This is the time of year when librarians get excited about the Youth Media Awards from ALA’s Association for Library Services to Children. The Newbery, Coretta Scott King, Printz, and Sibert Award winners (and more) will be announced in January and we can’t wait. Most exciting for people who love picture books, as I do, will be the announcement of the Caldecott winner and Honors. At this time of year, we ponder our favorites, read awards predictions (you are reading Calling Caldecott, right?), and keep reading our picture books.
But today I’m doing something different: I’m going to take you around the world and look at some international imports, picture books originally released in other countries that made their way to American shores. These books are not eligible for the Caldecott, but it’s not long anyway till the big award winners will be announced. Until then, let’s see what picture book creators are doing overseas.
Why not start in Japan? Museyon, based in New York, will release in November a Japanese children’s book from 2001, Kazue Takahashi’s Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear. This is the first English translation of Takahashi’s work, a spare book with a small trim size, yet packed with style. In it, an unnamed narrator states that his best friend is the titular bear, who lives far away, and “I sometimes wonder what Kuma-Kuma Chan does during the day.” The rest of the story includes these musings. The art is spare with copious white space. Kuma-Kuma Chan himself is but a brown ball of fuzz with a couple of dots here and a few lines there for his face and hands.
This is the antidote for your overscheduled, hurried and harried child. The narrator imagines that the bear does such strenuous activities as daydreaming, taking a nap, gazing at his nail clippings, listening to the rain, and writing a long letter to a friend. (I love how Takahashi specifies that is it long.) See? We all, children included, need days like this, and the very young readers for which this story is geared—it’d be great for emerging readers, in particular—will get the joy of such activities.
Related to Japan, but by way of France, we have Issun Bôshi: The One-Inch Boy, written and illustrated by Icinori. This story, based on a traditional Japanese folktale, was originally published in France last year and was released this year in its English edition by Little Gestalten. This is the story of a boy as tall as an inch, who sets out for an adventure with a rice bowl and “a beautiful needle.” He outwits an ogre—after all, when an ogre swallows you, a sharp needle comes in handy—and falls for a nobleman’s daughter. With the help of the ogre’s magic hammer, he becomes a normal-sized man “who was tall and strong and, above all, terribly angry.” Do he and the beautiful girl go running into each other’s arms? No, the book gives readers a delicious open ending: “People say that the nobleman’s daughter has taken a different view of Issun Bôshi and that their story is not over.” The highly stylized illustrations—they look like silkscreens, yet there is no note on how the art was rendered—are rendered in yellows, oranges and teals so bright, the book nearly glows.
Let’s hop over to Canada. Releasing on November 1 from Inhabit Media is Celina Kalluk’s Sweetest Kulu, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis. The world isn’t hurting for lullaby picture books, but the likes of this you don’t see often. Both author and illustrator are from Canada, and the book reflects the Inuit culture of the northern part of the country. A mother welcomes her son with lyrical language, and she watches as the animals of the region bestow gifts upon him, the types you don’t normally see in such stories: Narwhal and Beluga give him spontaneity with a reminder about “finishing well what you start,” and Fox reminds him to “get out of bed as soon as you wake.” The rich illustrations depict the dramatic swish of that arctic fox’s white tale, not to mention the sea green waters, the underwater shadows of the narwhal’s tusk, and the caribou’s majestic glare. Be calm, mother tells her son on the final spread, a memorable final directive.
Finally, by way of Sweden we have the English edition of Jons Mellgren’s Elsa and the Night, an offbeat story whose tenderness snuck up on me. It’s an unusual narrative: Elsa, who appears to be a badger, finds a creature hiding in her home. It’s the Night, depicted as a dark blob with legs and feet. She puts the Night into a cake tin, making it so that light dominates outside, making everyone tired and miserable. After deciding to release the Night, she tells it her story of loss, involving a deceased friend. As she escorts the Night outside, taking it to see where her friend is buried, Night grows larger, eventually covering Elsa (and the town) with a blanket of shadows and sleep, while Elsa dreams of a reunion with her friend. It’s a poignant ending and had me wiping my eyes.
Here’s to reading across boundaries and finding a story that speaks to you, too.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.