Some of the Best Children’s Books in Translation

If you’d like to read your way around the world with your children, try these marvelous books in translation.


Book of Questions, Pablo Neruda and Paloma Valdivia [Amazon | Bookshop]

For kids of all ages and adults, too, a truly special book of poetry filled with masterful illustrations

Featuring selections in both English and Spanish from Pablo Neruda’s Book of Questions, this stunning picture book is worth savoring. To read Neruda’s poetry with children is a wonderful treat, and the poems here are particularly special. Each spread features just a few of Neruda’s beautiful and philosophical questions about nature, life, language, and dreams. Children might want to offer answers to some of these questions, but as often as not, they’re mysterious and unanswerable – inspiration, perhaps, for coming up with your own questions. (As Chilean illustrator Paloma Valdivia notes at the end, “there are no answers, only more questions arising from Neruda’s questions.”) Valdivia’s illustrations, too, are masterworks, filled with mystery and symbolism – in other words, perfect companions to Neruda’s poetry. Every time I look at Valdivia’s pictures, I notice something new and beautiful. A truly special book.


Sleepy Stories, Mario Levrero and Diego Bianki [Amazon | Bookshop]

These stories about sleepiness are brilliantly imaginative and unique – and a pleasure to read aloud

In this one-of-a-kind read-aloud gem, a young boy begs for stories from his sleepy companion, who keeps protesting that they are too sleepy to tell another story (sound true-to-life?). The companion warns him: these will be sleepy stories, really sleepy stories, veeeeeeery sleepy stories. Each one is about someone falling asleep in an odd or surreal situation – bizarre, imaginative, at times anticlimactic, and yet still completely compelling. The illustrations are wonderfully surreal, too, strange and beautiful in shades of red, pink, and blue. Perhaps my favorite thing about reading this book, though, is that it’s written almost as a play, and to read it successfully you must have two voices, one for the boy and one for the storyteller. The book encourages you to inhabit these roles, too, by telling you exactly when to yawn or snore. Try as you might, you simply cannot read this book without genuinely yawning (a lot). It’s comedic and wonderful, a terrific test of your read-aloud chops, and kids love the spectacle of the storyteller passing out in the middle of a story. I have a blast reading this one aloud – it’s theatrical and brilliantly imaginative (and you can get through the whole thing in one sitting, too). 


The Wild Book, Juan Villoro [Amazon | Bookshop]

In this magical, quirky, and suspenseful book about a wondrous library, a boy embarks on an epic hunt for two mysterious and elusive books

The Wild Book starts off slow – but, as the characters in this book eventually discover, it pays to be patient with a book and give it time to reveal itself. Thirteen-year-old Juan is disappointed to learn that he’ll be spending the summer with his eccentric bibliophile of an uncle, who lives in a house so labyrinthine that Juan will need to carry a bell with him at all times in case he needs rescuing.  But soon adventures are afoot in that mysterious house. A villainous book is on the loose, and then there’s another, more tempting book that perhaps only Juan can chase down: The Wild Book. Meanwhile, a rather lovely and clever young girl is working in the pharmacy across the street (perhaps she’ll help?). This book is full of charming and wildly imaginative details – Juan’s uncle is fascinatingly peculiar – and is a rare book-about-books that doesn’t pander. Think Italo Calvino for children and you won’t be far off. It’s sweet, tender, suspenseful, and magical, and it charmed me completely by the end.

Canada (French)

Mr. Postmouse’s Rounds, Marianne Dubuc [Amazon | Bookshop

A mouse delivers the mail in this clever and intricately detailed read

In this supremely delightful tale, a cheerful and industrious mouse mail carrier delivers packages to all sorts of animal homes: a super-long snake house with built-in heat lamps, a penguin tower made out of ice cubes, a bat house with upside-down beds, and a bear house with a rooftop hive and honey collecting system, just to name a few. Although the houses might be whimsical, they’re also cleverly inspired by real animal traits (a sharp-eyed reader might notice that the fly house is in a still-steaming pile of dung). There are so many delightful details hidden in these drawings that you might still be noticing new things on the tenth time through! If you love this one, check out Dubuc’s many other excellent titles, like Your House, My House [Amazon | Bookshop] and Up the Mountain Path [Amazon | Bookshop].


