Guest Post: 31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Translated Picture Books


Today we welcome guest writer Betsy Bird. We spotted this post on her “31 Days, 31 Lists” project and she has kindly agreed for us to share it with you. She has loads of great recommendations for picture books from across the globe. Over to Betsy:

So. Many. Translations!!!

I am just floored. Did you see Leonard Marcus’s article in the New York Times called The Caldecott Medal Needs an International Makeover? In the piece Marcus notes that after WWII, two awards for children’s literature that were open to international recipients began (The New York Times Best Illustrated list and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, respectively). He writes, “Two devastating world wars had prompted some idealists to wonder if a cross-cultural exchange of children’s books might have some small role to play in setting the stage for a more peaceful future. Why not encourage a similar mind-set in these fractious times?” He also says the following:

“Today, the children’s publishing industry is a global enterprise. Picture books are as ubiquitous an American export as iPhones and soybeans. At the same time, spurred by the rise of the internet, the ease of long-distance travel and a belated recognition of the value for American children of a cross-cultural perspective, American publishers have become increasingly open to working with authors and illustrators from abroad and to introducing books that originated elsewhere.”

Whether or not you agree that now is the time for translations to enter the American limelight, here is a list of those titles I saw this year that I just thought were super. You probably won’t see most of them winning the major awards. You probably won’t even see most of them on the end of the year “Best of” lists. Even so, they’re stellar and they deserve our love. Translators noted when credited:

2019 Translated Picture Books

All Around Bustletown: Winter by Rotraut Susanne Berner
[Translation – Germany]


In spite of this book’s thick board book-like pages, I’m inclined to put this in the picture book section due to its size and contents. And what wonderful contents they are, too! This little German import follows in the step of Anno, as you drive by a variety of different winter scenes. Now in the past this book would have cause me a small headache. Why? Because those Europeans, lord love ‘em, are crap at multiculturalism. Not Berner! Somehow she got the memo and so this book is more than just a sea of samey same same white faces. Amazing how that contributes to the joy of picking out all the details and repeating characters, eh? A seek-and-find book for the 21st century.

Along the Tapajos by Fernando Vilela, translated by Daniel Hahn
[Translation – Brazil]


Does any else remember Kampung Boy by Lat, published here in the States in 2006? For whatever reason, this book reminded me of that eclectic graphic import. This book hails from Brazil, and it’s a straightforward retelling of what happens in the state of Pará, along the Tapajós River. Every year when the rainy season comes (in the winter) whole villages will just pick up and move away. Part of what I like about this book so much is the fact that this migration is viewed as so normal that it’s almost not worth commenting on. We certainly don’t have a lot of books about kids from riverside populations, so this is one of those engaging titles that offers a glimpse of somewhere new to most American readers. More translations like this one, please!

And Then the Seed Grew by Marianne Dubuc
[Translation – French]


Usually gnome/pixie type books don’t charm me, but there’s a real Du Iz Tak? charm to this cutey. A seed embeds itself in the ground and its subsequent growth causes all manner of hellacious chaos amongst the quiet denizens of this particular patch of land. As a gardener I sympathized with their misguided attempts to deal with sneaky roots. Sneaky roots will always win. They are sneaky that way. Notable for the singular image of a mole trying to shore up the roof of her bathroom.

The Book in the Book in the Book by Julien Baer, ill. Simon Bailly,
translated by Elizabeth Law
[Translation – French]


It’s not that this kind of book hasn’t necessarily been done before. I know it has. You can find books in books in books once in a while. But what this book really reminded me of was Evan Turk’s The Storyteller, where you dive deep into a story in a story in a story and then the author has to deftly pull you right back out again. Additional Bonus: the book’s just neat, you know? Get the right kid to read it and it may well blow their minds.

