World Kid Lit! An interview with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Claire Storey

Ruth Ahmedzai-Kemp and Claire Storey are two of the team running the influential and wide-ranging World Kid Lit blog and site. Ahead of September's World Kit Lit Month, Sarah Rimmington interviews them for New Books in German:

NBG: Can you tell us a bit about World Kid Lit? How did it get started and who’s it for?

Ruth: It was started in 2016 by translators and global children’s book activists – Marcia Lynx Qualey of the ArabLit Blog, Lawrence Schimel, who’s a children’s book author, translator, poet and publisher, and Alexandra Büchler of Literature Across Frontiers, which is an organisation that builds bridges between people and languages through literature. To begin with there was World Kid Lit Month and the blog linked to that. The original aim was to publicise and promote existing translations, and to connect the publishing world with schools, parents and libraries, but it’s really expanded.

Claire:  Yes, we’re here all year round now! We blog every week if not more often and the posts are a mixture of book reviews – by adults, and now by younger readers, too, which is really exciting – and discussions and interviews with editors, publishers and translators. We’re also starting to produce more resources for schools, librarians, booksellers, to make it easier for people to engage with translated literature for younger readers. We like to think of ourselves as an information hub, too, so we have information for publishers about grants, about expert readers in certain languages, who else is out there doing literature in translation.

NBG: What kind of impact has the pandemic had on World Kid Lit? Has it changed what you do?

Ruth: Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been hosting World Kid Lit Live, streamed panel discussions bringing people together from different aspects of publishing and reading for children.

Claire: Marcia Lynx Qualey and Mohini Gupta (Mother Tongue Twisters) came up with the idea of World Kid Lit LIVE as part of World Kid Lit Month, and doing it online has allowed us to bring people together from different countries and different places, and being able to view and access them online has made them really accessible and diverse. Some panels are about a specific language or a region, for instance Arabic and Central European languages, and we’re also doing one about Africa and Africa’s many languages and African Kid Lit, which is really exciting. But we’ve also had discussions with publishers or translators about particular themes or for particular groups.

NGB: What other plans do you have for World Kid Lit Month this September?

Ruth: As with previous years, we’re ambitiously going to be blogging every day, with a really good mix of languages and countries represented. And we’re hoping that schools and bookshops will celebrate world kid lit, perhaps with window displays, or a map on the wall in the classroom, or sessions where children think about the languages in the class or the community, and find books that link to those places. Given the restrictions on travel over the last year, we’re especially keen on shared reading projects – we might not be able to travel to see family on the other side of the world, but we can read the same books and talk about them.

Claire: We’re also hoping other organisations will pick up on World Kid Lit Month. The Young Adult Studies Association, for example, run a monthly book club, and in September they’ll be discussing a book in translation. We’ve invited submissions for our daily blog posts for the first time, and the response has been huge – we’ll be having posts from Taiwan, South Africa and Latin America.

NBG: Why do you think it’s important to translate literature for children and young adults into English?

Ruth: I think primarily for diversity and breadth of experience, to get the perspectives of writers working in different languages in other parts of the world. Translation allows people to read books and stories that come from a greater range of places and social experiences. And when we talk with children about translation and raise awareness of books in other languages, that helps raise the value of the languages children have themselves, and in our education system that’s often lacking. There’s a growing number of pupils in our schools, in the UK and globally, who speak dozens, hundreds, of other languages beyond the few they’re taught in school. Translation is a way of valuing and talking about those languages and communities.

NBG: And recognising them as a gift – recognising that diversity is a gift.

Ruth: I like to talk of translation as a superpower. Having another language, and the ability to read a book and transform it into another book, and a translator being involved as a creator in that book, it’s a kind of superpower.

Claire: Cultural exchange is so important, authentic representation, texts written by people who know how to represent different cultures. It allows young people to see and witness and learn about how our world works.

Ruth: Children are naturally open to and curious about difference. When we read children’s books from Germany, for example, there’s something so refreshing and surprising about the fact that children start school later there, so the experiences of starting school are different, the challenges faced by pupils are different, the fact that in the UK we learn to read relatively early compared to European countries. These are all things that I think children can be really excited by discussing and experiencing.

Claire: I’d add that it’s important to remember that if we don’t translate, we also miss out on some fantastic books.

Ruth: And different styles of books. Throughout the last century and now, we’re seeing the impact of graphic novels, comics, bandes dessinées, French and Belgian works like Asterix and Tintin, those were ideas of what books could be, and we didn’t have them in English before. And the same is true now: we have so many picture books that are pushing the boundaries of what we expect from the format in the Anglophone publishing market – picture books for older readers, books where the stories are much more heavily illustrated than might be the case in English publishing. There’s a lovely word for this: bibliodiversity, which reflects the different things a book can represent.

NBG: Is there anything that you think German literature specifically has to offer for children and young adults?

Ruth: A huge number of authors and picture book creators that are still waiting to be translated! There are publishers who specialise in books written in German: NorthSouth in America, for example, is connected to the Swiss publisher NordSüd. There’s some brilliant writing, but a slightly different approach to target age groups: books that are easy readers and young chapter books that are more illustrated and richer than some of the ones we get in English.

NBG:  You’re both involved with education relating to languages more broadly. Do you find that English-speaking children are receptive to translated literature?

Claire: Yes, I think they are. There’s an interest not just in translated literature, but languages in general. There are also some really good organisations promoting translated literature. One is Shadow Heroes, and another is the Stephen Spender Trust – they’re doing invaluable work, bringing translation into the classroom, and really embracing the language skills that people bring with them.

Ruth: I’ve been lucky enough to work with Stephen Spender this year, developing workshops and lesson plans in collaboration with teachers. We’ve taken a foreign language picture book, or extracts from one, and pupils have been able to decode and translate the text, and work with it creatively. We’ve designed sessions this year for Maltese, German and Arabic, and other translators in the project have used other languages including Urdu, French, Portuguese and Polish. The feedback from pupils – and the work they’ve produced, where they really have got into it and seen themselves as co-creators – has been amazing.

One of the books we worked on this year was Mr Benjamin’s Suitcase of Secrets (by Pei-Yu Chan, translated by David Henry Wilson), a book about Walter Benjamin, the Jewish philosopher and thinker, who escaped from Nazi-occupied France. It’s the story of his journey over the Pyrenees to Spain, with this mysterious and unwieldy suitcase. It’s all about what he might have had in his suitcase, and what happened to him, because he vanished, and it’s still an enigma. This fitted with the school’s Year 5 history project on the second world war, and their work on refugees and how the war affected people. And the pupils really got involved, and learned through practical experience, noticing and inferring things about the similarities between English and German. German isn’t on the curriculum for them, so the experience was new and surprising. Just getting stuck into a translation is so helpful for learning about how language works and how we express ourselves.

Claire: Translated books have so much to offer, not only for language but also for history, or art, or countless other Humanities subjects. On the Twitter account we often hear from teachers looking for books that support a certain area of the curriculum or a particular country or topic, whatever that may be. Because they do have so much more than just simply language to offer.

NBG: This has been a fascinating discussion, thank you so much. We’ll look forward to seeing and hearing more of you during World Kid Lit Month!

  • Read on here, for Ruth and Claire’s suggestions of great children’s and YA books translated from the German. They also suggest some which are ripe for translation into English.