Inside the Suitcase, Clotilde Perrin [Amazon | Bookshop]

A supremely inventive flap book with a charming story that’s sure to impress and delight

This incredibly clever flap book puts most other flap books to shame. A boy packs a suitcase (which you can open and inspect) and sets off on a trip. On the way, he’ll need the contents of his suitcase to problem-solve, and he’ll pick up new items, too. The flaps on most pages are stacked in layers, so reading it is like peeling away layers of an onion – one surprise after another. You can peel back the layers of his suitcase, peer deeper and deeper into a house, or journey through a landscape. It’s gorgeously illustrated, brilliantly engineered, a wonderful work of art. And the conclusion is a pure delight.


Big Wolf & Little Wolf, Nadine Brun-Cosme and Olivier Tallec [Amazon | Bookshop]

Heartwarming and gentle, this book about new family members focuses on loving adjustment, rather than suspicion and distress

Many stories about new siblings focus on suspicion, distress, and mistrust, but Big Wolf & Little Wolf takes a gentler angle. This book is simply about adjustment. (Although the story isn’t explicitly about a new sibling relationship, you can certainly read it that way – and perhaps this, too, is part of its gentle, slantways approach to the topic.) When Little Wolf arrives, seemingly out of nowhere, at Big Wolf’s Tree, Big Wolf is stunned and very cautious. The two wolves “didn’t say a word to one another, but they watched each other out of the corners of their eyes. Their looks were curious – not mean or suspicious at all.” The two engage in a kind of parallel play, and Big Wolf shares small portions of what he has. But after Little Wolf disappears, Big Wolf discovers that he’s sad and lonely, that somehow Little Wolf went from being curious and unfamiliar to being deeply loved and necessary for his own happiness. Heartwarming and understated, this book offers a touching, hopeful perspective on what it’s like to welcome someone new into your life.


Pug Man’s 3 Wishes, Sebastian Meschenmoser [Amazon | Bookshop]

A one-of-a-kind, intensely offbeat masterpiece you’ve got to read to believe

Well, look: you’re either the type of person who laughs at the sight of a tired pug sitting on a toilet or you aren’t. But there’s more to this book than just that visual gag. Pug Man is having a terrible day — and he looks so profoundly weary, in fact, that it’s difficult to imagine anything would bring him joy. But then a fairy shows up and offers him three wishes. (Be ready for a surprising and delightful ending.) Right after my own children and I finished reading this the first time, they begged me to read it four more times in a row. 


Mr. Squirrel and the Moon, Sebastian Meschenmoser [Amazon | Bookshop]

Understated text and clever illustrations lead to big laughs in a book about a “stolen moon”

When a runaway wheel of cheese gets stuck in Mr. Squirrel’s tree, he’s certain that the moon has fallen from the sky. Leave it to other animals to worry about cosmic disaster – Mr. Squirrel simply doesn’t want to be caught with stolen goods on his property! But in his haste to dispose of the evidence, things spiral out of control. Meschenmoser’s books are instantly identifiable by their realistic, understated pencil illustrations and deadpan humor, and he’s a master of sly, funny details (sharp-eyed readers will get some extra laughs from this one). A clever, wonderfully funny book that feels like a well-loved classic.


The Rainbow Goblins, Ul de Rico [Amazon | Bookshop]

At once both familiar and startlingly unique, this masterfully illustrated book will capture children’s imaginations

In this striking and original book, wicked goblins routinely feast on colors drained from rainbows. So when they learn of the paradisiacal Valley of the Rainbow, the birthplace of their favorite food, the goblins hatch a plan to invade and indulge in the feast of a lifetime. But never fear: nature has a plan to fight back. This original story about rainbows is fascinating not only because of its tried-and-true good-versus-evil plot line but also because of its magnificent, magnetic art. The illustrations were painted in oil paints on large oak panels, and they’re full of gorgeous detail: landscapes both idyllic and sublime, tremendous storms, and dramatic interplay between light and shadow. In other words, de Rico is intimately familiar with many of the canonical works of “great art” and has quite a bit of fun with them here (his riff on da Vinci’s The Last Supper is featured on the title page). Even the dazzlingly psychedelic endpapers are works of art. Simultaneously as familiar as a fairy tale and utterly original, this book is one to grab and hold children’s attention, to feed their imaginations – a real classic.


What’s That Noise? (This Book Is Calling You…), Isabel Minhós Martins and Madalena Matoso [Amazon | Bookshop]

This inventive, interactive children’s book prompts children to provide the soundtrack to the story

This book has a mission for you, if you listen carefully. So get your fingers limber and ready to go on a forest adventure. Tap them on the pages for a drumroll or rain, skip them across stones to cross a stream, wiggle them toward a shy worm to make friends, and curl them up to make a cozy little home. There are lots of really enjoyable interactive books in this vein (like Jörg Mühle’s Little Rabbit books), but this one is a little more complex and very cleverly takes advantage of hands’ ability to be character, soundtrack, and accessory.