The Boring Book by Shinsuke Yoshitake
[Translation – Japanese]


Let the record show that I believe truly, in my heart of hearts, that Shinsuke Yoshitake’s Still Stuck ranks as one of the funniest Japanese imported picture books of this or any other year. So that set the bar mighty high for this particular title. As it happens, I adore it. I think it does a marvelous job of not just discussing boredom but also the philosophical ramifications of boredom in all its myriad forms. Plus I just love how the guy draws a bored face. Think about it. How do you draw a person who is bored? You get a real sense of that when you get to the wordless two-page spread of what happens when 300 bored people get together. It kind of makes me appreciate how not bored I am as an adult. This? This is great not-boring-at-all funny stuff wrought from the fodder of boredom.

Child of Glass by Beatrice Alemagna, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick
[Translation – French]


If there is one thing the publisher Enchanted Lion Books likes, it’s books that allow them to play with perception and the tactile experience of the page. If they can render something partially transparent then by gum they shall do so! This gentle fable follows a child named Gisele who is as fragile as can be. So much so that she is transparent. You can see right through her. More disturbingly, you can see into her thoughts. Interestingly, this leads to her greatest problems, because when people can see what you’re thinking, they will often judge you harshly. Gisele cracks when she feels sadness or anger, so she travels all over to find a home. In the end, though, she realizes that her real home is where she started, warts and all. It’s one of those stories that could apply to a whole range of things and ideas, or you can just take it on its surface. I do love the partially transparent pages throughout as well. Just beautifully rendered.

The Ear by Piret Raud
[Translation – Estonian]


Because you simply cannot have enough Estonian children’s books on your shelves, as far as I’m concerned. Sadly there is no word on who did the translation for this book. I’m giving publisher Thames & Hudson some extra points on gumption for putting the rather kooky “Inspired by Van Gogh” button on the cover of some editions. It just sort of makes this wackadoodle tale of an ear with impetus that extra goofy push. I love that it begins with a shot of Van Gogh considering the ear and then when she “wakes up” she’s near some rather famous Van Gogh bedroom shots. Not that Raud is trying to emulate his style AT ALL. I just love that he thought to himself, “Van Gogh cut off his ear. So what would happen if the ear wanted to find its place in the world?” And then the fact that the ear turns out to be a great listener?!? Okay, that’s it. I love this book. It’s not an art style Americans naturally gravitate towards but the story is strong and there, man.

The Flops by Delphine Durand,
translated by Sarah Klinger and Delphine Durand
[Translation – French]


The French are different from you and I. They like poop jokes more. Oh, and they’re a bit more willing to experiment. Mind you, the first thing I thought when I saw this was that it was the work of Elise Gravel. This is what you’d get if Gravel was French. Travis Jonker included it in his listing of The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2019 where he said it was, “an extremely detailed guide to a creature that doesn’t exist. For seconds, the oddball humor and tone are unlike anything I’ve read.” You’re just gonna have to see it for yourself, honestly.

Francesco Tirelli’s Ice Cream Shop by Tamar Meir, ill. Yael Albert,
translated by Noga Applebaum
[Translation – Israel]


There’s a real advantage to not remembering why you placed a certain book in you library on hold. Why precisely did I want to read this book? No idea, so I just picked it up and dove in. And at first it just seemed like the story of a boy who loved ice cream and who, in turn, grew up to influence another boy to love ice cream. Pretty standard stuff. Of course that was before the plot took a sharp right turn and the Nazis invaded. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised, since there’s a shot of Francesco Tirelli as a child playing with soldiers over a map of Europe (WWI type stuff). What this is then is a fictionalized account of the real Francesco, who hid a whole host of Jewish people in his ice cream shop. It’s also, remarkably enough, a Hanukkah tale. At one point the people burn cooking oil in a chocolate mold that has seven spaces in it. The art is deft and the text consistently interesting. So much so that I didn’t know this was based on real people until I got to the Epilogue at the end. A book worth discovering and remembering.

