Best Books for Kids and Teens

The Best Kids’ Books in Translation

recommended by Adam Freudenheim

There is no shortage of great kids' books written in English, but reading books in translation can open up whole new worlds and surprising perspectives. Adam Freudenheim, managing director of Pushkin Press, talks us through some of his favourites among the many books he's published for kids, translated from other languages.

Interview by Sophie Roell

I wanted to start by saying that I think these kids’ books in translation that we’re about to talk about, that you’ve recommended, are absolutely fantastic.

Thank you, that’s so kind of you.

I’ve got them all here on my desk. I actually had to rip one away from my 11-year old daughter, because she was in the middle of it. In our family, we’ve all really enjoyed them. How do you set about finding books like these to translate and publish?

Let me take a step back and tell you how it all started, because our children’s list hasn’t actually been going that long. It’s something that I set up when I took over Pushkin Press, which was in the spring of 2012. I’d been running Penguin Classics—I spent more than eight years as the publisher there—and had a lot of success with books in translation, among other things.

One of the things I had noticed with my own kids was just how few books were translated for children. There were a handful of obvious ones, like Pippi Longstocking, Emil and the Detectives or the Asterix series, but I didn’t see many contemporary books. It seemed like a relatively small number, considering how many children’s books are published all the time.

I was taking over Pushkin, which specializes in translation—and I thought, ‘I want to focus on children’s. I think that there’s a market there.’ It was more of an instinct than anything. I had done a couple of children’s books at Penguin, in a slightly throwaway way, but I wasn’t a children’s publisher per se.

When I announced this I was very quickly contacted by a number of translators and foreign publishers. Perhaps most importantly, I was contacted by Laura Watkinson who is British but translates mainly from Dutch, and also German. She is particularly obsessed with children’s books and she got in touch with me in May or June of 2012 and said, ‘I’m going to be in London in a couple weeks. I want to meet and talk to you about children’s books.’

She told me about The Letter for the King and just hearing about it, I couldn’t believe that this classic Dutch book had never been translated into English before. At that point, it had been translated into more than 15 languages and had sold over a million copies. It had been voted the best Dutch children’s book of all time more than once and it had even been made into a film in the Netherlands. Just from her description of the book, it sounded wonderful. Luckily she said, ‘I’ve actually done a very long sample of the book. I can send it to you tonight.’ It turned out that it had been rejected by lots of publishers, apparently because it was too long. I read the sample and immediately acquired the book.

That’s an example of a classic and I felt comfortable publishing it because I had been working in classics for so long. We also got great reviews for the book. What you need for any book—but particularly with a classic that you’re discovering for an English-language audience—is the story of the discovery to become something that people are talking about, but you also need the book to be really good. In this case, both things came together.

“One of the things I had noticed with my own kids was just how few books were translated for children”

It’s a great book. It’s a very traditional book, but it does what it does incredibly well. I’ve told this story before, but when I had the book in page proof, I was reading it to my children. My son, aged eight, actually snuck into our bedroom at four in the morning to take the bound proofs, because we still had 150 pages to go and he wanted to know what happened next. This was before publication and I knew then that I was onto a winner.

A lot of it is about listening to translators and foreign publishers. We get readers’ reports.  Also, once you’ve started doing something, people reach out to you with similar things. They see, ‘oh, Pushkin is making itself known as a publisher that’s interested in two things in children’s books: classics and books in translation.’ So that’s roughly how it worked, originally.

Subsequently, we’ve developed the children’s list. Three or four years ago Sarah Odedina joined us as an editor-at-large for children’s. She’s now actually acquiring English language books. That happened because one of the things I realized—in terms of my own taste and the success we were having—is that a lot of the big publishers in children’s books were focusing very much on creating brands, and not necessarily on the quality of the writing or the voice.

And they wanted series. That’s all they seemed to be interested in. I love a good series as much as the next person, but I also think that there’s a place for books that are very special and individual and have a voice behind them. And so did Sarah. So we’ve carved out a real niche for ourselves on the English language side as well, with what I think of as original, voice-driven fiction.

So that was a very long answer, but I hope it was helpful.

I was also wondering whether translations have an inbuilt advantage when you’re publishing books, because you can pick out the very best kids’ books a country—like the Netherlands—has to offer.

Absolutely, that’s part of it. We’re always looking for books that have been successful where they are. But usually—though not always—it’s also a book that people have already taken on elsewhere. So, for example, in The Letter for the King, it had already been translated into 15 languages. That told you that there was nothing specifically Dutch about it, because that’s a concern.