Aaahhh!, Guilherme Karsten [Amazon | Bookshop]

Ready your vocal cords, because you’re going to need them for this book about a very noisy noise

There’s a terrible noise, heard all around the world, that’s causing havoc and headaches, splitting land masses in two and ripping the stripes right off tigers’ bodies. But no one knows where it’s coming from. I won’t tell you what it is, but there’s something delightful about a book whose very title demands that you scream. My children were startled and fascinated by this loud book, and soon my 5-year-old was insisting that he do the yelling on every page (fine by me!). It ends abruptly, just like a scream, and my children immediately asked me to read it again. But reading this book quietly or half-heartedly simply won’t do. You’ve really got to sell the horrendous noise, so get those vocal cords in order!


The Fox on the Swing, Evelina Daciūtė and Aušra Kiudulaitė [Amazon | Bookshop]

A delightfully quirky and charming book about happiness

Paul and his family live at the top of a very tall tree, and every day Paul goes to the bakery to buy three rolls: one for himself, one for his mother, and one for his father. Walking home one day, Paul spots a fox on a swing, and the fox asks him to give him one of the rolls. It’s a hard decision for Paul – there are only enough to go around in his family! – but he decides to share, and from then on he and the fox become very close friends. The fox has plenty to teach Paul, lessons passed down from other wise foxes, and these lessons come in handy for Paul when his family decides to move. This book’s intriguing, meandering plot is unusually compelling – it feels unexpected, fresh, and very touching.


The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties, Toon Tellegen and Jessica Ahlberg [Amazon]

A collection of profoundly charming stories about a lovely, charismatic community of animals

The Squirrel’s Birthday is a rare and precious book, a lesser-known classic that’s reminiscent of some of the most charming and heartwarming children’s literature (it might well make you think of Winnie the Pooh or Yours Sincerely, Giraffe). In this Dutch collection, animals throw and attend a variety of parties: some a little mysterious and some a little bittersweet, but mostly they’re joyous affairs that end sweetly or with a sublimely funny little twist. And the animals themselves are profoundly charming – superb little characters with delightful neuroses. Some of the stories are humorously philosophical, too, as in “A Cake for Someone Who Doesn’t Feel Like Cake.” In that one, the squirrel desperately wants to eat a cake that is set aside only for someone who doesn’t want cake – so what’s he to do? This collection is brilliant and clever, the sort of book that makes you laugh and touches your heart, too – some of the best of children’s literature.


The Hole, Øyvind Torseter [Amazon | Bookshop]

A creature has to deal with a pesky hole in this clever book – with an actual hole drilled right the way through it

You can tell this book is special from the moment you hold it in your hand, for drilled right through the center of it is a perfectly neat little hole. (Hold it up to your eye and peek right through!) In the book’s mostly wordless story, a creature moves into a new apartment, only to find that there’s a hole in his wall – and no ordinary hole, either. He’s instructed to bring it in for examination, but it’s a tricky business, boxing up and transporting a hole! Of course, the actual hole in the pages remains in exactly the same position throughout the book, and Torseter has great fun reinterpreting its meaning as the story progresses. My children’s eyes lit up when we read this one (as did mine) – it’s wonderfully clever and a true delight.


Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove Jansson [Amazon | Bookshop]

Philosophical and sweet masterpieces

To read the Moomin books with your children is one of life’s great pleasures, and Finn Family Moomintroll, while not the first book, is perhaps my favorite. The Hobgoblin’s hat wreaks havoc by thrillingly, confusingly, frighteningly (!) transforming creatures and objects; the house becomes a jungle; and there’s a party at the end, too. And in between these wild events, there are some quiet and sublimely beautiful moments, some of the best in children’s literature. This classic series is philosophical, sweet, and truly one-of-a-kind – a childhood treasure.


In the Meadow of Fantasies, Hadi Mohammadi and Nooshin Safakhoo [Amazon | Bookshop]

This touching and lyrical fantasy about a group of horses has a special magic to it

This beautiful, dreamlike book from Iran tells the story of a girl and seven horses. Each horse is a little different from the others, except for the seventh, who is distinct and separate: colorless, homeless, dreamless. But instead of being sad, this tale feels deeply kind and sweet. As the other horses share their gifts with the seventh horse, it grows into something wondrous and magical, and the story takes on the weight and magic of myth. It’s a lovely, slightly mysterious children’s book that feels fully original and quite touching, too.