A Good Day by Daniel Nesquens, ill. Miren Asiain Lora,
translation by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
[Translation – Spanish]


I love a book that works by its own strange little internal logic. With a style that feels like a 21st century Anno (Anno + selfie sticks), the story is a restrained, lightly magical tale of a tiger that yearns for freedom and the canny housecat that helps him achieve that dream. Half of the book is dedicated to the sky above the zoo. It’s a gutsy move for an illustrator to make, because it means reducing the main characters, particularly the cat, to tiny figures. Yet somehow you just love the delicacy of it all. The humans are so small they never warrant faces (with the exception of the sympathetic zookeeper) and yet the animals all have faces. Even the snakes and the tiny toucans. Doggone it, the more I look at this book the better and better it gets.

Harold Snipperpot’s Best Disaster Ever by Beatrice Alemagna,
translated by Edward Gauvin
[Translation – France]


Anyone that saw Alemagna’s On a Magical Do-Nothing Day knows that she’s an author/illustrator to watch. That funny little book took the world by storm, and now there’s a new Alemagna out. This book struck me as nothing so much as an extended version of Andrea Tsurumi’s Accident. Only, in this case, the idea of mistakes and accidents leading to love and the beauty of imperfection is a little more spelled out. It’s interesting, but in 2019 this is a theme I’ve been seeing proliferate frequently. Whether I’m watching Steven Universe or reading Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu, a love of messiness is a message we all can grasp. Particularly those of us, like me, who are naturally messy.

Herring Hotel by Didier Lévy, ill. Serge Bloch
[Translation – French]


I will walk far distances in downright unpleasant weather to see the newest book from Bloch. This title reads like a Wes Anderson film, which makes sense since tonally it has as much in common with Grand Budapest Hotel as it does The Royal Tenenbaums. There is an array of quirky hotel residents, including a woman who claims to be the former Queen of Kettlippia. I was very intrigued when it showed that the tanks that invaded Kettlippia were sporting an American flag. Altogether the book is extraordinarily sweet and a rather lovely paean to always being kind, even in the face of another person’s reality.

How to Light Your Dragon by Didier Lévy, ill. Fred Benaglia,
translated through La Petite Agence, Paris
[Translation – French]


There’s an odd little charm to this French import that I find hard to resist. The “how-to” picture book is a common enough feature on our shelves these days. This follows most closely in the steps of books like How to Train a Train, in that the child character is placed in a position of particular prominence and importance. Plus, how knatty is this kid? Pink fedora? Yes, please! Sign me up for that. Best of all, when the dragon does at last breathe fire it’s not a mere orange but a veritable rainbow of colors! There may be a metaphor lurking in all of this. Not sure.

The Last Leopard by Cao Wenxuan, ill. Rong Li,
translated by Courtney Chow, Marlo Garnsworthy and Na Zhou
[Translation – Chinese]


It’s funny. The Cao Wenxuan book that has everybody talking in 2019 is Summer, illustrated by Yu Rong. I found it perfectly serviceable, but to my mind two of his other books, out in 2019, are far more interesting. The Last Leopard may be my favorite overall. It reminds me a lot of Are You My Mother? Not the search for a parent, so much, as the odd, almost dystopian feel that you’re the last one in the whole entire world. There’s this sweet, strange sadness to this book. In it, a leopard searches in vain for another leopard. And whatever animal or plant or insect he meets will in turn also feel like they too are the last of their kind. There’s a dreadful irony at the end when the leopard dies believing he’s found another leopard. This is very similar, in tone, to the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Meanwhile, the art is gorgeous and sweeping and vast. If you didn’t feel small before reading it, you’ll feel small after. A book that puts you in your place, no apologies.

Lion and Mouse by Jairo Buitrago, ill. Rafael Yockteng,
translated by Elisa Amado
[Translation – Spanish]


Huh! Never seen the old story done in this particular way before. I found this to be a take on the tale that is both faithful and utterly original in its eventual moral lesson. This isn’t about underestimating your friends so much as it’s about doing good for others’ sake rather than your own.

