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World Kid Lit: 10 Books Showcasing a Lively and Playful Latin American Children’s Literature

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This brief tour of literature from Latin America for young poeple is part of a month-long series celebrating world literature for children as part of WorldKidLit Month, on twitter at #WorldKidLit.

Just south of the US border, and for many thousands of miles, we can find energetic, poetic, and moving children’s literature. A number of Latin American countries—among them Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela—have fun, flowering, and innovative children’s book industries.

Yet despite their proximity to publishing powerhouses in the US, relatively few Latin American children’s books make it into English. Even fewer get wide recognition. The Batchelder, one of two leading prizes for translated kid lit, has shortlisted only two titles from the Spanish in its nearly 50-year history. Only one of these was by a Latin American author, the book Written and Drawn by Henrietta, by Argentinian cartoonist Ricardo Liniers.

However, one of the prize’s 2017 finalists was Colombian author Jose Sanabria, for As Time Went By, first published in Switzerland and translated from the German by Audrey Hall.

The other big translated kid-lit prize is the twenty-one-year-old Marsh Award. The only time its judges shortlisted a book from Latin America was in 2009. It was Letters from Alain, by Cuban author Enrique Perez Diaz, translated by Simon Breden. It was originally published not in Latin America, but in Spain.

Indeed, far more children’s books come to the United States from Spain than from Mexico, as Publishing Perspectives’ Dennis Abrams observed while attending a publishing seminar in 2013.

This is despite the fact that, “year after year children’s books from Mexico have been the recipient of numerous awards at the Bologna Children’s International Book Fair, including [the 2013] New Horizons award,” Abrams writes.

Publisher Patricia van Rhijn told Abrams one of the reasons for this deficit is that English-language publishers are “so square” in their thinking. Many US and UK kid-lit publishers will only accept books with a certain number of words and a certain number of pages. Yet it’s for just this reason—that other places do books differently—that it’s important for them to cross borders.

Yet it’s for just this reason—that other places do books differently—that it’s important for them to cross borders.

Some Mexican children’s books do manage to cross. A surprising three translations made the Kirkus Prize’s six-book kid-lit shortlist in 2017. One is from Mexico, the charming Walk With Me, by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng and translated by Elisa Amado.

Farther south, Brazil is a globally recognized children’s literature hotspot. In 1982, Lygia Bojunga Nunes became the first Brazilian author to win the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, and her win was followed by two others. Fellow Brazilian writer Ana Maria Machado won the HCA Award in 2000, and Brazilian artist Roger Mello took the HCA illustration award in 2014. No other country outside Europe and the US has had so many authors and illustrators recognized by this prestigious international prize.

Argentinian children’s book authors and artists have also found an audience in English. This is not just true of Batchelder shortlistee Ricardo Liniers, but also Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winner Isol, and authors like Poly Bernatene, Jorge Lujan, and Sandra Comino.

So thankfully, at least in the world of children’s literature, we can take down the fences, walls, and impediments to travel between the Americas. These are ten books that do, starting with one for babies and their parents.


Cover image from Happiness is a Watermelon on your Head by Stella Dreis

The Menino

This book—by the acclaimed Argentinian author, illustrator, and popular singer Isol—is both for babies and their parents. This book was (metaphorically) born of Isol’s new-parent experience, and is a dual-use guide, for babies and their handlers. For babies, there’s a wide and charming range of fellow babies to look at, doing all their baby things. For parents, there’s a clear-eyed, witty exploration of the wild world of first-time parenting. Selected as a New York Times notable children’s book in 2015. translated by Elisa Amado. Ages 0+.

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Stephen and the Beetle

By the popular Argentinian children’s-book author Jorge Lujan, this book presents children with a moral dilemma. Stephen sees a beetle. At first, he pulls off his shoe and is about to smash the tiny creature. But then he has second thoughts. Stephen lies down on the ground, and the beetle scrambles up to him. In the end, Stephen and the beetle go their separate ways. Illustrated by Chiara Carrer, translated by Elisa Amado. Ages 3+.

