Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A World of Books: Seeking International Children's Literature

Image via Owen Gatley

I’m taking a course on international children’s literature this semester, so the subject has been on my mind a lot.  Here in the United States, we take our huge publishing industry for granted and sometimes assume that most of what we read originated here.  Sure, we know that authors like J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, and Beatrix Potter are/were British.  Many are also aware that L.M. Montgomery – who penned Anne of Green Gables – was Canadian.

But did you know that Marcus Pfister is Swiss, and that his ever-popular The Rainbow Fish was originally published in German?  Or that Pippi Longstocking and her creator, Astrid Lindgren, were Swedish?  I fell in love with Anno’s Alphabet and Anno’s Counting Book as a child and never knew that (Mitsumasa) Anno was Japanese.

Reading a wide range of books with international origins benefits children because it can make them aware of places, customs, and viewpoints outside their own cultural spheres.  Valuing such texts can help them appreciate the fact that the United States isn’t the only country in the world that matters.

However, it can be difficult to obtain picture books from other countries.  For example, I want to get my hands on more Latin American books, but until recently, I didn’t really know where to look -- and those big online booksellers aren't much help.  It’s become easier lately to find books by Latin@-American authors and illustrators at US bookstores, but books actually published in Bolivia or Guatemala or Colombia?  Not so much.

There are plenty of reasons why this dearth of international children’s lit exists.  Some countries just don’t publish a large amount of children’s books by local authors because they import books from other places, or their publishing companies don’t have enough capital to generate a large selection of books (Misheff, 1994; Stan, 1999).  Another issue is translation – it can be expensive and difficult to find translators here in the US, and translated books don’t sell as well as English-language books written by American authors (Freeman & Lehman, 2001).

The common factor: money.  Companies require lots of it to keep publishing and translating books, and if consumer demand isn’t there, then publishers look for more lucrative options.  Some countries, fortunately, have come up with solutions to this problem.  For example, Norway’s government provides subsidies to publishers, while Mexico has established an annual international children’s book fair (Stan, 1999).

Unfortunately, these solutions don’t always bring more books to our shores.  So now, having critically examined and questioned the situation, we need to come up with a plan of action to address the problem.  What can we (parents, teachers, and students) do to support international publishers and help bring more quality literature to the US from overseas?  My classmates, professor, and I did some brainstorming, and we came up with these ideas for increasing demand:     

  • Seek out international publishers and buy their books.  (I’ve posted a few links below.)  Then share your finds with friends.
  • Tell teachers and librarians at your / your child’s school about international publishers and awards, and encourage them to buy more international books.
  • Use social media outlets to make people more aware of these issues.
  • Write to companies that provide books to schools, educators, and families (like Scholastic) for more economical international book options in their order forms.
  • Join/start a worldwide book exchange like this one

Have fun exploring, questioning, and making a difference!

(Shoutout to JG, MR, AL, YC, CB, OL, and XH for their great ideas and contributions :D)

Publisher and Book Resources

OutsideIn World (various countries) 

CIDCLI (Mexico) 

Sigmar (Argentina) 

Ediciones Ekaré (Venezuela) 

International Book Awards

The American Library Association’s Batchelder Award (given to books originally published in a language other than English) 

The Marsh Award (for translation) 


Freeman, E.B., & Lehman, B.A. (2001). Global perspectives in children’s literature. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Misheff, S. (1994). Perspectives of children’s literature in Guatemala. Hispana, 77(3), 524-531.

National Book Trust. (2013). Introduction. Retrieved from http://www.nbtindia.gov.in/aboutus__5__history.nbt

Stan, S. (1999). Going global: World literature for American children. Theory into Practice, 38(3), 168-177.

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