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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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.

Picture Books, Reviews

Refugee Week Book Blog: Let’s go see Papá by Lawrence Schimel, illustrated by Alba Marina Rivera, translated from Spanish by Elisa Amado

Many thanks to Lawrence Schimel for sending me this book to include on my Refugee Week Book Blog. This picture book is an interesting addition to this week’s selection as it looks at migration from a different perspective, that of the family left behind.

The little girl in the story hasn’t seen her papá for “one year, eight months and twenty-two days.” He’s gone to the United States to work and couldn’t come home for Christmas. She keeps a diary and writes in it every day, telling papá about all the things she’s been doing. And every Sunday, the family wakes up early and waits in anticipation for papá to call.

Then one Sunday papá calls to say that it’s time for his daughter and wife to join him in the USA. They start to pack their belongings, choosing what to take and what to leave behind. The little girl goes to school and tells her best friend that she’s leaving, we feel the worry of the prospect of making new friends in her new home. She realises that Kika, her beloved pet dog, is statying behind with Abuela, who’s too old to start her life over again.

We leave the little girl on the aeroplane, having said good bye to her friend and Abuela. She opens her diary to write to papá but of course, she’ll be seeing him soon. She opens a second notebook and starts to write: Dear Abuela…

The illustrations in this book are wonderful. The detail is incredible. I particularly like the pages where the drawings look like they have been done by a young child, something my son might have drawn.

When I go and volunteer, it is noticeably the young men who have made the journey to a new land. I recently spent an hour doing jigsaws with a young girl who had just recently arrived in the UK to join her father. As I read this, I imagined her receiving that call: it’s time to go and see papá. A useful reminder that migration doesn’t just affect those doing the journeying but also the families back home.

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Picture Books, Reviews

Flucht by Niki Glattauer and Verena Hochleitner

In 2018, my kids and I carried out 30 day challenge reviewing 30 books in 30 for #WorldKidLitMonth. This was one of the books we looked at and I think it’s one that’s worth revisiting for #WorldKdiLitMonth 2020. This picture book comes from Austria and is yet to be translated: Flucht (Flight) by Niki Glattauer and Verena Hochleitner (Tyrolia Verlag).

This book is a little unusual in as far as the story is told from the cat’s perspective. His name is E.T. like the alien in the film who calls for help. E.T. leads us through the family’s preparations to leave their war-torn home and make the journey across the sea. We are told and shown an illustration of what is on Daniel’s packing list:

1 pencil case with pencils, crayons and felt-tip pens, 1 notebook, 1 bag of Lego Minecraft, 3 shiny stones, 1 mobile phone, 1 laptop, 1 pair of jeans, 2 pairs of shorts, the Messi T-shirt, 5 other T-shirts, 1 black leather jacket, shoes with the green flashing lights, 1 other pair of shoes, pants and socks, 4 large bottles of water, 1 small envelope of documents and
1 large envelope of old photos. 

Seeing these items laid out with the rucksack underneath really brought it home for me how very little this family are taking with them, but also what they are taking. For Daniel, the Lego and his Messi T-shirt, but photos, a phone and a laptop. Sometimes we have an image of refugees as people who had nothing to begin with. We perhaps picture them as poor, living in a rundown hut in the middle of nowhere. Of course, some people do live like that, but many come from societies which are, or were, just like ours. And if I were leaving in a hurry, I know I’d grab my mobile phone – it’s a map, a torch, a phone, a camera and I can use it to access my emails – an essential piece of kit!

The illustrations are very powerful – one page shows a single small boat on an expanse of blue.

What is really powerful about this book comes right at the end (spoiler alert!). Throughout the book, we as the reader make assumptions about who these people are and where they come from. Perhaps it’s Syria, perhaps it’s Africa. But Glattauer and Hochleitner turn this on its head, revealing that the family are not fleeing from Africa to Europe, but from Europe to Africa. It challenges us to consider how we would respond to such events: what would we do? And I think it’s really important to do this, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and empathise with them.

What my (then) eight-year-old son had to say:

They are leaving their home because their country is in war. It must be bad where they are living. They are not taking much stuff with them. I think travelling on the sea must be a bit scary.

For any interested publishers, the English rights for this book are still available from Tyrolia Verlag and I have a mocked up book with my translation available. Please get in touch!

For more World Kid Lit titles, you can also visit the World Kid Lit blog.

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