We Need Diverse International Books
Shortly after returning from Portugal, I attended the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Chicago, where I’d organized a panel for YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) titled “Reading the World: Selecting and Presenting Global Literature for Teens.” Approximately 50 librarians attended this panel, which featured presentations from myself, Anita Eerdmans (publisher of Eerdmans and Eerdmans Books for Young Readers), Rachel Hildebrandt (translator and founder of Weyward Sisters Press and the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative), and Annette Goldsmith (scholar and co-author of Reading the World’s Stories: An Annotated Bibliography of International Youth Literature).
My introductory presentation focused on the rationale for libraries collecting international books in translation and using them with teens. As a longtime supporter of We Need Diverse Books, I understand the importance of books that help white, middle class children and teens see the world beyond themselves, as well as people whose stories have not been included — or have been expropriated and rewritten into caricature — to see their experiences presented authentically and in their own voices. The very first book I highlighted as a new supporter of WNDB was one that had been translated from Spanish into English, Marjorie Agosin’s middle grade novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill. I cited statistics showing that in most of Europe and Asia, books in translation account for 30-50% of all children’s books published, whereas in the United States, the percentage was 3.7 in 2015 according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. That 3.7% was a vast improvement over 2003, when the percentage was 1.9, but we still have a long way to go. I argued that children and teens in the United States need more books from other countries, not fewer, to combat the isolationism of our current leadership.
Anita Eerdmans then spoke about the challenges of publishing translated books for teen readers. Most of her translated titles — and a substantial portion of books published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers are translations — are picture books rather than those for older readers. She brought a selection of books to the panel, including her Batchelder Award-winning title Mikis and the Donkey, a middle grade novel written by Bibi Dumon Tak and translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson and the recently-published picture book I translated from Portuguese, The Queen of the Frogs. She talked about the process of obtaining and evaluating books for translation, what makes a title likely to be translated, and the efforts of various countries — particularly those in northern Europe — to promote their literature and fund the translation of their books. Currently, the five languages most often translated into English are, in order, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese. With the growing interest in manga and graphic novels, more translations are coming from Japan and Korea, though Eerdmans pointed out that French authors and illustrators have produced some of the most innovative and compelling graphic novels in recent years.
Since many teens are already reading adult fiction and nonfiction, Rachel Hildebrandt talked about adult books suitable for young adults. The large and growing number of these books serves in part to mitigate the dearth of YA books in translation coming from U.S. publishers. She observed that many countries classify books differently, so that a “young adult” novel published in Spain — she used the example of Llanos Campos’s Treasure of Barracuda, translated by Lawrence Schimel — was marketed as middle grade in the United States by its publisher, Little Pickle Press. By this token, many of the edgier books published as adult could be considered YA as long as their protagonists were teenagers. Hildebrandt provided a list of 20 books from Japan, China, France, Germany, and Spain, and one of GLLI’s ongoing projects is to identify more crossover books that already exist in translation as well as ones that should be translated and published in the U.S.
The reference book that Annette Goldsmith co-authored, Reading the World’s Stories, identifies outstanding books in translation and the importance of awards and distinctions such as the Batchelder Award and the USBBY Outstanding International Books list. (Disclosure: A picture book I translated, Ruth Rocha and Madalena Matoso’s Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words, is on that list this year.) Goldsmith is working to establish an award similar to the Batchelder for YA books, and as scholar, author, and GLLI board member Marc Aronson pointed out, the Printz Award for outstanding YA books was explicitly written to include books published outside the United States and ones in which the English translation appeared in that year. Goldsmith’s excellent handout of read-alikes focused on themes in which translated books could be paired with similar books that had been published originally in English and proved popular with teen readers. For instance, for the theme of relationships among sisters — always popular among teen readers — Goldsmith suggested the French novel I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, by Amélie Sarn and translated by Y. Maudet as a pairing with Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead. The handout includes an extensive resource list, and you may download the entire file here.
I’ve been thinking about the importance of books in translation as a result of the recent G20 summit and President Trump’s potentially fateful meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. As our government grows closer to Russia’s authoritarian regime, I realize that young readers know very little about life in Russia today. For that reason, I recently bought and read Daria Wilke’s novel for older middle grade readers Playing a Part, translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz. Wilke now lives in Austria, and Playing a Part has been banned in Russia because of its sympathetic portrayal of a gay character and its implicit criticism of the rampant homophobia of Russian society. The 13-year-old protagonist, Grisha, works in the Moscow theater where his parents are part owners, and the story begins when he discovers that Sam, his favorite actor, is emigrating to the Netherlands because of homophobia. Over the course of the story, Grisha learns to stand up for himself and the people he loves, and to confront the violence he witnesses against people who are seen as “different.” Readers may think this is a battle we have already fought and won in the United States — the restrictions and violence against LGBTQ people in Moscow reminded me so much of attitudes I grew up with in the South in the 1960s and 1970s — but it very well may be a battle we have to fight again.