Laura Davies tells us why she’s such a fan of Tiny Owl Books
Translated children’s books are an important part of diverse literature, exposing children (and grown-ups) to a world of untold stories. Laura Davies explores the value of children’s literature in translation in Outside in World, looking specifically at Tiny Owl books. She gives her thoughts on why she loves Tiny Owl, and reviews some of our books with suggestions on how to use them in the classroom.
Laura Davies has over ten years’ experience working in the charitable and education sectors within both senior fundraising and professional teaching capacities. She is currently a part-time Youth Worker at Full Circle Education, a not-for-profit organisation where Laura delivers a range of workshops which aim to provide dynamic solutions to inspire and engage children and young people in education. Laura is particularly interested in how literature can be used to aid well-being, foster philosophical enquiry and promote a sense of community and global citizenship.
I first came across Tiny Owl Books when UKLA Literacy 4 – 11 sent me a copy of The Orange House to review earlier this year. In a strange turn of events, this was also at the moment that I was in discussions with Outside In World, an organisation which promotes and celebrates global children’s literature and books in translation, about a particular publisher they were interested in writing an article about for their website – which turned out to be one and the same. It felt that the stars were aligning and placing these beautiful books in my path, and I was delighted when Tiny Owl sent me a selection of their current published collection to review.
My interest in global children’s literature has been developing gradually, and it has been building momentum over the last few years’ professional work in which I have seen first-hand the impact and value of books on children’s well-being, and on their ability to empathise and identify with the experiences of others. This process, in which they begin to feel not only an important member of their school and community, but also recognise their voice and their place as a global citizen, has a tremendous impact on how they approach life both in and outside of school.
This is particularly effective when combining the use of quality children’s books with a teaching practice such as Philosophy for Children which encourages children to think critically, creatively, collaboratively and caringly. It helps children, particularly those facing disadvantage, to become lifelong learners (seehttp://www.sapere.org.uk for more information). The value of this sort of approach to texts in helping develop children’s love of reading is evident in the findings of projects such as ‘Power of Reading’ run by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in which one of their top 10 recommendations for creating a lifelong love of reading in children is in ‘creating a community of readers with opportunities to share responses and opinions’. Books that reflect a broad range of voices from across the globe are well placed to aid such enquiry.
When I first began work for this brief article, reflecting on global children’s literature and the discovery of Tiny Owls’ books within this arena, I was also acutely aware of how timely an inclusive approach to literature is during a particularly historic time in which the UK took the vote to leave the EU. On the morning of the vote, a vast array of feelings bubbled up to the surface but with one fairly common theme – trepidation as we step into the unknown. Having spent time as a primary teacher, and later as a project coordinator on an education project that sought to raise gender awareness in primary schools, I have seen first-hand the impact that picture books can have on children’s outlook of the world and on their place in it.
There is an inherent value to books which truly represent the wonderful diversity in the world but also the common themes that bind us: love, courage, childhood, loss and many more which are fundamental to what it means to be human. As Jonathan Rupin, Founder of the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club puts it ‘Brexit has brought our relationships with other nations to the forefront of public debate, so perhaps some readers might seek to broaden their horizons through reading’; there is no reason why this same inquisitive nature will not be equally present in children and young people too.
Over two years ago I gave birth to my daughter and, since then, I have been fortunate to have been bought, sent and passed on a large selection of books for her to savour and delight in. However, it became evident over time that the books we had in our collection were predominantly representative of one voice. The unconscious bias in us all tends to guide our hands to selecting books that reaffirm or embody the life that we know and though this may be no bad thing when combined with other views, in isolation it can limit children’s exposure to the rich diversity in the world and to the beauty and excitement of the unknown.
Tiny Owl Books is an independent publishing company, committed to producing quality books for children. Their goal is to ‘introduce the cream of the crop of global children’s literature, contemporary and old, to the English speaking audience.’ Founded in 2012 by Delaram Ghanimifard and her husband in response to an identified gap in the market for picture books ‘appreciating cultural diversity’ and bridging the gap ‘between the reality of society and the way it was reflected in books for children’. Tiny Owl started translating Persian stories into English and bringing them to the UK market in 2015, however it was never their intention to solely publish books just from Iran, merely as a starting point for the authors and illustrators that they knew best from their own childhood. Endorsed by the Guardian in that first year of publishing, their books have been recognised for being beautiful works of art in their own right and bringing a whole new audience (young and old) to appreciate the value of illustrated books – or ‘picture books’. The messages within them range from old and well-loved fables, to contemporary stories which offer a fresh perspective on common themes.
As well as a wonderful addition to a home collection, the books make a fantastic resource for schools and act as an excellent stimulus for many lessons on personal, social and emotional development and philosophical enquiry. Questions about morality, and what it means to be a global citizen can be deftly and subtly drawn out by these books and within my reviews I have tried to highlight the areas that would best lend themselves to further discussion. Many of the stories echo fables that are familiar in Britain, as these are stories that have stood the test of time and appeared again and again across the ages and continents in slightly different guises. This would make a fascinating compare and contrast exercise for children, identifying the common themes and messages in the books and why it is that such similar stories evolve across the globe.