Another recent success we’ve had with a contemporary book has been a Dutch book called Lampie. This year, it became the first ever translated book to be shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. But this is a book that has sold 100,000 copies in the Netherlands and is being translated into several languages. We sold the rights to a U.S. publisher as well. So yes, there’s definitely that success locally, but you’re also looking for success elsewhere.

“I couldn’t believe that this classic Dutch book had never been translated into English before”

I also think people see the books that you’re doing and think, ‘oh, this book would fit your list,’ which happens to all publishers. Hopefully you have some sort of identity. Some of that identity is a willingness to take risks and that the majority of the books we do are not series. We do some series, but most of our books are one-offs. I think that’s another thing that’s attracted people to the list.

In our family, we read a lot together, even though the kids aren’t that young anymore. What’s good about your books is that they appeal to both adults and kids, because some of the series that are out there—like the Warrior Cats, which one of my daughters was obsessed with—there’s no way, as an adult, I’m going to spend time reading aloud. The kids can read those books on their own. But with these books, I look forward to reading them in the evening, before bed, with the kids.

That’s nice of you to say! I’ve heard that from other people, too. I wonder whether it’s partly because I didn’t start as a children’s publisher and it’s something I’m still learning about. I guess I tend to be attracted to slightly more sophisticated children’s books. My children are all a bit older—they’re 13, 15 and 17 now—but when they were younger, I read a lot to them. I really enjoyed a lot of the books I read to them and I noticed what you’re saying, that the books I enjoyed reading were the ones where the writing was often better, they weren’t as obvious or simplistic, in a way. I guess I’m attracted to books that maybe are more literary, more challenging.

There’s a place for both things. There are plenty of publishers doing the other thing. My children have read all kinds of children’s books, as I’m sure yours have. But it felt to me that there weren’t enough people doing this kind of children’s book.

As a publisher, what’s the competition like for translated books? Is it highly competitive or are you in a fairly comfortable space?

It’s interesting. On the adult side, there’s been a massive change over the last decade. There is a lot of competition for adult fiction in translation. Not on the children’s side. We still rarely face competition. Part of my explanation for that is that there is a really strong tradition of English language children’s writing. There are lots of excellent English language children’s books, so people don’t feel this burning need to look elsewhere.

The other question is whether people have the experience. Do they have the languages, the contacts, the interest? I know German and French and I have other editors who, at various times, have done different languages. I have scouts who read in Spanish, German and Italian and I have lots of translators who are in touch who are reading books in multiple languages. That’s what I’m focused on.

But it is interesting to me that there’s still very rarely competition for translated children’s books. Not never, it does happen. In the UK, Walker has published some children’s books in translation, particularly. There’s also Andersen.

We’re also just starting to do some picture books in translation. This autumn we’ve got three picture books coming out. Gecko have been focusing on children’s picture books in translation for a while. They’re based in New Zealand, but they distribute internationally. They’re excellent.

You’ve chosen your five favourite kids’ books in translation, published by Pushkin Press. Do you want to start with your absolute favourite book, or is it impossible to say?

As the publisher of these books, it’s obviously difficult to do that, but I do think that the most original book, the book that I feel has everything in it and is special on so many levels is The Murderer’s Ape. I think the response to that book attests to that: it was a Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month. We also had an incredible endorsement from Philip Pullman, who reads a lot of books. He didn’t just say it was nice, he said it was amazing.

Yes, he writes, “I don’t know when I last read a book with such pleasure…I thank Jakob Wegelius”—the author—”wholeheartedly for giving me several hours of joy.”

The book really is amazing. Who would think of having a female gorilla who can’t talk as the narrator of the book? The author started as an illustrator, so you have these astonishingly intricate illustrations, which are a big part of the book, throughout. Then there’s the retro way he’s come up with this Indiana Jones-like adventure in the 1930s, all over the world. It’s so original and creative and Sally Jones is such an amazing, memorable character. If you haven’t seen it already, you should also look at the prequel to this, which we published, called The Legend of Sally Jones. It’s wonderful, it’s not quite a graphic novel, but a story with full-colour graphics.

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The Murderer’s Ape also connects to what you said earlier: I think it’s probably the best example of a book, for that age group, that is enjoyed by both adults and children. It’s for upper middle grade—ages 10 to 12 is probably the target readership—but I’ve talked to so many adults who love this book. It’s very special and it also has so many things in it—like the whole thing about making accordions and about Fado singing. You learn things along the way.

To me, it’s just an incredibly original book. It’s emotional, it’s educational, it’s got illustrations. It’s got everything going for it.

It’s translated from Swedish. Is Jakob Wegelius a famous Swedish author?

