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Fairy Tale, Fantasy and Folklore: Children’s Books

Children growing up in the English-speaking world continue to be charmed by Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Heidi; all stories that were first published in German, but that have long inhabited a world of childhood beyond national boundaries. And today, Young Adult fiction by German-language authors – most notably, Cornelia Funke – is garnering legions of fans across the world. NBG spoke to figures from three key aspects of the industry – a translator, a publisher and a bookseller – to explore how the market for international children’s fiction works today.
Translator Anthea Bell reveals the central role that folklore and myth have played in the children’s books that she has translated; Barry Cunningham, publisher at Chicken House, discusses his publication of German books in English translation; and independent children’s bookseller Jenny Morris (The Lion & Unicorn, Richmond) comments on which genres do particularly well in translated fiction.
Anthea Bell, Translator

The first book I ever translated was a children’s book: Otfried Preussler’s Der kleine Wassermann, published by Abelard-Schuman as The Little Water-Sprite. We went on to The Little Witch, The Little Ghost, and the three Robber Hotzenplotz titles. Hotzenplotz went down surprisingly well in the English-speaking world, considering that they are based not on our native Punch and Judy puppet play but on the German equivalent: the puppet ‘Kasperl’. And then there was Preussler’s young adult novel Krabat, a dark tale of a miller’s bargain with the Devil; it won the German Youth Literature Prize, and has been filmed with Daniel Brühl (of Goodbye Lenin) in the role of the hero’s best friend. It was fascinating, when I was translating Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau (The Blind Side of the Heart, Harvill), to find that she had loved Preussler’s books as a child, and her own figure of the Mittagsfrau (‘the Noonday Witch’) is from the same Sorbian body of folklore in the Lausitz area of eastern Germany as Krabat.
The first of Kai Meyer’s Arkadien trilogy (Carlsen) was featured in New Books in German in 2009. It’s very much a Young Adult series, unlike his earlier trilogy The Flowing Queen and its sequels, and can best be summed up as ’the Mafia meets Ovid’s Metamorphoses’. Volume 1, in English as Arcadia Awakens, is coming soon from HarperCollins US and Templar in the UK. Original ideas in fantasy are few and far between; Cornelia Funke had one in her Inkworld trilogy, where characters slip in and out of stories, and Kai, with his fertile imagination, has come up with another in updating the animal metamorphosis theme.
There was a possible project for some extensive selections from Grimms’ tales in simultaneously published English and German editions. I had half a dozen of my favourites in reserve, including ‘The Juniper Tree’ and ‘The Robber Bridegroom’. I love the universality of such tales, the former with its roots in the Greek myth of the house of Atreus, the latter harking back to an old English tale, Mr Fox, which itself has a Shakespearean echo in Much Ado. Mr Fox is the ‘old tale’ from which Benedick quotes in his line, ‘Like the old tale, my lord: “it is not so, nor `t was not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.”’
Barry Cunningham, Publisher

... on German books
Children’s literature is perhaps more international than adult fiction, as children share the same kind of imaginative reality. We’ve always felt in particular that children in Germany and Britain have a lot in common. Cornelia Funke would put it down to the great tradition of folk tales, which is very much alive in Germany. I would add that in Germany children’s books are not just a branch of adult fiction. They still believe very firmly in a role for children’s books, so it’s a very vibrant market.
... on working with German-language publishers
We meet all the main publishers at the book fairs, and they regularly send material to us. Increasingly, publishers are providing samples in English to give us a quicker flavour, and also give us the details of their marketing campaign – all of this is very helpful.
These publishers are always a pleasure to work with, keeping us up to date with what the author is doing next, with details of sales and other useful information.
... on working with translators
When I first started buying books to be translated I was amazed by how different samples by different translators could sound, and that trying to find the right voice for the translation is crucial.
We take the process of translation very seriously, making sure we work with the best translators but also remaining open to changing the text. Because of the breadth of English compared to German, which has a smaller vocabulary, we can bring a wider variety of language to the English version. So it’s a really interesting exchange.
Once we’ve got the translation, we treat it almost like it’s an entirely new book. This is an opportunity to make the book work in another language, and so we might go back to the author and look again at certain points. We’re very active on this front, and all the German authors we’ve worked with have been very pleased with this approach. A good example is Kirsten Boie and The Princess Plot – we directed it in a slightly different way and it’s been hugely successful in America.
... on publishing series
German children’s authors do tend to write in series, and we are more cautious when we are considering these. I am very concerned that each book works as a self-standing novel. Each book should absolutely be a hit in its own right. A good example is the new novel by Kerstin Gier, Girl about Time – a brilliant book that completely stands in its own right but is also the first in a series. It’s fantastically romantic and a highly engaging thriller, and it feels very authentically teenage.
Jenny Morris, Bookseller

The UK children’s book industry has been criticised in the past for its head-in-the-sand approach to children’s literature from other countries. This was the case when the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in translation was founded in 1996, not only to promote interest in the best internationally recognised writers and artists but also to acknowledge the translators, the ‘invisible storytellers’.
Since then more books in translation have been made available to the British market and at the Lion & Unicorn we have been able to showcase children’s books from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden – though it has to be said with varying degrees of success. Where picture books are concerned, sales of books such as ‘The Chicken Thief’ (a wordless picture book from France) or ‘Duck, Death and the Tulip’ (exploring loss and first published in Germany) have encouraged us to be more experimental, thanks to the ‘curiously good books from around the world’ published by Gecko Press in conjunction with its UK distributor.
As for fiction, Cornelia Funke, the most high-profile example, has found a permanent place on our shelves with her ‘Inkheart’ fantasy sequence and more recently one of our favourite recommendations for readers of around 9+ is Andreas Steinhöfel’s hilarious The Pasta Detectives (Chicken House), shortlisted for this year’s Marsh Award. Key to success in the British market probably lies not only with good translation but with genre. There is a strong market in the core 9-13 age range for fantasy and magic realism, while mystery, adventure and humour are important ingredients in a book’s staying power. The Pasta Detectives is a good example, a whodunit with a difference and an element of the cartoon, a quirky main character and a huge helping of humour. A parallel example would be the bestselling ‘Wimpy Kid’ series by American author Jeff Kinney (Puffin Books).
Bringing these books to market successfully depends on effective publisher/bookseller liaison, but principally on reading and handselling them enthusiastically! Fitting the right book to the right child is what we’re all about, and this can apply to exciting fiction in translation as much as to anything home-grown.
Children’s Publishers in
Austria, Germany and Switzerland
Beltz & Gelberg
English-language Children’s Publishers
Andersen Press
Annick Press
Boxer Books
Chicken House
Gecko Press
Walker Books
Children’s authors translated into English
Kirsten Boie
Cornelia Funke
Kerstin Gier
Krystyna Kuhn
Kai Meyer
Christine Nöstlinger
Mirjam Pressler
Otfried Preussler
German Children’s Classics
• Emil und die Detektive / Emil and the Detectives (Erich Kästner)
• Die Karawane /
The Caravan (Wilhelm Hauff)
• Max und Moritz / Max und Moritz (Wilhelm Busch)
• Grimms‘ Märchen /
Grimms‘ Tales
• Struwwelpeter
(Heinrich Hoffmann)
Children’s Book Prizes For German-language books
• The German Youth Literature Prize (see Jugendliteraturpreis)
• Kranichsteiner Scholarship
• Astrid Lindgren Prize
For books in English translation
• The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation (UK)
• The Mildred L. Batchelder
Award (US)
For details of newly published children's books in English translation, see our Recent and Forthcoming Publications section.