It has always outraged me how readers in the English-speaking world are wickedly deprived of easy access to international literature, especially the works being translated from other languages. What a crying shame, and what injustice! The “Rest of the World” more often than not enjoys a far more comfortable literary vantage point, its reading menu deliciously diverse, while the audience in the Anglosphere is scandalously deprived (although they don’t know it so they’re not typically pissed off). Well, I know it (thank you, Eastern European upbringing!) and I am pissed off, so here is my modest David to the book industry’s behemoth of a Goliath. First, I’ll tackle the young’uns. And so, without further ado, here’s the list of some notable children’s books authors and their most dear works, which I wholeheartedly believe deserve an honourable spot in those budding minds and hearts via systematic inclusion of these literary gems into our sterile, uninspiring, colossal-waste-of-time scholastic curriculum.
1. Astrid Lindgren.
Where do I even start… Astrid Lindgren, that beloved daughter of Sweden, has given us so much more than Pippi Longstocking. I particularly recommend:
– Karlsson-on-the-Roof. Karlsson is a middle-aged, potbellied, and boastful little man who lives somewhere in the vicinity of a chimney in the perfectly ordinary apartment building in Stockholm. Forgot to mention: he has a little propeller on his back which enables this Pillsbury poster boy-lookalike to fly, navigating the Scandinavian city landscape and its stucco roofs and the occasional pointy gothic cathedral. Karlsson, for all his lovably curmudgeonly ways, befriends a kiddo, a boy named Svante, a child a lot less self-confident than his pudgy new friend. The pair’s adventures, antics, and mutual Bildung ensue, as at the grand finale both emerge the kinder, stronger, more mature versions of themselves.
– Mio My Son. Bo, a boy distinctly unloved by his adoptive parents, one day discovers that he is, in fact, a son of a kind and benevolent king of a magical land far, far away. In his rediscovered motherland Bo, now called Mio, has a remarkably loving and charismatic father, a beautiful white horse, a new best friend, and wonderfully hospitable subjects who treat him to snacks, hugs, and entertainment. Alas, the boy must become a man by battling the evil knight Kato who kidnaps and imprisons the kingdom’s children in his ghastly castle of fire and ice. This is a story filled to the brim with love and the inescapable necessity of sacrifice on the path to a fulfilling and meaningful existence.
2. Selma Lagerlof.
Another Swede, Selma Lagerlof was a suffragette, an anti-fascist, and the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1909. Her most well-known and internationally beloved work (it’s so popular in Sweden that the main character is immortalized on a Swedish banknote) is one I heartily recommend below:
– Niels and the Wild Geese. This is a tale of adventures, magic, ethics, humility, and the peculiar joys of growing up. Niels is a disobedient young rascal with no respect for his parents and a somewhat sadistic attitude to the animals on the farm where he lives. In the best folk tale traditions, Niels insults a tomte (a Swedish version of a hob, a grumpy house creature that loves to trick or punish silly boys and young maidens). Tomte shrinks him to the size of a thumb. Niels, now reverse-bullied by the suddenly giant farm animals, flees with a flock of migrating geese, and thus a journey ensues, a geographic dance across the wonderfully diverse Sweden, peppered with curious encounters with other animals, talking monuments, sad young men in lonely cities, and the king of Sweden himself. At the end, the geography lesson is learned and the sinner is reformed, while the vivid memories of Niels’ adventures still stay with me, decades later.
3. Gianni Rodari.
An Italian communist and a recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for children’s literature, Rodari was a prolific and brilliant author, his writing intelligent, funny, insightful, and filled with love of all things Childhood. I would like to recommend not one, not two, but FOUR of Rodari’s works, starting with…
– The Adventures of the Little Onion. Cipollino is said little onion, a fun-loving, quirky boy living an impoverished yet happy life with his assorted vegetable friends and their pompous and cruel upper-class fruit overlords; their town is plagued by oppression, inequality, and other class problems (this book was a massive in the Soviet Union – you can see why). But ideology aside, Cipollino’s adventures teach solidarity and courage against injustice in many heroic acts: there are the hilarious pranks on Count Orange, duchesses Cherries and their assorted sellout brown-nosers, the busting of the vegetable political dissidents out of prison, a bloodless revolution and the penultimate triumph of the callus-stemmed vegetariat. Cipollino is, essentially, Harry Potter, the chosen boy that dethrones a despot and his odious regime of injustice.
– The Blue Arrow. What could be better than a toy store? A toy store during Christmas, of course. Alas, its adorable residents think otherwise. They long to end up in the arms of children, but not the whiny, insufferable, spoiled brats who have it all but still twist their parents’ arms for more. No, the toys yearn for the little hands of the poor children whose parents, toiling daily for that proverbial slice of bread and a drink of water, could never afford fancy toys from the city’s preeminent toy store. The solution is glaringly obvious – the toys board the Blue Arrow, an elegant little toy train, burst out of the store on one fateful and opulently snowy winter night, and venture on a peregrination across the city. They encounter kindness, heartkbreeak, loneliness, poverty, danger, and, ultimately, the pure, undistilled joy that comes with bring a miracle during the most miraculous time of the year. Read this story to the children in your life if you want to cultivate compassion, generosity, and humility.
– The Cake in the Sky. One morning, ordinary citizens of an ordinary Italian town, chained to their monotonous jobs, traffic, chores and other joyless mediocrities, wake up, scratch their butts and, mid-yawn, realize, to their shock, awe, and outrage, that there’s an unandentified flying object taking up half of their boring old sky. Firefighters, policemen, and scientists are brought in, helicopters and cannons are out. But one little boy and his grandfather conduct their own investigation and are first to discover that the UFO is a delicious cake. Little by little, the grumpy city-dwellers shed their balls, chains, and facades, stripping away the suffocating burden of adulthood. What emerges? The return to innocence, steeped in laughter, hugs, ice cream, chocolate, and fruit syrup. And above all that, the pink apparition of Childhood, for whose warm embrace we all yearn.
– Fairy Tales Over The Phone. Imagine yourself, a parent on a business trip, stuck in some hotel with severe-looking curtains and positively depressing wallpaper. Your daughter, far away back home in her adorable pajamas, is expecting a bedtime story which you are tasked with delivering, business trip or no business trip. Mind the fact that this is the 50s so you must do it telephonically, and inter-city calls, put through by cute girls with massive headphones covering their delicate ears are obscenely expensive. You must entertain your daughter effectively in a couple of minutes or less. Go! Gianni Rodari presents us with a precious string of such short stories, each funnier than the previous one, guaranteed to have both the teller and the recipient laugh their toes off (and then dutifully fall asleep, one on her adorable bed, the other in the designer stillness of a business suite).
Part two of my list to follow shortly.
Image: Still from Karlsson on the Roof film (1974).