Shining a (Little) Spotlight on
Some Picture Book Imports

h1 April 4th, 2007 by jules

I’ve been more and more interested lately in international picture book authors and illustrators. There’s always the tried-and-true IBBY, International Board on Books for Young People, for some reliable info, but — as for publishers — who do we have? Well, we all know that Kane/Miller is a good source for imports, but I also just stumbled upon North-South Books (their site is here, though I believe a new one — or at least updated one — is to come). North-South is a “small, fiercely independent publisher of children’s books. Our roots are in Europe, where our parent company, NordSüd Verlag, was founded over forty years ago. The aim of the founders was to build bridges — bridges between authors and artists from different countries and between readers of all ages around the world.” Their books are distributed by Chronicle Books. Who knew? Turns out they’re a good source for some exciting and talented authors and illustrators from places other than the U.S. (though, apparently, they also highlight American authors/illustrators as well).

So, here’s a spotlight — though a small one — on four fairly recent titles upon which I stumbled or that fortuitously fell into my lap:

What Elephant? (September 2006) written and illustrated by Geneviève Côté — So, Côté is from neighboring Canada; she’s not exactly new to us, as her editorial art has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal; and this particular title is from Kids Can Press, who — though Canada’s leading publisher of children’s books and another publishing company with an international reputation — is well known here in the U.S. (which doesn’t exactly make this one an “import”). But this is the first time I’ve seen her work, and I’m impressed. The story itself of What Elephant? (a young boy comes home one day to find an elephant watching television and eating chocolate chip cookies in his living room, though when he tells his friends, they say it’s impossible. Eventually, everyone does see the pachyderm but, in the fine, fine art that is denial, refuse to admit it) doesn’t wow me and make me want to do headstands; honestly, I feel it’s more suited to older audiences than the “Kindergarten-Grade 5” label School Library Journal gave it (simply because I don’t know that younger children will care too terribly much about the elephant-in-the-room-that-no-one-wants-to-talk-about syndrome, though they, likely, will get a kick out of the absurdly huge elephant in such small surroundings). But just look at Côté’s portfolio and editorial illustrations at this page of her site. Having only (thus far) seen this one title of hers, I’m intrigued by her loose, whimsical mixed-media illustrations; yes, “whimsical” gets over-used in children’s book reviewing, but there is a definite and fun sense of, I dunno, fancy and caprice to her work, and it makes me want to get my hands on every book she’s created. I know I’m slow in getting to her; she has many awards to her name, but I still want to share something good when I find it — lest anyone else out there not be familiar with Côté’s playful and inimitable style . . .

Animal Lullabies (North-South Books; September 2006; first published in 2000 in Slovenia under the title Zivalske Uspavanke) by Lila Prap (Lilijana Praprotnik Zupancic) — Prap is one of the most popular author/illustrators in Slovenia and was a 2006 Hans Christian Andersen Award Nominee. Here, Prap employs animal sounds (some “woof”s here and “ribbit”s there) and very gentle rhythms and rhymes (“Time to sleep/ my little peep/ The moon is high/ in the evening sky”) to bring us lullabies unique to various animals from little owls to crickets and everything in between. Some rhymes are more inspired than others, but it’s Prap’s simple, uncluttered, brightly colored, black-bordered, and broad-stroked illustrations that stand out — and with her imaginative renderings of the moon matching the animal highlighted on each spread (such as, a ball of yarn for the “Kitten’s Lullaby” — “Come, my baby/ it’s time to sing/ a bedtime song/ of balls of string. Purr, purr/ purr, purr”). Prap’s illustrations have a definite texture to them that is alluring, making the youngest of readers want to reach out and touch the fish’s bubbles (one doubling as a moon) and the piece-of-cheese moon, belonging to the mice. A hushed and lovely little addition to your bedtime books collection.