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As Time Went by

This Batchelder honoree and ALA Notable Book shows how both a ship and a village go through periods of prosperity and decline, sadness and optimism, and overcome difficulties with cooperation and a positive spirit. Once upon a time, a ship sailed beside the sun with very important people on board. The ship sees its fortunes change, and then change again. The watercolors by Colombian author-illustrator José Sanabria have a dark vibrancy energy that helps pull the child reader from page to page. Translated by Audrey Hall. Ages 4+.

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The Big Wet Balloon

Simultaneously released in English and Spanish, this book by Argentinian Batchelder honoree Ricardo Liniers was a 2014 Eisner Nominee and on of Parents magazine’s Top 10 children’s books of 2013. An excellent early reader, this book follows Liniers’ daughters, Clemmie and Matilda, as little Clemmie refuses to go out in the rain and Matilda insists on proving to her that wet Saturdays are fun. 

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Happiness is a Watermelon on Your Head

This book, first published in Sao Paolo in 2011, is a favorite among fellow children’s-book authors, a combination of Eastern European and Brazilian stylistic influences. In Daniel Hahn’s translation, it sings: At the end of the village, behind a green door, lived happy Miss Jolly, with Melvin, her boar.

“What makes her so happy? We really must learn!

“Cried her neighbours, Miss Whimper, Miss Grouch and Miss Stern.

“It’s awful being miserable day after day,

Let’s find out her secret! There must be a way!”

The book includes: one ridiculously joyful lady, cauliflower hats, fish bonnets, a few very large animals, a pet boar called Melvin, and a lot of watermelons. And it might just be that the secret of happiness is to be pink and messy. Ages 4+.

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Walk with Me

This book is one of two picture-book finalists for the 2017 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers, by celebrated Mexican children’s-book author Jairo Buitrago. It’s a story about a girl whose father no longer lives at home, and who instead conjures up a lion to walk with her and keep her company. Illustrated by Rafael Yockteng and translated by Elisa Amado. Ages 5+.

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Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds

Selected for the USBBY’s 2017 list of Outstanding International Books, an ALA Notable Children’s Book, and selected for the Booklist Top 10 Diverse Nonfiction for Youth in 2017, this book, by Salvadoran poet Jorge Argueta, tells the story of young people fleeing their homes and traveling north to seek a new home. Argueta was himself a refugee fleeing war in El Salvador in the 1980s, and he gives voice to the experiences of children forced to go on this long, difficult journey in a way other children can also understand. Illustrated by Alfonso Ruano, translated by Elisa Amado. Ages 7+. 

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You Can't Be Too Careful!

This is a book for puzzle-lovers by Hans Christian Anderson laureate Roger Mello. Complex and provocative, it’s just right for children who love a challenge. As the publisher writes, “The White Rose is guarded closely by the gardener, who once caught a cold walking barefoot trying to find his shoes, which had been hidden by a cat, which was a gift from his younger brother, who was married to Dalva, who had inherited the cat from her uncle, who died of a broken heart awaiting a love letter that never arrived… Eventually, we see how one tiny action can have marvellous consequences[.]” Translated by Daniel Hahn. Ages 8+.

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When I Was a Boy Neruda Called Me Policarpo

Chilean writer Poli Délano was born in 1936, when his family was living in Madrid. There, they became friends with the poet Pablo Neruda and his wife Delia del Carril. This memoir is set in the 1940s, when Poli got to know “Uncle Pablo.” It’s a collection of memories and reflections on the eccentric Nerudas, and includes advice on how to stand up to Nazis and bullies. It’s probably best read along with a parent, or in a class, so an adult with background knowledge can help the child reader flesh things out. Translated by Sean Higgins. Ages 9+.

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Until the Day Arrives

This is a fast-paced historical middle-grade novel, by Brazilian Hans Christian Anderson laureate Ana Maria Machado. Set in the 17th century, the story follows two Portuguese orphans sent to Brazil, where they come face-to-face with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The story shifts between Brazil and East Africa, and one of the orphans falls in love with a slave who’s also searching for family. In the end, the orphans must make a moral decision to help slaves escape. Translated by Jane Springer. Ages 10+. 

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Marcia Lynx Qualey is a court poet, ghost writer, and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures. Writes for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Deutchse Welle, The National, and ... Show More

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