The Little Black Fish by Samad Behrangi, ill. Farshid Mesghali,
translated by Azita Rassi
[Translation – Iran]


The shelves of your average everday American children’s room are not fair overflowing with Iranian picture book imports. After reading The Little Black Fish, I think maybe they should be. I mean, this book originally came out in 1968 in Tehran and it’s very much in the same vein as Swimmy, if more socially responsible. Really, the book I think it’s closest to, in a lot of ways, is Alvin Tresselt’s The Frog in the Well. In both cases you have a character that has a very limited worldview, manages to see the world, and encounters others that have their own limited worldviews due to their circumstances and lack of curiosity. According to the publisher, this book was banned after it came out in Iran. I don’t find that particularly surprising considering what it’s advocating. With its woodcut-like illustrations this should be a classic worldwide. Hat tip to Tiny Owl for getting it back out there and to Azita Rassi for the perfect translation.

Little Plane by Taro Gomi, English translation rights arranged with DOSHINSHA Publishing Col, Ltd. through Japan Foreign-Rights Centre
[Translation – Japanese]


I had to double and triple check, just to make sure that we weren’t dealing with a book that had originally come out in picture book form and then was turned into a board book. Nope! This book was published in 2015 in Japan under the name Kiotsukete 2. Now it comes out here as a board book in its first round, and I gotta say I’m impressed. Gomi’s not a new name to us (does Everyone Poops, ring a bell?) but he consistently makes books that kids like. I don’t have babies now, but I could see me reading this one 100 times or more and still liking it. Then again, I like anthropomorphized objects with faces. So there’s that.

The Mermaid in the Bathtub by Nurit Zarchi, ill. Rutu Modan,
translated by Tal Goldfajn
[Translation – Hebrew]


This is a pretty good example of how the press materials for a book can be heads and tails (ha ha) different from the end product. Read the promos for this title and you’ll hear that it’s “a gorgeously retro illustrated reimagining of The Little Mermaid.” That is true insofar as it is gorgeously retro and there is a mermaid. But this book has about as much to do with Hans Christian Andersen’s story as a news feature on Billy Porter would have to do with The Emperor’s New Clothes. What you will find inside is actually much more exciting than a standard fairytale. Mr. Whatwilltheysay worries when he finds a gorgeous 1920’s era mermaid in the bathtub. What will the neighbors say? Ultimately he and the mermaid get together, but honestly I think she could have done better than him. The real lure here is the amazing art by Modan. All kinds of kooky details fill the pages, and that flying fish with wings and legs may be my favorite unnamed character of all time. It’s wackadoodle and I love it. Hand it to the mermaid obsessed kiddos. It’ll blow their little minds.

My Island by Stéphanie Demasse-Pottier, ill. Seng Soun Ratanavanh
[Translation – French]


I was already primed for the work of Ratanavanh since she created Time for Bed, Miyuki back in 2018. It doesn’t hurt matters any that when she’s not writing and illustrating she works as a children’s librarian in Paris. As in Miyuki, this book delves in dreamlike imagery but with a hint of a plot for spice. Alas, it’s a little unclear who did the translation (I couldn’t find that info on the publication page). But if you like snails and cake and hanging coffeemakers, and lights on strings, and colorful plates, and foxes in domino masks, this may be the book for you.

My Little Chick by Géraldine Elschner, ill. Eve Tharlet,
translated by Kathryn Bishop
[Translation – Swiss?]


You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but this is a rather kicky little book about hatching a chicken from an egg. And, with the rise of people raising chickens in their suburban backyards, perhaps it is expertly timed. Do you remember the beginning of Me, Jane when she sneaks into a henhouse to watch a chicken lay? That’s how this book begins. The impatient child must wait and wait, and then there’s this neat lift-the-flap sequence, which kind of comes out of nowhere, when the chick finally emerges. It’s simple and sweet, but doesn’t skimp on the technical details too, which I appreciated.

