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World Kid Lit: 12 Great Books from East Asia, from Picture Books to Manga and More

This brief tour of children’s books from East Asia is part of a month-long series celebrating world literature for children as part of WorldKidLit Month, on twitter at #WorldKidLit.

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Most modern children’s literature translated into English has come from Europe. This is especially true of the translations that enjoy wider distribution and celebration by literary prizes. But that’s changing—fully half of the shortlist for the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation was, in 2017, children’s books translated from Asian languages. One was from Iran, one from China, and one from Japan.

The 2017 Batchelder Prize, also for translated children’s literature, had, on its 2017 honor list, a title from the Japanese. This was Taro Gomi’s Over the Ocean, translated by Taylor Norman.

If one region beyond Europe has been gaining recognition in the world of English children’s literature, it’s East Asia. There are a growing number of resources to help parents and educators discover East Asian books. One is the blog “Chinese Books for Young Readers,” founded by Helen Wang, supported by translators Anna Gustafsson Chen and Minjie Chen.

Minjie Chen said she hopes the blog “can help raise awareness of notable Chinese children’s authors and high-quality works…and highlight works that should be of interest to a wider readership than Chinese children.”

There are a growing number advocates for Japanese children’s literature, too. These include translator Avery Udagawa, one of the forces behind World Kid Lit Month, and Cathy Hirano, who is touring in the UK this month with her new translation, Yours Sincerely, Giraffe.

There are fewer children’s books translated from Korean to English, although the visibility of South Korean kid lit advocates is growing. Mi-kyoung Song’s Some Kid Lives Here & Other Stories, translated by Sophie Bowman, was one of the 2017 honor titles in the “In Other Words” competition, which supports the translation of its shortlisted titles. While there is a popular children’s literature in North Korea, it is, unsurprisingly, nearly impossible to find in translation.

As for Mongolia, there are only a handful of children’s book offerings in translation. Although Dashdondog Jamba and Borolzoi Dashdondog’s Mongolian Folktales has been brought into English, it’s fallen out of print.

For this 12-book list of celebrated, fun, and award-winning titles, we start with literature from China and Taiwan, move east to South Korea, then across the water to Japan.

Bronze and Sunflower

Winner of the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, this book follows Sunflower, a young city girl, who’s moved to the countryside and there meets an ostracized boy named Bronze. The descriptions of the countryside, hardship, and friendship are what make this book so charming. As a review in School Library Journal has it, the book is, “Touching and terrifying. Historical but somehow also timeless. It’s one of the best dang novels I’ve read for kids in a long time. Do you truly want your kids to be citizens of the world? Then hand that world to them. Give them this book.” Ages 9+.

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Grandma Lives in a Perfume Village

Shortlisted for the Batchelder Prize in 2016, this moving book tells the story of Xiao Le, whose grandmother dies. He comforts his mom by “reminding her that when it rains, Grandma is washing her clothes in the sky . . . and that although the Perfume Village in heaven cannot be reached by train, it can be accessed by the heart.” Ages 5+.

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Jackal and Wolf

This is a classic wildlife story from China’s “King of the Animal Novels,” and it’s by turns frightening and charming. It begins as a wolf attacks and kills the titular jackal’s pups. This jackal later finds the wolf dying and revenges herself on the wolf’s own pups, except one, who she adopts as her own. A beautiful story for any child who can bear the killing of adorable animal babies early in the book. Ages 10+.

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Again I See the Gaillardias

This translation, recommended by “Chinese Books for Young Readers,” won an award from the National Museum of Taiwan Literature. In the original, it won two more prizes. "Through misunderstanding, sympathy, reconciliation and love, seven schoolchildren forged an abiding friendship in their hometown Penghu, a cluster of islands in the Taiwan Strait. Brought together by their Arts and Crafts teacher, the children learned to cherish their friendship and to understand their cultural roots. At their farewell party, they promised to come back for a reunion twenty years later, on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival.” One character comes back to keep his promise. Ages 12+

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The Bear Whispers to Me

Another recommendation by the founders of “Chinese Books for Young Readers,” this is another story from Taiwan. Winner of the 2015 Lennox Robinson Literary Award, the book tells the story of a reclusive young boy who finds his father's diary. “Filled with drawings, photos and anecdotes, the diary reveals an alpine world that his father once inhabited as a child: where tribes were fashioned by tree spirits; animals could be spoken to; fleas danced; and the moon and stars were guiding lights in darkling forests. His father's world was alive with birdsong and hidden spirits, serene yet fleeting-but it all changed when he befriended two bears.” Age 12+

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The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

A South Korean best-seller that’s likened to the classic Charlotte’s Web, this is the story of a hen named Sprout who doesn’t want to lay eggs on command any more, especially when she loses them day after day. She sees the other animals roaming free, and plots her escape, so she can raise a child on her own. Simple enough for an early reader, it’s also a complex tale that will be charming to adults, especially as Sprout creates her non-traditional family. Ages 8+

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Waiting for Mummy

This story was first published in a newspaper, in Korean, in 1938. In it, a small child waits for Mummy at the train station. The child then asks a conductor if he has seen her. The conductor hasn't, and he cautions the child to wait a little farther from the tracks. It’s cold and snowy, but the child waits patiently until finally Mummy finally comes. Ages 0+.

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The Secret of the Blue Glass

In Japanese, this is a classic middle-grade novel. A new arrival in English, it made the 2017 Marsh Award shortlist. It comes highly recommended by translator Avery Udagawa, and is set in a library, where the “Little People” live. “Just a few inches high, sleeping in cigarette boxes and crafting shoes from old book jackets, they need only one thing from their Humans - a nightly glass of milk, served in a sparkling Blue Glass goblet, by a trusted young member of the Human family. But when the Second World War comes to Japan, bringing a dangerous new kind of patriotism, both Humans and their beloved Little People face a world they could never before have imagined.” Ages 8+.

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Yours Sincerely, Giraffe

This is a fantastic brand-new collaboration between author-illustrator Megumi Iwasa, illustrator Jun Takabatake, and celebrated translator Cathy Hirano. Giraffe is bored (as usual) and needs a friend. He writes a letter and sends is as far as he can imagine, finding a pen pal in Penguin. A story of difference and friendship. Ages 0+.

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Kitaro and the Great Tanuki War

It would be impossible to talk about Japanese literature without mentioning manga. The translations of the Kitaro manga series, by the legendary Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015), get a ringing endorsement from Avery Udagawa. The series has been translated, she says, by the “awesome” Zack Davisson. In a recent interview, Davisson said, “[W]hen I discovered Shigeru Mizuki—that was life-changing. His characters and work were everywhere, but I had never heard of him. And the more I plunged into his world, the more I wanted to know[.]” Ages 12+

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The Friends

According to Udagawa, The Friends is the “deserving winner of not only a Batchelder but also the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction.” And Publisher’s Weekly: “In an eloquent initiation story that first touches and then pierces the heart, Japanese first-novelist Yumoto introduces three irresistible 12-year-old boys, whose fascination with death leads to an unexpected friendship.” Ages 11+.

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Over the Ocean

Originally published in Japanese in 1979 as “Umi no Mukô wa,” this book relies on spare text and Gomi’s characteristically vivid illustrations to spark questions about the world beyond the known. It was honored by the 2017 Mildred L. Batchelder Award, and, according to the judging chair, the book echoes “universal questions that young children ask about the world,” and “Taro Gomi’s text and illustrations honor curiosity and wonder.” Ages 3+.

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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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