Feather, Cao Wenxuan and Roger Mello [Amazon | Bookshop]

A feather longs to know where it comes from in this touching and beautiful book

In this strikingly illustrated and moving book, a curious feather is in search of its source. Floating along with the breezes, it asks every bird it meets, “Am I yours?” Most of the birds are preoccupied, dismissive, or even insulted, and along the way there is real peril and heartbreak (sensitive readers should be aware that a kind bird is killed). But the feather is persistent in its quest for self-knowledge – and the disappointments along the way make the conclusion feel even sweeter. A lovely tale of longing and bravery.


I Am the Subway, Kim Hyo-eun [Amazon | Bookshop]

Lovely and full of curiosity, this book asks us to imagine and empathize with the lives of strangers

As a subway train winds its way underneath Seoul, it opens its doors for all sorts of passengers: a rushing dad, a mom with two small children, a grandmother carrying a meal to her family, an exhausted student. The train itself narrates the story, but as it pulls into each station and opens its doors, we’re transported, as if in a vision, into a new passenger’s consciousness. What are their lives like? Why were they running desperately to catch the train? Why are they so tired? It’s lovely to get so many slices of life from diverse characters in a big city, and a wonderful thought, too, that every train or bus or airplane carries so many people, with lives and hopes and problems all their own. The illustrations, too, are an utter delight: train’s-eye views of hoards of passengers waiting impassively on a platform (or flying through the ticket stiles), but thinking, feeling, and wondering, secretly, all the while.


It Might Be an Apple, Shinsuke Yoshitake [Amazon]

A wildly inventive and philosophical Yoshitake classic

So… suppose that the apple you wanted for a snack isn’t really an apple… What if it’s an egg, ready to hatch? Or an alien planet that crashed onto ours? What if it had past lives? Or a vast, eccentric family? Yoshitake’s wild imagination and intricate drawings tackle all this and more, and a wonderful table of invented apple names and shapes is a silly stand-out in this one. (My own children open it to precisely that page and ask me to recite the names, which I do — breathlessly! It makes them crack up every time.) Yoshitake is one of my all-time favorite children’s authors – unique and always surprising.


Still Stuck, Shinsuke Yoshitake [Amazon | Bookshop]

A side-splitting masterpiece of comedic writing that focuses, delightfully, on a common childhood problem

Still Stuck must be one of the funniest children’s books ever written. It begins with the already funny idea of a child getting stuck while taking off his shirt and asks, “Well, what if he never gets unstuck?” The book gets increasingly absurd, in Yoshitake’s characteristically quirky and delightful way, and culminates in a side-splitting crisis, a masterful pairing of words and image.


Chirri and Chirra: The Rainy Day, Kaya Doi [Amazon | Bookshop]

One of the most beautiful and comforting books ever written for children

The latest in the supremely soothing and gorgeous Chirri and Chirra series from Japan is a delight. In each book, two cheerful little girls set out on matching bikes to explore a world filled with busy, welcoming animals, all of whom treat the girls to delicious snacks, spectacular sights, or comforting and cozy experiences. Here, Chirri and Chirra bike through the rain to the lovely Cafe Umbrella to drink jewel-toned tea and eat frozen raindrop candy, and then pick out raincoats, visit an upside-down water world, and eat magic gumdrops from a gumdrop tree. Chirri and Chirra are always picking from beautiful arrangements of objects, and children love deciding what they would choose from these magnificent displays. These are some of the most comforting, cheerful, gentle books on the planet — like ASMR in a book — and are absolute treasures.


Sato the Rabbit, Yuki Ainoya [Amazon | Bookshop]

A colorful, dreamlike book of whimsical adventures, simply told and startling in their originality

This collection of very short tales is an offbeat visual feast. The premise is explained matter-of-factly: “One day, Haneru Sato became a rabbit. He’s been a rabbit ever since.” This kind of dream-logic pervades the rest of the book, as Sato goes boating on a watermelon, drinks colors, finds a world inside a walnut shell, and opens puddle-doors into the sky. You can read the whole book in just moments, but it sticks with you and invites re-reading, as many of the most visually-startling books do. It’s immensely charming and refreshing — in a wholly different world from most children’s books.


