Word Play: Going global

Children's books translated or imported from other parts of the globe can be, well, a bit odd. Even the beloved Roald Dahl, a widely recognized classic in the world of children's literature, can be, for many American readers, an acquired taste -- less so for kids, to be sure, who eat up his peculiar brand of British gruesomeness more easily than their more squeamish grown-ups do. Books from other places do stretch the sensibilities; if you find it important to expose your children to a wider world, consider also looking up some children's books in translation.

"The Squirrel's Birthday and Other Parties" by Toon Tellegen, illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg (Boxer Books/Sterling Publishing: $12.95; ages 5 and up) is a fantastic place to start, because the stories work for such a wide range of ages. The adult reading these quirky stories aloud will find as much to think about as the preschooler snuggled on the lap listening. Dutch author Tellegen began telling these tales to his own children, and they retain a certain casual, meandering feel -- beautifully conveyed in the translation by Martin Cleaver -- as if the words had dropped suddenly on the tongue of a playful storyteller trying to distract his own offspring from the woes of a toddler's busy day.

Each of the stories in this collection focuses on a party or a celebration in the society of animals, but they convey the full range of concerns of a civilized life, with all its existential dilemmas. When the squirrel invites all the animals to his birthday party, there is the formal preparation for an event: invitations to be addressed, answers to be received, gifts to be prepared, cakes to be baked. The squirrel bakes "huge honey cakes for the bear and the bumblebee, a grass cake for the hippo, a small red cake for the mosquito, and a dry cake for the dromedary." Squirrel has all the anxieties of any good host: Will there be enough food? Will everyone remember where he lives? Could they possibly be regretting their promise to come? "Oh, the squirrel!" they might be thinking. "He won't have much of a birthday party!" But of course, any social event prepared with such care has its own natural rhythms, and when the dancing begins, the squirrel can see that it's all a great success . . . which doesn't, of course, prevent his having a moment of renewed worry once everyone has finally gone sleepily off to bed: "Did everyone have a good time?"

In dressing for the leopard's party, the grasshopper -- everyone knows how dapper the grasshopper is! -- examines himself in the mirror: "He pulled the lapels of his jacket closer together, pushed his shoulders back a little, polished his antennae yet again, and allowed a distinguished smile to cross his lips." But something is missing; he is unsatisfied with the effect. Dashing off to the bumblebee's shop, the grasshopper requests a speck of dust ("I'd really prefer a slightly paler speck . . ."). When the leopard in due course greets him at the door, he "extended one of his claws hospitably. The grasshopper nodded almost imperceptibly. . . Then, with an airy gesture, he brushed the speck of dust from his shoulder, as he smiled mildly and engagingly." In that gesture, the entire demeanor of a debonair gentleman can be read: not too casual, yet not too concerned about his appearance. In short, ready for a delightful evening of conversation and companionship.

If I've in any way made Tellegen's charming animal world sound heavy-handed, I've done it a grave injustice. In its slightly surreal but matter-of-fact tone, "The Squirrel's Birthday" is reminiscent of the Moomintroll stories, the Scandinavian classics by Tove Jansson. Jessica Ahlberg, daughter of the children's book team Janet and Allen Ahlberg, underscores the whimsicality of this exquisite little book with her delicate illustrations.

Other European imports worth checking out:

"Horrid Henry" series by Francesca Simon and Tony Ross (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky: $4.99 each in paperback; ages 4-9): A British import for beginning readers that just made the jump to America this year. Each paperback contains four stories about Horrid Henry, his hapless family and his especially annoying brother, Perfect Peter. This series works extremely well for reluctant readers because it is simply hilarious -- the situations, the language, the occasional slight edge of meanness. American children's books tend to be much more pious, especially in the denouements to characters' dilemmas. We Americans are hugely into good guys, while black hats and white hats tend not to be such an important distinction for Europeans.

"Polo" series of picture books by Régis Faller (Roaring Brook Press: $9.95 each; ages 3-6): Although these French books are almost entirely wordless, there is a distinctly foreign sensibility at work in the storytelling: a willingness to let characters engage in activities that might seem unsafe in real life (using a ladder as a springboard, for example) and allowing a bit of dream logic to direct the stories.

"Nicholas" series by René Goscinny, with pictures by Jean-Jacques Sempé (Phaidon Press: $19.95; ages 7-12): Naughty French schoolboys, what's not to love? Nicholas' gang includes the overeater, never seen without a snack, the teacher's pet ("You can't hit me! I have glasses!"), the boy who solves every problem with a punch in the nose, and other types who've been around for generations. Somehow things always work out in Nicholas' favor, and seeing how the rationalizations work is a large part of the fun. (Goscinny is the author of the Asterix comic books, and Sempé is best known here as a New Yorker cartoonist.)

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