Children’s literature

2. Internationalism, the universal child and the world of children’s literature

 

Emer O’Sullivan

 

How international is international children’s literature?

 

International children’s literature, for those who live in the USA, ‘is that body of books originally published for children in a country other than the United States in a language of that country and later published in this country’ (Tomlinson 1998: 4). Excluded from this definition by Carl Tomlinson in Children’s Books from Other Countries is every nonEnglish-language children’s book which has not been published in translation in the US, as well as ones in English which haven’t been issued there. As some sources estimate that not many more than fifty translations are published annually in the USA, that excludes the vast majority of children’s books.

Another connotation of the phrase was alluded to critically by Jeffrey Garrett:

 

We too hastily confer the status of ‘international children’s books’ on our own [American] works that have attracted a worldwide following ... This makes it easy to project our own assumptions about quality out into the world, never stopping to let the rest of the world speak to us.

(Garrett 1996: 3)

 

Neither of these exclusive definitions can satisfy us here, but what, beyond a maximalist notion which includes all the children’s books of the world, could ‘international children’s books’ be taken to mean? Those with international locations and subject matter? Those which could possibly support international and transcultural understanding by inducing an appreciation for the validity of the cultures of others? International classics for children? Books by authors themselves international or transnational, at home in more than one country, culture or language such as Gaye Hi^yilmaz, who has spent many years of her life in Turkey, Switzerland and England, or Nasrim Siege, an Iranian who has lived in Germany and Africa, who writes in German and mediates between cultures with her literature?

Literature which features countries, cultures, locations other than those of the receiving ones is usually, in a broad sense of the term, referred to as international. Like ‘foreign’, it is a relational term: for a Scottish reader Paraguay will be an international location, and vice versa. In the past, the very fact that a children’s book was set in a ‘foreign’ location was regarded in itself as a good thing, introducing young readers to cultures other than their own. However, we have become aware that it is of no little significance whether a country or culture is written about from an insider perspective and has been made available through translation, or whether it is authored from the outside. The translator Patricia Crampton speaks of translated books inviting the readers to see the other country ‘with the eyes of love and familiarity rather than of rubber-necked curiosity’ (Crampton 1977: 3), and the discussion of colonial and neocolonial writing has increased the awareness of issues involving those ‘more written about than writing, more spoken about than speaking’ (McGillis 2000: xxi). While children’s literature from so-called developing countries hardly ever reaches European and American readers, a recent survey revealed that 80 per cent of books for children set in non-European and non-American cultures are written by European and American authors (Fremde Welten 2001). There is a need for children’s books from and not just about other regions. Among the eleven reasons he gives to underline the necessity of international literature, Tomlinson mentions how a lack of exposure to foreign-language books gives American (and, we can safely add, British) readers the false notion that all that is worth knowing is written in English.