My Cat Copies Me by Yoon-duck Kwon (Kane/Miller; March 2007; originally published in 2005 in Korea under the title My Cat Copies Only Me) — This is one attractive book from South Korean illustrator Yoon-duck Kwon. It’s about a shy girl who looks at the world from her cat’s perspective for a bit. Even before the title page, we learn that the cat is a bit shy, too — actually, “very independent”: “She doesn’t come when I call her, and she runs away if I try to hug her. She never looks me in the eye.” But, she tells us further, her cat eventually tries to copy her if the girl walks away. They’re best friends; they play together all day, even watching the other kids outside playing in a group. Then, the girl determines to copy her cat: “Like my cat, I’ll look outside. I’ll watch the darkness, and I won’t be afraid.” For just a moment, the girl is not timid or scared, she goes outside, and she makes friends with her cat in tow. The illustrations are exquisite, detailed (the beautiful and complicated patterns on the girl’s clothing and items in her home, for one), everything outlined in a thick, silver line, making Kwon’s artwork positively glow (and bringing to mind Molly Bang’s work). I think the endpapers are to die for, too. You’ll just have to pick up a copy to see for yourself. Pet lovers, in particular, will enjoy this title and resonate with the animal’s ability to bring out the best in the girl.

Gloria the Cow by Paul Maar and illustrated by Tina Schulte and translated by Alexis L. Spry (North-South Books; September 2006; first published in 2002 in Germany under the title Die Kuh Gloria) — Maar is, by all accounts, a pretty influential writer/illustrator in Germany, having won Germany’s equivalent of our Caldecott Award (the German Youth Literature Award — Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis — Germany’s only state-sponsored prize for works of fiction). This import has a real heart to it and, to boot, pretty amusing turns of phrase and metaphors in just the rights spots. For instance, take the opening:

Even as a calf, Gloria the Cow had been bigger than all the other calves. The older she got, the bigger she became. She had huge clunking hooves, thick legs, shaggy fur, and a fat stomach. Her head was as big as a pumpkin.

Despite this, Gloria dreamed of being a performer. And even though she walked as loopy as a camel and her voice was as gravelly as a cement mixer, in her heart, Gloria knew that she was no ordinary cow — she was destined to be a star!

Gloria attempts to change her appearance (“the results were mixed”); trains to be a singer (but, alas and alack, Gloria does not consider the wisdom — or lack thereof — in having a fox talk you into this sort of thing, and things don’t go well, needless to say: ” . . . if her speaking voice sounded like a cement mixer, her singing voice sounded like a chain saw cutting through steel”); and tries her luck as a dancer in “a homemade tutu she had cleverly fashioned from seven tablecloths.” None of these artistic attempts go well, but she manages to find an audience somewhere who appreciates her: the land of the hippos, all plump and homongous. They consider her a “tiny jewel” on stage and fall in love. Thus begins her career as a diva. Schulte’s artwork is bright and expressive, radiating a droll humor that matches the somewhat campy text. This is a follow-your-dreams-no-matter-what book, and to be sure, there are lots of them out there in the vast world of picture books, but it’s an amusing addition to the canon.

* * * * * * *

{All titles are review copies, with the exception of What Elephant?, which is a library copy} . . .

5 comments to “Shining a (Little) Spotlight on
Some Picture Book Imports”

  1. Oooooo! International picture books! This is the kind of list that I love to see — I don’t know why, but I never come accross pic. books from foreign lands as often as I’d like.

    Keep up the good work!

    P.S. — I know you tagged me for a book meme a few days ago, but I am too embarassed to respond to it. Do you know why? Because I don’t have ANY non-kidlit blogs that I read on a regular basis. Er, at all. I barely have time to read the handful of kidlit blogs and post before it’s time to move on to some other activity. Thanks for the attention, though — I always enjoy reading your reviews.

  2. I agree. It’s so refreshing that more and more imports are being translated and published for an English-speaking audience, and it’s a great idea to give them a little spotlight treatment. Nice job, J.

    I loved What Elephant? too, btw.

  3. Thanks for this list!
    I read a lot of British and Australian picture books. They are so witty and quirky. Here are some favorites:
    The Elephant and the Bad Baby (Puffin Picture Books) by Elfrida Vipont and illustrated by Raymond Briggs
    The Hairy Maclary series by Lynley Dodd
    I Love You, Blue Kangaroo! by Emma Chichester Clark

  4. Thanks, Liz and Eisha and Brooke!

  5. Oh, Liz, I LOVE The Elephant and the Bad Baby! It’s so much fun to read in storytime.

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