Last week, I wrote about the pitfalls that plague some international children’s books in the App Store. Now, let’s talk about why having a multitude of overseas apps available for an American audience is a great idea.
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First, let's face it—the United States is an international country. In my small suburb, the local school system serves English-language learners from 24 countries, covering 15 languages. Across the river in the big city of Portland, Maine, the school system estimates that about 50 different non-English languages are spoken in the homes of some 1,800 students. Find a bigger city, and you are likely to find even more languages spoken by its schoolchildren.
More books are being published in the United States with either bilingual or Spanish-only texts, but they’re still a proverbial drop in the bucket. If there are a few books available for Spanish-speaking families, those with different language origins are even more hard pressed to find stories in their native tongues. And while there are international bookstores in some larger cities, the prices tend to be ruinous.
The App Store, however, is full of different languages, and some apps are available in many languages at once. I Really Have To Go, the tale of a little boy with a serious bladder emergency, can be toggled from English to Dutch, German, French and Spanish. iAdverti’s Little Red Riding Hood, though not the best version of the Grimm tale out there, is nevertheless available in Spanish, Czech and Slovak as well as English. And while we didn't love the China-originating The Frog Prince much, it is available in Chinese, and the reviewer found that it had a possibly compensatory advantage: "For those trying to learn English, the incredibly slow narrative pace may be helpful."
But all of these languages and stories aren't good just for those trying to learn English and/or maintain a connection to their home culture, they are good for all Americans, by simply making it easy for us to encounter the world. The Three Pandas, a "Goldilocks" featuring pandas instead of bears (appropriately, available in Chinese as well as English) is a charming reimagining of the familiar English folktale with a little Chinese girl barging in and slurping up all of the baby panda’s bamboo-leaf porridge. It's a nifty way to emphasize both cultural differences and essential human similarities in one child-friendly package.
Pagpagayuk, a traditional tale from the Philippines (available in both English and Filipino), is the tale of how the titular bird retrieves a storyteller’s stolen voice and songs. It bears many similarities to Western folktales—magical items, predatory giants, the value of kindness—but it is also recognizably a product of its own origin culture. Its illustrations are far from polished, and it would be unlikely to find its way to America via traditional publishing, but it's in the App Store for all to enjoy.
Even beyond the importance of encountering the stories of other cultures, there is the value in discovering unfamiliar aesthetics. Picture books from overseas often have a very difficult time finding American publishers because they simply look "too foreign." But in the App Store, we find them. Fierce Grey Mouse, from the Netherlands (available in some eight languages or accents), has that "foreign" look in both palette and style, and it also has a cracking good story. Its light, textured colors and whimsical animal characters may not look like Disney, but they exude total charm, and how wonderful that American children can encounter them.
So on balance, I am happy to encounter the occasional clumsy translation or odd cultural incongruity. The world our children are growing up in is ever more international, and the relatively low prices and ease of access to foreign stories from the App Store will help them greet it with grace and confidence.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.