The London Book Fair couldn’t have taken place in a more perfect, sunny week. Blue skies… and sunlight flooding through the glass domes of Olympia and everywhere that tangible frisson of joyfulness that seems to ignite the mood of people in glorious weather.
The stands of children’s books from Mexico were brilliant reminders of a country more exotic than ours but at the same time adding their own brand of edginess – and a sharp reminder that children from all around the globe grow up in societies that are troubled.
How similar rather than how dissimilar we are, when the subject is that of an absent father. Diente de León (Dandelion clocks) written by María Baranda and illustrated by Isidro R Esquivel and published by Ediciones El Naranjo, is Laina’s story.
Laina knows she must be careful of the sun because it ‘bites’ and careful of smallpox and sometimes she gets very hungry and she knows her father has gone away and her mother has taken her siblings to live in a camp while she must stay with her aged grandmother. What things for an 11 year old to cope with. But its beautifully written and reads like poetry as Laina finds holes in the clouds in the sky and things to wonder at, and knows that whenever she blows a dandelion her dreams will arrive at wherever she wants. I read only part of the story as an English translation but it was clear her grandmother dies…
Maybe not your average story, but a story that is the norm for far too many children. In Spain there are plastic vegetable tunnels that cover so great an area they can be seen from space where immigrants from Libya and North Africa work. The ‘absent father’ (even both sets of parents absent) is a story that repeats itself whether the telling is about overloaded boats crossing to Lampedusa, or fathers who went to Gallipoli and never returned, or fathers who travelled from the Transkei to the gold mines and mothers who work in cities far from their children, as in Beverley Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg which was the first teenage novel ever to be banned in South Africa for telling too many truths during the 'apartheid' years.
Absent fathers and absent parents leave children coping with huge gaps in their lives. We need books from around the world to reflect on this and to remind us that these stories though desperate aren’t without hope... the hope of an 11 year old girl called Laina.
Where best to replicate the wild spirit of Mexico than in a children’s book with a jaguar at the heart of the story, as in La Cajita de Olimala (Olimala being a town is Guerrero which means ‘place where the earth trembles’). Written by Rebeca Orozco, illustrated by Luis Leston, published by Ediciones Tecolote.
And one can’t help smiling and loving the idea of Tigre callado escribe poesia (Silent Tiger writes Poetry) written by Moniqye Zepeda and illustrated by Julián Cicero, published by Ediciones El Naranjo. It’s about a boy with a tiger mask who invites readers to share his world of loneliness, love, fear, life and death and those strange people called adults.
Or laughing at the energy of another masked character in Mi Abuelo el Luchador (My Grandpa the Wrestler) written by Antonio Ramos Revillas and illustrated by Rosana Mesa, published by Ediciones El Naranjo. It’s lucky to have a grandpa as brave as grandpa Ignacio. He has fought 20 at the same time, defeated a werewolf, a robot, a vampire, and his archenemy the frightening Doctor Landú. But once when he was a boy he met a girl at school – and that became his biggest challenge! Strong pencil drawings with a limited palette of red, green and yellow give gusto to this superhero.
Then there was a book of turtles – Tortugas en el Espacio de Papel (Turtles in the Space of Paper) published by Petra Ediciones. Not your average muddy water turtle but magnificent species brought to life by the amazing Manuel Marín, who is also one of the most important sculptors and painters in Mexico. Each turtle comes with a cardboard print for a child to assemble and the patterns are unlike any you’ll ever see with patterns on the reverse side too for making another turtle. I challenge any parent to refrain from stealing this book from their children and getting their hands busy making turtles!
Even though some reflections in the books might be sad, we need all the literature we can get from other countries to expand our own horizons. Let's have more foreign editions so our children can be part of the entire world. The aims of the International Centre for the Picture Book Society at The Hive in Worcester endorse this:
· To engage with ‘society’ in its broadest terms by promoting multi-culturalism, inclusivity of all minorities and socially disenfranchised people
· To create an awareness in the UK of international picture book making outside of the Anglophone environment and a platform to promote and showcase internationally published picture books
With thanks to Ediciones El Naranjo, Ediciones Tecolote and Petra Ediciones who gave permission for these photographs to be shown. Please do not copy without permission. See the Mexican Gallery of children’s books at:
ZERAFFA GIRAFFA is on The Sunday Times, Top 100 Children's Classics List and on The Times on Saturday, Best Picture Book List 2014.