As part of this year’s World Kid Lit Month events, I was fortunate enough to appear on a panel at Seattle’s National Nordic Museum entitled “Bringing Nordic Children’s Literature to an English Readership.” Reliable estimates show that roughly 3% of the books for young people published in the U.S. are translated titles, a sad figure showing how deprived readers here still are.
Through translated books, we gain access to the perspectives of cultural insiders writing for young people within their own cultures. No matter how well informed, outsiders typically write for fellow outsiders; this implicit understanding of one’s audience shapes what is explained and emphasized. It’s more invigorating and mind-expanding to read a book for which you’re not the imagined reader. Learning to see universal humanity across cultural differences is another great benefit of global reading; it’s often a surprise to see how much you share with someone who outwardly seems very different. Arguments about certain books’ benefits are rarely persuasive to young readers, however; when you’re trying to sell a teen on a translated book, it’s better to emphasize those aspects that will make a title feel relatable.
Fire From the Sky, by Moa Backe Åstot (Sámi), translated from Swedish by Eva Apelqvist (Levine Querido, Oct. 17), is a moving and atmospheric YA novel about a gay Sámi boy who loves his community and his family’s reindeer-herding lifestyle but knows that if he comes out, he’ll be ostracized. The book explores broadly relatable themes. Many teens in conservative, rural U.S. communities who may never have heard of the Indigenous Sámi people will find their feelings mirrored in the story.
Layers: A Memoir, by Pénélope Bagieu, translated from French by Montana Kane (First Second, Oct. 17), is a lively, charmingly illustrated work that presents episodes from the popular Parisian graphic novelist’s youth. From the amusing to the emotionally wrenching, this work offers glimpses into the commonalities and differences of growing up in a country that many U.S. readers will have associations with, albeit ones that are largely filtered through non-French media and bear little resemblance to the details of daily life that Bagieu shares.
This Is Our Place, by Vitor Martins, translated from Portuguese by Larissa Helena (PUSH/Scholastic, 2022), is a memorable, character-driven story that will speak to readers who have kept secrets from their families, wondered whether there’s room in the world for their own happily-ever-afters, and wrestled with life-changing crises beyond their control. Set in a small Brazilian city, this book is narrated by a house that’s observed successive generations of queer teen inhabitants. The story is grounded in cultural particulars and is filled with emotions that will resonate widely.
The Color of the Sky Is the Shape of the Heart, by Chesil, translated from Japanese by Takami Nieda (Soho Teen, 2022), may surprise readers who believe Japan to be homogeneous. The story highlights the long, fraught history of Korean Japanese people through the experiences of Ginny, a teen with a passionate commitment to justice who’s wrestling with her sense of self as she moves schools—and even countries—in search of safety, freedom, and belonging. Her struggles mirror those of young people everywhere who feel different and want to be heard.
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.