‘Children’s Bookshow’ Founder on Integrating KidLit in Translation into Schools and Children’s Lives

Siân Williams is the founder of The Children’s Bookshow, an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators from the UK and abroad.

For WorldKidLit Month, Williams answered a few questions about why children’s literature in translation matters, talked about some favorite authors, and discussed to keep abreast of what’s new in international children’s literature.


Book events in schools and local theatres are such an important way of not just giving children a more personal relationship with literature, but helping children realise books are crafted by fellow humans. Was it always important for the Children’s Bookshow to bring in authors from abroad, and celebrate books in translation, as well as those originally written in English? Why did you want to include authors writing in different literary traditions, whose work was translated? 

Siân Williams: Yes, it was important from the outset. Brought up with a Welsh speaking father who was wholly internationalist in outlook, I looked at writers from abroad and in translation as being vital for our project.

As a translator myself, having read Russian and French at university, and subsequently learned Italian, I’m naturally an enthusiast.

We have to try and do something about the incredible imperial dominance of English. A great many of our writers have had huge success in many European countries, but, to take Italy for example, if you look in Italian bookshops there is a huge preponderance of US and UK fiction in translation, but how many Italian writers – apart from perhaps Alberto Moravia – would the average English reader be able to name?

More than 300 different languages are spoken in London alone, a third of London school children speak a language other than English at home, and the benefits of multi-culturalism are multiple so why do we not reflect this in the books we publish?

Our first Children’s Bookshow tour in 2003 included writers from Jamaica, James Berry, Guyana, Grace Nichols and John Agard, as well as anthologies and stories which embraced Botswana, Indonesia, Vietnam, Southern Africa and Brazil amongst others.

In subsequent tours we have brought over writers from Australia with Aborigine Monty Boori Pryor; Japan, Kazumi Yumoto and Satoshi Kitamura; India, Anushka Ravishankar; Canada, French Canadian Marianne Dubuc; as well as artists from Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark…

In this year’s 15th anniversary tour we’re welcoming writers and illustrators from Russia, Belgium, Estonia, Japan and Finland.

Before the Bookshow tour, which was established in 2003, with funding from Arts Council England I had organised a number of tours with Arts Council England support again for African (Zimbabwe and Ghana), Russian, German, Portuguese, Italian and French writers in translation, as well as a tour entitled Mother Tongues which was a celebration of non English language poets and included poets from Chile, India, Iran, Guyana, China and Hungary.

So it was an obvious step to try to do something next about children’s books in translation!

The inimitable Bernardo Atxaga at a school workshop.

If some stout gentleman in a financial department somewhere were to tell you, “Nope, authors from abroad & translated literature are too expensive! Let’s only stick to literature Made in the UK” how would you respond?

SW: I’d tell that stout gentleman that introducing children to literature in translation is vital and would quote Philip Pullman who wrote in his persuasive article in the collection Outside In: Children’s Books in Translation (Milet Publishing 2005) : “There are children today in this country who will find a book, or books, in this guide satisfying a hunger they didn’t know they had, and exciting a passion they had no idea they were capable of feeling. We don’t know who they are, and we don’t know which books will have that effect; but if we DON’T offer children the experience of literature from other languages, we’re starving them. It’s as simple as that.”

And if money is such a concern for him, I’d tell him that there are embassies and cultural institutes as well as that valuable body Arts Council England which will help with costs from translation to flights, not to mention a variety of charitable foundations which will give assistance. He just needs to do some research and be determined, and the money will be found.

Japanese author-illustrator Satoshi Kitamura at a Children’s Bookshow school workshop

Can you tell us about a few of the authors from abroad, whose work was originally published in other languages, that you’ve brought into schools & theatres? Are there any moments of connection that particularly stand out?
SW: Kazumi Yumoto from Japan with her brilliant translator Cathy Hirano (who has recently translated the international bestseller The Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising – translators get everywhere!) was a particularly exciting guest very early on at the Oxford Playhouse; Boori Monty Pryor in full Aboriginal dress and paint went down a storm in the Ilkley Literature Festival; and Nazi survivors Tomi Ungerer and Judith Kerr in conversation about their childhood experiences at the Royal Festival Hall are some highlights, but actually, every writer or illustrator we’ve invited from abroad has provided an unforgettable and joyful experience for our audiences of children and teachers over the years.

Is there ever any discussion of the work in its original language, or the translation process? 

SW: Yes, sometimes the translator is present on stage, for example the great Margaret Jull Costa in performance with Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, or the brilliant Sarah Ardizzone with Marianne Dubuc, and there might be some exchange, but overall the aim is to give the children the I firmly believe in the power of the story to draw children in…

Welsh storyteller Daniel Morden at a Bookshow event in Manchester.

How do you go about discovering new authors from around the world who you’d like to bring to the UK?

SW: I research constantly, keep in contact with embassies and cultural institutes and we also work annually with the European Commission Representation in the UK, whose fate, post Brexit has tragically still to be revealed. They have been instrumental in pushing us to seek new countries: because of their input, we’re working with Finnish and Estonian writers in the 2017 tour. We also urge publishers to send us news of their forthcoming books in translation; look at shortlists for the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation and ask the help of librarian Ann Lazim at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) who is a fount of knowledge. I also scour the bookshops: the London Review of Books Bookshop is a rich source.

There are publishers too, for example, Klaus Flugge at Andersen and Adam Freudenheim at Pushkin Press who have a particular interest in children’s literature in translation so we look at their catalogues and websites. Julia Marshall, the publisher at Gecko Press is wonderful too. We’d like all the publishers to let us know regularly though when they’re planning a title in translation…

Are there international authors (who write in languages other than English) who you haven’t brought yet, but who you’d like to bring in?

SW: I’m always thinking about the next tour, so yes, next year we’d like to bring over Chilean Luis Sepulveda ( The Cat Who Taught a Seagull How To Fly illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura, Alma Books), Norwegian Maria Parr ( Waffle Hearts Walker Books) and a French writer and illustrator Franck Prévot and Aurélia Fronty who have created a beautiful picture book Wangari Maathai about the Kenyan activist and environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who received the Nobel Prize for founding the Green Belt Movement to save Kenyan forests.

Wangari was a person who showed that challenging the rules (girls in Kenya in her childhood did not go to school, but she did!) and refusing to give up can make a difference.

You can see why she’s an inspiration: we at the Children’s Bookshow want to emulate that, we want to make a difference to how people view literature from abroad and in translation and enrich children’s enjoyment of literature as a result!

More on The Children’s Bookshow:

BookBlast: Get a flavour of The Children’s Bookshow LIVE!

BookBlast: Interview | Siân Williams, founder, The Children’s Bookshow

BookBlast: Breaking News | The Children’s Bookshow 2017 | 15 years on the road!

And you can follow on Twitter at @ChildrensBkShow

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