Oscar Seeks a Friend by Pawel Pawlak,
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
[Translation – Polish]


I’ve always had a soft spot for skeletons (no pun intended). Remember Owl TV on PBS back in the 80s? Remember Bonaparte, the talking skeleton? My love of those boney heroes started then and hasn’t let up since. Oscar’s story is a sweet tale of a skeleton looking for a buddy and a girl who seeks the same. The 3D paper collage technique is pretty keen, particularly when you mix it in with digital illustration. Pawlak makes a world all of his own and invites us to share in it. I’ve not seen many of his books before. Here’s hoping we get more and more in the future like this one.

The Parrot and the Merchant: A Tale by Rumi, illustrated by Marjan Vafaeian, translated by Azita Rassi
[Translation – Iran]


If the title sounds familiar, that may be because this tale was adapted into a picture book around 2010 called The Secret Message by Mina Javaherbin. I loved that book, but I’m quite drawn to this one too. Vafaeian is Iranian, and made it a point to cast the merchant in this story as a woman, which I thought was interesting. It helps that it’s a strong fable too.

Paws + Edward by Espen Dekko, ill. Mari Kanstad Johnsen
[Translation – Norwegian]


I’m prone to hyperbole, particularly when I become excited by a book. That aside, I truly do feel that this little Norwegian import may be the sweetest old-dog-dying picture book I’ve ever read. When at first you encounter Paws, you just get the impression that he’s an old, lazy dog. Edward wants him to go out and play and walk, and Edward goes along with it (the walking part anyway) but as the book puts it so succinctly, “Paws doesn’t feel the urge to run anymore. He has run enough.” Throughout the story you see his dreams of running and when, at last, he lies down to sleep and never wakes up again, it’s Edward that night who instead has dreams of Paws. It’s handled so swimmingly and eloquently and touchingly, but without any patronizing or cutesiness. And just look at those watercolors! I love Johnsen’s style. More of this, please!

The Real Boat by Marina Aromshtam, ill. Victoria Semykina,
translated by Olga Varshaver
[Translations – Russian]


Remember when picture books were longer and able to tell slightly more in-depth stories than the hello/goodbye books of today? They still get published, you know! And full credit to Candlewick for taking a chance on this remarkable Russian translation. Have a kid that likes boats? You really, truly, and honestly couldn’t hand them a better story than this. It’s clearly not American and that’s awesome. The art is crazy complicated, rich, and evocative. I occasionally open it up and pet the spreads, they’re so beautiful. So glad we got a chance to see it here in the States.

Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler
[Translation – French]


Takes the whole “bedtime book” concept and ratchets it up to eleven. Dear lord, this is a gorgeous book. Though, I’ll admit, it broke my heart a little to see that it was digital art. No matter. I want to give all the kudos to the translator because all of these poems sound like they were originally written with English in mind. It’s evocative and gorgeous and one of the best bedtime tales I’ve ever seen. I mean, just listen to this: “Toes clinging to the ceiling / kite-fingers folded like a blanket, / the bat dreams upside down…” Vibrant yet calming images showcase animals tucked in, ready for slumber, offset with soothing evocative poetry.

Taxi Ride With Victor by Sara Trofa, ill. Elsa Klever,
translated by ???
[Translation – German]


This is the third intergalactic taxi driver I’ve met in some form of children’s media, and I’m sure there are others I’ve never even seen. I was rather charmed by Trofa and Klever’s take, to say nothing of the marvelous black and red color palette. The whole premise here is that Victor will always take you somewhere but it will be where you need to go, not necessarily where you want to go. It has a nice circular rhythm to it, and that art just pops off the page. It’s German title (if you want to be totally immature like me) was “Taxifahrt mit Victor.” Tee hee hee. Apparently this book was shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards in 2018. Interested in seeing why?

