

A couple of days before I went on holiday, I decided I needed to top up my Kindle with some holiday reading. Having downloaded young adult novel The Ventriloquist’s Daughter, I accidentally finished it before we even got on the plane!

***Warning*** Spoilers***

The Ventriloquist’s Daughter is by Man-Chiu Lin, translated from the Chinese by Helen Wang (Balestier Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Claire Storey

The story tells of Liur who grows up living with her Mama, Baba and paternal grandparents. The first years of her life are happy with time spent with her parents in the forest at the back of her house. But her parents are under pressure: her father to pursue a career in medicine he isn’t interested in and her mother to produce a son. I really felt for Liur as she is repeatedly told: “If only you were a boy!”

When Liur is four, Mama finally falls pregnant. But Ah Fen, the housekeeper, tells Liur: “When your little brother is born, no one will love you anymore.”  In Liur’s mind, the terror of being replaced begins to grow and she begins to play up, trying to attract her parents’ attention. Then Mama has a miscarriage, Liur feels the threat has gone, but life doesn’t return to normal. This section is so well-written; I could really feel Liur’s despair: “[Mama’s] mind was so full of the son who had died. She couldn’t see the daughter who was alive and in front of her eyes.”

A while later, Mama becomes ill and dies. Baba is distraught and overcome with grief. To bring him out of it, Grandfather sends Baba to the USA on a training course, leaving solitary Liur at home with her grandparents. Instead of attending the training course, Baba goes travelling, starting in the USA and heading south through Latin America. Every so often, he sends a postcard to Liur which she cherishes, waiting for him to return.

When Baba does finally return 5 years later, he brings with him a doll called Carola. But Carola isn’t just a doll, she is his ventriloquist’s dummy. While he has been away, he has learnt the craft of ventriloquism and has created a stage persona called Carolo. While initially intrigued by her father’s new talent and his doll, Carola begins to come to life. Liur believes Carola will do anything to destroy Liur and become Carolo’s real daughter.

The writing in this section of the book is really vivid and Liur’s fear of Carola feels very real. It is only revealed later on that Liur is struggling with her perception of reality. Deep within her, she carries the secret guilt that it was her that caused her mother to fall, lose the baby and ultimately die. The feelings she has harboured about being replaced she now projects onto Carola. It is only once she admits this feeling of guilt and self-hatred that she can begin to unravel it, learning the truth of why her mother miscarried and passed away, neither of which had anything to do with little Liur’s actions. By letting go of this, she reconciles with her father and the book has a really positive ending.

I actually had to go back and read the ending a second time because I was so convinced that what Liur had been telling of the doll was true, that Carola was coming to life and trying to kill her, indeed playing with my own perception of reality.

This is a real page turner, and I was hooked from the start.

Man-Chiu Lin is a well-known children’s author in Taiwan who has published a number of successful YA novels as well as non-fiction titles. In Taiwan, she received the Golden Tripod Award for children’s fiction in 2003 and the “Good Books Everyone Can Read” Award for the best children’s book of 2010. ‘The Ventriloquist’s Daughter’ was long-listed for the 2014 Found in Translation Award and subsequently selected for the Found in Translation Anthology.

Helen Wang is Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum, and a literary translator working from Chinese to English. Her translations for children include Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi, Pai Hua Zi and the Clever Girl by Zhang Xinxin, and Tan Hou and the Double Sixth Festival by Cai Gao. She has also translated short stories by a wide range of Chinese authors.

This post also appears on the World Kid Lit Blog. Join us there for more reviews, interviews and interesting articles all about wonderful World Kid Lit.