He’s become so. This is the book that put him on the map. When I was in Norway this past summer, there were huge posters for a theatrical adaptation of it, which is hard to imagine. It’s been adapted for the stage and radio and it’s been translated into more than 15 languages. In Germany, it won the biggest children’s book prize. But he wasn’t famous before. He was an illustrator of children’s books and this book was transformational.

It’s been very popular in our household, too.

We had a similar thing. The same son who read The Letter for the King read The Murderer’s Ape. He must have been 11 or 12 at the time. He said, ‘This is the best children’s book you’ll ever publish. You’re going to have a success with it.’ At that point, we hadn’t sold a single copy but, sure enough, it’s been one of our most successful children’s books.

It’s a wonderful experience, reading it.

You’ll be pleased to know there is another book coming out from him, hopefully next autumn. It’s a similar-length book. I’ve seen it in Swedish. It’s called The False Rose and a lot of it takes place in Glasgow, in the shipyards there. I haven’t read a word of it because it’s not translated yet, but I’m excited.

You mentioned the accordions and the Fado music. I do think these kids’ books in translation give you a slightly different perspective. It’s a bit like traveling and seeing the world.

I think that’s true, but I also think that The Murderer’s Ape is a good example of a book that I don’t think you would know was Swedish from reading it. It’s so international. It takes place mostly in Portugal and in India, and yet the author is 100 per cent Swedish. He lives in a small village in the countryside. He doesn’t even fly. When he came to Britain briefly, it took him two or three days and he came by a sort of steamer—very much like Sally Jones would travel. He hitched a ride to Belgium and then he took the ferry over.

Which book shall we talk about next?

Let’s talk about Maresi because it’s so different. It’s a completely different kind of book. I’d rather talk about this as a series, because Maresi is part of a trilogy. The author, Maria Turtschaninoff, is Finnish—even though it’s written in Swedish, because she’s a Swedish Finn—but there’s nothing particularly Finnish about it.

It’s a feminist fantasy series. It’s a really strong series that’s very original, very well written and very well imagined. I love the passionate feminism of it, that was what attracted me to the series originally. Maresi, the first book, has been translated into around 20 languages and the film rights have been optioned by Film4.

It’s terrific and I think it also deals with hard issues. It’s a sophisticated YA or upper teen fantasy because it deals with issues around abuse and sexuality and things that are not always covered in that age group’s fantasy. The author is very talented.

Can you set the scene a bit?

It’s this dystopian world where women are really under the cosh. It’s not The Handmaid’s Tale, but that’s the closest comparison, this kind of dystopian, feminist world. It’s trying to explore these issues in a YA context.

My 11-year old daughter really enjoyed them, she got me to buy all three.

My eldest as well. I remember being a bit worried because there’s a rape scene in the first book—but the thing that bothered her most was the girl who was buried alive.

On a lighter note, tell me about The Cat who Came in Off the Roof.

I love that book. Again, talk about a book that adults love. It doesn’t feel like a children’s book at some level, with the journalist and the relationship between the man and the woman. It’s so quirky and I just love the whole concept of this cat who turns into a girl. It’s very well written and very entertaining. It’s an absolute classic in the Netherlands.

It’s worth saying that the pillars of Dutch children’s literature are Tonke Dragt, the author of The Letter for the King and Annie M.G. Schmidt, the author of this book. They are the classic Dutch children’s writers. There’s a whole museum devoted to Schmidt, who died in 1995. Tonke Dragt is still alive. She’ll be 90 this year.

This book was published in the early 1970s, as I recall. It’s so funny. It’s just endlessly entertaining. It’s the humour that really gets me with that one.

I started it yesterday and was enjoying it.

There’s also a nice audiobook of it, by the way, if you want to listen to it with the kids.

Let’s talk about the Reckless books next, by Cornelia Funke.

Cornelia Funke is one of the bestselling children’s authors in the world. She’s German and writes in German, but she’s lived in Los Angeles for the last 12-15 years. She was a social worker, then she became an illustrator, and then she was very successful with a book called Dragon Rider for children aged around  8+, the lower end of middle grade. Then she wrote the Inkheart series, which also did incredibly well. So I liked her, my kids liked her, but she was published by other people.

Then I discovered a series that was much less well-known and is for a teen audience. These distinctions are a bit arbitrary, but generally speaking it’s more for 11 or 12+ children. It’s not YA, because the violence and sex in it is quite gentle. But it’s a bit dark and I think that was the thing that prevented these books from taking off. The first two books in the series we didn’t publish originally. I had the opportunity to take them on and publish the third book for the first time, partly because they hadn’t done so well. So we republished the first two books in revised editions and then we published the third book and we’re actually going to publish the fourth book. It’s coming out in Germany this autumn and we hope to publish it next autumn.

