Translated nonfiction for children has come into its own in the past decade. Ever since Polish illustrators Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski came out with Maps (published in 2012 as Mapy in the original Polish), with rights sold to over 20 countries and over three million copies sold worldwide, there has been growing recognition that children (and their adults) will gobble up fun nonfiction titles in translation.
Of course, due to the extra cost and effort needed to find and invest in translated books, the books often have to be truly exceptional to pique a publisher’s curiosity. What is it, then, that encourages a publisher to take the plunge, as it were? As I have begun reading and reviewing more nonfiction for children (look for links at the end of this post), I’ve realized that as diverse as these works may be, they are united by their outstanding illustrations and attention to detail, and by their ability to make even a very complex subject accessible to younger readers. In some cases I’ve also seen a unique narrative hook.
Since fossils and dinosaurs are perennial favorites for young and old alike, including me, in this review I’d like to focus on two recent titles: Fossils from Lost Worlds, written and illustrated by Hélène Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt (translated by Daniel Hahn, Gecko Press, 2021) and One Million Oysters on Top of the Mountain, written by geologist Alex Nogués and illustrated by Miren Asiain Lora (translated by Lawrence Schimel, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2021).
I love Fossils from Lost Worlds not only for its superb, detailed illustrations, but also for how it manages to engage readers from so many different angles. You have the option of reading the book from the beginning, starting with fossil discoveries of some of the strangest creatures ever to have lived, like Dickinsonia and Hallucigenia – and these creatures alone could spark a life-long interest in biology, geology or paleontology, since scientists are still trying to understand how these and other animals evolved during the dramatic explosion of life in the Cambrian period. Another option is to open the book to any section you please and read about the discoveries of Charles Walcott or Mary Anning, or puzzle over how or whether winged dinosaurs could fly, or immerse yourself in dinosaur lore. This is just the kind of fascinating book that can provide endless hours of intrigue and entertainment and lead to many different factoids for your next trivia game. The only thing more astounding than the amount of information amassed here is the authors’ ability to present the information in a way that’s both enticing and understandable to middle-grade readers: sometimes they employ a comic strip format to tell a story, and sometimes they provide nuggets of facts centered around a beautiful illustration. If you like this book, Rajcak and Laverdunt also have two other nonfiction titles for children available in English: Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals (translated by Jen Craddock, Gecko Press, 2012) and Unseen Worlds: Real-life Microscopic Creatures Hiding All Around Us (translated by Patrick Skipworth, What on Earth Books, 2019).
One Million Oysters on Top of the Mountain is aimed at slightly younger readers aged 5-10 and takes a different approach by directly engaging the reader and inviting them on a journey of discovery. It’s written like a dialogue, with the text in bold directing the reader’s attention, and the text in italics imagining readers’ possible responses. And thus we are gently led through a forest and finally to the top of a mountain to look at rocks which…turn out to be fossilized oysters! I love how Nogués zooms from the macrocosm to the microcosm and back out again while introducing children to plate tectonics and the movements of the oceans. At the end of the book, Nogués hints at further discoveries to be made, hiding on the hillside or forest of your next hike – and he should know, as he has found many fossils himself, including a previously unknown fossilized organism named in his honor as Alexina papyracea. This book has been featured on several 2021 year-end lists, including the New York Public Library’s list of Best Books for Kids.
If you would like recommendations for other nonfiction titles for children, you might like to browse through my reviews of these titles:
1,001 Creatures by Laura Merz and Aino Järvinen, translated by Emily Jeremiah (Yonder, 2021)
Impossible Inventions: Ideas That Shouldn’t Work by Małgorzata Mycielska, with illustrations by Daniel and Aleksandra Mizielinski, translated by Agnes Monod-Gayraud (Gecko Press, 2017)
This is a Dictatorship by Equipo Plantel, with illustrations by Mikel Casal, translated by Lawrence Schimel (Book Island, 2021), included in a list of recommended children’s literature in translation on the Children’s Literature Association blog