All the picture books by Tiny Owl that I have reviewed so far have been translated by Azita Rassi. Azita was interviewed by Shahrvand magazine in Persian and it was translated into English and published on the Tiny Owl website and the full article can be found here. In this interview, she speaks of the ‘high cultural as well as physical quality’ of Tiny Owl’s books which ensures their appeal to children but also, importantly, it attracts ‘those buyers of children’s books who are not familiar with Iranian specimens’ and so introduces these stories to a new audience. Rassi also speaks about the care with which Tiny Owl choose accompanying illustrations for their publications, and the importance of this in conveying the stories in a way that translation alone might not be able to fully capture. This interview is well worth reading for a sense of the challenges which translators face in keeping ‘the impact of the book the same…the ambience the same’ and that this can require changes in literal interpretation so that the tone is true to the original, even if the words are not exact translations.
There is so much to explore here with children – understanding the development of language and the cultural influences that shape and pattern our vocabulary and appreciating how the ‘tone’ of a story is delicately infused by the unique experiences of the author. As Azita sums up at the end of her interview, books which are chosen in essence because the story will appeal to children, but in which there is this extra process of translation required, can be a successful ‘cultural bridge, establishing a relationship between Iranian mentality and life on the one hand and foreign thoughts and experiences on the other.’
Picture books provide a familiar and comforting space where children and adults alike can question, absorb and learn from the experiences of others. The exquisite illustrations that are given as much validity and import for Tiny Owl’s publications as the written word help ensure that the books are accessible and enjoyed by a wide range of learners. From my experience working with books that have been translated, there is also often a delicate poetry to the verse as translators have taken great care to transfer both literal and cultural meaning without changing the flow of the story.
As Terence Portelli, lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malta, puts it ‘The translator is in a privileged position…Through training, practice, and reflection, the translator develops an insight into the colours, shades and hues of another language and culture, thus developing a heightened sensibility to the differences that connect or separate languages and cultures’. This ‘tactful, imperceptible intervention’ can free up children’s minds to the notion of the ‘correct’ way of writing, as the form may be different to what they are used to. This could liberate children to write more ‘creatively’ and true to their own voice and opens up some wonderful opportunities for creative writing exercises in school and at home.
At the London Book Fair earlier this year I picked up a copy of Tangerine Sky: Poems from Malta with a forward ‘On words, literature and translation’ by Terence Portelli. In it, he makes the assertion that ‘alongside gastronomy, music and art, literature is perhaps the cultural manifestation dearest to a community, most expedient for border-crossing and conducive to intercultural dialogue’ and this notion that through the work of a translator we are able to glimpse another world view from our own is, to me, an extremely exciting and vital one.
During my research for this article I stumbled across a TED Ex talk by Hugh Evans (co-founder of Global Poverty Project) on what it means to be a global citizen (you can access the talk here). In it, he affirms his belief that ‘those who look beyond our borders are on the rig ht side of history’. Children’s books in translation offer the reader an opportunity to view the world through the eyes of others in implicit and subtle ways which can foster more understanding of what unites us than the study of a more explicit fact-based book may do (though these no doubt have their place too). No matter whether they have ever had the chance to physically move beyond the borders of their own country of birth, children can see the world through a global lens.
In the piece ‘Translating Children’s Books: Difficulties and Reluctances’ written for The Artifice (an online magazine that covers a wide spectrum of art forms), Rachel Elfassy Bitoun states that ‘it is essential that a child reads translations in order to develop and build their own moral thinking and embrace diversity and tolerance’. This is further supported by evidence found from the ‘Doors to the World’ project, a US based partnership of educators dedicated to making global children’s picture books and resources available to early years’ teachers. From their work, they believe that ‘books, if critically chosen and read, can serve as doors to cultural understanding in the classroom’ and their guidelines for integrating global children’s literature into classroom learning experiences emphasise that ‘understanding how to read children’s literature is as important as knowing what to read’ and that ‘critical engagement with global children’s literature offers glimpses of the social construction of culture’.
The first ever guide to children’s books in translation ‘Outside in’, edited by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini and published by Milet (2005), had a foreword by author Phillip Pullman who talked about the way that books become friends and the right book can provide ‘a story and some characters who will make an impression that never leaves them’. The production of this guide and response to it led to the setting up of Outside In World in 2007. Their first flagship project in 2009 ‘Reading Round the World’ aimed to respond to children’s lack of exposure to books from other countries by delivering a programme of innovative, fun and highly interactive events which celebrated the work of 15 international authors and illustrators with 43 events across England.
Author Kate Dicamillo has found in her experience that what literature does for children is ‘That thing of telling the truth and making the truth bearable. One truth? We can love each other. Another truth? It’s hard work’.
There are many children’s picture books which manage to be absolutely relevant for children across the age phases of primary and even into secondary, particularly when used in circle time, or a philosophy for children session in which a facilitator can help draw out discussion around some challenging and emotive subject matter. Some of the first influences on children’s thoughts about the world and their place in it are in their exposure to picture books, and there is a growing appreciation of the value of reading, literacy and art for social change with growing investment in this area.
Within Wales, for example, Regional Arts and Education Networks have been launched in order to ‘increase and improve arts experiences and opportunities in schools’ and the International Board of Books for Young People is next month holding a conference which explores the ways in which picture books contribute to the development of the child and which will look in detail at the role of the international book market in this. Publishers like Tiny Owl Books can help the next generation feel part of a global society which is richer for its diversity whilst also recognising and celebrating that which unites us.
See the full list of my reviews (in the upcoming posts) for the ‘Tiny Owl Books’ which I have read so far or you can download the pdf below. If you would like any further information about how you can use these books in your own classroom or home setting, then please do get in touch.
Visit our bookstore
Download book posters
Limited edition prints
Subscribe to Tiny Owl on YouTube!