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A hundred and sixty-five million years ago a considerable chunk of Africa went floating off into the Indian Ocean. Forget about the movie if you can: today the island of Madagascar is full of mammoth jumping rats and frisbee-size moths that appear to inhabit no other place in the world. At a distance of approximately three hundred miles from the continent, creatures went about their separate evolutions uninhibited by - I don’t know - lions, or whatever other bullies might have put a stop to all their extravagance.

Think of weirdoes in Australia – of wallabies and platapi; think of dragons, nine feet long and venomous, still living in Komodo; think of the three-foot-tall “hobbits” of Flores, in Indonesia, reported, from fossils, to have existed simultaneously with our kind, and rumored by present-day locals to be freaking people out as recently as the late nineteenth century. Think of Dodos, native to the island of Mauritius, discovered by Portuguese sailors, and rewarded for their childlike innocence and trusting natures by getting systematically bludgeoned into extinction.

Okay, lets not linger on Dodos. Still it’s easy to wonder at the vast accumulation of infinitesimal mutations that resulted in so thrilling a recreation of these species. Excluding a couple of stray Neanderthals and mini Floresians, our physical divergences as human beings have not been nearly so impressive, though of course it’s only been a few thousand years since we were drawing in caves, so I like to think we have made up for the relative homogeneity of our appearance with all of the myriad ways we make sense of each other. Our differences, in customs and languages and arts - these are the evidence we will leave of ourselves. This is where we shine.

People of America: there’s a world of children’s literature out there. And while I worry about the particular species of books deriving from smaller cultures - with different values, and wilder imaginations - that they will never make it to our shores, still doubly gnawing is the possibility of our traveling to theirs, and simply clubbing them to death. 

Or maybe not. The world might be flat, but it’s also getting smaller - whichever direction you’re facing. Let’s hope the same global economy that sends basketball scouts looking for the future of the game in unlikely places like Nigeria will finally compel a country that is responsible for making more children’s books than all of the rest of the world combined to cast a longer glance toward places like the Netherlands, where Sylvia van Ommens is both writing and illustrating books, including one – The Surprise – which conveniently contains no text that needs to be translated, other than its title, which it actually lives up to.

Like France, where someone named Thierry Dedieu wrote a book about a boy – possibly autistic, possibly brilliant and certainly complicated – who simply stops talking. He wonders:

“What was the good of asking, “How is the weather?” when deep, deep down inside, what one really wanted to know was: “How are clouds born? What makes the rain? Why does the sun shine only during the day?”

And that’s just the beginning. By the end he’s “adopted the language of ironing. With the help of some handkerchiefs, he folded them cleverly so that they looked like animals.”

What in the world? Exactly.

People don’t always act like we do in this country: they don’t talk, they don’t play, they don’t teach, they don’t parent according to remotely the same logic. Europeans for example, and Asians, and just about everyone really, seem readier, even eager, to riff on the harder realities of our shared experience – of death, of illness, broken families, and broken histories. Daisuka Ikeda wrote (and Geraldine McCaughrean translated) the story of a Japanese brother and sister settling somewhere apparently in South America, befriended, and later disowned by Pablo, a native, who manages to connect the dots between their heritage and the hulking ruin of a Japanese battleship in the bay. So prejudice, war. Nobody’s treading lightly in these pages. Over The Deep Blue Sea is the name of the book, and though it has all of the elements of a classic, it is hardly available anywhere.

As of this writing there are only 21 copies available of Stian Hole’s Garmann’s Summer which, yes, I’ve rhapsodized over in other spaces, so suffice it say this Norwegian author does so many things so well – with humor, with modesty and depth - it makes you wonder if everyone else isn’t writing with their hands tied behind their backs. The door is happily still open between Hole and a larger audience, but it probably took a series of celestial miracles, including winning something called the BolognaRagazzi Award in 2007, or maybe all of the other books in that competition really, really sucked.

Do we believe that? How could we know? Until we take it upon ourselves in this country to make more of these stories accessible by translating them, it remains an article of blind, even irresponsible faith that they were already inaccessible for other reasons. And these days especially, do we really want to be placing our faith in the wisdom of institutions which offer hardly a glimmer of transparency?

Won’t someone crack open a window at least? Here in the funhouse of movie-making we are nevertheless occasionally attentive to the cinematic imaginings of Turks, Koreans, Romanians, gosh, even those crazy French people. Some of them actually settle here too, some lose their edge, some end up making Die Hard sequels, but they add stuff – flourishes and idiosyncrasies – to the native vocabulary of our movies, our music, our basketball, indeed to most of our creative endeavors.

Picture books even. There are some pretty great children’s writers working in their second language – like Henrik Drescher, like Vladimir Radunsky – who bring to their prose the sort of weird and loopy rhythms that can only be the result of thinking in a different sequence – prefaces and qualifiers out of place, syntax broken and lovingly reassembled – or anyway remaining open to the possibility. As a boy in my son’s first-grade class recently observed to me at morning drop-off in the cafeteria: “Sadly, it’s raining.”

Happily - for me at least - he’s bilingual, Russian being his other means of reporting the weather. There are so many ways of saying even the dullest of things, and we best not become so lazy in our thinking, so sluggish and apathetic, we end up a casualty of somebody else’s exploration.     

Jun 11 2009 | Comments: 3

Filed Under:  Executive Decisions of Our Time    Foreigners    Language  


1Posted by: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/20

Brilliant. And here I thought I was clever for naming one of my pets Lucy, and another Flores. The closest we’re getting to this on any regular basis is “Caps for Sale.” Where is this guy with monkeys in the trees and onion domes in town? How does he get the red caps on the very top? These are the crucial questions in the household of an 18-month-old.

2Posted by: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/24

Wow, there is hope in the land of readers. Thanks for your indepth reviews and lovely prose, I am truly inspired. Do you read any books for teens?

3Posted by: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/24

I could tell you that my almost-teenager has recently enjoyed books by Rodman Philbrick (Freak the Mighty, The Last Book in the Universe) Carl Hiaasen (Hoot, Flush) Neal Shusterman (Full Tilt, Unwind), Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War), Nancy Farmer (The House of the Scorpion) and Ned Vizzini (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) but I cannot vouch for any of these specifically except to say that he’s a pretty discerning reader of this sort of stuff - and I’m not. It’s kind of sad really. Junie B. Jones is where I ended up losing my kids in the bookstore. They made the trip to that aisle by themselves, and have been making it ever since, informed, I hope, by all of the picture books we have read together, and continue (till this point) to share.

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