“A room without books is like a body without a soul,” Cicero.
Little children do what grown-ups do. So when mother and father read aloud to them at bedtime and enjoy doing it, a positive precedent is set. As books and ideas become a staple of home life, the pleasures of discussion and debate continue into adulthood. Reading also alleviates boredom and loneliness, which I remember from my own childhood: books were my first friends.
Home learning is one thing, school learning another. As the curriculum gets more and more intense, packed with demanding schedules, the fun of learning dissipates. In her exclusive interview with BookBlast®, Siân Williams, the founder of The Children’s Bookshow says that a core aim of the tour is “to bring the children joy”. Writers and illustrators who go to schools to do workshops and work with the children on their own creative writing are bringing with them the gift of storytelling. Once learned it is never forgotten – a bit like riding a bike – even though exams, and then life, take over. After all, as adults, we are surrounded by every imaginable kind of storytelling, in myriad forms.
The Children’s Bookshow 2017
This year’s Children’s Bookshow includes the translators of two excellent and very different picture books, from Japan and Russia, for kids age 7-10: Megumi Iwasa’s Yours Sincerely, Giraffe with illustrations by Jun Takabatake & translated by Cathy Hirano; and The Fire Horse, which brings together three poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms, illustrated by Lidia Popova, Boris Ender and Vladimir Konashevich & translated by Eugene Ostashevsky.
When it comes to Japanese culture, one tends to think of manga and anime, or those extraordinary creatures of mythology like Nekomata and Namazu. So to stumble upon a touching story about loneliness, friendship, identity and how to deal with boredom, illustrated by superb line drawings, is a delight.
Yours Sincerely, Giraffe
Giraffe has plenty to eat under sunny African skies, but is lonely and bored because he doesn’t have “an extra special friend.” When a similarly bored pelican offers a new mail service, “willing to deliver anything anywhere . . .” Giraffe writes a letter, and asks Pelican to deliver it to the first animal he meets on the “other side of the horizon.” After a long flight, Pelican sees Seal whose job it is to deliver letters around Whale Sea. Seal delivers the letter to Penguin, “the only animal in Whale Sea who got letters.” Giraffe’s introduction is intriguing, “I am famous for my long neck.” Penguin does not know what a neck is, and writes back: “I think maybe I don’t have a neck. Or maybe I am all neck?” Penguin is the “only student at Whale Point School,” and is also puzzled by tests like “describe the sea,” because when he puts the sea in a bucket it is not blue, but transparent. Giraffe and Penguin start a pen-pal correspondence. Their world is judgment-free and alive with curiosity and discovery. Inevitably, they meet . . . Imagining someone you have never seen is also a way of addressing what one may or may not imagine about another culture. I loved this book which is both hilarious and poignant. By rights it should win a prize. It is the perfect Christmas-or-birthday present for little people!
The witch of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga, in her hut standing on chicken legs, Pushkin’s The Golden Cockerel and pictures of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes left an indelible imprint on my mind.
But only recently did I discover the golden age of Soviet children’s-book design thanks to the superb must-have compendium of Soviet picture books, Inside the Rainbow: Soviet Picture Books from the 1920s and 1930s, published by Redstone Press in 2013; with an introduction by Philip Pullman. Children’s books were a vital part of the new world being built on the ruins of the old destroyed order.
The Fire Horse
A newly-translated collection of three poems, originally published in 1928, by three avant-garde literary giants of the period (all of whom fell foul of the regime) offers a colourful visual feast.
Vladimir Mayakovsky’s The Fire Horse is the story of a little boy who wants a horse from a toyshop. The shop clerk tells him and his father that “We’re all out of horses today. / Still, / a horse of any colour can / Be made by / a master artisan.” So they go to six different workers to get materials and expert craftsmanship to build the toy horse. The next story, Two Trams, is about two cousins Click and Zam who lose each other. The third one, Play, is about Peter, Vasco and Mikey playing respectively with their Soviet car, steamboat and plane when a cow with “some real genuine horns gets in the way.” All three stories focus on modernity, machinery and the importance of work and state. The rhythms and rhymes make them good read-aloud poems: “But Zam spirk-sparks, / He’s scattering fireworks! / He doesn’t want to go to the park, / He clangs clangier than anybody else.” Or, “Peter ran down the road, / down the road, / along the pavement, / Peter ran / along the pavement, / and he hollered, / ‘Roo-roo-roo! / I’m not Peter any longer! / Everybody, / move aside! / I’m not Peter any longer! / I’m on wheels, I’m a car’!”
Propaganda in Children’s Literature
Children’s books as propaganda is nothing new of course. A book published in 1915, read by my French father who was age 6 during World War One, called Le Petit Bé et le Vilain Boche (Little B and the Nasty Kraut), is a stunning example of racist propaganda. Not surprisingly, little B comes up trumps over the German invader.
Today, instructive books are altogether constructive and positive; and causing offense is a total no-no. Books which caught my eye in the Consortium books sales & distribution childrens’ title catalogue for Fall 2017-18 include What is Hip-Hop? by Eric Morse, illustrated by Anny Yi (Akashic Books); My First Book About the Qur’an, a board book for toddlers and young children by writer and translator Sarah Khan, illustrated by Alison Lodge (Kube Publishing Ltd); and Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System by Dominic Walliman, illustrated by Ben Newman (Flying Eye Books). More books for Christmas-or-birthday presents!
Save the date!
From Japan to Stafford . . .
Megumi Iwasa, Jun Takabate and Cathy Hirano will all be over from Japan, to appear at Stafford Gatehouse ST16 2LT, on Wednesday 27 September, 11a.m. | They will introduce Japan using a map on screen, and give a flavour of Japanese life so the children can see similarities and differences in their own lives. After a short reading from Yours Sincerely, Giraffe, Megumi will explain how the idea for the book came about (it was born from a dream!) and why she decided to write it. There will also be a live drawing session from the very talented Jun, and the children will join in.
From Russia with Love . . .
Waterstone’s Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5EJ, Friday 24 November, 7p.m. | Eugene Ostashevsky, winner of the 2014 National Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association whose poetry will appear in the autumn issue of Modern Poetry in Translation focusing on Russian and Ukrainian work, will talk about his work with Sasha Dugdale, former editor of MPT.
Yours Sincerely, Giraffe by Megumi Iwasa, with illustrations by Jun Takabatake & translated by Cathy Hirano | Gecko Press, New Zealand | August 2016 £6.99 104pp PB | ISBN: 9781927271872
The Fire Horse by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam and Daniil Kharms, illustrated by Lidia Popova, Boris Ender and Vladimir Konashevich & translated by Eugene Ostashevsky | The New York Review Children’s Collection, New York | March 2017 £11.99 40 pages HB | ISBN: 9781681370927
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