This is a story about Moomins. I just love Moomins. I always have.
But perhaps you have no clue what I’m talking about? Moomins were important in my childhood, but I know that many people grew up without them. (Though, as is so often the way with childhood reading, I can’t imagine how.) Moomins feature in one of my favorite series of books, created in the ’40s by a genius called Tove Jansson, and they are funny. They’re trippy, and dreamy, sometimes melancholy and often wise. They’re also Finnish.
I shall return to the Moomins shortly. Because meanwhile, in another part of the forest, a small Gaulish village is still holding out against the invaders. A warrior called Astérix, his friend Obelix, the druid Panoramix, the dog Idéfix … they’re funny, too. (And punny.) Yes, Astérix was another favorite of mine. As were Pippi Longstocking, Tintin, Pinocchio, various books of fairy tales … and possibly The Little Prince? But yeah, mostly Asterix. Or rather “Astérix,” with the accent—if we’re going to be properly French about it.
When I call it “Astérix” rather than “Asterix” it’s not an affectation. It’s an attempt to draw a distinction between Astérix, and Asterix, just as I might distinguish between The Little Prince and Le Petit Prince. They’re the same, and not the same.
Because what I really read, growing up in London, was Asterix, not Astérix. I read The Little Prince—not Le Petit Prince—and I read English Finnish Moomins and English German fairy tales and Danish fairy tales and French fairy tales. All of them, as far as I knew, great landmarks in English children’s literature, sitting comfortably alongside Winnie-the-Pooh and Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl and Eric Carle and Alice. I didn’t know, I think, what translation was. I didn’t know that the Asterix jokes that made me laugh were by a brilliant woman called Anthea Bell. You may know that the words to the original Tintin were written by his Belgian illustrator, Hergé—but who wrote the English Tintin? If you once read The Little Prince rather than Le Petit Prince, to whom are you indebted for those words?
I think their names are important. It was Katherine Woods who picked up a pen in 1943 and wrote “Draw me a sheep…” It was Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner who filled Captain Haddock’s speech bubbles with billions of blue blistering barnacles. We owe them a lot.
What we read defines our horizons. As a child I had no idea that Asterix was translated but Little Women wasn’t, that Ursula Le Guin wrote in English but Pippi Longstocking needed a second writer to make her exploits readable by the likes of me. I didn’t know, or care. I knew, however, that with every new book I loved I was discovering a new way for a story to be funny, or to be exciting, or to make me wonder. These translated books—just like their English-language cousins—were just more worlds of experience. They were story and characters and voice, and the questions they asked and the pictures they painted and the emotions they stirred in a reader.
I’ve never really believed that children experience stories differently to adults, not fundamentally; but children are newer to the world than we are, which means the books they read have a certain special potential. For a reader just beginning to put names to things, just beginning to calibrate life’s rules and limits, books can offer answers—or rather, they can frame questions in such a way that the answers seem a little closer. So if stories can help children make sense of the world, surely these stories should be as various as they can be. Reading for me was a kind of exploration, dependent on the possibility of unexpected discovery, of surprise. Freedom to roam that world-size forest of stories, to take intriguing sidetracks or stop and look about you—a world away from the stifling tyranny of the assigned reading, the expectation that every kid in class study the same few books, and find in them the same predictable things.
Last year I published a reference book, The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. When I set out, I knew I wanted to talk about a whole world of children’s books. But it turns out that most of the whole world is hard to find nowadays. I included entries on those foreign books that enriched the old canon: The Little Prince, Astrid Lindgren, the Brothers Grimm, and all the rest. They made us readers, these books—they made a lot of us writers, too. But they came to English 40, 60, 100 years ago—where’s all the stuff that’s happened since?
I recently went to a major London bookshop, a good one, and did some counting. I found 2,047 children’s books, of which 2,018 were by English-language writers and 29 were translations. Of those 29, the number of living writers represented was … 6.
Is this because nobody else in the world is writing anything for children worth reading? Well, even if you argue that the Anglophone world is atypical for the number and quality and—by some metrics—the variety of its children’s books, still it seems improbable. Six point seven billion people in the world whose first language isn’t English, and none of them are writing good children’s books? Nobody but us—however you choose to define that problematic “us”—has a story worth telling?
How many languages are now spoken in homes and schools in New York, say, or London? But where do kids in those cities go to find the brilliant new stories by Polish or Colombian or Syrian or Turkish or Chinese children’s writers? These writers exist, I can assure you. And yet for some reason we deprive our children of their stories, and we impoverish them in the process. In the real world, if you build a wall around your culture, it’s never just the other guys who pay for it.
I should declare a certain partiality. I’m a translator, and we translators are vocationally inclined toward pushing back any literary horizon. We’ve long complained about the mainstream publishing market’s reluctance to deal in translated work—in world literature, if you like. Well, getting children's books translated makes the adult ones look like, well, child's play.
Of course France and Germany have robust, thriving children’s book worlds, which have survived our attempts to bury them with translated Potters and Twilights; fantastic things are happening in children’s writing and illustration there, just as they are in Scandinavia, and Brazil, and Italy, and most places you might choose to look. But something happens between those native French and German and Brazilian books and the British and American markets—or rather, doesn’t happen. The channels through which we were first brought Tintin and Asterix and those Moomins, those German and Danish fairy tales, The Little Prince, are all but closed. Where, then, will we find the Moomins of tomorrow?
We are lucky to have publishers whose explicit mission is to build their lists by looking outward. Houses like Enchanted Lion, Pushkin Children’s Books in the U.K., and Gecko Press in New Zealand, along with many honorable others, are all doing good work. And I don’t believe they’re all publishing the world’s books because it’s worthy to do so, but because there are all these great stories out there. And most importantly, readers like them. Their translated-ness, it turns out, does not make them bad, or difficult, or even uncommercial.
Which brings me to a question: Should we even be drawing attention to the foreignness of these foreign books for children? Is that a celebration, or a lazy ghettoization? I’m in two minds. (As a translator, that’s where I spend a lot of my time.) Because there’s still a resistance to perceived “foreignness”—on our children’s behalf. (Though has anyone ever heard an actual child say, No, I don’t want to read that one, it’s a translation?) This thinking suggests children will only enjoy books that mirror their own experience—the way only real pioneer children enjoyed Little House on the Prairie, and only actual wizards want to read Harry Potter.
We have an all too narrow view of how children might enjoy reading, and the most miserly ambitions for where that reading might come from. Do we really believe that books matter to children—that they challenge and stretch a reader’s sympathy, curiosity, understanding? If so, we’re failing them. Those of us who write and translate, who commission and publish children’s books—and I’m afraid those of us who buy them, too. Those of us raised on a diet of Babar and Hans Christian Andersen, who should know better than to be scared of Belgians and Moomins and Gauls. When I talk to friends in other countries, I’m given a tantalizing picture of what we’re missing: a world of stories being told to children—and we have, somehow, stopped looking.