Yes, that’s one of the things I wanted to ask you: my 11-year-old daughter wanted to know when the fourth one is coming out. She even found the German edition on Amazon.de, but I had to warn her that it would need to be translated first.

I think these books are brilliant. Again, I think they work well for adults because they’re sophisticated in the way that they use fairy tales and transpose them. Also, her drawings are there throughout. There’s a great imagination there and a great storytelling skill.

“Cornelia Funke is one of the bestselling children’s authors in the world.”

What I love in these books is the way that Fox becomes more important as they go along. The fourth book, your daughter will be pleased to know, is even more about Fox. I think Fox is a great invention of a creature. In a way, the Mirrorworld is not an original device, it’s the way that she uses it that makes it interesting. The creation of the Goyls, these stone people, is pretty original.

She’s written another little book as a kind of offshoot. It’s called The Glass of Lead and Gold, which is a novella. It’s not the same characters, but it’s set in a Mirrorworld of London.

I’m a big fan of these books. I couldn’t put them down and had the same experience with my children.

You were saying about these kids’ books in translation, that they’re not really tied to the nationality of the author. But when I watch German movies, they definitely feel darker than American ones; they’re not as into that Hollywood happy ending. I’ve read the first book in the Reckless series, The Petrified Flesh, and there is a darkness to it that felt, to me, somewhat Germanic.

I think you’re right. And I think the other books, if anything, get a bit darker. They’re dark and I think maybe that’s what was hard about them. I also think when they were originally published, they were aimed at the same readers as her books for younger kids. I think that was a mistake, because I don’t think you can read Dragon Rider aged 8 and then turn to Reckless. It’s just a different thing.

Cornelia Funke is an incredibly prolific writer. She’s continued the Dragon Rider series, she is continuing the Inkheart series, and she’s continuing this series. She also wrote an amazing book that was published last summer with Guillermo del Toro, which is a novel based on his film, Pan’s Labyrinth. I haven’t actually seen it. The film’s definitely not for children, it’s a dark fantasy set during the Spanish Civil War. It’s a film, but she wrote an original novel based on it that is brilliant, published by Bloomsbury. It was a bestseller here and in Germany and in several other countries. I don’t know how she manages it all. She’s a lovely person as well. I really like her and like working with her.

Book no. 5 on your list of kids’ books in translation we’ve already discussed a bit. This is the Dutch children’s classic, The Letter for the King.

I guess why I love it is that you know, after a few pages, what the mission is. You know what’s going to happen and yet it keeps the pace up for 500 pages. It’s got these relentless, short chapters. What’s he going to do next? What’s the next obstacle going to be? How is he going to get that letter to the king? Also, you never know what is in the letter, which I also think is wonderful. It’s a mystery the whole time. Netflix actually did a six-part adaptation of The Letter for the King, in English, that was released in March.

The book just does the mission incredibly well and efficiently and creates suspense and drama all along the way. It’s not so much about character. The main character, Tiuri, doesn’t have a lot of depth in the book, but somehow that doesn’t matter because it’s all about the mission.

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If you haven’t read it, there’s a second book, The Secrets of the Wild Wood, which I recommend because I think it’s even better. It carries on with all the same major characters and it’s in that world. It’s terrific.

Tonke Dragt really does that dramatic writing, that fantasy, well. I like the fact that it doesn’t really have magic in it. I have no problem with magic, but I like that it’s in an imagined medieval world. It doesn’t take place in the real world, but there isn’t any magic and it’s more about politics, in a way.

Our site is all about recommending Five Books, but you had a runner-up that takes it to six. Do you want to say a quick word about The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi?

The Beast Player is wonderful. It’s a kind of middle-grade teen fantasy set in an imaginary, medieval Japanese world. In a way, the book could be called The Beast Tamer, because it’s about a young girl who learns to control these beasts, these Toda.

The author, Nahoko Uehashi, studied anthropology. She’s able to imagine this world, the rules and the etiquette and what they do. Everything feels incredibly well developed. It’s a long book, 500+ pages. There are two books in the series and The Beast Warrior, which comes out in July, is even longer.

The Beast Player has sold millions of copies in Japan and was adapted into a manga/anime series. It’s been translated into French and German. I love the way it’s a different take, it’s very much a Japanese take on fantasy. The author herself doesn’t really like it being talked about as Japanese, but I don’t think as an English reader, reading it in English…the way the food is described, the way they eat the food, all of that is very Japanese in a way that is quite captivating. So yes, I highly recommend The Beast Player.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Adam Freudenheim

Adam Freudenheim is publisher and managing director of Pushkin Press.