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.

Reviews

Women in Translation warming up for World Kid Lit Month

As we’re coming to the end of August’s celebration of Women in Translation, my thoughts start to turn to World Kid Lit Month starting in a few short days. Thinking back to last year’s 30 books in 30 days challenge, I want to highlight a few of the children’s books in translation written by women that are still firm favourites in our house one year on from the challenge.

Valdemar’s Peas by Maria Jönsson, translated from Swedish by Julia Marshall (Gecko Press). A charming picture book about Valdemar’s plan to get ice cream without having to eat his peas.

Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan, translated from Arabic by the author (Lantana Publishing). The story of Yazan who lives in Syria and can no longer go to the park because it’s too dangerous. A great one to introduce the plight of other people to younger children.

Hannah’s Night by Komako Sakai, translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano (Gecko Press). It’s the illustration in this book that make this so special. It tells of a little girl, Hannah, who wakes in the night to find everyone in her family asleep. She decides to go for a wander around the house accompanied by the family cat, Shiro. It is simply delightful.

Banana Skin Chaos by Lilli l’Arronge, translated from German by Daniela Bernardelle (Bloomsbury). This book takes the notion of a boy dropping a banana skin on the floor and the possible (hilarious)implications this could have. This still makes my daughter giggle her socks off.

Inside the Villains by Clothilde Perrin, translated from French by Daniel Hahn (Gecko Press). A sophisticated picture book presenting three infamous characters from the world of the fairy tale: the Giant, the Witch and the Wolf. The unique design has flaps to look under and strings to pull, revealing intricate details. Fold out the left-hand page to reveal a section entitled “More about me” and a story, displayed as if in  a newspaper. This is one I take with me when I want to show people examples of translated children’s books and it hits the mark every time.

The treasure of Barracuda by Llanos Campos, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel. A side-splitting pirate adventure that elicited belly laughs from my 8-year-old son. Plenty of silliness and adventure as the gang of pirates realise the importance of learning to read.

With World Kid Lit Month nearly upon us, follow me on Twitter and sign up to the World Kid Lit Blog for more reviews, interviews and interesting articles throughout September.

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.

Back to Refugee Week Book Blog

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.

Back to Refugee Week Book Blog