The Little One, Kiyo Tanaka [Amazon | Bookshop]

Simply and charmingly told, this story brilliantly evokes the mystery and magic of childhood

Illustrated in beautiful black and white, this little book tells the story of a meeting between a girl and a silent, mysterious creature. It’s small and blob-like, with legs and arms and large, striking eyes – a bit like a tadpole or the shadow of a Moomin. Intrigued, she follows it to a traditional Japanese house, where the creature reveals a secret passageway to a splendid, fantastical room. And what happens in the room is magical, the stuff of dreams. The book feels rather like a dream, too: it begins and ends without explanation and, as unusual as it is, it resonates deeply, as though pulled from a fading childhood memory. Perhaps it’s the idea of a friend only you can see, or the charm of squeezing through a small opening and finding a secret hideout. Whatever it is, my own children were spellbound by this book and immediately started speculating as to whether we had any secret passageways in our house. It’s that kind of book: it sparks the imagination.

A Tiger in the Land of Dreams, Tiger Tateishi [50 Watt Books]

This surreal delight about a dreaming tiger features beautiful, surprising illustrations

A Tiger in the Land of Dreams was originally published in Japan in 1984, but fortunately the brilliant 50 Watt Books reissued it in 2022. The story is lovely and simple – a tiger wanders through the land of dreams – and the illustrations are complex and special. Both lulling and visually arresting, these images are full of surreal pleasures: Escher-style stair mazes, Magritte-like apple forms, and miraculous transformations galore, all set in a hazy landscape worthy of Dalí. If you have a careful and attentive eye, you’ll be rewarded with all sorts of surprising, delightful details. As soon as I finished reading this one to my children, they ripped it from my hands and spent time poring over the pictures, noticing odd and impossible phenomena. A gorgeous work of art.


Yours Sincerely, Giraffe, Megumi Iwasa and Jun Takabatake [Amazon | Bookshop]

A masterpiece of children’s literature and a true classic: sweet, surprising, laugh-out-loud funny, and brilliantly charming

This wildly charming chapter book from Japan is laugh-out-loud funny and almost unbearably sweet. A bored giraffe sends a letter to an animal — any animal will do! — over the horizon, and it’s a penguin who writes back. Giraffe has never seen or heard of a penguin before, and he wonders what his friend looks like, how long his neck might be. And penguin wonders, what is a neck…? Their letters are lovely and their misunderstandings adorable. Reading this, I was reminded of Arnold Lobel’s sweet, well-meaning (and often rather confused) characters, and, sure enough, it has much of the same joy as a Lobel book — a true delight for parents and children alike.

Witch Hat Atelier (series), Kamome Shirahama [Amazon | Bookshop]

A beautifully conceived and supremely uplifting series with a brilliant, creative twist on magic school

In this cheerful, immensely lovely series about a group of young witches-in-training, witches cast spells by drawing, and how a witch constructs her spells is a matter of creative inspiration. It’s a wonderfully different approach to magic in children’s books, made even better because Coco, the protagonist, has a background in pattern- and clothes-making — experience using her hands to create. As in many great stories about magic school, Coco becomes a witch almost by accident, drawn into the community after a terrible accident involving her mother. And if she wishes to get her mother back, magic is her best hope. The art is beautiful (and extraordinarily cute), the relationships are touching, and the story is great — it’s just an all-around feel-good series. (Be aware that as it’s manga, it might be an unfamiliar reading experience: back to front and right to left — but kids can get used to this fast!)


How Do You Live?, Genzaburō Yoshino [Amazon | Bookshop]

A gentle, genuinely touching novel that engagingly delves into philosophy and ethics

This supremely gentle and kind book from 1937 follows a boy, Copper; his friends; and his contemplative uncle. Although fiction, it’s meant to be a guide to ethics for young people, too, and chapters of Copper’s story alternate with letters from his uncle, who writes to his nephew about the issues in Copper’s life, and about history and philosophy as well. While somewhat slowly paced (the parts about Napoleon were particularly slow for me), the crises here are real: a classmate is unfairly teased or Copper’s friends are viciously bullied, and in each instance Copper must decide how he wants to behave. His decisions lead to spectacular joys and sometimes to wrenching regret, but the book deals with each one thoughtfully and with real emotion – it feels genuine, honest, and incredibly relatable. And the culmination is tremendously touching. The book advocates convincingly and movingly for egalitarianism, decency, and compassion, and it made me reflect upon seemingly small but pivotal moments in my life that profoundly influenced my own ethical viewpoint. It made me remember, too, how painful, surprising, and marvelous it was to be a child who was just discovering all the complexities of the world. It’s a beautiful guide to living thoughtfully, to growing from mistakes, to being kind – to living a good and worthwhile life.

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