In my most recent column, I wrote about the pitfalls of picture-book tourism and the fundamental impossibility of compressing everything that’s important about a geographic and cultural locale into 32 pages. Eschew these, I wrote, and “double down on imports that offer authentic cultural insights and fresh ways of looking at the world.” Here are a few.
For a truly mind-bending cultural experience, look no further than Tatsuya Miyanishi’s Tyrannosaurus books from Japan, the most recent of which is I Am a Tyrannosaurus. Via Mariko Shii Gharbi’s translation, Western readers meet newly independent young Pteranodon, who relies on the wisdom his parents taught him when confronted by a wounded T. Rex, and instead of ignoring the beast or flying away, he cares for it. Eschewing clichés, the book leaves readers with an open ending, trusting their agency just as Pteranodon’s parents trust his.
Young American readers will find the experience of the protagonist of A Boy and a House equally alien, for all that it features a recognizable human child instead of a prehistoric reptile. In this wordless book from Slovenia, the titular boy follows a cat into an old apartment building in an unnamed European city. His independence is unremarkable to him but likely to be jaw-dropping for many a helicoptered child.
The reorientation of perspective demanded by Sailing to America, a German import by way of New Zealand, is a profound one. Like many an American child who’s decided to dig a hole to China, Olly the dog determines to sail to America. Thus do author Robert Gernhardt and illustrator Philip Waechter, through David-Henry Wilson’s translation, position U.S. readers outside their own country for the space of 28 pages. For German readers, it’s an amusing story; for American readers it’s a redrawing of their internal maps.
None of these books peddle reductive twaddle. While they may not be geography lessons, what they’re doing is a whole lot more subtle—and more important.
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.