For the past few years I’ve traveled to the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy; an extraordinary event, mammoth in its size and scope and one that has profoundly changed my understanding of what books for children are and can be.
The fair is an industry show where publishers from more than 70 countries convene to buy and sell rights to publish their books in other countries. To me it represents a cherished opportunity to examine books from around the world and wonder at how storytelling from place to place is both completely different and exactly the same.
The amounts and kinds of stories that are arriving on our shelves are growing steadily. Here are a few of my favorites:
“As Time Went By” by José Sanabria
Sanabria, an Argentine now based in Colombia, tells a circular, metaphorical story about a group of disenfranchised people and a great steam ship. Part one recounts the story of the ship, which begins its life in glory, over time losing its polish and eventually abandoned. Part two introduces a grand family who experiences the same fate, losing first luxuries, then necessities and ending in search of a home. In part three the ship and family are united, and the boat becomes a haven for all sorts of lost and forgotten people, restored to a new kind of glory. The illustrations, collages of hand-painted paper, at once mottled and crisp, make the most of the story’s depths of feeling and meaning.
“The Journey” by Francesca Sanna
Originally written in Italian, “The Journey” tells an abstracted story of a family’s escape from a war-torn country to a new life in a foreign land. The experience is a harrowing one with murky details and substantial privation. The family loses its possessions, encounters treacherous borders and malignant guards, and faces a protracted journey even after it has arrived in a new, safer homeland. Sanna’s gorgeous paintings do much of the storytelling, often offering up details left out of or even contradicted by the children’s narration, and the ultimate impact is deeply affecting. This is a great place to begin discussions of what it means to be a refugee with children who may be curious.
“The Tiny King” by Taro Miura
“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a Tiny King.” So begins this ebullient, orderly, visually stunning riff on the fairy tale by an iconic Japanese graphic designer. The titular Tiny King spends his days in his big castle, eating big feasts at his big table, splashing in his big tub, sleeping in his big bed, alone and lonely. Then he meets and marries a Big Princess, has a big family, and his castle, and his life, are full. Miura’s mid-century graphic sensibility is clean and bright, and the illustrative details add much to the story; the lonely half of the action happens against a flat black ground, which switches to an assortment of brilliant colors for the happy second half. Fans can check out Miura’s subsequent book, “The Big Princess,” wherein the Big Princess herself gets an origin story.
“The Ballad of a Broken Nose” by Arne Svingen
This evocative, moving, heart-breaking-in-the-best-possible-way story follows 12-year-old Bart as he struggles to find his footing, scared that his classmates will discover the squalor of his home life, and even more scared they’ll discover his affinity – and gift – for opera. Originally published in Norwegian, the novel features a particularly Scandinavian tone, reserved in its enthusiasm and unafraid of painting the realities of bullying and family dysfunction with stark clarity. The American literary tradition likes to appeal to the young male demographic with a rough-and-tumble approach to storytelling, and Bart, a gentle, tender boy, is a welcome addition to the canon. That he is so carefully and beautifully drawn as a character makes his presence especially resonant.
Your local library has many more books from many more shores, and we would love to talk to you about them. We’d love to know how they resonate with your family. Visit your library to check them out, and let us know your impressions when you bring them back!
Thom Barthelmess is the youth services manager at Whatcom County Library System.