Tell by Warja Lavater
[Translation – Switzerland]


And here we run into the limitations of labeling. Technically this book really doesn’t have much in the way of words. Just symbols that, when viewed correctly, tell the story of William Tell. The front of the book contains a pocket and inside you’ll find a little key card identifying all the players. There are cards in English, German, French, Italian, and Rumantsch Grischun, because we’re cool like that. Even the design of the book invites discussion. You can flip through the pages as you normally would or you can pull the book apart, accordion-style, to reveal


the story in one long strip. Though ostensibly for design students, this would be an excellent title to use with children to wiggle out what they think is happening from scene to scene. Good too for anyone who’s trying to teach kids how to use a Key. And, most naturally, I’d say that this could be paired for the up and coming children’s librarian in your life alongside Molly Bang’s seminal work Picture This: How Pictures Work. Even the covers go together, see?

What Cats Think by John Spray, ill. Mies van Hout
[Translation – Netherlands]


If cats could glow they would glow like this. Van Hout has been brought to the States before, usually with books about fish. Yet it’s with cats that you feel she’s truly found her medium. These proud pussies practically glow on the page. There is a luminosity to their eyes and a vibrancy to their fur. The colors, the colors . . . There is just so much to say about the colors of this book. I want to frame each page. I mean, look at the cat on the page for “Spooked”. Look at how the paint has splattered and zigzagged and the dots of paint for the toes aren’t even connected to the body anymore. Energy crackles off of every single one of these images. Not for cat lovers only.

When Spring Comes to the DMZ by Uk-Bae Lee,
translated by Chungyon Won and Aileen Won
[Translation – Korean]


There is a wilderness that grows between the border of North and South Korea, where nature flourishes. A child’s grandfather visits it, no matter the weather, no matter the season. Well now aren’t you just the sweetest little book about the no man’s land between North and South Korea that I ever did see! I have never seen a book like this, and it’s amazing! Beautiful art and a truly amazing story. I love the translation. I love the whole package. A strange, sweet consideration of home and longing.

When the Mice Family Comes to Visit by Wenjun Qin, ill. Xiaoxuan Xu,
translated by Tomorrow Publishing House
[Translation – Chinese]


Do you miss the art stylings of Jill Barklem in her Brambly Hedge series? Then you are in luck, m’dear. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an artist that was able to evoke Barklem as closely as Xiaoxuan Xu has done here. Her mice are completely different, but if you, like myself, love cozy little homes filled to brimming with tiny details and lots of winding tunnels, have I found the book for you! Ostensibly the story is about a festival where a large mouse family is meeting. I expected the usually happy happy plus happy narrative, so I was surprised when one of the uncles comes in, mauled by a cat. It’s just the tiny touch of darkness the book needs to keep from being saccharine. Love these watercolors and the gatefolds are seriously impressive.

When You’re Scared by Andrée Poulin, ill. Véronique Joffre,
translated by Karen Li
[Translation – French]


There’s something very appealing about this book. There’s a sing-song repetition to it that changes your p.o.v. and your perceptions at the same time. It feels wordless but the words are so key to the storyline and so clever in their simplicity. What was it that Mo Willems said in an interview once? Ah yes. That “easy” and “simple” were opposites. This clever import from Quebec proves that.

The Wooden Fish by Cao Wenxuan, ill. Gong Yanling
[Translation – Chinese]


Alongside The Last Leopard, this is the other Cao Wenxuan picture book that made its way to American shores that I admire in 2019. And, like Leopard, it explores a deep and abiding loneliness that just guts you to your core. Unlike Leopard, I think (I think?) this one has a happy ending. A wooden post is placed in the river, in the hopes of building a bridge. Alas, the bridge never comes to be and the post is left alone there. Even abuse at the hands of a boy on shore is better than being ignored. However, when a terrible storm comes the post plays a part in saving the boy’s life, and then is set free to swim the seas with all the other detritus.

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