Literary translator and children’s book researcher Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp gives us a potted history of thirty years of German children’s books in English translation.
Our journey starts with a classic picture book from 1989, now an international bestseller: The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business, a charming scatological tale that took Wolf Erlbruch to illustrator stardom. In 2017, he became the first German to win the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. He is also the author of another classic: Duck, Death and the Tulip (2007).
Axel Scheffler, of Gruffalo fame, and Britta Teckentrup are both illustrators who have become household names in the UK, and Axel’s artwork appears not only in this magazine but in junior fiction in translation, too, such as to illustrate Alex Rühle’s Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost (published 2019, translated by Rachel Ward, and featured in The Riveter). Other picture-book illustrators of note include Jutta Bauer, Ole Könnecke, Pei-Yu Chang, and Dieter Braun’s Wild Animals series.
US publisher NorthSouth Books has published German picture books in translation since 1989, and in recent years there’s been a boom in independent presses publishing translations, including Gecko Press and Enchanted Lion Books, who published Einar Turkowski’s dreamlike Houses Floating Home in 2003, translated by Belinda Cooper.
Middle-grade (junior fiction) titles include Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s maths adventure The Number Devil (translated by Michael Henry Heim, 2000), Walter Moers’ buccaneering The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear (translated by John Brownjohn, 2001), Andreas Steinhöfel’s quirky The Pasta Detectives (translated by Chantal Wright, 2010), Milena Baisch’s Anton and Piranha – ‘an Adrian Mole for a new generation’ (translated by Chantal Wright, 2013) and Ulrich Hub’s philosophical comedy Meet at the Ark at Eight (translated by Helena Ragg-Kirby).
German children’s writing offers plenty of magic and mystery, especially from the unmissable Cornelia Funke, known as the ‘J.K. Rowling of Germany’. Successful in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, Funke reached an international audience with the publication of The Thief Lord in 2002. She’s perhaps best known for her Inkheart series – there was a Hollywood adaptation in 2008 – but she has written for every age group, including picture books. For seven plus, there’s the fun Ghosthunters series and for the over tens there’s Dragon Rider – on the New York Times bestseller list for seventy-eight weeks from 2004. Kai Meyer’s novels also cater to fantasy lovers, exploring historical themes in magical alternate realities. His Dark Reflections series envisages a battle for the survival of Venice against the dominion of Egypt (translated by Anthea Bell and Elizabeth D. Crawford).
For teens and young adults interested in history and social themes, notable titles include David Chotjewitz’s Daniel Half Human (translated by Doris Orgel, 2005, winner of a Batchelder honour), Beate Teresa Hanika’s Learning How To Scream, a sensitive story about sexual abuse (translated by Katy Derbyshire, 2010) and Hanna Jansen’s Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You (translated by Elizabeth Crawford, 2007), a fictionalised account of the Rwandan genocide. Thought-provoking young adult fiction in translation from German is well represented in the US library association’s annual Mildred L. Batchelder Award, with eight originally German titles winning since 1989. New York Times bestselling author Kerstin Gier’s Ruby Red and Silver trilogies (translated by Anthea Bell) have also been popular with teens.
At World Kid Lit blog, with the help of Outside in World, we’re compiling a list of all children’s and young adult titles translated from German, and at over 500 titles translated since 1989 there really is something for every age group and every mood.
By Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
With thanks to SLA Riveting Reads (Daniel Hahn and Joy Court), Outside in World’s Deborah Hallford and The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature by Daniel Hahn.
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a British literary translator working from German, Russian and Arabic into English. She graduated from Oxford University and completed an MA in Translation and Interpreting at Bath University. She translates fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.