Reviews 2017

Reading the World’s Stories: An Annotated Bibliography of International Youth Literature

Reading the World’s Stories: An Annotated Bibliography of International Youth Literature. Ed. Annette Y. Goldsmith, Theo Heras, and Susan Corapi. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. 285 pages. £69.86 (hardback).

This is the fifth volume in a series sponsored by the United States Section of the International Board on Books for Young People (USBBY). It aims "to provide a guide to outstanding international children’s and young adult literature" for 0 to 18 years published between 2010 and 2014. The first volume was published in 1998 and subsequent volumes have appeared at four- to five-year intervals. Each volume, the editors state, builds on the work of previous volumes, and collectively provide information about international youth literature published between 1950 and 2014. Each volume has a somewhat different focus, reflecting shifts in world literature; Reading the Worlds Stories has storytelling as its particular focus.

The format is large and the pages well laid-out, making it as easy as possible for the reader to navigate between different sections. A detailed list of contents and indexes arranged by Author/Illustrator/Translator, Title and Subject assist with making this a very user-friendly publication. More than eight hundred books are annotated from a very wide range of countries. The annotations are provided by a team of 40 annotators, almost all from North America. They are arranged according to country of setting, and cross-reference by place of original publication. All titles are originally published or republished in North America. Titles are also referenced in the listing for the authors and illustrators. Detailed bibliographic information is provided, as are subject headings related to topics other than the setting.

The bibliographic entries comprising the main part of the book are preceded by an introduction and three essays, by, respectively, Anne Pellowski, Beverley Naidoo, and Marianne Martens, all of whom have impressive records in the world of international children’s books. These are followed by the annotated lists of book titles divided into various parts of the world: Latin American and the Caribbean; Canada; Asia; North Africa and the Middle East; Africa South of the Sahara; Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand; Europe. Each country’s list of annotations is followed by useful information about their main children’s book organizations, festivals and awards. The volume concludes with lists of international awards and US awards with an international focus, a guide to organizations and research collections, mostly in the US and Canada, and lists of publishers from North America and other publishers which publish/distribute international children’s books.

All of the titles not originally in English have been translated into English and the bibliographic references are to the English-language titles. That all titles annotated have been published in the United States/Canada would seem to be a major constraint on an undoubtedly useful aid to teachers, librarians and anyone interested in books which originated across the globe. To take as an example Ireland, the country about whose children’s literature I know most, the selection is quite odd. Eight titles are annotated, four of which have a fantastical setting or are not set in Ireland. Of the others, Tomi Ungerer’s picturebook Fog Island is referred to as having a "lots of Irish cultural markers" (156), but these are stereotypical and outdated. Another title has a gay theme, but it was first published in Ireland in 1993. While gay people may still experience difficulties, in general attitudes in Ireland are now much more liberal (gay marriage was legalised in 2016), and again without any note to this effect, an inaccurate impression is conveyed. None of the books annotated would give children a good insight into modern Ireland, but possibly these titles are based on publishers’ inaccurate perceptions of life in Ireland.

As one would expect, the listing of UK titles is long and varied, and many are not at all location specific. Again some books have fantastical locations or are set in a country other than the UK, which is confusing. For example, The Watcher in the Shadows by Carlos Ruiz Zafón is set in Normandy, not Britain, and the author is Spanish. There are many titles with strong British locations and a sense of what it is like to live there which could have been included, but which presumably are not published in North America.

While these instances might not be typical, they could cause some hesitation about the annotations for the books from other countries about which those making selections might know little, or nothing at all. The editors were, however, constrained by the books available to purchasers in the United States, presumably because schools and libraries are limited by the obligation to purchase titles that are readily available from large suppliers with which their institutions have purchasing contracts, and these suppliers may not look overseas for their stock. In future editions of this bibliography, editors might consider including even a small selection of books of excellence published outside North America (and in particular titles translated into English and Spanish), especially as the stated goal of Reading the World’s Stories is to point adults to "quality and culturally authentic titles to read with children" (5).

Marianne Martens in her excellent article "International Children’s Literature and Subversive Cultural Exchange" urges US publishers to be much more active in searching abroad for literature that will enhance children’s understanding of other cultures and people. According, to Martens less than two percent of the US market in publications for young readers is translated from other languages. Some of the reasons for this are practical–there are difficulties in evaluating books in languages which editors/publishers cannot read, and sample translations may be expensive to procure or may not reflect a book’s quality. There may also be cultural differences in books from outside the US in attitudes to characters exposed to alcohol or nudity, for example, and US editors may rightly be anxious about cultural accuracy and integrity which may be difficult to assess. Of course, the USA is not unique in the English-speaking world in its resistance to exploring world literature, and as Martens’s essay implies, those who read only in English are the poorer for this and hence the need for well-translated books for all ages.

The foregoing caveats notwithstanding, Reading the World’s Stories: An Annotated Bibliography of International Youth Literature is undoubtedly a useful and well-intentioned guide to an international selection of books for young readers available from North American publishers. The editors have put in a great deal of work researching and highlighting titles from parts of the world about whose literature little may be known. It will be interesting to see if future editions of this bibliography can reflect to an even greater extent the diversity of world literature that is brought to our attention in Reading the World’s Stories.

Valerie Coghlan
Independent researcher, Ireland